Not sure if this is a global phenomenon, but at least through my completely unscientific observations, I’ve noticed that the second half of the year presents endless opportunities for folks to eat, drink and have a good time with friends and family. While 2020 might be a bit different, it didn’t keep me from thinking about eating.
You’ve probably seen how software is still eating the world, and how AI is eating software. What’s up with the contact center in 2020, and what is real-time assistance? Now that the end-of-the-year contact center surveys and CX benchmarks are in, it’s absolutely the time to look back at this exceptional year, understand the trends and the back stories to glean insights about the big picture.
Talking about the big picture, it’s important to understand the longer term trajectory and the things that are unlikely to change, so that we can be smarter and more helpful to our colleagues and our customers.
I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ And that is a very interesting question; it’s a very common one. I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two — because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.
Innovations are often guilty of showing up at unexpected times when the masses aren’t ready to adopt them. In this post, I’ll touch on the most promising innovations that are being adopted in contact centers, especially those that deliver value today and offer more potential for tomorrow. As the title suggests, the theme is around real-time assistance completely consuming the contact center. Let’s start with few definitions, so that we don’t trip up.
What is Real-time Assistance?
Real-time assistance is a positive force in the customer experience space that bolsters all four pillars of great customer service, and fosters the transformation of contact centers into assistance centers.
What is an Assistance Center?
An assistance center is what every contact center should be — a virtual space that customers can reach out to when they need assistance, and, hopefully, also a space that will deliver such assistance in real-time effectively and efficiently.
In its long history, the call center has been called many things including contact center, multichannel contact center, omnichannel contact center, multiexperience contact center, cloud contact center, cost center, profit center, center of customer insight and so on.
Contact center leaders have, for long, aspired to deliver assistance through their contact centers. The idea of an assistance center is not new, but it’s all about timing. There have been many challenges around organizational processes and technologies that have prevented this aspiration from becoming a reality. 2020 offers a pivot point in the journey of that aspiration. So, let’s dig in and understand how contact centers can transform into assistance centers.
#1 Real-time insights replace post-call analytics
Companies are actually using dedicated customer feedback platforms less than they did just a year ago. The industry’s usage rate for this type of technology fell to 57.3% in 2020. Likewise, the Global Customer Experience Benchmarking done by NTT in 2020 indicates that use of agent analytics has fallen from 53.8% in 2017 to 38.5% in 2019 and is now at 29.8%.
This trend could indicate that organizations are looking to more advanced and sophisticated methods to assess customer feedback and agent performance. For instance, the Call Centre Helper survey also revealed that 21.4% of contact centers now use speech analytics to collect real-time insights into the customer experience, gleaned entirely from conversation with agents.
#2 Real-time guidance replaces agent coaching
In the NTT benchmark, only 26.4% of contact center practitioners said that their workforce optimization (including resource planning, e-learning, knowledge management, attended virtual agents) tools met expectations. This presents further evidence to the perspective that the traditional way of managing, engaging and empowering the workforce is not working. Gartner recognized earlier in the year the need for real-time agent assistance tools to become an essential dimension of workforce engagement management specifically for this reason.
2020 also saw the rise of several start-ups in the real-time coaching space to detect emotion and offer tips to agents on how to speak to the customer to drive better outcomes. Certainly, real-time guidance goes way beyond emotion detection and coaching, delving into the domain of recommending next best actions and teeing up workflows and scripts for the agent. Some guidance tools go so far as to automate tasks and processes for agents.
#3 Real-time automation replaces case management
For a long time, case management has been considered a fundamental building block of many customer service tech stacks and organizational practices. In the last few years, we have seen various software solutions providers come forward and talk about the importance of managing a customer conversation or interaction seamlessly rather than treating the customer like a “case” or “ticket”.
Customer interaction patterns clearly indicate that phone is not dead, as they tend to prefer phone for more complex interactions. That said, messaging is certainly on the rise. Though messaging requires an asynchronous support model, organizations are jumping on the opportunity to build an event-driven architecture, which takes an automation-first approach toward serving such customer requests.
Typically, a virtual agent attempts to engage in triage and handle simple requests and engages a human agent as and when needed with complete context. Further, digital first customer service solutions aim to automate relevant back-end tasks in real-time by leveraging available web services, as well as by availing RPA bots that now automate tasks that previously required the back office team. Rather than waiting for hours or days, customers get real-time support, which also translates to proactive customer service in many cases, further boosting customer loyalty.
