The Struggle to Raise First-Contact Resolutions
By now it’s a well-documented fact that customer expectations have risen dramatically, and chief among them is the notion that contact center agents know everything and can handle every request, no matter how complex, with little or no effort. Customers expect to be able to reach out once and have their issue—or in some cases, issues—resolved right then and there.
“When you call the call center today, your expectation is that the person that’s going to answer the phone on the other side will have knowledge around everything,” says Shahar Chen, CEO and cofounder of Aquant, a service intelligence platform provider. “You expect him to solve your problem. You don’t care if your problem is you want to buy additional products, you have a broken machine, or you want to report fraud. You expect [an agent] to know everything.”
In fact, recent call center research by SQM Group, a provider of customer service quality assurance solutions, found that 93 percent of customers expect their issues to be resolved on first contact.
All this is nice in theory, but even with all of the technological advances in just the past few years, the reality is that this is still far from the norm.
Current industry benchmarks have set a good first-contact resolution (FCR) rate at between 70 percent and 80 percent, with world-class companies exceeding 80 percent. Only about 5 percent of all contact centers can claim world-class status.
For all companies, improving their FCR rates is a worthwhile aspiration. FCR makes for happier customers, and in the long run it saves the contact center money: SQM found that for every 1 percent improvement in FCR, contact centers can reduce operating expenses by 1 percent, with the average midsize contact center raking in $286,000 in annual operational savings. The same 1 percent jump in FCR can also improve customer satisfaction by 1 percent, improve employee satisfaction by 2.5 percent, and improve Net Promoter Scores by 1.4 percent. Additionally, SQM found that 95 percent of customers will continue to do business with organizations that achieve first-call resolutions, and when customer issues are resolved on the first attempt, cross-selling acceptance increases by 20 percent.
But first, most contact centers need to overcome several challenges. The biggest, according to most experts, is that contact centers historically have held on to outdated legacy solutions and fragmented tech stacks that prevent them from providing the personalized service and immediacy that customers want.
Further complicating the situation is the constant growth in the number of customer service channels available. Deloitte Digital’s 2023 contact center survey found that only 7 percent of contact centers that offer multiple service channels can transition customers between channels seamlessly, moving the data, history, and context from the first interaction to the next agent or system.
Some technologies, such as screen pops, have existed for decades, but their use is far from ubiquitous.
Dave Singer, global vice president of go-to-market strategy at Verint, sees three causes for FCR failures:
- Lack of connectivity with other systems, such as sales or logistics. This could prevent agents from answering questions like when a delivery can be expected or why a delivery didn’t arrive when expected.
- Lack of supportive technology, such as real-time voice assist, that could provide the agent with additional supporting information.
- Poor business process and workflow integration.
In general, the more systems that an agent needs to access to find an answer, the less likely a first-call resolution will happen, according to Singer, who notes that causing agents to flip through multiple screens to attempt to find answers often prevents them from closing interactions on the first pass.
“The big challenge is finding that single identifier to tie everything together,” he says.
Other factors influencing low FCR rates are tied to larger economic and social trends worldwide. They include high agent turnover, higher call volume, longer average handling times, agents working remotely, labor shortages, and a lack of agent training, coaching, and motivation.
And then there are some interactions, such as mortgage applications, that by their very nature will require multiple contacts, Singer adds, noting that income verifications, title searches, and the like simply cannot be done in real time.
INVESTMENTS ON THE WAY
The good news, though, is that companies are moving in the right direction. In their efforts to increase FCR, they are looking at new technologies, according to Deloitte Digital research. These are among the company’s findings:
- Even in the face of economic uncertainty, 50 percent of companies said that modernizing infrastructure is a top investment priority, and one in three said that deploying agent-enabling technology is a top priority.
- In the past two years alone, the number of organizations that have moved analytics, CRM, knowledge management, interaction recording, and workforce management to the cloud has increased by approximately 50 percent.
- Three in four companies will have cloud-based interactive voice response (IVR), interaction recording, and CRM systems within two years, and two in three will have cloud-based automatic call distribution.
- Seventy-four percent of organizations are currently testing or deploying customer-facing chatbots.
- Voice/text analytics usage has increased from 62 percent in 2020 to 81 percent today.
“Companies need to invest in all of these things,” Singer says. “But they have to make sure that they invest in open platforms because a lot is changing.”
Contact centers today need to be able to connect a vast array of channels, systems, and platforms, and closed or semi-closed ecosystems can’t do this, Singer says.
“As contact centers start to understand the need for openness at the core, from an interoperability, integration, and data perspective, that’s when you will start to be able to solve the problem in a more systematic way. You can use different building blocks in different places. You can solve with the right tool for social, the right tool for digital, and the right tool for voice and have the results and data history all chained together. As things get more complex, agents are able to solve things more systematically,” he continues.
