The Internet revolution for 24x7 global information access is running into a brick wall when it comes to live assistance. As the consumer population with PCs and broadband network access grows, and advertising, shopping, and customer support is increasingly diverted to multimedia web sites, the telephone is no longer the only game in town for customer assistance. That’s why I am somewhat surprised that a crusade to demand better live assistance for customer telephone callers is only now being publicized by Paul English. Designing effective self-service applications only based on telephone user interfaces has always been problematic. But the problems of waiting in queue for an agent or even getting through busy phone lines, along with getting someone who can’t really help your problem, have been around ever since call centers and answering services came into being.
A few years ago, as part of a conference presentation on IP telecommunications on the drivers for innovation in person-to-person communications, I came up with my “Third Law” for business communications, which states:
“The faster and easier it is to get information,
the more we will still need to contact people!”
The reasoning behind this is that the people elements of “People, Process, and Technology” make decisions and do things, not information databases. People also make the data entry mistakes that cause automated business processes to generate problems that have to be fixed. It’s just not enough to get all the information you want, you still have to deal with people to get things done as a result of the information you can so easily get. So, the faster you get information, good or bad, the more you will be following up with people for action and task completion. Needless to say, this applies to internal automated business processes as well as to customer self-service applications.
With that said, let’s look at the recent headlines about increasing customer demands for more live telephone assistance vs. voice self services.
Paul English’s Campaign Against Customer Contact IVR Systems – Too Little, Too Late?
English’s article on how consumers can short-circuit the strategies of telephone self-service application designers to minimize direct access to live (and costly) call handling personnel hit the press headlines hard late last year. Ever since, there has been a flood of comments about how consumers might take their business elsewhere if they have to spend time wading through an IVR script before they can finally click “0” for assistance.
Don’t kid yourself! Isn’t that the same kind of problem as waiting in a queue (sometimes for an hour) to talk directly to a live person? With a well-designed self-service script, however, there is an opportunity to cost-effectively:
1. Resolve the caller’s problem with a self-service application process,
2. Capture useful real-time contextual information that will help to route the call more selectively to the best available live assistance, rather than just relying upon old CRM information,
3. Buy more time in finding available live assistance during inbound traffic peaks.
But now, English has organized a campaign for consumers to report poorly designed IVR systems that get in the way of immediate access to live assistance and report them through his new web site, http://www.gethuman.com/. The idea may be somewhat useful for feedback to the enterprise script designers, but this really old problem of cost-effective staffing to meet fluctuating traffic demands is already in the process of changing its stripes because of new IP telecommunications and wireless mobility.
Customer Service Economics - Separating Sales From Support
Although call center technology providers always liked to pin the customer service tail on the upsell donkey, they often stretch things a bit too far by insinuating that existing customers will disappear overnight if customer care isn’t always perfect. Obviously, if the need for customer service is high and ongoing and the service is always poor, customers will eventually make a move elsewhere. However, every enterprise has to realistically balance the costs of providing reasonable service with the value of the customer to the enterprise and the risks of losing that customer. That is an exercise that must be done by business line management, not by the technology managers, nor even by contact center operations management.
But times are a-changing! Customers are now shopping more and more on the web and sales may close only after the buyer gets help from live assistance. Such buyers may or may not already be existing customers; the point is that the potential purchaser may go to another provider if customer assistance isn’t delivered immediately. Why? Because if there are other sources for products or services, “googling” will really make it extremely easy for any sales prospect to quickly take new business elsewhere. As web-based services increase, this competitive business environment for customer activity will increase accordingly.
Online sales not only give the prospective buyer an easy means of objectively comparing products and services and their costs, but also other customer comments on their experiences with any aspect of the product or service, including problems they have found with getting customer support. So, for the online customer, answering a shopper’s question quickly will become key to making new sales.
English’s focus on voice IVR applications doesn’t cover the growing population of online customers and their needs for “click-to-chat” or “click-to-talk” live assistance. This will be true even after having the all benefits of a more efficient and flexible screen and keyboard user interface for self services, rather than the limitations of old Telephone User Interfaces (TUIs) based on touch tone keypad inputs and pre-recorded voice prompts.
Although mature speech recognition and text-to-speech technologies make the telephone interface more flexible for self-service applications, screen-based on-line interfaces will always be more flexible and efficient for delivering informational content for such self-services. However, self-services can only go so far in answering the specific needs of an online customer and live customer assistance for both sales and customer care will always have to fill the gap.
The Mobile Phone Customer – More Fuel on the Customer Assistance Fire
I have long been waiting for the call center industry to start talking about handling the growing population of mobile consumers, who will using handheld devices to initiate customer service calls. Self-services are not a good solution except for really simple applications that won’t require complex dialogs with an application. Getting live assistance quickly, therefore, is key for mobile customers who will have to pay extra for the privilege of waiting in queue for live assistance. That would make a case for treating mobile customers with some degree of higher priority, no?
I was shocked to find out several years ago that there was no easy way to determine if an incoming call came from a cell phone or not, except by looking up the calling line number in a database of cell phone exchange numbers. With IP-telephony and Wi-FI connections coming down the pike, who knows what the mobile callers’ needs are going to be for live assistance!
IP “Overflow” for Live Assistance Staffing
Whatever works best for customer self-services is besides the point, because there will always be a need for live assistance no matter what form of communications contact the customer uses, real-time or asynchronous messaging. Real-time modalities, i.e., voice telephony and text instant messaging (IM), create the greatest load on contact center staffing during traffic peaks.
Call center strategies have always included provisions for backup resources to augment the formal call center staff. I remember in the early days of call center pioneer Delphi Communications, a programmer rigged up a simple Radio Shack rotating red light on the ceiling of the business office of the VoiceBank call center to be turned on whenever the caller waiting queue reached a pre-selected threshold. That was the signal for the clerical staff in the business office to log on as available agents to handle some of the incoming call traffic.
In the new IP telephony world, presence and availability management will be able to automatically and “intelligently” do the same kind of “overflow” call routing, regardless of where the personnel are located. Furthermore, it won’t only be for voice calls, but for real-time instant messaging as well.
The Bottom Line for Customer Assistance
What Paul English is upset about addresses old IVR design problems, is not good enough for future multi-modal IP-based customer contacts, and doesn’t take into consideration the realities of business economics and staffing. As eCommerce makes customer service a global, 24x7 proposition, live assistance staffing will always be a challenge, and never perfect. This will require both self-services and intelligent customer screening to use limited staff resources most effectively.
As customers increasingly use the Internet for self-service information and shopping, “click-to-talk” and “click-to-IM” will join the traditional voice-only telephone for real-time customer contacts. IP telephony for both desktop and mobile devices will have screens and text input capabilities to support all modalities of contact with people. Speech recognition will further enable more user flexibility and interface efficiency whenever voice input is used for self-service functions, particularly for mobile user interfaces.
As I described in the book I co-authored with Paul Anderson back in 1998, responding with voice messaging will even make email text messaging more efficient for the contact center staff. Finally, centralized IP-based call routing and presence/availability management will maximize the “virtual” customer-facing staff that can be made available to provide live assistance to any form of customer contact.
What Do You Think?
Is Paul English right in demanding access to live assistance without any screening? Is it just poor IVR self-service design that he is complaining about? Even if he is right on both counts, what do you think about the changing role of voice telephone-only contacts? Do you think that customer information needs will often be better served with screen output rather than speech? What about giving higher priorities to mobile customers?
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