The contact center of any business can be a place for drama (“I missed my flight home to attend my daughter’s graduation ceremony, help!”), comedy (“Your printer isn’t working? Are you sure it’s turned on?”) or frustration (“This is the third time your product broke down. I want my money back!”).
But whatever happens, many CEOs and chief financial officers still see contact centers as a cost center. That is an attitude we should strive to overcome, because call centers can be so much more — but the high cost of running a contact center is a reality we need to deal with. As a result, those in charge are constantly trying to cut costs.
The High Cost of Labor
Labor is the major contributor to the overall cost of running a contact center (easily about 75 percent), so the obvious approach to cutting costs is to reduce the size of the contact center staff.
For decades, companies have been trying to reduce the amount of human labor needed in the contact center by moving to a self-service model. It started with interactive voice response (IVR) systems, which initially used “Press 1 for ...” messages to help direct callers to the information they needed and now often feature messages inviting callers to “Please state your problem with a few words.” Then came web pages with lists of answers to frequently asked questions, followed by systems that enabled customers to set up accounts so they could log in to access their specific information, such as account balances. More recently, social media has been incorporated into the mix, so customers can involve peers in the resolution of their issues. In 2016, the chatbot craze started, which led me to issue a cry for help from professional conversational UI designers.
There is nothing wrong with the idea customer self-service. In fact, consumers aren’t opposed to the idea of helping themselves per se. Would you rather go to a bank teller to withdraw money, or do it quickly at an ATM? Would you rather wait 20 minutes on hold, or look up basic information online? Would you rather click your way through a complex website, or ask a chatbot a pointed a question and get a response instantly?
Those are rhetorical questions of course, because certain kinds of self-service systems have a role to play and are indeed helping companies cut their contact center costs. But is the self-service model the only money-saving option?
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Customers Take the Lead
It is telling to see how research firm Gartner defines customer self-service in its 2018 Hype Cycle for CRM Customer Service and Customer Engagement: “As customer self-service (or digital customer service) applications expand as a part of the customer engagement center, new offerings are providing customer-facing technologies that allow customers to take the lead in resolving issues.”
So if it’s about customers taking the lead, what if we interpreted that as simply giving them an easier way to control the conversation, without removing human service reps from the equation?
An easy way to enable customers to control the conversation would be to give them a way to engage with the contact center when they want to. Customers might want to kick off conversations with companies by sending messages via their favorite messaging apps. For requests that aren’t urgent, they might not mind sending the message and then going on with their lives while waiting for a response instead of being locked into a conversational session that might time out.
But does all that need an artificial intelligence on the other side?
What if we enabled human contact center agents to use an equivalent of the customers’ messaging apps? That would make it possible for someone from the contact center to respond asynchronously but still provide the human touch that customers like. In fact, a contact center might choose to start a new customer relationship with that human touch, because it would start the relationship off on a positive note.
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Asynchronicity Saves Money
But if human contact center personnel are still involved in the conversation, where are the savings?
The savings are in the asynchronicity. Data compiled by my company, Sparkcentral, a maker of a digital messaging customer service system, shows that untethering the agent from the customer as a one-to-one, real-time connection improves productivity to a degree that far exceeds the gradual improvements in efficiency other self-service channels have brought about.
One of the benefits of using a messaging app to connect with customers is that it makes it possible for contact center employees to send customers rich media files (images or videos, for example) and links to web content.
So why not turn the experience upside down? Conventional wisdom has it that a customer service experience starts with self-service, then leads to a live agent session when needed. Why not start with live service, that human touch, when it can be as efficient as asynchronous messaging channels allow? That way, your agents give your customers what I call “self-service leave-behinds” in the form of, say, links to web-based content that customers can access whenever they need it.
Moreover, with messaging apps retaining a perpetual conversation thread that never goes away, customers will have a place to go back to for more help in the future.
When challenging conventional wisdom contributes to positive change, what is not to like? Maybe it is time to try something different in the contact center. Maybe it is time to embrace messaging, as billions of us have already done in our personal lives.