Cloud technology deployments are also a key to FCR, according to most experts.
Companies that are FCR laggards tend to have legacy systems, which are much more costly to replace than cloud-based systems, according to Rebecca Wettemann, founder and CEO of Valoir. “The advantage of a cloud-based contact center is that I can take advantage of new technologies as the vendor releases them without the cost and disruption associated with a traditional installed system.”
Wettemann also advocates for the use of workforce management solutions as a way to boost FCR rates. The technology helps contact centers ensure they have the right staffing levels, and that means not only the right number of agents but also the right types of agents. The right specialists can handle callers with a specific type of need more quickly than generalists who handle everything, even with the help of a knowledge base.
Contact centers also need to ensure that their knowledge bases—where agents go to seek answers for many queries—are thorough and constantly updated, Wettemann adds. “If I can get agents or customers the right information first, I can save a dramatic amount of time.”
Another technology that has the backing of most experts for increasing FCR is the chatbot, which can deflect a lot of customer calls away from agents altogether. Self-service chatbots can fulfill customers’ most basic requests all by themselves. Additionally, if set up correctly, chatbots can provide agents with a tremendous amount of information to aid with FCR, according to Wettemann.
THE RISE OF RIGHT-CHANNELING
In the ongoing battle to increase FCR, the latest weapon in contact center leaders’ arsenal is a relatively new one called right-channeling. It lets contact center leaders determine ahead of time the likelihood of a customer using a particular channel.
Singer says that the more channels that are involved, the less likely FCR becomes.
Right-channeling helps limit the transfers that might have to be made, enhancing the chance of FCR, according to Deloitte Digital.
“Connected, consistent experiences are critical for building trust, according to customers,” Deloitte Digital says in its report. “In the past, many organizations attempted to provide consistency by supporting any service interaction in any channel. That approach proved neither cost-effective nor practical.”
That’s why a growing number of organizations have pivoted to a right-channeling strategy, according to Deloitte Digital. In its latest survey, 55 percent of leaders said their organizations have implemented some form of right-channeling.
Of those organizations, three in four use right-channeling to proactively steer customers to the channel best suited to support their interaction intent, with the remainder of organizations focused on shifting customers to the channel with the shortest wait time or lowest cost to operate.
And, as is the case with most areas of business today, experts are seeing an influx of artificial intelligence in contact centers. AI, while still in its infancy, has great potential to increase FCR rates, they say.
“The traditional methods of aiding contact center productivity, such as agent desktop tools, are not equipping agents with the tools they need to deliver exceptional customer service in the hybrid work age,” says John Finch, senior vice president of solutions and product marketing at Dialpad, a provider of AI-powered communication and collaboration technology. “It’s time to leave these outdated methods behind and instead embrace forward-thinking tech solutions such as artificial intelligence.”
AI-powered customer intelligence platforms shift the cost center narrative, transforming the contact center into a profit center, according to Finch. “Leveraging the most cutting-edge AI modernizes contact center practices and makes connecting with customers and understanding their needs easier. Technology that unites communication tools on a single, unified platform will lead to better performance and, in turn, better results, thanks to features such as real-time coaching and transcription, along with sentiment analysis.”
Another key AI technology is natural language processing (NLP), which extracts meaning regarding the nature of the customer’s query, adds Martin Taylor, cofounder and deputy CEO of Content Guru, a cloud communications and contact center platforms provider. “This understanding is applied across all forms of spoken and written digital interaction. As a result, customers can be routed effectively to the best available service agent (whether human or machine) or automatically receive the information they require. NLP also enables swift identification of the customer, saving time and reducing both customer and agent effort by preparing and pre-filling appropriate records ahead of any conversation.”
However, for AI to be an effective contributor to FCR, it needs to have the right data, Verint’s Singer cautions. “Anyone can download some algorithms and models from the MIT website or get a license for OpenAI. But if you don’t have the right data to train the models, it’s never going to be effective. An open, data-centric model is critical to build the app on; that will allow the AI to learn appropriately and to get more accurate over time.”
Wettemann agrees, noting that combining large language models with AI can help agents locate any information on a knowledge base much more quickly. It is important to note, though, that AI can’t fill gaps in the knowledge base; it can only find the information more quickly, she says. “It’s a great way to accelerate first-call resolution.”
“AI is truly a game changer for the customer service profession, transforming the contact center experience to guide agents toward higher levels of customer satisfaction the first time around and leading to reduced follow-up communications and happier customers,” Finch adds.
As AI becomes more embedded, open systems become more ubiquitous, and interoperability systems continue to improve, so will FCR percentages, Singer concludes. The embedding of AI and common platform openness, he says, will make FCR much more commonplace.
Phillip Britt is a freelance writer based in the Chicago area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.