Contact center of the future: the chatbot balancing act
5 MINS READ
What lies ahead?
The future of the contact center
Every month, numerous articles and LinkedIn posts are published trying to predict the future of the contact center.
Usually, the articles are a mixture of emerging technology and operational best practices. Occasionally, the authors seem to have struggled to think of anything that wasn’t already in use by many forward-thinking centers.
However, in November 2022, there was a sudden and significant shift when the first version of ChatGPT launched. The trickle of AI and bot-focused content became a deluge, which has further escalated with the rapid evolution to ChatGPT4. Observers have started to ask if this would be the end of human agents, with technology taking ‘center stage’ in customer-care designs.
In the same month, Frontier Airlines announced they were switching off their voice channel and moving to a digital only strategy, aided by bots. Although they would be retaining some human agents, the only way to contact them would be through text-based channels. Frontier’s decision continues to generate a significant amount of online commentary in customer experience circles – but why?
When automation is actually time-consuming
For straightforward queries, some people prefer digital channels, which may require less effort than calling and could get the job done quickly. However, digital channels are not the best option for all scenarios.
For instance, consider the following two examples.
Recently, I used WhatsApp to advise a retailer that they were sending me mail for someone who had moved out ten years prior. When I had originally sent back their mail, their address should have been removed to comply with the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). After I sent the WhatsApp message, I received an irrelevant auto-reply. Then, I replied that the answer didn’t solve my issue, and I received another auto-reply asking that I repeat the information from the first message and was warned that the reply might take longer at peak times. Since my issue was not time-sensitive, I copied the information and submitted it again.
90 minutes later, I received a response, telling me the company didn’t have that name registered against my postcode anymore. It was a blunt, transactional message without an apology or explanation – a poor user experience.
Let’s take another scenario where the impact was much more significant than extra mail. Some friends booked a last-minute flight with their 2-year-old daughter. They had missed the cut-off for online check-in and were concerned that their daughter might be given a seat on her own.
Did they want to use a digital channel and wait hours or even days for a response, which might not have answered the question? Of course not. They rang the airline, and a customer service representative was able to resolve the situation for them immediately.
The right channel for the right customer
There is a significant difference between the ability to self-serve your booking and needing support with a potentially emotional, time-critical issue. The problem with a digital-channel only approach is that it is not inclusive. It assumes every customer has access and ability to use a laptop, smartphone or similar device. It also assumes they are content not to be able to speak to someone and that a text response is suitable, regardless of how complex or emotive the query might be.
You don’t have to look far to know this isn’t true. Customers vent their frustration online and in the media at their inability to speak to someone about their issue. They report trying to get a response to email for weeks or being blocked by a bot that doesn’t understand their question and constantly suggests they might like to ask something else.
It’s therefore not completely surprising that in a recent survey by Medallia, 54% of respondents said communicating with a human was the most important consideration when selecting a channel – regardless of their age group.
The problem with a digital channel only approach is that it is not inclusive.
Empowering customers via digital channels
Designing a great digital CX requires knowing your customers and acknowledging their preferences as well as their needs. But as Coca-Cola once infamously discovered, just because a segment of customers like something new you have to offer doesn’t mean you should remove the original offering.
For global brands, these may differ by geo. For example, WhatsApp is a prominent channel in the Middle East and in Brazil, so users in those locations are likely to want customer service by that channel and will be happy with a bot-assisted approach. However, the scenario is quite different elsewhere. Spain has even approved a draft bill that would give customers the right to speak to a human agent, so companies doing business there in some sectors couldn’t just deflect transactional queries to bots.
Create the customer personas and map the journeys they will take with your brand. Align the personas and journeys to your channel strategy and ensure customers are not being disempowered by forcing them to use a channel they’re not happy with or are unable to use. If the strategy requires a reduction in voice wait times and call costs, consider using AI to present knowledge articles to the agent in real-time, instead of removing the channel entirely.
When you’ve finished planning the ‘happy path,’ then design for ‘what if’ scenarios, even unlikely ones. For example, I booked a hotel room with a brand that offers a significant level of self-service through their digital channels. However, the reservation engine crashed while I was making the booking. Although the payment was taken, a reservation number was never issued. I couldn’t use the chat or the portal because the design assumed a customer would have a reservation number already.
Optimize with the customer in mind
Great customer service is not just about resolving transactional issues. Bots empowered by AI can do an excellent job with those types of issues, for customers who are happy and able to interact with bots.
But it’s rare that their deployment is designed so well that the interaction adds a ‘magic moment’ to the customer’s experience and turn them into an advocate for the brand, regardless of why they initiated contact in the first place.
At TCS, when we work with clients who are looking to optimize their customer care, we consider all relevant physical, digital, and voice touchpoints and look to design moments of value. Some of those will involve AI, bots, and automation. Some of them won’t. The difference is that we create the design first, and then (and only then) work with our internal teams and partners to deliver it.
Technology will no doubt be the enabler for the contact center of the future – but brilliant CX and contact center design needs the human customer to be kept at the front of the stage.