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Next generation customer contact: what do we need to do to be ready?

Published on 15 June 2022

Next generation customer contact: what do we need to do to be ready?

We need to be designing joined-up journeys, so customers can do what they want, quickly and easily. According to data from McKinsey, half of all customers use three to five channels within one journey, a statistic I still find staggering. Customers are using digital channels, and satisfaction with these is rising, according to the January 2022 research from the Institute of Customer Service (see pg 38). Yet many customers are still ‘going all over the place’ because we don’t clearly manage the journey for them, or the process isn’t quick and easy. Furthermore, joining up data is a challenge too. Often, we don’t know where they have just been or what they do next, or the information is not easy to use. Next generation contact is often about what is possible now, from a technology perspective, but just not delivered.

Build on ‘taught behaviour’
The waves of change over the last two years have put more in reach than we’d have considered possible before, due to the acceleration of cloud technology (with its capacity for modular expansion and data links) and also a shift in our mindset (we’ve seen what we thought was not possible). Let me share some stories from our members. In the local government network, a discussion on digital shift was revealing. In the past, strategies looked at just adding ‘customer choice’, and were often successful. In the pandemic (and beyond) when resources were tight some things were just offered in one channel. If you wanted to book a slot at the local tip, you used the online booking system. Some stopped taking card payments by phone as the website was easy to use. For a member in financial services, IFAs turned to messaging and c30% of demand continued in that channel post-pandemic. For a member in the NHS, emails rose from 5% to 25%, because that was the contact available. In an energy company, the rise in emails was mainly ‘out of hours’, again because this is what was possible.

This power of taught behaviour is important. As consumers, if we can’t avoid a digital channel but it’s a good experience, this can change our behaviour in the future. What’s also important, going forwards, is to pinpoint where a journey kicks off and the root cause. In the Transformation Awards, the 2022 case study from BT Pensions showed huge take-up of a digital offering for pension enrolment. It was a ‘soft launch’, so members found it on the website and used it. It turns out, that is where they went first, before calling as was the norm before. The process was great – that’s the technology transformation they’ve landed – and so now most pension enrolment starts this way!

I was reflecting on this in terms of my own experience. I often joke that Google knows more about me than I remember about myself! My expectations are shaped by a few organisations that really have made it work, but they are no longer on their own. Amazon resolutely keeps almost all contact online, by making it so much easier to resolve your issues that way. I now use other online retailers and many offer great integrated service. Monzo comfortably ‘chings’ to tell me my payment has been made, so I never worry about fraud. The Lloyds Bank app now does many of the same things, but Barclaycard doesn’t (for me). Many delivery companies use text message to update me or let me change my preferences. In fact there are already a whole set of journeys that work well across many channels. So when it doesn’t work, it is all the more frustrating. We know it can be done but the organisation we are wanting a response from seems impervious to this!

Introducing new channels
Many people will use the web or app before they phone now. Research is consistent about that. Yet often we don’t know or, if we do, we are unable to keep them in a digital channel. This is a very good place to start work on planning your digital shift. It has to be quick and easy, otherwise people will switch channel to phone or email, or rant on social media if they get really frustrated. Perhaps that’s why half of all customers try so many channels for one enquiry or issue? You need to track this digital foot print and categorise the reason. If your channel shift strategies are not well planned, you will create more contact, not reduce it. That’s the benefit of ‘taught behaviour’ of course. It helps if customers know what to expect, because what you are delivering is like what they have already seen elsewhere.

It’s also good to prototype in the live operational environment, where a test-and-learn approach can help you manage risk. For instance, many members set up new digital channels as stand-alone teams to start with. You can do this with new technologies to simplify service as well as new channels. If you do this purposefully, you gain a lot of understanding. If you ‘fail fast’ that is good learning. If it works, you have all kinds of practical learning to put in place before you scale up. Experienced professionals approach learning purposefully. We don’t scatter random trials or ‘what-if’ analysis but focus on well constructed hypotheses and scenarios. So avoid being rushed into a series of unconnected tactical decisions, as that’s how customer disconnects start to happen. It’s not the process of piloting that is the problem, it’s the lack of a strategic framework, which you need to inform how you learn and scale up.

Another trap to avoid is ‘digital washing’ (like ‘greenwashing’), where your provision is just at the headline level and there is no transformation of the wider operations to make this shift sustainable and consistent. In his 2022 keynote, Martin Hill-Wilson warns us “don’t just add digital on top”. Digital transformation is not like the icing on a cake, but the right mix of ingredients that create a perfect texture and taste. When we add digital on top, the initial contact may be a brilliant experience, but the disconnected service that follows makes the frustration all the greater. This time it’s a comparison across different services from the one brand. Research shows that two thirds of leaders admit they have no cross-channel contact management (Global CX Benchmark Report 2020). Pre-pandemic, a quarter of organisations were dissatisfied with their Customer Experience infrastructure, whereas a different quarter claimed good consistency across channels. So, is it many more now? Despite the rapid acceleration of cloud computing, are we turning this technology potential to good use in breaking down the siloes behind digitalisation?

