Special Focus

The Agentless Shift

By TMC  |  August 01, 2011

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

Not too long ago when customers needed to contact companies, they usually picked up their phones or walked into the local offices. Today – and going forward – they go to the web for self-service including automated chat, e-mail, SMS, mobile apps and then if need be they call. And when they do dial, they are interacting through DTMF and increasingly, speech rec software.

Moreover customers like and now expect outbound e-mail, SMS or voicemail notifications of issues like credit card fraud, flight delays, order arrivals and repair completions. These tools avoid them from making calls to live agents on these matters.

“We are seeing a transformation of service from customers who increasingly demand self-service and who quite frankly don’t want to talk to a live agent,” explains Lynne Levy, senior business process product manager at Aspect (News - Alert) (www.aspect.com). “They want to figure what the problem is, and troubleshoot it themselves, quickly, at any time from anywhere or any device. They expect companies to ‘anticipate the information I need to know before I know it and get me that information’.”

Self-Service into Agentless Service

Yes, customers still prefer to be assisted by people. Yet the individuals on the other end are increasingly their peers via social media or professionally trained and experienced company subject matter experts (SMEs) rather than contact center agents.

Self-service is now morphing into “agentless service” which encompasses not just automated voice and text-based self service but also peer service/support and SME assistance and automated notifications. Agentless services cost a fraction of those handled by dedicated live agents while enabling live help from other individuals; when deployed right, they improve the customer experience.

Enabling the agentless movement has been improving self-service technology and implementations that focus on customer satisfaction and retention, not just on cost cutting as in the past. Firms and suppliers are finally recognizing the former and the latter combined lead to higher profits. Websites are becoming easier to navigate, mobile-enabled and online security issues are being addressed. Social media and unified communications readily enable customers to connect with SMEs.

“As systems have become more open and software-centric, the ability to flexibly customize these self-service applications has significantly increased their business value,” explains Tim Passios, director of solutions marketing at Interactive Intelligence (www.inin.com).

For those reasons these agentless methods are growing in demand and popularity. Siemens (News - Alert) Enterprise Communications (www.siemens-enterprise.com) has seen a 20 percent increase in web and 15 percent in IVR applications. It is also seeing many RFIs and RFPs for automated outbound notifications.

“The cost of doing repetitious, mundane and usual transactions by voice are getting too expensive to accommodate,” explains Don Greco, Siemens’ director of solution management. “Couple that with the comfort that most people have with interacting with web, e-mail and social media and it becomes clear that when the security issues of dealing in an online world are solved the growth will be exponential. That, and the more providers alleviating the frustration that customers have had with interacting with agentless channels that have not been deployed with best practices guidance, agentless growth and convenience will finally be realized.”

The Agentless Preferences

There is an increasing range of interactions that customers prefer agentless over agent-assisted for, if these applications are well-implemented. The reasons include speed – no queues –understandability and in the case of the web self-service, easily seen and reviewed and accessible information.

A study for Nuance (www.nuance.com) by Forrester (News - Alert) Consulting revealed that in five out of ten posed scenarios, consumers preferred inbound automated voice customer service systems over live agent interactions. These included prescription refills, checking flight status and account balances, store information requests and shipment tracking. Consumers were most open to notifications related to travel (93 percent) followed by 88 percent for financial services; they also strongly favored appointment reminders in healthcare.

In January 2011, Frost & Sullivan (www.frost.com) performed benchmarking in several industries among them, airlines, banking, insurance and telecom and found that customer satisfaction was higher with web self-service than with live agents in three of four industries. On the flip side, customer satisfaction was the lowest with IVR in two of four industries.

“We are seeing that if a company gives a better experience in automated or agentless format customers will prefer that over speaking with a live agent,” says Ashwin Iyer, program director for Frost & Sullivan’s contact center practice. “At the same time, if done poorly such as the IVR examples, customers will prefer to talk to a live agent.”

Other analysis indicates that customers are not ready to give up on live agents, at least not yet. One reason is that many complex transactions once handled and completed by bricks-and-mortar staff, like insurance and mortgages, are now done over the phone.

Avaya (News - Alert) (www.avaya.com) issued the Avaya Contact Center Consumer Preference Study, conducted for it by callcentres.net. The study results seemed to indicate that overall consumers’ strongest preference were for live agents over web and voice self service, explains Jorge Blanco, vice president of marketing of the Contact Center Division at Avaya. There are exceptions such as billing reminders and collections automation. 

“Generally a well designed self service application that is convenient, responsive, accurate and personalized is just as valuable to an end customer versus conducting the same transaction with a live agent,” says Blanco. 

