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Self Service with a Personal Touch

by Pelorus Associates - September 18, 2013

Self Service with a Personal Touch©

Pelorus Associates

Readers of a certain age will remember the popular sitcom Cheers, about a neighborhood bar where Ted Dansen starred as the proprietor. The refrain of the popular theme song was ”I want to go where everyone knows my name.” That’s the power of personalization. It’s what keeps us happy and loyal customers.

Customers who feel they are being treated as individuals are more satisfied with their customer experience and more inclined to remain loyal customers. That is why we keep going back to the same restaurants, bank branches, neighborhood taverns, doctors, and beauty salons. For large organizations with thousands or even millions of customers it is simply not possible to build a one-to-one relationship with individual employees. Large consumer companies, particularly e-commerce and service providers, strive to overcome this hurdle by providing a personalized experience via telephone. Amazon and other retailers know enough about you from previous contacts, purchase history, and other sources to structure special offers and purchase recommendations well suited to your taste and alert their agents to this information. Customer service representatives are trained to address callers my name and consult CRM and other data sources to keep the call on point and minimize needless repetition. These efforts to personalize communications with a contact center agent greatly improves the quality of the interaction but not without some limitations. For example, human agents are seldom immediately available. This means the caller must wait on hold until an agent is free. The longer the wait the greater the frustration. Finally, live interactions are costly, ranging from $7-$20 or more depending on the nature of the call and the required skills of the agent.

The challenge is to personalize the customer experience through self-service. Advances in data mining and natural language understanding speech make it possible to provide a customer experience that has many of the attributes of the personal interaction. Based on open standards, these highly configurable systems are able to interact via touchtone entries or natural language speech. These next generation IVR’s are software only or cloud-based. They use standard interfaces to extract valuable data about customer purchase preferences and contact history and incorporate this knowledge into the dialogue to help assure interactions focused on problem solving. The best implementations always offer easy access to a live operator if the consumer prefers to go that route. Interfaces can be designed to present different “personas,” depending on the caller or the nature of the query. The computer voices, which sound amazingly natural, can be male or female and be fluent in a variety of languages. Of course, automated self-service is always immediately available, never late for work, always in a good mood, and costs a small fraction of a human agent.

This is not to say that smart IVR systems are ready to replace skilled agents. No machine has yet been invented, or ever will be, that has the courtesy, intelligence, adaptability, empathy, knowledge, and judgment of a skilled customer service representative. However, these next gen automated systems definitely have their place. A good application is to use the intelligent front end to determine the nature of the call then forward only the more complex calls to human agents while directing relatively routine queries and transactions to the automated system..

A short list of smart IVR capabilities provided today, depending on vendor, include

  • Immediate answer
  • Use of caller's name
  • Ability to select gender of agent
  • Dialogue and language of choice
  • Consistently communicate clearly and accurately
  • Access to contact history
  • Access to customer databases
  • Structured interaction focused on problem solving
  • Ability to present offers based on known preferences
  • Ability to complete transactions
  • Determine if purpose of call has been completely resolved.
  • Functions equally well for chat sessions.

Contact centers are notably slow to innovate. This is for good reason. The operation is mission-critical which makes managers understandably risk-averse. While the notion of the smart IVR is relatively new, these solutions have been in use for several years and have proved both reliable and cost-effective. Applications in place are processing complex transactions such as travel reservations and securities transactions. Smart IVR’s can be acquired via the hosting model which gives contact center management the opportunity to test drive the applications before making system-wide commitments. Management may be pleasantly surprised at how quickly these systems can be installed and how soon they payback the original investment.

Dick Bucci
Pelorus Associates

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