Next-generation chat
To advance to the next level, you need to focus on the difference between a traditional web interface (searches, FAQs, or menus) and a more conversational approach. Conversations are what we expect in calls, but they are possible in chat also. In fact they can now be automated with a high degree of success in both voice and chat. Conversational AI is the next generation capability that supports this, and it is now common among many voice or chat automation solutions (usually called bots). With bots, we can train machine learning algorithms to automatically predict what a customer’s intent is when they’re engaging with a website or an app. Then we can automate actions off the back of it, opening the door to predictive engagement that changes a user’s experience in real time.

In our 2020 Partnership and Transformation Awards, just before the pandemic, two organisations showed how they could deliver rapid benefits. At AA Ireland, a single manager built up a small team to pioneer webchat sales and then (in just eight weeks) used them to help build the first automation. A conversational interface from ServisBot, on the website, completes many questions automatically, but hands others to a live chat sales advisor. This was a great example of test-and-learn, which engaged them and led to the expert knowledge of objection handling being fully integrated. The bot could then offer direct suggestions on how to get a better deal. Likewise at Clarks Shoes, CAI (conversational AI) from Cirrus became the third most popular way to contact, within four months of rollout. Crucially, many queries were ‘out of hours’, making Clarks instantly accessible in a global, multigeneration world, and contact centre advisors pioneered the use of social media at the same time, making this a rounded proposition. Watch these awards case study videos on our website.

Predictive intent
Stu Dorman, Chief Innovation Officer at Sabio, demonstrates that understanding customer intent is the key to unlocking the power of chatbots and AI, in his conference keynotes and showcases in 2021. Speech analytics in the call centre can measure leakage from the website, so you know which elements of the content on a website drive the most demand. Also, if we can reliably understand what a customer needs from a web journey, in real time, then we can swerve the journey to simply avoid the blockage. If we wait for customers to find the problems, it’s far worse for them. Also, it’s not possible to control where the customer goes next on this journey. The key is to be on the front foot. So, think of this as like call control. Put simply, it is our job to guide the customer, so they get what they need quickly and easily.

Of course, the logic can be used to support advisors who are handling calls, chats, emails, or any kind of contact. We can put information ‘at their fingertips’ or automate tasks that help them do their job better or quicker. We could auto summarise to ensure consistent completion, auto-populate fields where accurate, complete information is key, or even automate quality monitoring and compliance. You can link this to knowledge management systems, to pop up a knowledge article or offer people a nudge or a next best action. We can enrich our customer data by extracting key parameters, and automatically classify contact causes, outcomes, or sentiment. These are not simple do-it-yourself tools, but good technology or consultancy partners can help you deliver surprising results very quickly.

Conversational AI
There is a key difference between the traditional web interface (searches, FAQs, or menus) and a more conversational approach on digital channels, like the website or mobile apps. Of course, most organisations will continue to offer both kinds of interface, it’s not an either-or choice, but with conversational AI, if it’s done well, customers can quickly get a result that they don’t with a traditional website or app. It works very well for certain products or services, like in the AA Ireland example with insurance, where a structured Q&A is much easier than a long, complex form on a website. It feels different too, which is important.

In practice for many types of queries we need certain information up front, before we can progress it, and sometimes before we can even allocate the work. Back Office quality and planning teams have built up experience of re-designing processes, driving great results for both efficiency and customer experience, and this body of knowledge will now become vital for digital channels too. Equally, experience in knowledge management shows that digital searches can be tuned, and we see the same on digital channels.

This is a discipline called user experience (UX), which is rapidly growing in the cloud computing world, and the different types of approach can both be used to make things easy and engaging but may have different implications and requirements. For instance, interactive flow charts or help wizards can be very helpful to take you through a complex journey step-by-step. These are common in knowledge management systems, and they can be added to website. Yet a conversational chat interface is often preferable. While similar, from a user perspective, it can feel more personal and has different implications for skills and resource, because it is generated by automated technology. So, think carefully about the options you offer customers and what will get them results quickly and easily. Plan the journey end-to-end. Either way, automated machine learning will become key to driving continuous improvement. And while none of this is critical for small-scale pilots, all of it is fundamental as we scale up and require operational reliability.

Next generation digital channels
In thinking of next generation channels, the power of Conversational AI will be fundamental in opening up the use of chat on website or apps as an interactive front door to service. Here, we need to see the difference between live chat (designed to keep people on the website or app) and continuous chat (like Webchat and Facebook Messenger). Continuous chat is also called asynchronous, when messages are sent and read at different times like on email, and conversations can evolve over days. They can involve groups, not just individuals, and cover many different topics in overlapping conversations. Many believe that chat apps are the new frontier of customer support because customers have messaging apps on their phones with them and use them all the time if they want to be in touch with you. However, you will need to know how to make this work well for customers and be able to resource effectively.

