Rethinking Communications

Why Are We Still Talking to Customers?

By Jon Arnold, Principal, J Arnold & Associates  |  July 01, 2016

How’s that for a provocative question – and one that’s totally in keeping with the spirit of my column. Regular readers know that I’ve been posing similar questions over the past few posts, namely regarding desk phones, email, and unified communications.

If you think there’s a pattern here, you’re correct. I’m asking fundamental questions about communications applications that most of us take for granted. When properly deployed, they all work well, especially for their intended purpose. The rub comes when that intended purpose has become somewhat devalued once new technologies come along. Legacy telephony continues to function flawlessly – as it has for decades, which is why it has persisted for so long despite next to zero innovation for decades. However, with VoIP, it has become a victim of its own success. What worked so well in legacy times – a dedicated service and voice network – becomes a liability with its limitations to integrate with other data-based communications modes.

The changing face of customer service

The same issues hold for email and UC, and now I’ll extend that to the contact center. This is another space I follow closely, and it’s undergoing a sea change that gives rise to more fundamental questions. Before the contact center, we had the call center, and the evolution path is very similar to these other applications. Early on, the model was fully aligned with customer needs as telephony was by far the best way to engage with a company to address problems or concerns. Before the internet, the only options were sending letters by post or for speedy response, via fax. Today, these are laughable, but given those timelines, calling a toll-free number was the default option for most all forms of customer service.

As communications digitized and the internet opened up other options, the call center became the contact center, meaning that telephony was now one of several options customers could use. This was good news for customers, but for the most part, these modes could only be used in a standalone fashion. In other words, whatever mode a customer initiated contact with – voice, email, chat, etc. – that was the mode for the entire session.

Contact centers have long since moved beyond that, and now multichannel communication is effectively the norm. In this environment, customers and agents can shift among modes fairly easily, and that makes for more effective problem resolution. More recently, contact centers have started moving to the next generation, namely omnichannel, where context flows from mode to mode. This takes customer service to another level, but adoption has been slow for a variety of reasons.

A key factor driving omnichannel is rising expectations for service from customers. Today’s mobile and web-based technologies have dramatically changed not just expectations, but behaviors, especially among millennials. While it’s a given that they expect a multichannel experience, customers have become conditioned to a self-service model where many paths are explored independently before pursuing any form of direct engagement.

Why is talking to customers a bad thing?

Increasingly, millennials are doing this outreach via mobile devices, but you’d be mistaken to think that means making wireless calls to toll-free numbers. With the rapid rise of consumer-focused messaging platforms like WhatsApp or Viber, millennials are trending toward text-based modes of communication. For them, short-form and near real-time modes are preferred to unstructured, real-time modes like voice or even video.

The implication here is that customers are looking more to solve their problems via self-service or text-based communication rather than speaking to a live agent on the phone. Of course, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but it certainly speaks to how demographics are shifting and is very much in line with how vendors are now thinking about the contact center.

If this new generation of customers had their way, they would have little need if any to use the phone for getting service. We may be a long way from this happening, but industry research clearly shows that call volumes are falling in the contact center. Customers are actually engaging more deeply now, but that’s because technology is enabling other modes to address their needs. There’s a lot of automation, analytics, and even AI/machine learning at play here, but the main message is that voice-based customer service isn’t as critical as in the past. In fact, many companies aren’t even offering this option for routine inquiries – it’s simply too expensive, reserving it only for high-value customers where the personal touch is needed to keep the relationship strong.

By no means am I advocating you pull the phones out of your contact center. However, if you still think this is the best way to support all your customers, you have some catching up to do.

Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan (News - Alert).

Edited by Stefania Viscusi