Q: Customer Agents or Self-Service? A: Both

When self-service lanes first appeared in grocery stores, consumers were initially intrigued. Quickly, however, they became frustrated by items that wouldn’t scan properly. Stores soon realized that while customers want the self-checkout option, automated technology alone isn’t always enough.

According to Ovum Research, enterprises spend more than $400 billion annually on live agents providing customer service. Despite that annual investment, increasing self-service rates has historically been a game of inches. While self-service technology reduces labor costs and streamlines many customer service interactions, it cannot handle every customer service journey or solve every problem on its own. The range of customer intents, needs, and preferences is simply too broad.

In other words, businesses must strike a balance. The future of customer service is not a question of human versus machine—it will require the right mix of human and machine. Businesses need to use the data they have about customers and continually analyze their intents to determine, in real time, what will be most effective: self-service or assisted service. That way, they’re delivering the right customer treatment at the right time and through the right channel.

The Best Possible Experience Is Invisible

The best experiences are ones where consumers can quickly and easily accomplish what they’re looking to do within their preferred channel. Messaging apps are a great example. Fluid by design, these apps are poised to become the central interaction point between businesses and consumers. A number of businesses are extending their customer support to Facebook Messenger, for example, in an effort to meet their customers where they already are. The integration of intelligent chatbot technology and live chat from human agents within Messenger means these businesses can deliver instant, automated answers to common questions, while sending consumers to a human agent for more unique or complex scenarios—all within a single thread.

In cases where a consumer might cross channels (such as move from a website to the phone), it’s crucial for businesses to anticipate and understand what the consumer is trying to do and, in response, provide an experience that’s intuitive, direct, and helps them complete their task. This understanding often requires businesses to weigh many factors including consumers’ ultimate needs (how complex are their requests?), their context (which channels have they already tried?) or their affinity with a specific channel (do they regularly use live chat, or do they prefer phone calls?).

Take the example of a customer who receives an error message while trying to book a flight online and calls the airline’s customer service department. Here is where the right mix of technology and human assistance can take the friction and frustration out of customer service, and turn a painful scenario into an easy one. First, the airline should know what the customer was attempting to do on its website and approach the call with that knowledge. From there, the airline can diagnose the customer’s intent in real time and proactively deliver the right solution—in this case, quick escalation to a live voice agent to help that customer book the flight. After all, if the airline understands the customer’s current context, why even ask him or her to “say or press 1” and rehash the issue from scratch?

Getting to this point requires technology that makes experiences predictive, conversational, and connected. The right technology platform applies these capabilities to customer journeys as they’re happening and uses customer data to make decisions quickly and effectively. With an understanding of factors like these, businesses can then orchestrate the most effective journey for each customer.

Enabling an Effortless Experience

An effortless experience is one where a consumer’s time is used well and they’re able to complete a task with ease. Here are three tips businesses can consider:

  • Solve the right problems. If a customer switches channels, such as from web to phone, there is often a good reason. Businesses can analyze customers’ intents when they move one from channel to another to make data-driven choices about each channel’s role in solving problems. Both structured and unstructured data can help companies understand customer patterns and preferences to ensure that the right issues are being addressed.
  • Be smarter and more conversational. Anticipate what a consumer is trying to achieve and engage them in a conversational way using natural language. Ensure that interacting with a virtual agent using text or speech feels natural and intuitive. Advances in conversational technologies certainly make this possible and are a key enabler of a good customer experience.
  • Orchestrate the experience. The optimal way to engage each customer will vary, so it’s important to orchestrate the experience in or across channels in a personalized way for each individual. Our research has found that 85 percent of consumers will cross channels if they’re unsuccessful in the first one they try. This requires a new way of looking at channels—not as silos, but as connected pairings that make up a typical customer service journey.

Digital transformation is a huge priority for companies across all industries. And there is no doubt that investments in self-service technology will better meet the needs of today’s digitally savvy consumers and also bring operational and cost-savings benefits to the enterprise. While the prevalence of automated technology like chatbots often brings forth visions of a machine-dominated future, the reality is that it cannot fully replace live agents. The key for businesses is to understand what consumers are intending to do and determine whether the task is best handled by self-service technology, a human agent, or both.

Scott Horn is chief marketing officer at [24]7, which he joined in 2015. Horn has more than 20 years of global marketing experience with leading technology companies. Prior to joining [24]7, he was vice president, global marketing, for Seagate Technology, a global storage technology leader, where he drove revenue with a redesigned product line strategy, focused digital and demand marketing efforts on enhancing customer acquisition and loyalty, and spearheaded the company's rebrand from a component manufacturer to a technology solution provider. He also spent 17 years in Seattle at Microsoft, holding marketing and product development roles across various lines of business, including Windows Phone, Windows Embedded, and Developer Tools.

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