Developing Agentless Channels

Self-service applications both voice and text-based are improving and becoming more versatile. The results higher success rates and lowered costs.

Automated voice applications have become more conversational while menus have become simpler and grammars have improved. These systems – and owners/users – are learning from customers. (Check out the winners of this year’s Speech Technology Excellence Awards this issue for cutting-edge speech solutions).

Interactive Digital (www.vuicloud.com) Adaptive Audio solution permits easier and customer-friendly IVR/speech dialogues. This patented software monitors caller responses throughout the calls and allows the IVRs to automatically adjust and customize prompt playback speeds to suit each individual customer.

Adaptive Audio has had significant success. One production client saved over 25 seconds per call and improved call automation rates by close to two percent, reports CEO Daniel O’Sullivan. Another client reduced first attempt caller errors by seven percent and simultaneously improved IVR utilization by more than 20 percent with the product.

To avoid customer frustration with speech recognition, SpeechCycle (www.speechcycle.com) is employing machine intelligence that automatically analyzes customer interaction data and adapt to factors such as demographics, environment, time of day and caller profiles. The technology, integrated into its LevelOne Agents speech app, promises to raise completion rates to 95 percent-plus from 80-85 percent-plus, reports Roberto Pieraccini, the firm’s CTO.

Chat is one hot area going automated and now multimodal. Next IT’s (www.nextit.com) ActiveAgents automated chat uses what it calls “human emulation software” to accurately understand and interpret natural language questions and deliver exact results. It recently united that technology with SMS/text for Gonzaga University, which collaborated in creating the application. The college’s mascot, Spike, now answers questions about campus life through the Next IT solution via the web or wireless.

One emerging game-changer is mobile apps. They enable customers to quickly reach out to companies’ customer service/support portals via their smartphones. Firms have caught onto their popularity and are rapidly creating new and/or improving existing applications.

“Customers take much less time accessing companies with mobile apps than making calls, which cost them minutes,” explains Iyer. “Most importantly they have strong customer acceptance, which means they will use this self-service interface.”

The chat developments and mobile apps point to a shift in inbound self-service channels. Web self-service is growing in popularity over automated voice, both DTMF and speech rec. The reasons are generational and functional. The new, mainstreaming generation prefers text to voice. Moreover, except for noisy locations and instances where one does not want to utter account numbers and passwords, DTMF menus are a hassle to use. Yet there are still too many misunderstood, dropped, repeat or zero-out calls in speech rec.

“With self-service the impression for automated voice is that just doesn’t really work,” explains Ryan Joe, research analyst with Ovum (News - Alert) (www.ovum.com). “It is very limited with what you can do and it does not work all the time with restricted menus and recognition rates. In contrast, text-based automated solutions are much better because the interface is different and easier and more usable as the users see the all menus at once.”

Does automated voice have a future? The answer is a qualified yes.

“As companies develop tools like speech-to-web – including talking e-mail and social media – and as speech applications become more conversational, then we will really see significant upticks again in voice self-service,” observes Levy.

Live Assistance Without Live Agents?

As capable as the agentless self-service methods have become, there is now a stronger need to seamlessly connect customers, with their interaction records, to live agents so they avoid annoyingly repeating themselves to agents. Most studies indicate that this ability is one of, if not the most sought-after feature of these systems by consumers. This connectivity is fortunately beginning to happen. Iyer reports that this is expected to remain a high priority by firms in 2011 and 2012.

Does this mean that live agents will be handling the interactions though? Customers who underwent self service are often frustrated and impatient and expect highly trained and experienced individuals when they contact organizations. Yet can contact center agents who typically have a few weeks of training and rely on knowledgebases truly meet their needs?

The alternative is the SME portion of agentless service. Their business, professional and/or technical educations and backgrounds equip them to resolve complex issues, including coming up with out-of-the-knowledgebase solutions.

SMEs are already getting involved with customer service issues. Eric Tamblyn, vice president of product marketing at Alcatel Lucent (Genesys) (www.genesyslabs.com) reports that they are answering customers’ concerns directly on social media sites without going through contact center or marketing intermediaries. He sees a need for measures to ensure consistency and for live agents acting as service advisors to coordinate resources, like SMEs.

The agents-as-intermediary model could work with agentless methods, like long-proven answering services or virtual receptionists, just as long as they help, not hinder customer access to expert assistance. Customers would still prefer to reach experts directly.

“What enterprises need to understand is that to win and keep consumers’ business they are going to have to give them direct access to those experts,” says Aspect’s Levy. “The consumers are insisting on it, the solutions are there and companies have to respond.”

Edited by Stefania Viscusi