Today, call and contact centers are operated at high efficiency standards. That’s due to high costs in labour, brick and mortar and technology. We manage them with service level agreements (SLAs), metrics and to a given budget. No surprise there. We deal with managing the recruiting, training, attrition, re-training, peak and valleys in call/contact volume, accent problems, price per minute, price per closure, client satisfaction (for outsourcers), customer satisfaction (for self-source and outsourced) and, overall, managing a true cost center, since all we do is expense to the end client or ourselves.
Many of us have had to learn to move our centers all around the world to keep the expense down. We’ve moved into India, the Philippines, Eastern Europe, China, Indonesia, Mexico, South America, Middle East and just about anywhere other than Western Europe, the US and Canada because of cost. We’ve learned to manage or accept the accent problems as best we can - and the cultural problems, the tax problems and the geo-political challenges. We’ve learned to manage our management team’s travel to far-off places to ensure we’re getting what we paid for and to keep an even keel.
We’ve invested in new technologies which would “solve all of our problems”, such as IVRs, Agent Assistance, CRM systems, Workflow systems and many others, all to just realise we still are managing the same set of metrics and issues. And, in the whole scheme of things, we’re forced into managing our calls and contacts with the customers for ourselves and our client in a “minimising” strategy. That is, we’re forced to minimise the contact with the customer to keep cost down. Does reducing average handle time (AHT) ring a bell?
Consumers and commercial end-users do not respond well to fixed IVR communications where a caller or contact needs to respond to a fixed script or fixed response. This is often translated to the vendor into “they’re not concerned with me personally as a customer”, which is not good for brand equity or customer relations. Today’s IVRs often introduce problems with getting callers caught into loops where the resolution is not attainable or then having the caller placed into a long queue to wait for a live agent just to start explaining the problem all over again.
From a call/contact center outsourcing stand point, every vendor out there offers the exact same thing. Maybe with a few twists here and there with some technical tools, but almost everyone states the same mantra: “cheaper, faster, better”. The problem is that this makes for a commoditised market and forces even cheaper prices in a highly competitive field. Price typically ends up being the winning value proposition.
And, while we’re managing to metrics and budgets, all the while customer satisfaction is kicking up at us at every turn. In today’s model, we often have to decide which is most important; staying on budget or satisfying the customer. It’s very difficult to accomplish both at the same time.
From a pure business focus, wouldn’t talking with our customers as much as possible be better, versus talking with them as little as possible? Wouldn’t communicating with them as much as possible mean that they’re talking to us, versus our competitor or our client’s competitor? Wouldn’t it be best where the customer doesn’t have to look for another choice? Of course the answers are yes, but in today’s environment, that’s just not feasible. Why, because of the cost of running a call/contact center today.
So, what would happen if a new solution came along that would allow for lower costs in talking to a customer? What would happen if the customer could communicate with us so easily, without cost in the mix, that every point of question, interest, input or desire that they had was taken care of or captured? What if we actually made money off of that call? If this was doable, what call/contact center manager or CEO wouldn’t take that option?
The future for call/contact centers is enormous. There is a huge storm coming that will greatly change our industry. Last year, I called it the Next Big Thing to hit call/contact centers. It’s happening now and will continue to grow over the next five years at least. It will change the way we look at handling customer calls and contacts as well as communications overall within our customer base. Like the weather, it is a perfect storm. It’s coming from all sides and has several fronts, all ready to collide together to make for a colossus impact.
These changes are coming from new and evolving advances in artificial intelligence. One front is the Virtual Agent, which is here now and here to stay. The next front is communications: having one platform communicating to our customers over various channels as one, such as phone (voice), smart phones, Web sites, chat and e-mail. These will no longer be viewed differently in our communications with our customers and they won’t be islands of technology that we will have to manage separately. The third front is lingual: not having to worry about most language barriers because these new technologies will have the capability to talk in many multiple languages on the fly.
These changes will not only affect efficiencies but will cause a huge financial change as well. As an example, a $4.00 US contact could go down to $0.75. A cross-sell from an advertisement yielding $4.06 from a contact just made you over 100% revenue over your original expense! And, all the while, your customer satisfaction is skyrocketing because your customer is happier with a faster contact response, ability to communicate more easily with the vendor, a more rapid solution and the feeling that they’re not being rushed while in the middle of an issue or activity.
Yes, we will still need “butts in seats”, or live agents ; however, the number of live agents will be greatly reduced because of the efficiencies offered by these new technologies. The strategy will become “answering” all calls or contacts as they come without an AHT metric to drive minimisation. Also, the live agents will no longer answer a call cold from the front end; it will be pre-processed from a Virtual Agent so the live agent no longer has to spend costly minutes on administrative or triage items but can get right to the problem to quickly achieve resolution.
Today’s Forecast: Artificial Intelligence Advancements in the Call Center
Today, we have new offerings in the call center industry. Virtual Assistance (VA) is now offered through new artificial intelligent software (AI), which offers more in the communications between consumers and commercial end-users. Natural Language Processing (NLP) allows customers to converse in off-script dialect and normal conversation.
VAs can be the resolution to a call center’s problems if used correctly. Yes, it is an emerging technology and, like most emerging technologies, has some falsehood with numerous vendors who sell more than they can deliver or support. However, there are some definite credible offerings commercially available today. Some offerings actually offer credible solutions that allow for inexpensive communications with your customers. Some even offer advertising generating revenue options which can convert your call center “cost center” into a “profit center”. Think about smart phones and Web Avatars, the hits that you receive and the “real estate”.
The push is on. The players are out there; ready and willing to help you weather the storm. Many will continue to evolve and integrate into a fuller solution. If you decide to stay with the current game plan (cheaper, faster, better), you most probably will be pushed out or forced into using these new technologies long after your competitors have. It is your decision: do I want to adopt the new changes today or do I wait? My advice is that you start your research now on virtual agents and decide to accept the new changes coming, versus fighting them.
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