Customer service: to automate or augment?

Michael Slip says brands which automate their customer experience channels simply as a measure to reduce cost and staff numbers will never see the benefits of the technology.

michael slipThe value of data and digital channels in today’s business environment is beyond question. Looked at through a cost lens, the argument is black and white – the average cost of a human being handling an interaction in a contact centre is 25 times more than of an intelligent ‘bot’, for example. And if we consider it generationally, there is also a compelling case for digital. The entire spectrum of Australian industry recognises that digital is necessary to meet the expectations of a new generation of customers: the digital natives who don’t know a world without the internet.

But a one-size- fits-all strategy is doomed, and in the rush to implement digital technologies in the critical area of customer experience, some organisations are making a fatal mistake. Digital technologies need to be used as a means to augment human customer service roles, instead of only automating them.

Ultimately it is hearts and hands – the personal touch – that will be a competitive differentiator that will see technology investments pay off.

This does not mean that businesses shouldn’t develop automated channels for digital self-service. In fact, the right automated process for the right task can be the very best option for a customer.

Advanced analytics that can recognise when higher levels of touch are required and steer an inquiry in the best direction, will produce an even better experience for customers.

Most customers, for example, prefer to use a website, mobile app, or social site to complete a simple service request for themselves. They are happy to use non-voice channels. But the contact centre needs to know when to step in at those times when a customer is unable to complete a request using the website or app. Think webchat, click to call, co-browse and email. Most of these assisted channels are driven by people, with some level of automation from things like Virtual Assistants helpful in the right circumstances.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to view digital technology – and the adoption of automation – purely as a way to remove cost, ignoring the clear difference between a simple, quick activity like mobile banking, and more complex tasks where support is needed for customers. In order to achieve the full potential of digital technologies, particularly in the contact centre space, people will always be needed to properly connect the technology to the needs of the customer and, as a result, foster greater customer loyalty.

Earlier this year, Dimension Data released its 2016 ‘Contact Centre Benchmarking Report’, which found almost 80% of Australian organisations recognised Customer Experience (CX) as a key competitive differentiator. The report found that a key way in which enterprises aim to improve customer satisfaction is to offer an omnichannel experience, with the majority of organisations expected to support up to nine channels by the end of the year.

Channel presence, however, is not enough.

The report also found that full channel integration is required to provide a frictionless omnichannel experience for the customer and organisation alike.

The complexity of providing customers with a connected experience that spans multiple channels requires significant capability and understanding of the customer journey. To be effective, the technology solutions need design, ownership, and most importantly, a human touch.

Organisations that view digital purely as a way to remove cost and reduce staff numbers will quickly come to realise that their technology investments are not delivering the promised benefits.

Ultimately, the contact centre has become the new battleground for business differentiation, as improving customer experience has become the key strategic performance indicator. According to a report, customer experience was almost double the next highest performance indicator, which was ‘sales revenue and profit’ at 39.1%.

Consider that for a moment.

Marketers have known for some time that experience is key, now boards have cottoned on.

When almost double the number of organisations value customer experience over revenue and profit, it is clear that there has been a monumental shift in perception.

Social media is just one of the channels being used to improve customer experience. According to the research, 55% of Australian organisations currently support social media channels and this is expected to increase to 81% in less than a year.

However, the public nature of social media interactions means each and every conversation needs to be tailored to the user and their unique needs. Today’s digital technologies can automatically provide a snapshot of that customer’s journey with your organisation and provide a history of previous contacts. So while they can facilitate rapid automated responses that effectively channel customers toward the right touch-point to resolve their inquiry, this requires a ‘human touch’ to be executed effectively.

The difference between an employee with the nuance to respond specifically to the customer’s query will be immediately identifiable from an automated response.

When handled correctly, a social media interaction not only solves any issues with that particular customer, but it also acts as an advertisement for the type of service other potential customers can expect to receive.

But the inverse is also true. An automated response that doesn’t take into account any emotional cadence can make your organisation seem callous and cold – an experience no customer wants to receive.

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Michael Slip is general manager, customer experience at Dimension Data.