Chat will build on the success of text messaging today, routinely used for updates and simple questions. Think of areas like delivery, where this is now common place. Will chat apps replicate this kind of universality for more complex issues, or as part of continuing relationships? Will customers use our own bespoke apps and be open to alerts? Certainly at the moment, there are only so many mobile apps people will keep on their phones. Another way that chat is evolving is with the use of Avatars to personalise and brand the service (using technology that’s evolved from gaming). Remember that the same logic that programmes chat can be used to power other forms of contact, like voice automation. Do get in touch if you want to talk more about developments in this area and join our specialist new network group to meet others. Customer choice has its place, but it is more important to develop our ability to signpost and direct conversations online, and we need to track and measure success in this. If we offer choice, the customer needs the right information, and they need to end up getting their issue resolved quickly. A good place to start on that is by thinking about the choices that customers already have, and how we can signpost these more helpfully, in terms of the journeys that they end up on and the outcomes this drives. In the classic digital style, this can be truly data driven.

Next generation contact centres
In many ways, the next generation of customer contact is ours to shape, not just because we have to, but because (at last) we can. In their keynote at our National Conference in November 2021, Pinakin Patel and Zoe Hruby, from the solutions team at Anaplan, talk about this need to reimagine the contact centre. “Digital transformation will continue and has been accelerated”, they say “because the pandemic drove change and its longevity has created more norms”. As a result our context has changed; customers and colleagues already expect a new normal. Furthermore, we will miss this opportunity unless we cultivate a different way of thinking and acting in our contact centre operations. Peter Drucker, a leader in the development ‘management by objectives’, put it like this “the greatest danger in times of turbulence is not the turbulence itself, but to act with yesterday’s logic”.

As digital channels grow, the contact centre will become even more important, but the tasks and expectations will change. As a result you need to think of the people you need, and the culture that attracts and retains the right people for these more complex, diverse, and engaging tasks. “The colleague agenda is going to be the main challenge for most organisations in the coming year”, explains Dave Vernon, Director at The Forum in his article in chapter 3 on planning the colleague lifecycle. The challenges of attrition, attraction, and absence or presenteeism have brought it to the fore right now, but the digital shift is what will really drive this focus, going forwards, as contact centres become a very different kind of place to work in. We need to be at the forefront of designing crosschannel journeys. Think of the next generation contact centre not as separate from the digital channels, but as an integral part of one resource. This is augmenting, not supplementing, what people can do.

Nick Martin, WFM Product Manager at NICE, talks about planning for multi-channel colleague journeys as well as customer journeys. As the diagram on this page shows, a series of customer tasks handled by one person is no longer simple or linear. There is also a big impact on how we plan. Watch his free member webinar on our website to explore further. Different assumptions on how to calculate AHT or staff utilisation led to a variance in staff requirements equivalent to $2.8m for one client, he explains. This is because elapsed time and actual work time can be very different, for overlapping tasks. There’s often unmeasured work. Time between tasks can be used productively. So your Workforce Management (WFM) Systems need to be able to prioritise work allocation (by channel or work type), configure for interruptions (one channel may advance in the queue ahead of another) and allow for concurrence (as we see today with live chat). Do you know what your workforce management or work routing systems are capable of? Are there barriers or limits that prevent you progressing? Is there unexplored potential?

The power of data and analysis
As Pinakin Patel at Anaplan explains, you need to reconsider the skill sets you need and how you find or develop these people. Pay attention when people tell you something isn’t working and take the opportunity to cleanse the processes. It’s time to take a step back and consider where we add value, what the changes mean to your business, people, and customers. Scenario planning and ‘what-if’ analysis become so important, as we look to leverage the data. And being agile is now critical to ensure we continue to balance the needs of our different stakeholders as behaviours and preferences change. Developing and using the data is key to this transition, and the changing role of next generation planners and analysts too, as we explore in chapter 4. For instance, spotting opportunities for automation and AI is a good place to start, as Ian Robertson shows in his article later in this chapter. We also need frontline teams engaged, as well as analysts, to shape the way information is presented and to clean up our customer data, so that the automation is relevant and not pestilential!

Technology is a key driver, because a 360-degree view of our customers is now possible today, where it was an aspirational dream in the past. Global software players are integrating their platforms to support this, from Salesforce & Slack, Cisco & IMImobile, or Microsoft adding to its already formidable platform. Google has added ujet and Amazon Connect is adding Work Engagement Manager to connect forecasting, capacity planning and scheduling into its cloud platform. How is your customer data platform joining together different views of the customer and helping eradicate the siloed approach which is the root cause of so much disconnected customer experience?

Research shows that organisations that perform best financially are also ahead on data usage. Even in 2012, almost two thirds of companies that were ahead financially were ahead on the way they used data, according to a survey by The Economist. In 2019, research by the Enterprise Strategy Group showed just 12% of organisations surveyed were ‘data pioneers’ but these added almost 5% to their revenue and cut almost 5% from their costs. Even more impressive, 60% outstripped their customer retention goals and almost all of them reckoned they made decisions faster than their competitors.

Author: Paul Smedley & Chris Rainsforth,

This article was first published in the 2022 Best Practice Guide - You Moment of Truth: Confident to Succeed

To download a full digital copy of the Best Practice Guide, click here

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