In today’s uncertain, disruptive, social, and highly competitive economy, customer experience (CX) counts, and in more ways than one. Yet providing customers with the experience they i.e., we expect—for each of us is a customer—is becoming easier said than done.
We appear to have higher expectations for a superior CX; we are acutely cognizant of our value primarily as buyers but secondarily as influencers, one that perhaps is overstated. We also have less tolerance of brand promise underdelivery.
Yet staffing shortages and rising labor costs make it increasingly difficult for contact centers to find and retain quality agents. The new normal of hybrid working has added complexity in managing people and processes.
And while there are new technologies, most notably artificial intelligence (AI)-driven ChatGPT, that can provide higher quality automated assisted or self-service experience they have their own issues, like accuracy.
Caught in the middle of these issues are the contact center industry routing and automation/self-service solution suppliers. They have been working diligently to meet and anticipate their customer demands with sought-after features and functionality. We have turned to them to obtain their insights on how best to connect with customers.
Here are our conversations with:
- Laura Bassett, Vice President, Product Marketing, NICE CXone
- Jono Luk, Vice President of Product Management, Webex by Cisco
- Alain Mowad, Director of Product Marketing at Talkdesk
- Jessica Smith, Head of CCaaS Product Marketing, 8×8
- Mike Szilagyi, General Manager, Product Management at Genesys
Q. What changes have you seen with the demand and use of inbound customer contact solutions?
Customers’ frequent use of technology during their day-to-day and their drive for instant gratification has led to an increased demand for self-service options to support live agents in handling a variety of different customer requests. These range from password changes and shipping questions to more complex situations.
In the last several years, contact centers have shifted to deploying more automated, AI-powered self-service solutions to improve the customer and employee experience and operate more efficiently. This trend has been driven by the increasing availability and sophistication of AI-based chatbots that can provide accurate and personalized responses to customer requests.
Meanwhile, contact centers are continuing to invest time and resources in training live agents to assist customers that require personalized assistance for complex queries and issues. These trends are likely to continue in the future as businesses recognize the importance of digital customer service and invest in the necessary technology to meet customer expectations.
Inbound customer contact solutions have changed how businesses think about customer retention and the customer lifecycle.
Customer interactions are now seen as ongoing relationships instead of as one-time events, meaning the need for improved CXs is more important than ever.
“Inbound customer contact solutions have changed how businesses think about customer retention and the customer lifecycle.” —Jono Luk
It’s essential businesses leverage the past history of customer interactions to assist customers today, as they will expect their interaction history to be accounted for at every step for a more seamless experience.
Demand for inbound customer contact solutions has largely shifted to self-service and digital channels. A number of factors have contributed to this shift.
- Customers across all demographics are opting for self-service first, predominantly via web and mobile apps. When a customer can’t find what they need via self-service, they prefer connecting with a business first by using digital channels (chat, SMS, social messaging) with calling becoming a last resort when all other channels are exhausted.
- Customers today expect answers quickly and with the least amount of effort. Businesses that fail to meet these expectations can expect those customers to churn to a competitive brand far more easily than before.
What’s more, these same businesses are faced with growing pressure to reduce costs and maximize efficiencies all while continuing to provide an excellent CX to drive customer retention and loyalty.
This means adopting several key strategies:
- Increasingly leveraging AI automation across digital and voice channels to increase the self-service rate.
- AI-based agent assistance to allow agents to handle assisted interactions more efficiently.
- Call deflections to digital to reduce wait times and allow more interactions to be handled by the same pools of agents.
- AI-powered quality management (QM) and journey analytics to gain key insights into areas to improve efficiencies and increase customer satisfaction.
There’s been a shift in preferences towards the use of digital channels and digital self-service options versus relying on human agents to provide customer support.
This really comes down to customer expectations: customers want fast, easy, and consistent service. Digital self-service is quickly becoming the best way to meet these needs while still providing high quality service that keeps the interaction personalized, humanlike, and effective. This kind of service has the ability to improve performance within the contact center as well as experiences for the customer.
As the most popular channel, voice interaction continues to grow, but we are seeing digital channels grow at an even faster pace.
Email overtook voice as the most used channel for CX this past year, which is surprising, given people’s preferences for fast responses from service. While that is in contrast to what we would expect to see, it tracks to the overall increase in digital channel engagement.
