Will Technology Kill the Call Center

A Guest Blog By Ashley Furness
Research firm Software Advice recently moderated a live online debate called, “Will Technology Kill the Call Center?” Representatives from IntelliResponse, Avaya Inc., Drumbi and Etech Global Services discussed consumer contact channel utilization, technology and the impact of these trends on the future call center. The speakers offered advice on customer contact channel strategy, as well as forecasted what companies can expect from the next generation of consumers.

The panel answered four scripted questions before the discussion was opened up to the 40 attendees. These included:
• How have you seen consumer contact channel utilization change in the last decade?
• What role has technology played in this change?
• How do you see technology impacting the way customers contact a company in the future, and the kind of service they receive?
• Will technology eventually render call centers irrelevant?

Here are several takeaways from their responses.
Customers Use Many Channels: Leverage Them Together
All of the speakers agreed that consumers are embracing newer contact channels, such as virtual agents and self service, at a pace never seen before in the contact center world.

For instance, Etech Senior Vice President of Global Development Jim Iyoob said that his contact center clients have seen virtual agent traffic rise to as high as 30 percent of interactions. That’s up from zero just a few years ago. Avaya Director of Customer Experience Management Laura Bassett also cited a study they conducted that showed 78 percent of consumers use the Internet to research a product before they buy.

This doesn’t mean customers are choosing these new channels instead of voice. Rather, they are using self service, FAQs, mobile and other channels in addition to the telephone.

“Once a customer gets to voice contact, they are at a crucial juncture in the interaction. The company needs to be much smarter when they get there,” Bassett said.

In response, companies need to do more than just make these channels available. They should leverage each to better serve the customer. For example, can you tell what a customer was looking at in your FAQs before they called your 1-800 number? Do you know if they interacted with a virtual agent? Having these answers can bring context and personalization to the live response experience. This increases efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Technology Empowers the Customer: Respond to Their Choice
IntelliResponse Vice President of Marketing Mike Hennessy has witnessed a sea change in the way organizations interact with customers. This is due in large part to advancements in technology.

“Technology can finally deliver on the promises from five or six years ago. … This has revolutionized the self service industry. Folks that are clinging to old methods of interaction are doing so at their peril,” Hennessy said.

He says technology for new contact channels has leveled the playing field for user experience. The customer is empowered to choose the communication channel they want, when they want. It’s up to the company to “right channel” their business–to determine which channels are most important to its customers and invest in those technologies.

“It’s the customer’s choice how they want to contact you. It’s up to the contact center to accommodate,” Iyoob said.

Drumbi founder and CEO Shervin Talieh said companies should consider that the majority of customer contact will soon come from a smartphone or tablet. Users don’t want to tap through self-service login screens, or fish around FAQ pages using a tiny keyboard.

The Call Center Died and Was Reborn: Ready Your Agents
All of the speakers agreed that customer contact preference is shifting away from voice. But this won’t kill the call center because it’s already dead.

The concept of a call center comprising phone agents has evolved into a contact center comprising ”command teams” who manage customer interactions through multiple channels. That’s because today’s consumer demands instant gratification, and the reborn center is expected to support those demands, whether they come through Twitter, live chat or a phone call.

“In the future, we will have the tools to seamlessly move from one touch point to another without losing all the context. … This will have a tremendous impact on customer experience, but also the agent,” Talieh said.

This will continue to affect expectations from contact centers and their agents. Talieh said companies need to ensure that their contact center has the ability to leverage these various channels together. This means agents will need to be more skilled and technically savvy.

“At the end of the day it’s the agent behind the technology that’s going to make the difference. While technology will enable agents to be better, faster, more efficient. It will not replace the contact center,” Iyoob said.

The original version of this story is available here: “Google+ Debate Results: Will Technology Kill the Call Center.”

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