2017: A little AI, Social Media and Natural Language Create a Powerful Contact Center Party for the New Year
Jan 03, 2017
What a difference a year makes, but in this case 30 years in the making. Three decades ago when Interactive Voice Response (IVR) got its start, heads of marketing studiously avoided describing the application as a replacement for people. Thankfully, we gave up that pretense a long time ago. Whereas IVRs haven’t replaced people in mass, they do offload a lot of work. More importantly, they also helped to usher in an era of self-service that has only grown stronger to this day.
Driven by a changing consumer base that is technology obsessed and wants to research and self-help before turning to live assistance, businesses and solution providers alike buckled down to improve existing and launch new self-service channels in 2016.
Younger consumers also are vocal about wanting more personalized experiences, despite which channel they use. The good news is that getting the customer what they want has been a primary business focus for years now. And it’s not just goods and services, but relationships and experiences that have driven businesses to change their mindset. The Customer Experience, of which customer service is a key component, is now the competitive differentiator of the day, and hence the theme behind customer contact trends for 2017.
So what does 2017 hold for customer contact? While there are numerous trends afoot, there are two in particular that are the key drivers. First is catering to the newer generation of consumers, and consequently, next-gen contact center agents and supervisors. Second is the broadening of technology usage to embellish customer service. These developments are from areas that have been under development for decades, but have just started to become main stream.
Catering to the Millennial Worker
2016 was the year when solution providers heightened their focus on improving the tools that agents and supervisors use to handle customers. From customer journey mapping to refreshed agent desktops we saw announcement after announcement of new capabilities to help make agents and supervisors more effective.
But perhaps the most exciting trend in 2016, which Frost & Sullivan believes will be a continuing core trend in 2017, is designing contact centers to support the millennial worker, and that cater to the millennial consumer. This was very apparent with multiple announcements of enhanced Workforce Optimization (WFO) offerings that focused on making life easier for agents. For instance, we saw enhancements to forecasting and scheduling applications that took into account the priorities Millennials place on work-life balance. Flexible scheduling, greater incorporation of agent participation and preferences, Gamification, and features that empower agents to do their jobs better were just a few of the facets that were continuously demonstrated in new product releases.
Bots, Virtual Assistants and Intelligent Personal Assistants
Digital natives that grew up with the intuitive user interface of the iPhone don’t settle for clunky applications, especially those they use for customer service. In 2016 we saw an immense focus on moving from multichannel to omnichannel customer care, with a key concern of providing intelligent, intuitive and useful self-service channels. This spanned interaction channels from upgrading outdated IVRs to implementing proactive and interactive chat. All of this was facilitated by two things. Core technologies, in the areas of artificial intelligence, machine learning, Big Data and Analytics (BDA), speech technologies, and others, which have been brewing for the past three decades, are now ready for prime time. Add to this consumer willingness to use technology, such as speech-driven interfaces, and you have a recipe for adoption of new interaction channels, such as Bots and VAs.
And launch they did. 2016 saw every variation of VAs, with myriad naming conventions to describe them from virtual assistant to intelligent personal assistants. These apps appeared from industry heavyweights – Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, for example, as home appliances that feature personal assistants. These do a breadth of actions from streaming music, reading news, and sending texts, to controlling the user’s smart home environment. More traditional VAs that increase capabilities for customer service also appeared. These included those from traditional contact suppliers, such as Aspect, Avaya, and Nuance, to “pure-play” VA providers, such as Creative Virtual, Conversica, Inbenta, IPSoft, Interactions, MyWave, Next IT, noHold, Omilia, and SmartAction. In fact, Aspect, in response to the first trend mentioned, went so far as to create a VA for WFO – Mila – who assists agents in their day to day work life.
As described in Frost & Sullivan’s, “The Rise of Messaging Bots and Virtual Assistants – A new user interaction paradigm” published in May 2016, “a bot can be described as a software agent (application) that interacts with users or other bots. It may include elements of artificial intelligence and interact with users in a variety of ways including on the Internet, through email, and messaging apps (or voice interface). Thus, bots can fulfill a wide range of interactional tasks—from automating conversation, to transactions, and workflows.” In the customer service arena, chat bots are being deployed on web sites for customer service assistance, and sometimes as a variation on speech-driven VAs available via telephone/mobile device. Some pretty cool Bots in this regard included Aspect’s virtual host that works tirelessly at Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotels in London, and Nuance’s Nina at Swedebank. We expect 2017 to be a breakout year for additional assistants to appear.
Speaking of Bots, 2016 was the year that customer care on social went from public to private. Social customer care has enjoyed a five year dose of attention within customer contact, with a modicum of success. But it is the harnessing of social platform messaging apps that will turn social customer care on its head in 2017. Thanks to the announcement by Facebook that they were opening up Facebook Messenger to the public and developers, businesses and solution providers alike now have a captive audience of socially-addicted consumers to engage with in private. And Facebook was only the first. Other platforms including Twitter followed, and so did contact center solution providers and customers. While of course there are issues to iron out, such as privacy, regulatory and others, messaging opens up a whole new avenue for customer contact.
Blocking and Tackling
With all the exciting new arrivals in customer contact, 2017 will still see its share of blocking and tackling as companies continue to move towards omnichannel customer care. Adding new interaction channels only makes this more difficult. Whether from an organizational standpoint or technical one, many challenges remain. However, the possibilities for transforming the Customer Experience are worth the challenge.
Nancy Jamison is a Principal Analyst within Customer Contact within the Digital Transformation group at Frost & Sullivan. She covers all aspects of customer contact including cloud and premise-based systems and applications in the core areas of inbound/outbound routing, IVR, Workforce Optimization, and recording and analytics, with a particular focus on peripheral and emerging areas that impact the Customer Experience. These include speech technologies, omni-channel customer care, Big Data, digital marketing, Back Office Workforce Optimization, and Support Interaction Optimization.