In summary, we’re not saying that case management is dead, but it appears to be taking the minimal space that it should in an automation-first customer operation that aims to deliver effortless customer service.
#4 Real-time learning needs to replace classroom training
While all roads lead to the call center, information sharing is a two-way street in this space. Companies are increasingly looking for ways to support agents by providing them more information and insights that can help deliver quicker call resolutions and better customer experiences. According to the same survey, 71.2% of contact centers have integrated knowledge-base systems into their tech stack. In addition, more than half (54%) have embraced digital call scripts to guide representatives during difficult calls and find a satisfying resolution to every scenario.
Multi-skilling efforts have steadily dropped off over the last five years, seeming to indicate that contact centers now find more value in specialized agents with deep understanding of particular subjects rather than attempt to train every employee to have encyclopedic knowledge of every possible topic they might encounter. That said, the irony is that multi-skilling was still the most popular contact center initiative in 2020, further underscoring the bigger challenge that lurks beneath the surface.
Given how complex contact center jobs have become, it should come as no surprise that contact centers are trying their best to equip agents with knowledge, empathy and empowerment. As the pandemic has thrown massive curve balls, leaders have adapted and have both doubled down on knowledge management and availed AI to augment their knowledge and learning initiatives. However, the current model of learning management, knowledge management, workforce optimization, performance management and quality management is failing the contact center. It appears to be a linear approach aimed at solving a problem that is getting exponentially more complicated year over year — topic for a separate blog post.
To be an effective knowledge workforce, the contact center needs to enable agents to learn 70% on the job.
Effective agile learning blends microlearning courseware, coaching and on-the-job experience; the latter accounting for as much as 70% of the learning.
The average contact center agent is far from that goal state. He or she goes through a 4-6 week classroom training program, and spends several months ramping up to speed on the job. While on the job, the agent serves as human middleware trying to make sense of knowledge articles, customer narratives and disparate systems to help the customer who is hoping to connect with a knowledgeable, empathetic problem solver who can get the job done for them.
This is not only ineffective and inefficient, the stress of the knowledge work without the right real-time assistance is hurting both the agent experience and the customer experience. The number of organizations measuring customer emotion during live interactions with agents is on the rise. Customers consider the agent’s helpful attitude one of the top factors contributing to a favorable interaction with the brand.
Real-time assistance in the form of an Agent Assist is one way in which organizations can sustainably help their agents develop the knowledge and empathy required to create WOW moments for customers through frictionless first contact resolutions, one interaction at a time. It’s encouraging to see the rapid growth of AI around knowledge consumption use cases, and the increase in demand for real-time speech analytics and process automation in the contact center, early signs of a change in mindset.
#5 Real-time improvements need to become the norm
Many organizations can plainly see the need to reshape the contact center using the latest technology and solutions. Several obstacles, ranging from budgetary issues to staffing concerns may prevent companies from taking the next step in contact center evolution, though. One of the most pressing challenges that needs to be addressed is integration. The report found that 53% of respondents cited technology integration as a major barrier to running a better contact center. Meanwhile, 43.3% stated that broken processes were another roadblock standing in the way of their contact center initiatives.
That may sound daunting, but contact center automation technology can help remove these barriers and allow organizations to harmonize silos and elevate the employee experience and the customer experience.
Speech analytics platforms, for instance, have many more applications beyond collecting customer feedback. That includes highlighting broken processes that might otherwise derail or impede contact center operations. In fact, survey respondents ranked “finding broken processes” ahead of any other speech analytics capability in terms of its usefulness, with 60.7% rating it a five on a scale of one to five. While the report talks specifically about speech analytics, the benefit can be derived from using conversational AI across customer and contact center touch points.
Once an issue or an opportunity has been discovered, contact centers need a low-code no-code automation-first tech stack to make changes quickly, test, and hot deploy them to production and then test hypotheses in an effort to continuously improve outcomes.
Adopting the right technology solutions will help companies build for the future and continue evolving to meet customer needs. The entire report sheds light on many other trends impacting the industry today and down the road. Read more about Virtual Customer Assistants, Speech Analytics, Contact Center as a Service and other major topics by downloading the full survey here.