Both chatbots and messaging app interactions about tripled in use since 2017. Customers are looking to engage with companies on their terms, and as the customer base increasingly is dominated by digital natives, I don’t anticipate this trend slowing down.
Q. Has technology changed or is changing, and if so, how and why, and what are the benefits but also the challenges?
The technologies behind inbound customer contact solutions are constantly evolving, driven by the need to provide better and more efficient CXs.
As organizations look for ways to streamline and improve operations, customers are continually demanding digitized and smart customer service. Meanwhile, agents are constantly searching for increased job satisfaction and a better employee experience.
Here are three examples of changing technologies:
- 1. Advancements in AI. AI-powered chatbots and virtual assistants are becoming more sophisticated and accepted, with natural language processing (NLP) capabilities that enable them to understand and respond to complex customer queries.
- 2. Omnichannel support. Customers expect to be able to communicate with businesses through multiple channels, from email, chat, and phone to a multitude of messaging and social media channels.
- Inbound solutions are evolving to provide support across these channels, allowing customers to switch seamlessly between them. This can lead to a more consistent and personalized CX. But they require investment in technology and processes to ensure that customer interactions are tracked and managed effectively across all of these different channels.
- 3. Automation and self-service. Contact centers are increasingly leveraging automation and self-service technologies to handle routine queries and issues, leading to faster response times and reduced costs. These technologies are becoming more and more capable, with the latest abilities for AI and analytics to continuously improve self-service capabilities.
While there are clear benefits to these evolving technologies, there are also challenges to overcome, such as ensuring that the CX is personalized and seamless. Brands are facing the results of an ever-growing tech stack that has been built over the years, leading to data siloes and disconnected teams.
“…customers are continually demanding digitized and smart customer service. Meanwhile, agents are constantly searching for increased job satisfaction and a better employee experience.”
To ensure seamless experiences, brands need to invest in a complete cloud platform with a suite of solutions underpinned by AI. This makes data accessible across teams and applications and ensures seamless CXs.
Inbound customer contact center technology has changed dramatically over the last decade. We’ve seen a desire from customers to increase the number of ways they can reach a business, most of which are digital channels: mobile apps, SMS text, chatbots, etc.
For example, a customer may use social media to express dissatisfaction with delays to their flight. Since the airline can engage with the customer on that social media platform, the customer preference for communication is being met.
Digital interactions can also be asynchronous, meaning a single human agent can handle two-three inquiries at a time whereas phone interactions can only occur one at a time. This is mutually beneficial because the customer interacts with the business in the way they want: and the business can meet the customer where they want to be.
The technology is changing to adapt to the rapidly changing needs of both businesses and their customers. Customers want faster and more effortless service. Businesses are looking to drive customer loyalty while at the same time reducing their costs.
“The advent of AI…means businesses no longer need to trade contact center efficiencies and cost reduction for customer satisfaction and loyalty.” —Alain Mowad
AI is the answer to both needs and is being increasingly leveraged to allow businesses to scale to meet customer demand. It is providing everything from automation to increase the self-service rate as well as agent assistance, automated QM, workforce scheduling, and deep analytics and insights into customer journeys and customer service operations.
An AI-powered customer service experience means customers get what they need immediately, with the least possible effort, and all at the lowest possible cost per contact. Human-in-the-loop technology allows businesses to continuously train AI models to enable additional self-service options that can be served via conversational voice and digital bots.
Additionally, AI-powered contact center tools such as QM, workforce management (WFM), and analytics streamline the tasks associated with operating a highly efficient and effective contact center without the need for increased staffing.
The advent of AI in the customer service realm means businesses no longer need to trade contact center efficiencies and cost reduction for customer satisfaction and loyalty. They can now achieve both simultaneously.
Barriers to the adoption of AI-powered technologies continue to be the perceived cost and complexity of implementing them, as well as questions around the tangible benefits and ROI that result. Technology providers can overcome them by making AI implementations easy for a clear set of use cases that provide proven and measurable positive business outcomes.
Here are just a few examples:
- Automating common tasks such as order status or bank balance inquiries.
- Providing specific information from a knowledge management system.
- Next-best-actions for customer service agents to resolve customer inquiries quicker.
- Automating 100% of quality monitoring and scoring so supervisors can focus on specific and impactful coaching strategies.
The CX landscape has been shifting rapidly in the midst of digital-first technological advancement. There have been major strides in innovation, especially in AI, and the companies that focus on CX will come out on top.
