two arrows on sidewalk, person facing a choice
PHOTO: Jon Tyson

Some companies, such as T-Mobile, enable callers to access a team of experts to solve issues, while others have complex IVR trees and long wait times before a caller has an opportunity to speak to a human being. The difference in the approaches comes down to price, well-trained human agents cost more, while automated solutions are efficient, less costly and more scalable.

However, T-Mobile says the cost to serve its customers has decreased 13% since undertaking the Team of Experts approach.

Other companies may see value in the "experts" approach as well. Agricultural equipment maker Agco is piloting its Precision Ag Line to make Acgo precision farming experts directly available to farmers for technology support for various equipment needs.

The Right Approach?

There's no single right approach, said Kate Leggett, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester. "I think it's a lot more nuanced than automation versus expert resources. It's going to depend on the type of industry you're in, the customer, the value of that customer, the type of business model that that that's driving your company." Customers of B2B companies, for example, tend to spend more than a consumer buying less expensive retail goods, so a direct connection to a human agent can make more economic sense.

For the most part, the customer who has a problem doesn't care if the issue is solved via automation or via an agent. What matters most is that the issue be solved quickly and correctly, according to Leggett, referring to the "3Es" of customer experience — ease, effectiveness and empathy.

Agent Training Is Paramount

"When it comes to the debate between an 'expert' team and a basic service approach, brands should not underestimate the value of investing in training their team members more broadly, sometimes even as universal agents — individuals trained to handle nearly any issue a customer may have on any channel," said Chuck Koskovich, Telus International chief operating officer.

Koskovich advised companies to invest in in thorough and ongoing training and upskilling of team members.

Automation

"Every organization wants to provide efficient and capable customer support, the execution can be hard," said David Campbell, vice president, product marketing for SugarCRM, noting the difficulty in scaling a human workforce to meet demand, especially as customer interactions increase - even if outsourcing can solve some of the volume issue, and the repetitive questions (i.e., "what's my credit card balance?") that are more efficiently and quickly handled via automation.

Automation also lends itself to better and more comprehensive tracking, said Sharel Omar, CEO and co-founder of Affogata. "Relying on humans alone, no matter their level of expertise, brands will struggle to uncover patterns, really understand how well a call went, and share insights effectively across multiple teams. There is no ability to prioritize.

Most customers who churn never complain directly to the company, meaning that brands need to be proactive in looking for trends, especially tech companies who develop based on an agile system of regular updates that can be released weekly, Omar added.

A Balanced Approach

Whether a company leans toward an experts approach or automation, both are needed in most instances, Leggett and other experts agreed.

"For example, if there's a charge on my phone bill I don't understand and I'm able to get an answer in an automated way, I'm happy," Leggett said. However, if the issue is more complex with a phone bill or is emotionally charged, such as need for advice from a healthcare provider, the customer will want to be able to talk to a human. Even so, automation can help those calls that are easily handled without human intervention.

Leggett added that if an IVR or other automated system at the beginning, any IVR tree should be shorter for calls in healthcare or other areas when a customer is likely to be emotionally charged or otherwise need a quick answer. She added that the contact center should use sentiment analysis to help determine when a caller is stressed to get the customer to an agent more quickly.

"When comparing automation to personalized human support or "white glove" customer support, we often consider one better than the other," said David Singer, Verint vice president of product strategy. "Organizations are faced with a false choice between maximizing efficiency with automation or improving the customer experience or issue resolution. Why can't they choose both?"

Singer added that companies often take a broad approach to automation of the simplest customer requests with no option to choose to speak with an employee, but this often forces the customer into a frustrating, circular loop within the automation system, where they never get the answer they need. So, a customer needs to be able to easily exit the automated system and opt for live support when necessary.

Koskovich added that brands should monitor when and why customers are reaching out for support and harvest the data from those interactions to balance workloads for teams and maintain minimal wait times for customers.