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The Edge of Tomorrow: Automation, AI & IoT in the Contact Center

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The future of contact centers is in automation, self-learning AI, support for IoT, and engaging customers and agents at a new level. These were the major themes at the fourth annual Customer Engagement Summit in London on November 26th. Close to 700 delegates and 60 speakers met to compare notes and listen to success stories in robotics implementations, results driven by analytics, and connecting with customers through the digital channel.

Spencer Kelly, presenter of BBC’s Click programme, and Pepper, a robot with a cloud-based artificial intelligence system, opened the event. And from the start, keynote speakers identified several technology trends with direct impact on customer service:

  • Augmented reality
  • Virtual reality
  • Wearables
  • Self-diagnosed IoT
  • Automation
  • Location awareness.

Spencer Kelly gave an example of how all these tech developments find their way into the contact center with Amelia, a virtual call centre agent. The AI computing system was designed by IPsoft in 2014 and collects data and employs speech analytics to answer customer questions. Its self-learning mode is designed to transfer calls which it cannot answer to human agents and use these conversations to increase its knowledge base. Amelia can “understand” context in multiple languages and accept workflow charts as process instructions.

Next, journalist and blogger Mark Hillary grounded the conversation, pointing out that while the customer journey is changing, it is still predominantly based on voice interactions.

Here, the important change is that customers are now driving the engagement with brands, choosing when, how and through which channel to interact with their “customer experience supplier”. An example of the impact of the omni-channel is seen even in industries like automotive. While it used to take eight visits to the car dealership to complete a sale, now consumers do their research online, making an average of 1.2 visits in store before purchasing their car.

One of the streams at Engage Summit was dedicated to financial services. Analysis of the Voice of the Customer has been driving changes in retail banking for a while, but companies like Confirmit aim to expand this scope to bank employees capturing sentiments and internal adoption of Customer Experience (CX) initiatives. Russ Powles of Lloyds spoke of the bank’s journey in claims and complaints management under new regulations, and the simple but effective tandem use of channels – sending notification SMS messages to customers who will be contacted later in the day for a collection call.

Barclays’ Digital Eagles have garnered a lot of publicity in the last year for the successful digital engagement of less technically savvy customers. Dave Shepherd, the Frontline Help Director at Barclays, spoke of the learning curve the organization went through. Starting by distributing ten thousand tablets to its branches, Barclays discovered that staff were often apprehensive of the new technology and chose to ignore it. Digital Eagles came as a direct response, conducting one to one training, resulting in 12k employees who are now ready to help end users, especially the more elderly, to adopt online and mobile banking.   

Starting CX transformation by winning employee engagement was also Sean Risebrow of NewsUK’s theme. He shared a story about the impact of a simple service – “an act of random kindness” for both employees and customers – reprinting The Times newspaper from the birthdate of the customer. Sean’s advice was straightforward: prove the economic benefit of the CX and set up a timeline for achieving these benefits.

In a more contact center focused case study, Virgin Media’s Chris Beeson spoke of the struggle the company went through to identify text analytics technology, having assessed over 60 vendors. Today, the company combines its in-house tool with third party Lexalytics’ tool to analyze NPS feedback responses, aiming for 80% accuracy to speed up actionable steps and instigate change in the CX.

The evolving and increasing contact channels permeated many of the discussions. Stuart Dorman of Sabio highlighted some of the latest developments such as Facebook Messenger and the brand’s responsiveness ranking, and Google’s WebRTC, an open source browser-to-browser communication application, which allows calling a company directly from the search results page.

The idea of the connected home has become mainstream, and British Gas’s Hive is one of the pioneers in the U.K. with its heating and control thermostat. Kim Ratcliffe, who heads customer service at British Gas, spoke about their low key start a year ago with voice, email, and a few dozen agents, which expanded to over 400 staff and 250k customers currently. The constantly evolving support is driven by customers using, for example, bi-weekly customer blogs to loop feedback to developers for the next iteration of the product while bringing in additional contact channels like in-app chat, live FAQs and video conferencing.

Being an early entrant with own smart device support, or utilizing some of the existing tools, is the next challenge in IoT support. However, Unilever is looking to avoid this step completely. Megan Neale, Global Head of Customer Engagement, claimed that Unilever is largely skipping the latest developments in support technology: their 700 agents across 53 global centers, supporting 400 brands, are looking into virtual reality and, more tangibly, are using Amazon Echo – a wireless speaker and voice command device – to drive brand awareness and product support.

Events like Engage Summit are inevitably focused on the future with little attention on the current, less sexy problems. Perennial issues like agent attrition or cost-cutting pressure rarely find a place in such conferences, where the next tech breakthroughs are the centre of attention. Still, the more down-to-earth voices at the Summit suggested that the new tech solutions will affect the support workforce, and only businesses focused on developing and engaging its employees will benefit. The rise of the NPS Superhero, the SuperAgent, or just a proactive floor staff, are also highly important alongside the development of shiny robots like Pepper.

The consensus at Engage Summit was that CX has reached the agenda of executive boards. Slogans like “Customer Experience is the new marketing” are entering the corporate lingo. While the largest taxi company without any cars, or the largest accommodation chain without any property, are becoming less of a novelty, established businesses are struggling to retain and add value to a global, more educated, and ultimately less loyal customer. A healthy balance of existing contact center tools, new tech solutions, and a knowledgeable workforce can be the answer.

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