Automating Problem Resolution in the Contact Center

There are more people wearing headsets and answering customer questions than doing any other job in America. Even as technology has sharply reduced the number of people needed to farm, serve in the military, and produce cars, the number of customer service agents grows inexorably, seemingly immune to automation.

The reason? Customer service is a tough job. We expect service representatives to identify problems from thousands of possibilities based on brief interviews. We ask them to make judgments about how and when to apply policies, and to handle each customer interaction with courtesy and efficiency. In many cases we even expect them to author knowledge for use by other agents.

Recently we've surrounded agents with technology, but the core of an agent's work--resolving problems and answering questions--remains virtually unchanged from the first days of the call center. Although huge investments in telephony and CRM have automated incident routing and case management, the agent still answers questions the old-fashioned way, relying on personal experience to ask the right questions and hunt for useful content.

The time has come for contact centers to make the next leap forward. The goal is not to replace agents with technology, but rather to help agents deliver service consistently and efficiently by putting knowledge at their fingertips.

To successfully assist agents in solving customer problems, technology must

  • access the knowledge and case data needed to deliver service, no matter where it's stored
  • combine all of the functions needed to solve and respond to customer issues in a single workbench
  • deliver the right tools and knowledge to the agent, automatically, given the nature of a specific issue
  • provide a feedback loop so managers can continually improve service delivery

    The emerging category of software that delivers these four features is often called service resolution management (SRM). Advances in applied knowledge management technology combined with the standardization of CRM solutions have set the stage for SRM. Now, by deploying a SRM solution that leverages your CRM investments, you can deliver higher customer satisfaction at substantially lower costs.

    The largest component of return driven by SRM is reduced incident-handling time. Automating problem resolution is the next evolution of the service organization. Unlike automating the assembly line, SRM's objective is not to replace people with robots, but to guide agents through a consistent resolution process, empower them with all the enterprise's knowledge, free them from wasteful and duplicative effort, and create a feedback loop in which continual improvement is natural. This will yield large and immediate paybacks, both in money and customer loyalty.

    In addition to making the agent more efficient, SRM can also empower the customer with knowledge directly on the support Web site. By solving problems using self-service technology, or through enterprise-hosted online forms, the cost of Web-based resolutions is an order of magnitude less expensive than the contact center. Typical per-incident costs for complex support are $30 to $50, yet the average cost online is likely to be less than 50 cents, including technology costs. And, when self-service works, customers love it. The Web site is 24x7. There is no hold time. Self-service is empowering, and helps customers avoid the embarrassment of confessing ignorance to another human being.

    Mark Angel is the founder and CTO of Kanisa. He has worked in the areas of statistics, knowledge delivery, and software development for more than two decades. Prior to Kanisa, Angel was a founder of Papyrus Technology. He studied economics at the University of Chicago, and was a recipient of the Truman Scholarship in 1978. Contact him at marka@kanisa.com

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