Last year, an Air Force veteran who was contemplating suicide called up a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) suicide prevention hot line only to hear a recorded message, then be placed on hold. He hung up and called back several more times, and each time, the automatic call routing system placed him on hold for up to 10 minutes or prompted him to leave a voicemail message.
Other veterans calling the Veterans Crisis Line, a 24-hour call center based in Canandaigua, N.Y., had similar complaints; one veteran even noted that the system left him on hold for 36 minutes.
As more of these complaints surfaced, the ensuing outcry eventually triggered a formal government probe and an internal investigation, which concluded in February. The agencies involved released a scathing report that noted repeated failures of the system to effectively address the needs of veterans at some of their most vulnerable moments.
In its defense, the VA said the facility cannot handle the number of calls it receives with its current staffing. When the VA set up the Veterans Crisis Line in 2007, it averaged 60 calls a day over four phone lines. Today, more than 250 operators split between three shifts field between 1,000 and 1,400 calls a day, and even that’s not enough to keep up with the demand.
The facility is reportedly undergoing a major restructuring, including technology improvements—such as enhancements to phone lines and the automated systems that prescreen and route calls—and changes in scheduling and policies, according to the VA.
Abby Herriman, senior vice president of delivery and innovation at HighPoint Global, an Indianapolis-based contact center optimization services provider to many government agencies, calls the failure of the VA’s system “the worst possible outcome from [contact center] automation.”
“If you’re in a business that relies on being highly relational with callers, or if you’re providing a life-critical service, automation should be entered into with great trepidation,” Herriman advises.
“People want to connect with a human, especially when they’re dealing with something so personal,” she says. “With something like a suicide hot line, automation should never be the goal. With such deeply emotional interactions, I would never put automation in.”
For that same reason, she suggests avoiding automation in many healthcare and government contact centers. Financial services firms, which rely heavily on a high level of customer trust, should also limit their use of automation, she advises.
So should insurance providers. “The impact of an interaction can be significant,” Herriman warns. “If the customer makes a wrong move, he could be stuck with the wrong health plan for an entire year until the next enrollment period.”
Certainly most call centers aren’t dealing with such life-and-death issues all the time, but the message is still the same.
“Automation in the contact center can be like a siren’s song,” Herriman warns, referring to the enchanting music that the seductresses of ancient mythology used to lure approaching sailors to their doom.
Much like a siren song, the appeal of automation is indeed hard to resist. After all, about 70 percent of total contact center operating costs are related to staffing.
“There’s no doubt that agents are a lot more expensive than [automation],” says Brooks Crichlow, vice president of product marketing at 7, a provider of customer engagement technologies. “For high-volume operations, if you increase automation, you could save millions of dollars. Even a single percentage point increase in your automation rate could translate into significant savings.”
But, experts agree, there is a real danger in looking to automation just as a cost-cutting measure.
“There’s definitely a danger to businesses that only look at cost and if they can deflect calls or email away from the contact center,” says Mayur Anadkat, vice president of product marketing at Five9, a provider of cloud-based contact center software.
Today, decisions about automation should be based on the customer experience rather than the cost, experts contend.
“First you need to understand what type of relationship you want to have with your customers, then re-engineer your operations with that in mind,” Herriman says.
“You need some automation, just to keep up with [call] volume and demand,” Anadkat says. “But there is a tendency to only look at it from an efficiency standpoint. That doesn’t work. You need to balance costs with improving service.”