Times have changed.  In the 70s, 80s and 90s people wanted the fastest way possible to speak to an agent. Today, for me anyway, talking to an agent is my last resort.  Give me a good website with the information I need.  If I need additional help, give me a chat window to type in my question, for example by using chatbots or virtual digital agents.

Nevertheless, the path from agent to email to chat to web to self-service interactive voice response (IVR) and other methods has been a difficult one for companies and their customers. Many companies found self-service provided substantial economic value and forced their customers into using these technologies whether they wanted to or not. My internet provider still forces me to listen to how to reboot my modem when I call in to report an outage, instead of letting me go directly to an agent.

Battle of cost vs. quality

All companies say they want to provide exceptional customer service.  The ugly reality is that all companies want to provide “good” customer service at the lowest cost point.  Cost versus quality has been the battleground in contact centres since call centres began. As a result, companies looked for ways to balance this need.

A popular way to reduce agent costs was by moving centres to lower-cost locations.  Many of these lower-cost agents were asked to speak to customers using non-native languages – and many of us experienced the frustration of trying to talk to them.  Clearly, companies didn’t provide the time and training to sufficiently work with agents on accent neutralisation and cultural awareness.  Many of these agents were exceptional at their jobs, but customers couldn’t overcome the communication issues, and customer satisfaction decreased. Over time, companies learned they could still benefit from low-cost locations if they spent more time and effort ensuring agents could communicate effectively with their customers.  As the contact centre evolution advances, companies are continuing to fine-tune the balance of cost versus quality.

Can companies deliver exceptional call centre service at low costs?

The call centre evolution has not only been led by cost-cutting, but also by technology. Customer use of technology is rapidly changing how we communicate, forcing contact centres to keep up with their customers.  According to Pew Research Center, 77 percent of Americans now own a smartphone, up from just 35 percent in 2011.  Similar numbers are seen in Europe, Canada and Australia.  Customers want to use their smartphones to interact using voice, web, chat and text from anywhere.  There have been new technologies that promised to lower costs and “revolutionise” the industry.

Many of us remember when “natural language” IVRs first came out.  This was very painful to customers, as voice recognition was very poor and “natural language” systems had a difficult time understanding accents and regional dialects.  Over time, this technology has seen vast improvements and in many instances has now been able to provide high customer satisfaction ratings.  Speech recognition and natural language understanding has now extended to many additional technologies.  Our “assistants,” Apple’s Siri, Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa, for example, show how far this technology has advanced.  While these systems may not be perfect, they have greatly improved the interactions between humans and machines. The path was difficult, but now companies – and customers – are reaping the rewards.

These technology breakthroughs are making it possible to lower costs AND provide exceptional customer service. We are continuing to refine new technologies such as robotics process automation (RPA), artificial intelligence (AI), chatbots and virtual digital agents that can have dramatic positive impacts on the customer experience.  Because customers are now using speech recognition systems in their daily lives, they are more willing and comfortable to use the same type of speech recognition when calling into a contact centre. Companies then take it a step further by implementing additional artificial intelligence to understand what the customer is saying, searching their knowledge-base systems and then providing a response to the customer.  The systems are designed to learn over time to ensure the responses are what the customer needs. Customer experiences are continuing to improve as comfort with these systems grows and as the systems provide better responses.

We now live in a smartphone world.  Quickly providing customers with the information they need, through the channel they choose, is the key to improving customer satisfaction.

Premium, agent-free service?

By implementing these types of new technology, companies are enabling customers to get premium service without ever speaking to an agent.  And if they do need to speak with an agent, the information they have already input in the system can be transferred to the agent, which means no more repeating what you have already completed.  The customer’s information can flow from web to chat, to IVR to a live agent.

While I expect new technology innovations to greatly impact contact centres, the voice channel will continue to be needed.  Companies will still need to provide good old-fashioned, one-on-one, customer service because sometimes people just need to talk to a customer representative.  But by implementing these exciting new technologies, the voice channel can become faster, easier and less expensive.