September 2018 | Report

Contact Center of the Future: Conversational Bots and Empowered Agents

In the contact center of the future, strategy will be central to customer experience design

Contact centers have long been the primary means of customer service across industries, but as  customer needs and expectations evolve to encompass quick, personalized, and self-guided service, contact centers must become nimble, responsive, and tech-savvy partners in resolving customers’ issues. 

Despite the hype about robots replacing humans, contact centers will not be going away. They will,  on the contrary, play an increasingly valuable role in delivering the right customer experience for organizations. To successfully evolve with an increasingly wired world, it is essential that new contact center strategies be fully integrated into the organizations’ broader customer experience strategies. 

Customers expect to engage with companies in more ways than ever—over email, chat, and text, as well as emerging communication tools—driving companies to reimagine the contact center model. Powerful human-computer teams hold the potential to serve and engage customers more effectively than ever, while making it simple for employees to offer consistent, high-quality service. 

Contact center agents are among the most valuable assets in executing customer experience strategies. To deliver on that potential value, agents must have training, empowerment, data, and motivation, all of which can be revolutionized with smart deployment of existing and emerging digital tools. 

Digital transformation in contact centers isn’t just happening—it’s accelerating. In five years, contact centers will look and feel radically different. In this paper, we’ll explore the wave of technologies on our doorstep today that every contact center needs to embrace: bots, predictive analytics, self- service, and tech-enabled agents. 

The vision: A future built on customer experience strategy 

In the future, the organizations recognized for their top-tier customer experiences will have agile contact centers fully engaged with and integrated into the companywide customer experience strategy. Investments in technology and agent training will be wasted if they are implemented in a silo, making it crucial that the contact center vision be purposeful and aligned with the organization’s customer experience goals. 

In an integrated contact center, employees at every level—from managers and supervisors to front-line agents—understand and articulate the business’s customer experience vision and its alignment to the organization’s values. This also means being able to adapt and adjust contact center practices and operations to meet changing customer needs. If an organization can achieve that symmetry, everything it does will support the customer experience strategy and vice versa. 

How does an organization begin to build out an integrated strategy? First, it is important to take a step back and gather a well-rounded understanding of today’s customer. In our digitally enhanced world, we no longer have the luxury of easing into a 10-year business plan. Instead, organizations must establish a constant feedback loop of key performance metrics—such as customer satisfaction scores, customer effort scores, first call resolution, escalation rates, service-level agreement, and customer data from surveys, social data, predictive analytics—to highlight areas where organizations are falling short of customers’ changing needs. 

Programs and teams must be in place to collect these insights, quickly analyze root causes, and pilot solutions. 

The contact center of the future will constantly apply new theories for improving customer experiences, testing them out, and course-correcting. A key component of this agile methodology is the ability to track whether the pilots are successful by identifying and analyzing real-time data. 

In West Monroe’s study of business agility, Adapt or Fail: The New Business Imperative, our research showed that no particular role within an organization owns “adaptability,” but that it is increasingly imperative to build a strategy that supports agility. “One of the quickest and most powerful steps to increase business agility is to empower front-line employees to immediately take action on insights,” wrote Paul Hagen, a senior principal with West Monroe who heads the firm’s customer experience and innovation strategy. “Informing and empowering the field and frontline employees with that data allows them to respond and adapt behavior based on how customers have perceived previous interactions—and avoid making things worse by cross- selling to an already unhappy customer whose problem has not been adequately resolved.” 

This provides a huge opportunity for customer experience leaders to position themselves to proactively ensure that contact center strategy is woven in to the larger company-wide strategy from the outset. 

The opportunity Blending automation and the human touch for a more personal customer experience 

Your customer ‘crystal ball’ 

Predictive analytics allow businesses to use customer data to anticipate needs, even before the customer is aware in some cases. This information can trigger direct interactions such as a text message or outbound call, acting as a tool to supercharge contact center agents. This capability is constantly growing more sophisticated, affording agents access to a mix of customer-centric measures along with more traditional operational key performance indicators (KPIs). Insights from customers’ purchase and service history can be used to trigger automated recommendations about products and services that powerfully supplement agents’ experience. This intuition generates new revenue opportunities. 

The agent that never sleeps 

Conversational interfaces, such as voice assistants and text-based chatbots, are becoming more common. 

Chatbots are intelligent enough to decipher nuances in questions or statements and match them to the appropriate answer. This set of services, interfaces, and rules can evolve to incorporate new data coming from customers and agents. Consider these similar questions asked two different ways: 

What is my outstanding balance? 

How much do I owe on my account? 

Chatbots can decipher the intent of these two questions and serve back the answer in whatever channel the customer encounters the bot. In addition to affording customers immediate, real-time service, this type of automation scales to accommodate any volume of support requests, so customers never have to hold until an agent becomes available. Chatbots work around the clock, are never stuck in traffic, generate consistent results, easily accommodate spikes in contact volumes, and are repeatable—meaning they will enable contact centers to scale across several applications.

