How Can I Determine the Best Balance of Live Agent Versus Automation?
Regardless of what balance is determined, companies will find it in their best interest to implement well-designed applications for the call types that they do choose to automate.
Posted Sep 27, 2004
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The balance between live agent and automated interactions is a tricky one for most companies to navigate, because it highlights the tension between two desirable goals, cost-savings and customer satisfaction. On the surface these seem to be in conflict with one another: "If I focus too much on cost-savings, will my customer satisfaction drop to unacceptable levels?" and conversely, "If I do all I can to ensure high customer satisfaction, will I be able to afford it?" These are complex questions without one simple answer. However, by considering two key variables, companies will be able to better determine the appropriate balance: 1. What is the nature of my customer care inquiries? The intent of this question is to identify the types of customer care calls that a company receives, and whether such calls are conducive to a more agent-weighted balance or a more automation-weighted balance. Some companies see high volumes of calls within only a small number of call types, whereas other companies get volumes across many different call types. Prepaid wireless carriers, for example, typically get high volumes of customer care calls, with the vast majority of the volume pertaining to just two call types, account balance inquiries and account refill/make-a-payment activity. This call-disposition profile implies that a well-constructed automated system, which clearly includes these options in the main menu, can automate a significant majority of inbound calls with little need for agent intervention. Postpaid wireless carriers experience an entirely different call-disposition profile: Call types tend to be much more numerous and diverse. Typical inquiries like account balance and bill pay appear nearly as frequently as reports of technical problems, bill balance disputes, rate plan questions, and address change requests. Some of these call types can be easily automated, while others require live agent intervention. With such diversity in call types, the system should be designed to offer agent help more readily, within almost all application states from the main menu on downward. 2. What is my primary business objective when it comes to customer care? It is important to fully understand which objective the company believes to be more important, customer satisfaction or cost-savings. While both are desired outcomes, in most cases companies have a preference to optimize one more so than the other. Examining a company's cost structure and its overall market positioning can typically identify this preference. Many prepaid carriers in the wireless industry--particularly those that offer fixed-rate monthly plans with unlimited monthly usage, are under severe cost constraints. Their average revenue per user (ARPU) ranges from $25 to $40 per month, with their costs amounting to between $20 and $35 per user, per month. These carriers can only operate profitably with aggressive cost containment, giving them little room for expensive customer-care operation involving significant live-agent interactions. Therefore, many prepaid carriers are much more inclined to heavily automate their care systems. These providers' market positioning typically has a strong emphasis on low prices, rather than on quality of customer care. Large postpaid carriers like Nextel take the opposite approach: With ARPUs in the range of $60 to $70 per month these firms can little afford to upset their customer base; their margins and differentiation hinge on customer care quality. As such they are less willing to take risks on satisfaction levels by limiting the accessibility to agents within the customer care system. By answering these two questions companies can develop the right balance between live agents and automation for their customer care systems. Regardless of what balance is determined, companies will find it in their best interest to implement well-designed applications for the call types that they do choose to automate. In general there is a high correlation between caller satisfaction and the level of efficient automation that a customer care system can achieve. Most callers have the intent to complete a particular task in mind and typically don't have a preference of whether they complete their task via an automated system or a live agent. Some callers prefer automated systems, because these systems provide predictable behavior and negligible wait time. Automated systems only negatively affect satisfaction when callers have problems using poorly designed applications or have problems navigating a system. An investment in a well-designed automated customer care system will pay dividends in high customer satisfaction far into the future, no matter what proportion of calls companies elect to be handled by live agents.
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