Striking the right balance between automated and manned customer service

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Jeremy Payne, International VP Marketing at Enghouse Interactive looks at the growth of digital customer service and warns that a balance needs to be struck with the traditional channels.

Most businesses have accepted that digital customer service represents the way forward. It is happening, whether they like it or not.  What many organisations are wrestling with, however, is what is the right balance between digital and human? When should they use a digital and when a manual approach.

The bottom line here is that customer satisfaction is always key. If companies get their automation versus manned service balance wrong, they will end up impacting customer satisfaction – which could cascade down into their brand perception; transaction volumes and value – with potentially disastrous results.

The starting point for any business, therefore, should always be understanding and then optimising the customer journey. How do they best set up the customer journey to ensure they achieve the right blend of speed, efficiency, customer effort and lower cost?

That requires a great deal of care and attention. To succeed in this undertaking, organisations need to adopt a carefully pre-planned approach. They need to spend time upfront ensuring they get to know their customers, their likes, dislikes and preferred interaction modes. They need to think about customer personas and how they can segment them by type.

These personas and the process of segmenting them will be key when considering the kinds of customer journey types to put in place. It might be, for example, that most customers are millenials who are heavy users of Instagram and are used to using AI and automated systems and interacting in a visually-based way. Conversely, it might be that they are mainly baby boomers who continue to favour face-to-face or traditional fixed-line interactions. Either way, the key characteristics and preferences of their core customer base will likely have a significant influence on the kinds of interaction channels that businesses implement.

Onward March to Self-service

That said, the direction of travel is towards more self-service and automation. Back in 2011, it was analyst Gartner that predicted that by 2020 customers would manage 85% of their relationship with the enterprise without interacting with a human. A growing number of customers are demanding service anytime, anywhere, anyhow from the businesses with which they are engaged. In response, these businesses are happy to invest more in automated self-service in order to empower their customers to do more of the routine and straightforward interactions themselves over channels like Interactive Voice Response (IVR); webchat, and text message.

The natural progression of this move to a more automated approach is the gradual emergence of AI in customer service applications and we are now beginning to see this happening. The advance of cost-effective speech recognition and real-time speech analytics is helping signpost a new age of customer service, where robots are starting to mimic or emulate human-like behaviour. Moreover, many businesses are now using chatbots to kick-start customer conversations and, if the query is straightforward, to provide quick and easy answers without the need to involve humans at all.

The Importance of the Human Touch

However, self-service, automation and robotic technology do continue to have their limitations. Where they continue to fall short today is on those occasions where there is some kind of issue. Straight-through processes may work well for many operational tasks on 95% of occasions but for the other 5%, a human touch will always be necessary.

Interactions that are both complex and heavily regulated will typically need an element of human intervention. An individual taking out a life insurance policy or a mortgage for the first time is a classic example. It’s a major decision likely to be set in stone for many years while also incurring large amounts of fees. While you can often initiate a starter process online you are unlikely to be able to finish it without the help and advice of a human adviser.

The other key area where a human touch will always be necessary is where interactions cannot be handled effectively by normal, straight-through processes. Even with optimum planning and engineering of the customer journey, there will always be some customer engagements complex enough to require human involvement. It’s important that organisations not only recognise this but put sufficient skilled resources in place to manage it.

The final area is what McKinsey terms “moments of truth: those interactions – for instance, a lost credit card, a cancelled flight, a damaged piece of clothing, or investment advice – when customers invest a high amount of emotional energy in the outcome.” Customers may become agitated, stressed and even angry. In such scenarios, it is unlikely to be the correct decision to leave them to deal with a robot. Humans are better at empathy. They can understand the customer’s concerns, put themselves in a comparable situation and offer advice that is not just accurate and informed but reassuring and calm. Customers who receive such service at these ‘moments of truth’ are also ultimately likely to demonstrate much higher levels of long-term loyalty to the business.

It’s clear then that while the ongoing move to self-service, robotic technologies and AI will undoubtedly continue, there will always be a place for humans within the contact centre and as part of a customer service offering more generally. The businesses that succeed in this complex new customer interaction environment will be those that strike the right balance between the automated and the manned.

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