Far from replacing human contact center agents, in the years ahead, contact centers will rely more on chatbots to supplement agents’ capabilities by automating burdensome administrative tasks, directly answering simple customer questions, and pushing targeted information directly to agents. This type of technology is valuable to companies both large and small as they routinely encounter scenarios where they can improve service and reduce call volume through automation. 

Machine learning amplifies chatbots’ capabilities by providing the data companies have on their customers: their history and their likelihood of buying another product, closing their account, or recommending a product or service to others. 

Voice-guided self-service 

Even with expanded communication capabilities, phones will continue to ring at contact centers. Some customers will always prefer calling about issues, but that doesn’t mean they always need to speak with a live agent. This is where interactive voice response comes into play. Menu-driven self-service in IVRs has been used for years, but often frustrates customers who must listen and choose specific options. In many cases, they soon press “0” or ask for an agent. By combining menus and IVR technology with a chatbot, contact centers can make that automated interaction much more effective, satisfying, and customer-friendly. 

For example, a customer, frustrated with the complexity of trying to add an international dialing plan to her cell-phone service through a carrier’s website, might only become more frustrated upon finding a ponderous automated menu when she phones for help. 

Integrating interactive recognition technology with the self-service system can effectively automate a few clarifying questions about the customer’s travel dates and destinations. The system can then offer plan options, delivering effective service while reserving agents’ time for tasks that can only be achieved with a human’s involvement or judgment. 

While not all customers are going to instantly feel comfortable with automation, voice-enabled devices are already becoming part of many people’s daily lives. At home, TV remotes can decipher spoken search terms to find shows we’re looking for, Amazon’s virtual assistant Alexa can order a pizza from Domino’s, and utility companies have had success offering automated information on outages, usage, and billing. By providing high-quality, thoughtful interactions that demonstrate the strategic value of customer service, contact center operators can facilitate less eager customers’ trust of this technology. 

Tech-savvy, insightful, and engaged agents 

As predictive analytics, conversational interfaces, and IVR reshape the landscape, the role of the contact center agent will change tremendously. Amid fewer interactions between customers and live agents, providing a positive customer experience will be even more critical. The inquiries that make it through will be more complex, and the human-only qualities of emotional intelligence and critical thinking will become a central focus. 

A technology-driven, 360-degree view of the customer, powered by predictive analytics, will help make agents more effective during these more demanding interactions, allowing the agent to spend less time researching an issue, reviewing background information, or recalling options. The result will be an agent who can quickly identify a solution while providing a personalized experience. 

Closing the gap: Putting the strategy to work by fully empowering agents 

How do contact centers get to the future from here? It is critical to start with evaluating employee engagement and if it’s low, improving it. 

Because the responsibility of solving more complex issues is falling on agents, they must feel empowered through technology and training to provide effective service. 

Training will shift away from a focus on simple inquiries to critical thinking and problem solving, while front- line, first-tier agents’ duties are replaced by emerging technologies. Companies that build out a strategy to empower their agents through training, tools, and technology will see more valuable, satisfied agents. 

A recent study of high-performing contact centers conducted by Salesforce found 69% of service teams empower agents to go off script to create a better customer experience. Reinvesting in training and tools for the agent will play a significant role in their ability to create a better customer experience. 

Agents possess a wealth of customer knowledge; leadership should fully understand the value that agents provide. At the same time, contact center leaders should provide regular feedback to help agents constantly improve and grow. This can be achieved through establishing KPIs, helping agents set goals, and understanding what motivates agents. The power of positive feedback, recognition, humor, team and individual competition through gamification, and career growth opportunities goes a long way in building engagement and loyalty. 

New technologies will prompt an evolution in these contact center tactics and metrics as well. Measuring customer retention, satisfaction, and applying net promoter scores at the agent level will become the norm. Speech analytics through quality monitoring systems will likely replace manual call monitoring efforts and provide customer and agent feedback, allowing for more cohesive progress toward engagement. 

Equipped, aligned, and engaged agents hold the keys to customer delight, loyalty, and advocacy. As analytics, automation, chatbots, and other technology advancements carry an increasing share of the customer care load, the stakes will escalate for contact requiring a human touch. 

The ability to attract, develop, and retain agents with the emotional and technical acumen to succeed in this new paradigm will become increasingly vital. 

Conclusion 

In the contact center of the future, strategy will be central to customer experience design. Intelligent bots and automation will provide consistent and efficient service day or night, with agents representing the valuable face of the organization’s customer experience vision, equipped with the training and authority to make decisions to best serve customer’s most complex issues. 

Start shifting: 

  • Begin with the end in mind. Document the current state, develop the organizational strategy by defining the ideal customer experience, and align the contact center’s mission firmly to it. Understand the 4 Steps to Operationalize the Customer Experience. 
  • Identify the gaps and develop a roadmap to improve upon them. 
  • Be agile by embracing emerging technologies. Test and learn from success and mistakes. 
  • Implement a change management strategy to ensure contact center readiness for adoption of new processes, systems, and future customer expectations. 
  • Keep things human and elevate and empower your agents to delight customers during moments that matter the most. 
  • Ensure communication and employee engagement are first and foremost. 

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