Call Center Technology

Serving The Empowered Customer

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  July 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the July 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

Today’s customers are empowered; they control the business conversations with vastly increased ability to find out information on products, services and suppliers and, through social media, to influence others’ buying decisions, not just their own. They know they are invaluable and cannot be ignored by companies in today’s slowly growing economy. Therefore they want – and rightly so – high quality service in realtime.

For these reasons more customers are anecdotally going to self-service: web, mobile apps, IVR/speech recognition, and peer service/support via social media first and then only reaching out to contact centers if their needs cannot be met, and then they will understandably be impatient. To retain and attract customers therefore means connecting them with the right contact center agents with ideally little or no waits via the channels of their choice.

Those channels are changing. Voice is still the primary means with e-mail second, but there is a big rise in the number of centers handling chat and SMS, reports Keith Dawson, principal analyst at Frost and Sullivan. This growth in these channels is not necessarily at the expense of voice but as incremental additions, as more sophisticated switching systems get put in.

“The market for replacement switching has been slow during this recession and I suspect there is a lot of pent-up demand,” says Dawson. “So that when things begin to get better and contact centers start to replace their switches, perhaps in 2012, 2013 we will see a lot more of those which handle the different channels come online.”

Chat/SMS/IM Growth

Customers are reportedly relying more on chat, e-mail, instant messaging (IM), SMS/text messaging or a combination of these and on Web co-browsing and less so on voice. The key reasons are increased speed and effectiveness. These methods can also permit quicker access to live agents. Tim Passios, director of solutions marketing at Interactive Intelligence (News - Alert) reports that when a chat does lead to a call, customers find that they typically can reach a live agent faster than if they had dialed in from the very beginning.

Aspect is bullish on IM as it enables contact center agents – and ultimately customers – through the Web along with business partners (see sidebar) to see if there are subject matter experts available to help them via presence and then send them an instant message. IMs may ultimately replace chat for that reason and also because it is easier to send links such as video how-tos with.

Ryan Joe, research analyst with Ovum, is seeing more suppliers putting chat in their product stacks. This is being motivated by the ability of chat to drive in leads and sales as pop-ups typically appear on product pages. Chat offers a unique personalized interaction on web pages. It can also save money because calls cost money and take up agent time.

Whether chat can effectively divert calls from live agents remains to be seen. He does not anticipate chat displacing voice in the feature.

“Chat isn’t a substitute for voice is because a voice call with an agent remains the preferred method for customers to request assistance,” says Joe. “After all, people need to reach customer service whether they have easy access to a computer or not.”

Don Greco, director of customer interaction practice at Siemens (News - Alert) Enterprise Communications is seeing chat growth with 60 percent of proposals in 2011 compared with 20 percent for 2010. Moreover, most of these are for multichat, enabling agents to handle up to six sessions at once, which boosts their productivity.

He cautions that there may be a limit in multichat, especially if it is combined with the other channels that are handled by the same agents, who would then suffer from employee burnout.

“I have a guy who works for me and who ran call centers for 20 years and he says ‘if I was an agent and you put the ability to me to have six web chats and e-mail and a voice call I’d probably quit’, “ says Greco.

Going Social

Social media ranks far behind voice, e-mail and chat in volume reports Interactive Intelligence’s Passios. Yet it is climbing to prime importance for firms because the comments made on it can and will – and sometimes in dramatic fashion – affect brand reputation, sales and service. They can then prompt customers to reach out to contact centers with little notice.

Consequently, many firms carefully monitor, analyze and triage social media comments. Jorge Blanco, vice president of marketing and contact center solutions at Avaya reports that most companies that have activated social media as a service delivery channel do not route these types of interactions to contact centers. Instead, a dedicated group that typically resides outside of the contact center manages the identified interactions.

“Avaya’s Social Media Manager (ASMM) bridges that gap,” says Blanco. “It (ASMM) delivers a relevant social media interaction directly to an agent desktop where it can be managed and measured like any other channel – voice, e-mail, chat.”

Contact centers are cautiously researching and adopting the social channel and integrating its processes with other channels. And for good reason, for social media is media. Anyone who communicates on it on behalf of a firm is acting as a spokesperson: no different than if they appeared on TV, on the radio or in print. Agents’ words can impact their firm’s (or clients’, in the case of BPO firms) image and bottom lines in near real-time.

Passios points out there are risks of wrong, inappropriate or inefficient responses from agents, which can turn minor customer annoyances into major public crises. Contact centers will need to look for social media solutions that include integrated routing and tracking functionality. This requires performing sentiment analysis on Tweets and Facebook posts. The tool permits contact centers to determine message urgency, whether positive or negative, so that it can be combined with key word analysis to route it to the right-skilled agent with the right priority.

“Contact centers are still sorting out their social media objectives from improving customer service and retention, to developing better products and services,” says Passios. “As they begin to dip their toe further into the social media waters, however, putting processes in place to effectively route and respond to these interactions will become paramount.”

The CSR Shift

Where the rubber meets the road in customer interactions is with voice calls to live agents. These are the most expensive to process, yet critical to service and loyalty to route and handle right. Eternity queues, overlong, repeat and escalated calls and those not delivered to the agents that are best able to manage customers' issues can drive costs up and loyalty and satisfaction – and future revenues – down.

Adding to this urgency is that when customers do call they are increasingly more likely to use their smartphones than landlines. While these devices level out costly call volume peaks and valleys – consumers no longer have to wait to get home to make personal calls – they eat up expensive minutes and do not permit multitasking as readily as traditional phones and computers.