Improvements in Conversational AI, intelligent routing, and in sentiment and predictive analytics, among others, mean that contact centers have an entirely new suite of tools at their disposal to improve CXs as well as the communication between agents and supervisors leading to better business outcomes.
Technology is changing for two major reasons. First, customers are expecting more from brands than ever before – and second, the rapid evolution of software, accelerated in many ways by the global COVID-19 pandemic, has drastically changed CX technology – for the better.
It’s important to keep in mind that consumers are increasingly holding brands to higher standards. We recently revealed research in the Genesys State of Customer Experience Report, which showed people are likely to ditch brands after bad CXs. Younger generations in particular were more likely to abandon a company after just one negative service interaction.
The stakes are even higher as consumer expectations increase, forcing companies to adopt technology that enables them to effectively and efficiently deliver better CXs.
Additionally, the impact of novel technologies like ChatGPT and other AI breakthroughs are being felt in contact center tech. New technology and AI models are constantly being developed to help agents be more effective on calls, give managers more visibility into their performance, and most importantly, improve CXs.
The global pandemic also spurred on a shift in technology as more agents began to work from home. This led to improved software that allowed agents to be more effective individually and gave managers more visibility into their work.
However, as is sometimes the case with the rapid development of technology, it can sometimes be a challenge to integrate technology seamlessly and ensure that various software solutions work well together. It’s essential that CX technology is unified and not siloed, as this can make a significant difference for customers and ensure a positive experience, no matter the channel.
Q. Have you seen any changes in the split between live agent versus self-service? In the channels that customers use?
Customers are seeking more self-service and asynchronous options than ever before due to day-to-day stress, busy lives, and an increased reliance on technology.
While phone continues to be the top choice to solve the most sophisticated inquiries, the channel preferences of customers overall has widened significantly. Many are preferring asynchronous communications through chat, messaging, and various social media channels to avoid having to sit on the phone for periods of time.
This shift in consumers wanting to complete tasks on their own time has also increased the desire for a variety of self-service options to help customers handle simpler tasks quickly on their own without the help of an agent.
“Customers are seeking more self-service and asynchronous options than ever before due to day-to-day stress, busy lives, and an increased reliance on technology.”
Brands have been investing in AI and machine learning capabilities to help them identify common issues customers reach out with and deploy solutions like smart chatbots and a catered knowledge base to assist with requests without customers needing to speak with an agent.
Since a virtual agent is less expensive than human agents, virtualization is a way to minimize costs within the contact center. However, it is imperative businesses implement virtual agents correctly because a wrong answer or negative experience will hurt customer retention.
For inbound contacts, the vast majority will be addressed through self-service automation using conversational voice and digital bots, with the more complex interactions and those requiring human empathy being handled by live agents.
As is the case with outbound (Ed. note: see box), most inbound contacts will be digital, leveraging live chat, SMS, social messaging, and email. Voice will increasingly become a channel of choice only if all other self-service and digital channel avenues have been exhausted.
“For inbound contacts, the vast majority will be addressed through self-service automation…with the more complex interactions and those requiring human empathy being handled by live agents.” —Alain Mowad
When it comes to automation and self-service, they’re undeniably on the rise. Customers prefer these experiences, but it’s critical that the handoff between self-service and human representative be seamless.
Historically, a chatbot that doesn’t resolve a customer issue can cause more frustration than it’s worth. But as technology improves, more and more customers are having successful automated interaction experiences.
It is easier for Conversational AI tools to pass the customer to a representative with a complete background once it becomes necessary. That technology continues to advance, and customers will increasingly look to such channels to quickly resolve their issues.
Automation can handle straightforward inquiries with great results. Knowledge and context are integrated across self-service and agent-assisted interactions to support personalization and rapid resolution of the complex interactions with agents.
Digital channels support richer capabilities than voice and support a growing preference for asynchronous communications that parallel the growth in complexity of customers’ lives and the availability of personal devices and always-on technologies.
Q. What are your recommendations when choosing, deploying, and using inbound applications?
In the age of ChatGPT and other Generative AI tools, it’s more important than ever for brands to stay on top of the latest technological advances so as to not get outpaced by competitors.
Often, we can learn the most from what the more advanced businesses are doing to leverage these new technologies to improve CX, even those outside of a business’s normal competitive purview.
