Contact Centres 2030: Toward Customer Engagement
By Professor James Woudhuysen
Posted in Customer Engagement
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and contact centre staff will collaborate to persuade The Sceptical Customer on convenience and company ethics
AFTER A LONG LIFE, CUSTOMER LOYALTY HAS HAD ITS DAY. In a previous report, Defining the Human Age: A Reflection on Customer Service in 2030, we argued that management orthodoxies around issues such as customer loyalty are already 20 years old or more. Yet in fact the goal of 'zero defections' among service customers dates from 1990.
Things have changed. As recently as 2015, a worldwide survey by Opinium LLP and Verint found that 61 per cent of customers had been with their service providers for more than three years. Yet by 2018 that figure had dropped to a rather significant level: just 50 per cent. Today, and especially by 2030, companies should strive for customer engagement unshackled by the illusion of enduring customer loyalty, and instead guided by the real world of The Sceptical Customer. One reason why: in Britain, the country's influential Consumers' Association has urged its 1.3m members: "BE LESS LOYAL."
Worldwide, indeed, no less than 43 per cent of customers are less likely to believe what organisations say than they were a year ago -- and a striking 44 per cent say that fake news has affected their perception of organisation and service providers. Even customers 65 years old or more, who are often caricatured as set in their ways, take a similar view: a solid 32 per cent agree that they trust fewer brands than they did in 2017, with only a modest 21 per cent happy to carry on with the same number of brands as before.
The good news? Though the crisis of public legitimacy endured by organisations is deep, and extends to their use of IT, the tools of Artificial Intelligence (AI) are already around to mitigate that crisis.
Artificial Intelligence will help counter customer suspicions -- especially as people are relatively sanguine about IT
Before seeing how AI can assist contact centres in quelling customer doubts about service providers, let's first understand the full extent of those doubts.
It's true that, as in all market research, what respondents claim to a survey isn't necessarily what they do in practice. Nevertheless, when 62 and 53 per cent of customers across the planet say that trust in providers, and provider ethics, are major factors in their purchasing decisions, it's time to get serious about these things.
With trust, the level of 'major factor' opinion is up there with that for quality and cost of product/service, convenience and customer experience. And with ethics, on top of that half of customers who rate it as a major consideration in their buying, a further 18-19 per cent of 18-34-year-olds -- tomorrow's customers -- rate it as the only deciding factor in parting with their money. In fact, in India, Mexico and Brazil, that full-on prioritisation of ethics is claimed by a sizable 27, 29 and 31 per cent of respondents, respectively.
Sadly, customers worry about IT. Just 39 per cent believe that organisations do enough to protect their data. On the other hand, a full 58 per cent would never engage with a brand that has experienced a data hack, with only 12 per cent claiming that they'd grant an offender a second chance. Again, a hefty 65 per cent believe customer service online and via mobile devices should be faster, more intuitive and better able to serve needs. Finally, 71 per cent are worried about the amount of personal data firms have, and 81 per cent want to know if their personal data in passed on to third parties.
This looks like a bleak picture. Yet if AI techniques are properly developed and applied, they can dramatically improve ease of use and the tailoring of products and services to customer purpose, across every kind of channel.
Already, 42 per cent of worldwide customers cannot tell the difference between a chat-bot and a human operator (in Brazil, Mexico, Hong Kong and especially India, the figures are higher). Although they always want the option of moving on to a human operator, a much greater figure -- 63 per cent -- pronounce themselves happy to deal with chatbots. Last, 68 per cent of customers like it when services are personalised to them and their interests; and that personalisation of service is a capability central to AI.
At the same time, AI equips contact centre operators with insights about customers that allow them to make the right call when today and tomorrow's legitimacy issues -- around ethics, moral dilemmas, company policy -- demand the human touch. By transcribing every recorded customer conversation in a contact centre, picking out key new phrases and trends, and proposing appropriate courses of action, Speech Analytics can forewarn staff about emerging areas of opportunity or concern. By going over the words in e-mail, chat, surveys and customer forums, Text Analytics can do the same -- just like AI tools around Social Engagement also do over Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Google+, LinkedIn, public fora and messaging services such as Messenger.
Artificial Intelligence and human intelligence: toward a rational division of labour
Many commentators on AI now agree that it's about augmenting, not substituting for human intelligence. Take, for instance, robots in extreme environments: even there, MIT engineering professor David A. Mindell suggests, the goal of fully autonomous machines
'is the less ambitious and less useful problem [to solve]. More challenging, and more worthwhile, is the problem of autonomy in human settings. How can we design automation that aids operators and supports their skills and identities?... How should robots be situated within human relationships of power, language and identity?'
It's true that machines can do things humans cannot; but the converse also holds good. In the contact centre of 2030, it will be people that ask the really good questions and crack the best jokes. It will be operators, not electrons, that have a new idea, pick up fastest on a customer's feelings, and make subtle discernments about customers that are to everyone's advantage.
In fact, the man or woman in the street already knows this, at least intuitively. Worldwide, a full 68 per cent of customers worry that their query will get lost or misunderstood by fully automated services. An even higher proportion -- 76 per cent -- want human contact to remain part of customer service.
It is surprising that, in all the debate about automation, Adam Smith's seminal concept of the division of labour -- in this case, between machines and human beings -- is barely discussed. Yet, without a doubt, contact centre managers in 2030 will work a hybrid, AI-plus-humans approach, one which adroitly balances and continually rebalances the allocation of tasks between AI and staff.
In his article titled "Artificial intelligence: when humans coexist with robots,"1 IT writer Richard Waters distinguishes between three types of handovers between AI and human beings. In the first, humans take over when the IT can't cope -- provided that those human beings are not too distracted, that they can remember how to do the handover, and that the handover doesn't take too long. In the second kind of handover, the IT can cope, but human beings need to intervene to have the last word -- if, that is, management allows them to. Then, in Waters' third kind of scenario, the IT proposes, but it's a human being who acts upon or rejects that proposal -- again, if so empowered.
There will be more than these three gambits at play in the hybrid workforce of 2030. But the of work discovering tomorrow's AI/human relations, in all their richness, begins now.
The productivity of contact centres, like Western productivity in general, is growing -- but the curve upward ought to be steeper. Contact centres, after all, are a significant and expanding emblem of the worldwide trend toward the service economy.
It's the same story with the convenience customers meet in contact centre processes. That convenience is improving, and customers are themselves getting more and more familiar and able with online methods. Yet as they move still further to using digital channels, customers promise to be demanding of contact centres. Every customer, after all, has already had to repeat their personal details too many times. Too many customers have heard too much background bedlam from call centres on the phone. The statements 'Your call may be recorded for training purposes,' 'Your call is important to us,' and 'We're experiencing exceptionally high levels of demand at the moment' no longer bring the cooperation they did.
To convince the sceptical customer of tomorrow, contact centres need to deploy AI and staff in dialogues which are both efficient and empathic. AI can fix the small change of interactions with customers, leave the big decisions to human judgement, and always stand ready to be trained and retrained in when and how to hand over those decisions to the human touch. AI may not do much to slow the decline of customer loyalty. But by making online interchanges slick and operator handling well-informed, the right kind of AI can allow contact centres to engage customers -- through the smoothness of their automated routines, and the grown-up way in which employees deal with the stuff that really matters.
1Artificial intelligence: when humans coexist with robots," Richard Waters, Financial Times, October 9, 2018
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