The Evolution of Customer Service: Landline to AI

WRITTEN BY FARA HARON

The Evolution of Customer Service
Illustration by Richard Slater for Contact Center Pipeline

Back in the day when you had to call for a cab instead of opening up the Uber or Lyft app, the only way to contact customer service was by calling… from your landline. We’ve come a long way and today the typical contact center now supports an average of nine communication channels between voice, social media, web chat, email and others. So, where are contact centers seeing growth and success today, and what can we expect to see 10, 20 years down the line? With access to data-driven insights, we can learn more about the modern contact center and what its future evolution may look like.

The Modern Contact Center

Contact centers today need to keep up not only with a rapidly evolving technology landscape, but also with the consumer expectation to be able to contact their brands anytime, through any device. In other words, customer service representatives are responsible for constantly learning how to manage the latest technologies, in addition to connecting with consumers of multiple ages, backgrounds and preferences on various channels. This translates into a fast-paced environment involving continuous training and retraining, learning and relearning.

While it sounds daunting, data is offering us insight into exactly what customers today want from their service providers. Additionally, research is providing guidance to the technologies and processes that will make an ideal and operationally efficient contact center in the future.

Don’t Keep Your Customers Waiting; Be Proactive

34% of consumers cite long hold times as their biggest pain point with customer service, according to a recent survey.

The modern consumer is busy and accustomed to instant gratification—just ask Alexa. It would be too simple to ask contact centers to “Just pick up the phone right away!” We understand that customer service representatives are inundated with inquiries and issues; however, there are avenues to improve the experience for customers. For example, the same survey showed that:

31% of consumers want more automatic call-backs and 28% want more real-time order updates.

What the numbers are telling us is that consumers today want convenience—they don’t want to waste time. Consumers dislike waiting on the phone because it keeps them from achieving other tasks in their day. However, if a customer knows they can expect a call-back in 45 minutes, then they can reallocate that time to accomplishing something else.

In the same vein, today’s consumers need to know where their package is and when they can expect it at their front door. If businesses proactively offer email updates as a service, then the contact center will be less flooded with calls asking for order updates.

Chatbots Are Not Yet at Their Prime

49% of consumers don’t want to be served by a chatbot at all, and 52% say the phone is the most reliable channel for solving a customer service issue.

The modern and most efficient contact centers will look to research and data for guidance. The numbers are showing that proactive technologies are pleasing consumers today, and while chatbots have certainly gained traction, they are leaving much to be wanted. The most efficient contact centers will be certain to offer convenience to their consumers and will be conscious of their target audience when deciding whether to employ chatbots.

The Contact Center of the Future

When we look to the future of customer service, terms like robotic process automation (RPA) and artificial intelligence (AI) are used frequently. To quantify the impact that RPA and AI will have on the contact center operations over the next 10 years, Arvato conducted an in-depth, global, six-month research project on the future of these technologies, which predicted that:

69% of activities in the contact center could be addressable by AI and RPA in the next decade.

With that said, those technologies are still evolving and will not be transforming the landscape of our industry this year. It’s also important to note that just because 69% of technology is possible, doesn’t mean it will be adopted. What is important is to keep an eye on these large-scale technologies, noting their applications today, so that we can forecast the ways in which they will impact the industry tomorrow.

According to Nelson Hall, the RPA & AI-based business process transformation is forecasted to grow from $701 million in 2017 to $8.1 billion by 2022.

When it comes to applying RPA, AI and big data analytics, companies are able to automate entire workflows creating new efficiencies and ways of interacting with customers. Within contact centers there are many potential applications for automation. As customer experience becomes even more central to brand identity, service teams are having to deal with more complex queries, as well as far higher volumes of interactions. Utilizing advanced automation in both the front and back-office environments can help contact centers increase efficiency, provide enhanced customer experience and reduce costs.

People Are Still Key

It is estimated that over 81% of consumers would pay more for better customer experience, meaning as the business world becomes more competitive and commoditized, customer service is becoming a key way for brands to differentiate themselves. How a company treats its customers and, more importantly, how it makes them feel, is now considered one of the most important factors. While customer service is being transformed by huge advances in technology, the human component will always be just as important.

On the front lines every day, customer service representatives are often the only interaction your customers will have with your company. They are ultimately the face of your brand. While companies are putting major investments into automation, turning your customer service representatives into brand ambassadors is going to be the ultimate contact center differentiator. It’s critical to create an alignment between your customer service and brand teams. Both teams share a common goal: to create a positive customer experience.

Aside from technology, making your customer service representatives brand ambassadors starts with recruiting the right people, by looking for proper tone, composure and passion and making sure they are trained thoroughly and not just reading from a script. But the most important aspect is making sure they’re a customer too by immersing them in the brand and having them use the product or service in their everyday life to fuel their passion even further.

Customer Service in 2027—A Hybrid Model

27% of contact center operations could be automated in the next five years—if the technology is adopted as estimated—rising to 45% by 2027.

Customer service representatives will have to evolve and upskill as they are increasingly enabled by technology. This presents an exciting opportunity for contact centers and the potential for even higher levels of service.

The contact center of the future will be a hybrid. The business will be a well-blended mix of automation (AI) and people (human intelligence), with the two working together to provide a higher level of customer experience. In other words, technology won’t necessarily replace humans, but contact center professions will evolve to be more tech-savvy and specialized. There will be a need for a more empathetic, problem-solving approach, which indicates a need for more experienced people.

The right mix of the two factors (people and technology) will depend on the context and the task involved. Some activities will be fully automated with next to no human supervision. Others will be a combination of human and machine, typically with the repetitive, high-volume tasks being undertaken by robots, with people complementing the more high-value, judgment-based elements.

In Summary

Headlining technologies are still waiting for their spot in the limelight. However, the contact center has come a long way. Looking back to the year 2000, technology was not widely deployed in contact centers, and most interactions took the form of calls between landline telephones. Although, customer service representatives commonly had personal computers, there was little connection between the different parts of the processes.

Moving to the present day, customers service representatives typically work seamlessly across multiple channels including voice, social media, email and webchats, with all touchpoints connected by a CRM system.

Due to the increased penetration of RPA, AI and big data, by 2027, the contact center could look very different from how it does today, by using a blend of human and artificial intelligence.

Fara Haron is the CEO of Global Business Process Services at Arvato. She has been with Arvato since 2009 and has led a rapidly growing team of CRM professionals, leveraging her international experience to support Arvato’s global CRM business.
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