AI-powered, intelligent inbound applications can help brands deploy the right mix of tools and features to create seamless, unforgettable customer interactions and drive loyalty.
There’s no doubt that the future of customer service lies in the hands of AI. However, it’s imperative for businesses to identify their needs and goals to choose the applications that fit their business needs best: and the answer lies in their data and conversations.
Furthermore, it’s important for brands to understand the necessity of human oversight when it comes to the implementation, deployment, and use of AI to remain ethical and compliant and ensure optimal customer service to drive customer retention and loyalty.
Businesses should make sure their contact center can evolve and provide the technologies they’ll need not just today, but five and 10 years down the line.
Businesses will also likely need to make incremental updates and upgrades as their customers evolve. A contact center provider should act as a partner in the evolving technological landscape and meet businesses where they are.
“Businesses should make sure their contact center can evolve and provide the technologies they’ll need not just today, but five and 10 years down the line.”
Businesses require modern inbound applications that keep pace with the demands of today’s customers and how they want to engage with your business. This means choosing applications that:
- Offer robust self-service options that employ advanced Conversational AI for both voice and digital bots.
- Provide support for a broad range of digital channels including live chat, social messaging, SMS, and email.
- Enable deflection of voice to digital channel alternatives.
- Provide AI-powered agent assistance that incorporates large language models (LLMs) such as GPT to improve agent efficiency with specific targeted responses and suggested next-best-actions for customer inquiries. Also, automatic interaction summaries with suggested outcomes and personalized contextual agent coaching.
- Offer omnichannel journey orchestration to ensure that you can completely manage the customer journey and connect every customer touchpoint with rich context preserved throughout.
- Extend customer contact beyond the contact center to other stakeholders within the organization such as back-office and frontline workers.
- Allow for AI-powered QM to automatically record and score 100% of all interactions and flag specific interactions to supervisors and quality analysts based on specific criteria.
- Offer rich AI-powered analytics and actionable insights into the entire customer journey as well as day to day operations and longer term trends.
It also means modern applications that are compatible with a modern way of working, with your agents, back-office, and frontline workers being located literally anywhere, and on any device, desktop or mobile, all delivered on a reliable, scalable, global cloud platform.
- Choose your tools and partners wisely. Inbound applications need to be cloud-based, highly reliable, secure, scalable, and offer platform extensibility for easy integration capabilities.
- Look for solutions that incorporate powerful Conversational AI for both customer and agent experiences.
- Additionally, look for solutions that make it seamless to pass an automated interaction to a live agent with complete customer context in order to avoid any unnecessary friction during the escalation.
- Give your agents the visibility they need to be successful. Live agents should be able to handle all interactions in one interface so they can easily navigate the flow of work throughout their day without having to toggle through multiple screens and tools. This omnichannel handling is crucial for live agents.
- Businesses should have the ability to see how their bot is performing at the touch of a finger.
It is all about personalizing the customer journey and breaking down silos. Inbound applications need open platforms with APIs for advanced integration options to customize a customer’s journey.
“Choose your tools and partners wisely. Inbound applications need to be cloud-based, highly reliable, secure, scalable, and offer platform extensibility for easy integration capabilities.”
Lastly, inbound applications should integrate with a business’s other collaboration or unified communications (UC) tools to help break down silos that exist across the entire organization. After all, CX doesn’t just sit in the contact center.
First, consider the experience you want to provide your customers and employees, and whether you have the technology that enables that. Weighing your options carefully to find the right solutions that meet the needs of all your stakeholders will not only deliver on your experience goals but can also save you from costly missteps.
Next, opting for a composable CX platform will give you the flexibility to build for your unique needs. Finding a contact-center-as-a-service (CCaaS) provider that prioritizes composability and embeds AI into their products is a must for organizations that want to be proactive and provide personalized experiences.
Which channels you deploy should also be top of mind. Our research found that customers consider a personalized experience to be one that allows them to engage on their channels of choice.
And, while voice remains the top preferred channel, digital channels are quickly growing in popularity, particularly with younger generations. Having a digital strategy is crucial for organizations to meet the expectations of today’s customers.
Finally, and most importantly, all of these solutions have to be integrated and able to orchestrate the experience. Through the coordination of technology and increased data visibility, experience orchestration connects journeys for both customers and agents so they feel seen, heard, and understood, deepening relationships, and driving loyalty.