“The Achilles heel of contact centers is routing and queuing,” Eric Tamblyn president of product marketing at Alcatel-Lucent (Genesys (News - Alert)) points out. “If you don't resolve the customers’ issues in a timely manner, based on historical knowledge of caller interactions you can lose your customers.”

Conversational or Customer-specific-routing (CSR) is emerging as a key method at the contact center level to meet these demanding and disparate needs. CSR is applied through intelligent routing to agents that customers have interacted with before and/or best qualified based on customer interactions across channels tied into one conversation. CSR promises to shorten calls, slice escalations and repeated calls while improving satisfaction and results.

Interactive Intelligence employs the same concept that it calls bulls-eye routing. Interactive Intelligence’s Passios sees IVR becoming more used on the front end of calls. Contact centers can use this resulting information to perform skills-based routing, or the more advanced bulls-eye routing, to increase first-call resolution rates and lower average handle times.

“This trend is going to continue as contact centers get smarter about gathering the right information through IVR systems and database lookups,” says Passios.

At the core of CSR and its ilk is analytics. Applying these tools to previous customer interactions provides vital intelligence on who should receive the contacts as well as alerting and popping the records to the agents.

“The more you know about the callers, that this person talked to this agent last time and this is their preferred channel the more able you are to perform customer-specific routing,” explains Nancy Dobrozdravic, vice president of marketing at Aspect.

Genesys employs CSR through its intelligent Customer Front Door or iCFD solution. They apply analytics to the customer conversation – linking web, mobile and social engagement interactions into one customer conversation – to decide whether to send the contacts to self-service or to those live agents that can best meet customers' needs.

And when customers comment via social media these tools coupled with social media monitoring and individuals' social profiles can alert agents who have dealt with them previously. Agents can look up commenters’ social profiles, decide whether they want to respond to the issues within social media or take them to other channels.

“If we know more about the customers, their individual needs, the better the chances of finding better matches of people who can resolve their issues, more so than first available agent or large loose groups,” says Tamblyn. “Using CSR is a great opportunity to customize experience based on the needs of the callers.”

Enabling The Web/Peer Service Shift

To satisfy the empowered customer while keeping costs down requires examining self-service methods: web, mobile apps, IVR/speech recognition, outbound notifications via SMS, e-mail and IVR and peer service/support via social media.

Self-service, both inbound and outbound via automated voice, e-mail and SMS/text notifications, is clearly on the rise, reports Tim Passios director of solutions marketing at Interactive Intelligence. The drivers are operating costs reductions by firms, propelled by today’s tight economy. Yet even more importantly they are being moved by customer preference.

“Customers are selecting voice as a second-choice channel for a variety of reasons,” reports Serge Hyppolite, director of product management at Aspect. “Some of that is because of their experience with long wait times or that they are looking for more objective information from people they trust.”

This shift to self-service and especially peer service/support is especially prevalent amongst the up-and-coming generation.

“Phone (News - Alert) use seems to be onerous especially to younger consumers who say ‘I can go and get the answer and get it from people I trust’,” says Nancy Dobrozdravic, vice president of marketing at Aspect.

Ironically, as self-service has increased so has voice use, reports Eric Tamblyn, vice president of product marketing at Alcatel-Lucent (Genesys). Self-service success rates have estimated to have declined by 10 percent over the last seven years. The reason: as firms push customers to automate more of their interactions; when they get frustrated with these systems they contact live agents with longer and more complex calls.

He guesstimates that well over 50 percent of calls that come into contact centers started out on the web. And when customers do reach agents too often they have to repeat themselves, costing more time and money and decreasing customer satisfaction.

Tamblyn recommends that companies should capture the entire customer conversation, from the web, social media and mobile devices and recognize customers that have transitioned from these alternate channels into the contact center and treat them as continuous experiences. Dialogues should be written to ask callers whether they would like to continue their self-service through the IVR/speech system or pick up where they left off on the non-voice channels.

Also contact centers should also allow customers to drive how the conversation continues – human or automation – and offer call backs if queue times are too long. Customers may prefer to have a call-back if they are able to get better service with the most appropriate contact center agent.

“It is natural for people to want to do things on their own; the web is an amazingly powerful tool, says Tamblyn. “The inability, however to leverage any of the work they did in self-service is a very negative experience and is very costly because you are tying up agents. It is a missed opportunity to really engage with a customer in a way that goes beyond resolving an issue to enhancing the overall relationship.”

 [Sidebar] B2B/B2C Channel Differences

There are differences in how businesses compared with consumers contact organizations. They have preferred to use voice for information, service and support issues; they have long relied on alternative methods such as electronic data interchange and fax as well as calls for ordering.

“If I am a business consumer and I need something from a business partner I can pick up phone and call them,” says Serge Hyppolite, director of product management at Aspect.

Businesses are, more so than consumers, beginning to use instant messaging (IM) for interactions; IM is already being used internally in conjunction with presence though unified communications (UC). Firms are adopting IM with the federation capabilities that UC platforms like Microsoft (News - Alert) Lync provide, reports Hyppolite. Federation permits IM to be installed on partners’ devices. If one partner sees another’s availability via presence they can then IM them.


The following companies participated in the preparation of this article



Frost and Sullivan

Alcatel-Lucent (Genesys)

Interactive Intelligence


Siemens Enterprise Communications

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi