Productivity Tools Advance to Assist Remote Workforces
Today’s contact centers need to process more interactions across more channels than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a large spike in interactions, but even though many businesses are reopening their physical locations, the number of contact center interactions continues to grow.
Hiring more agents isn’t the solution. There simply aren’t enough human agents with the skills or the interest to work in contact centers.
“Contact centers are facing a crisis right now,” says Benjamin Gleitzman, cofounder and chief technology officer of Replicant, an enterprise conversational artificial intelligence provider. “I’ve had the opportunity to talk with dozens, if not hundreds, of contact center leaders over the past several months, and I hear the same challenges over and over: There’s difficulty hiring, there are escalating costs, there are budget cuts, there’s the Great Resignation, call volumes are changing 10 times from one week to the next.”
What really starts to harm a business and raise a red flag is plummeting customer satisfaction, Gleitzman adds. “This puts an enormous strain on call centers across every industry. Call centers are going dark. You’re seeing massive increases in call volume and difficulty hiring enough workers just to meet the demands of the business. It really leads to this vicious cycle of difficulty in hiring. It appears that contact center managers and leaders are under siege, and fixing one issue just sees another sort of three or four appear in its place.”
This means companies need to find the best agent and workflow productivity tools to handle the growing number of interactions accurately and in a timely manner.
The tools range from advanced intelligent routing to improved workflow management solutions. One common thread in a majority of the tools is artificial intelligence, which continues to improve as it evolves. The better the artificial intelligence, then the better the direction of the interaction to a self-service tool, the more accurately and quickly the technology can detect when an interaction needs to move from self-service to a human agent, and the more intelligent the routing to transfer the interaction to the agent with the proper skills.
“What we are seeing with AI is the ability to be much more precise in matching an agent with a customer, not only on behavioral understanding, but also based on where the customer is in the journey,” says Merijn te Booij, Genesys’s executive vice president and general manager of the employee engagement business unit.
He adds that though intelligent routing isn’t a new contact center technology, advanced AI can use historical contact, customer addresses, phone numbers, and other inputs to greatly improve its routing decisions. Additionally, today’s intelligent routing includes a possible transfer to self-service, which was beyond the capability of older intelligent routing technology.
The self-service tools are still evolving, according to Andy Traba, director of product marketing at NICE. “A majority of them are based on guesswork. Engineers or developers have an idea of what they what to automate, what they think customers are going to want to know, and what the answers to those questions should be.”
“What you have is a lot of interactions that may start as self-service interactions and then wind up as assisted service in the contact center,” says Heather Richards, Verint’s vice president of go-to-market strategy. “It’s a combination of the interactions increasing and a lot of organizations not coming to grips with how to deliver a great customer experience via self-service channels.”
Further complicating matters, Richards says, is that many contact centers are still operating with a high percentage of remote workers. They don’t have all of the technical resources that they did in a central location, so they need to rely on cloud-based solutions that require fewer on-premises resources.
Due to the increasing volume, the interactions need to occur more quickly and asynchronously so the customer can start an interaction in one channel and finish in another, Richards adds. “With chat messaging, an agent could be interacting with three or four customers at the same time. That has a dramatic impact on the tools that you need to adequately monitor the scheduling and deal with the compliance of each interaction.”
Some of the agent productivity tools are the same that have been in contact centers for several years, according to Richards. “The difference is in the workforce. You have a hybrid workforce with bots working alongside human agents, and there’s a need to orchestrate that hybrid workforce.”
“The biggest thing that most of our customers are looking at is agent assist features across digital and voice channels where the agent assist will provide knowledge articles from FAQs and even process trees to the agent in real time based on the conversation that they’re having with the customer,” says Robert Wakefield, contact center innovation architect at Avtex Solutions, an IT service management provider.
So if a customer types “Where can I find statements,” the technology will pull up a list of FAQs that the agent can send directly into the chat or SMS. During voice conversations, the technology will pull up relevant information in real time.
With the right bots and other technology to assist agents, contact centers can eliminate a large percentage of customer frustration, according to Sabrina Atienza, Pegasystems’ director of product management.
Customer service agents cite poor resolution of issues as the leading frustration for their customers, with nearly 40 percent citing it as a problem, Pegasystems found in a recent survey. More than half (54 percent) blamed the need to switch between applications to enter customer information as an issue. A similar percentage (51 percent) said they are slowed down by having to search systems to find information for the customer, and half said that it takes them between 10 and 30 minutes just to resolve simple, everyday customer queries.
Those issues were the drivers behind two of the newest contact center productivity tools, Pega Voice AI and Messaging AI, both of which launched Feb. 8. Both solutions are designed for live customer service conversations in real time to help agents resolve service requests by listening to live voice and chat conversations, recommending steps to resolution, and off-loading error-prone manual processes such data entry or searches.
With the availability of self-service, agents now are responsible for knowledge work, requiring them to navigate more complex, sensitive issues with thoughtful and personal responses, according to Atienza.
Pega’s Voice AI and Messaging AI solutions support agents during customer conversations, including over the phone and in messaging interactions such as web chat and social media, providing real-time help to improve efficiency and improve employee and customer experiences.
When, for example, a new parent calls an insurer to add a newborn to the family plan, Pega Voice AI detects why the customer is calling and provides real-time guidance to the agent, often without the need for manual data entry. The software is designed to automatically listen to conversations, then recommend actions and fill out the required forms.
Contact center solutions from Pegasystems and many other technology providers rely on the increasing capabilities of conversational AI.
NICE Enlighten AI, introduced last year, is designed to help identify whether an interaction should go to automated service or a live agent. If the AI can’t handle the initial query, the technology is designed to learn from how the best-performing agents (with the highest sentiment or customer satisfaction scores) resolve such issues so that self-service can handle such queries in the future.
NICE research found that 40 percent of those interactions handled by agents today are ideal candidates for self service.
EASY CHANNEL SWITCHING
“With work-at-home agents right now, it is very difficult to get them trained enough” to provide exactly the right answer as quickly as possible, Wakefield says, but AI-assisted searching allows them that confidence.
Wakefield has also seen the growing importance of being able to switch channels easily. Both agents and customers like it when you’re on a voice conversation and you can send information out via SMS or email as the conversation is ongoing, or if you’re in a chat and can switch over to a voice channel for easier, clearer communication, he says.
This channel-switching capability enables the agent to quickly send the information to the customer via the channel of choice, even if it’s different from the one where the contact began. It’s great when the customer can call in and request information (e.g., on a do-it-yourself repair), and the agent can quickly look up the details and send them to the customer.
This capability has progressed quickly, Wakefield adds. A year ago, the agent would have needed to go into the CRM system to locate the customer’s contact information and then initiate an outbound email or an SMS message.
“Now it’s just a matter of adding another channel to the call you are on,” Wakefield says. “You have to meet customers in the way that they want.”
Digital tools enabling seamless, personalized customer experiences are vital to company growth and success, says Terence Chesire, ServiceNow’s vice president of customer and industry workflows. “Traditionally, however, companies have focused their tech transformation on the engagement layer of customer service: how and where customers make requests—via websites, apps, chatbots, and channels like phone, email, or SMS. While these interactions are critical, they’re not enough on their own.”
The other half, and really the future of customer service, according to Chesire, is implementing technology that helps facilitate the work done to fulfill the request behind the scenes. This is where digital workflows can make a huge difference. The companies that stand to win have connected systems, data, and people so employees in every department can work together to solve customer issues quickly.
Without digital workflows data sits in siloes and employees are forced to resort to spreadsheets, email, and swivel chairs to coordinate across teams. Productivity is slow. And frontline agents are left managing frustrated and angry customers who can’t achieve their desired outcomes.
Though ServiceNow’s Virtual Agent Conversation Autopilot, agents can transfer control of a chat to offload specific tasks better handled directly by the customer. For instance, agents can empower the customer to enter sensitive information they feel more comfortable entering themselves.
But the bottom line remains unchanged: Even as companies anticipate a 71 percent increase in traffic in 2022 compared to 2021, according to Paul Chance, NICE’s senior product marketing manager, humans are still required at the center of it all.
“What’s interesting is when you look out across the board, even near the bottom, phone calls are still anticipated to grow by 49 percent, so it’s not like phone calls are going away,” he states.
While there are a wide variety of automation and workflow tools available, like omnichannel predictive routing to match customers with the right agents, those solutions can only go so far. A certain percentage of interactions will need to be handled by agents, and ones that have certain skill sets, Chance says. “It’s imperative that you predict the need of bodies to take care of the interactions; otherwise, agents are going to be overwhelmed. Now you have to get the right agents available at that time.”
This is more difficult than ever for today’s contact centers because the Great Resignation is leaving them scrambling for capable agents more than ever before, Chance continues. “Agent attrition for last year was 42 percent.”
While increased compensation can help close some of the gap, there’s a limit to how much contact centers can increase pay while maintaining acceptable profit margins, Chance explains. Flexible scheduling can make up some of the difference. Some agents will accept lower pay in exchange for more flexible scheduling. So keep an eye toward contact center workforce management solutions as well, he and others advise strongly.
Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.