The Top Customer Service Trends: Building Better Service Beyond Voice
In the contact center, he says, AI is currently serving a support role, getting the right information to the agent desktop at the right time or getting the right call to the right place.
“There’s a lot of room for development there,” Cleveland says. “The need for very savvy, very capable employees is only going to go up because the simple stuff will be automated or even, hopefully, prevented from happening. Then [agents] will be left with more complex and important work.”
Virtual agents infused with AI will also be essential going forward, de la Cruz asserts. “We see expert-trained virtual agent technology as the future of customer service,” he says.
“Virtual agents will serve as the gateway for every customer contact and will need to successfully understand and diagnose customer problems while integrating with internal systems to provide real-time answers,” he explains. “Virtual agents trained by expert users of a company’s products or services, specifically, will be key here.”
And as that happens, customer service representatives will need to become more strategic in nature, dealing with only the most complex issues that virtual agents can’t handle, according to de la Cruz.
CHANGING THE CHANNEL
Cleveland also sees a growing need for contact centers to adopt omnichannel strategies and software solutions. But even today, after talking about omnichannel for many years, some companies still aren’t ready for it.
“Omnichannel is a structural challenge for a lot of organizations just in how they’re setting up their agent groups,” he says. “If you split up agent groups based on channel, you’re creating division in the contact center. We don’t see that as practical long-term.”
Help is on the way, though. “Technology is increasingly getting better at bringing these different channels into a funnel that gets [every contact] to the right person, to the right desktop,” Cleveland says.
Nevertheless, moving to an omnichannel model in the contact center is just as much about managing personnel as it is about software and hardware. Cleveland suggests starting with agents who are already well-versed in handling multiple channels. “Any contact center manager is going to know they have a few agents who are proficient across the board. Start there and start experimenting a little bit with your technology,” he advises.
“You can still keep that email group and that phone group in place for now, but start moving in another direction and see how far away you are from pulling everyone into more of a universal approach with channels,” he continues. “Increasingly, we want to be thinking of how to equip all of [our agents] to handle the totality of work that’s coming our way.”
That will also require shifts in other areas. “In contact centers you can route, queue, and treat calls on any parameter you want. We really have to know what makes sense,” Cleveland says. “If [an inquiry] needs to go to an employee, you don’t want it to go to self-service.”
Equally important in 2019 and beyond will be the concept of employee engagement, something that Cleveland believes goes hand in hand with customer engagement. “You’ve got to have engaged employees if you’re going to have happy customers.… Of course customers are going to take us into the future, but having engaged employees is the means to get there,” he says.
Cleveland acknowledges that contact centers are usually very busy, often preventing managers from spending a lot of time with agents. But that doesn’t mean that supervisors can’t carve out a few minutes in the week to ask agents how things are going or how the organization can be more supportive of them.
Ultimately, employee engagement is about enabling connections between employees and customers, according to Cleveland. “That comes before any metric that might be outdated, like handling time,” he says.
De la Cruz adds that such a focus on connecting with customers harks back to the early days of the contact center. “The original thesis behind the industrialized contact center was to enable enterprises to provide personalized, individual, one-on-one customer care. Each contact was an important relationship, and it was a priority to solve problems through focused customer engagement,” he states.
But as technology advanced, the Internet emerged, and customer contact volumes increased, the focus shifted, de la Cruz continues. “It became possible to provide one-to-many customer service via support portals, FAQs, knowledge bases, communities, and other self-service initiatives. Instead of providing great customer service, it morphed into a strategy to avoid customers and the contact center at all costs.
“Now, we’re moving back to this idea of engaging with customers one-on-one, which is largely influenced by how smartphones have fundamentally changed our behavior and have trained our brains to expect near-instant, personalized answers across various channels. This is a difficult interaction to scale, but with the advancements in AI, it is possible again to provide personalized customer care,” he explains.
Associate Editor Sam Del Rowe can be reached at email@example.com.