You might think that in a world where self-service is commonplace, chatbots are increasing in popularity, and the amount of voice minutes used generally is decreasing, that the phone as a channel for customer service has had its day.

Not at all. If we look at the contact centre for example, ContactBabel estimates that for percent of the UK’s population is employed within them. With 6,200 contact centres across the country, there are actually more than in 2009. Yet this is the most expensive channel any organisation can run. So, in an increasingly electronic age why can’t this stranglehold over the phone be broken?

The power is in the hands of consumers

It is important to understand that it’s the consumers that make the decision on which communication methods will be most used, not businesses. If the channel proposed by a business is suitable for the type of interaction, then it will succeed – otherwise, it will fail.

Most customer interactions fall into one of two categories: those that are purely transactional and those that require dialogue. Arguably, with the former, the battle is largely won, and the majority would rather self-serve. However, with the latter we still have a long way to go and therefore the phone is still very popular.

Applying the lessons of self service to more complex problems

Transactional communications, such as balance enquiries and travel information, have succeeded in their transition to self-service because the data needed to power the enquiry is largely highly structured and the technological challenge of providing an automated front-end on top of an existing back-office process has largely been solved.

The challenge now is to do similar for where queries are more complex, and the data is less structured. What is the value of artificial intelligence in this equation? AI is already present in many self-service tools and of course it’s coming to the fore in many voice assistants such as Google Home and Amazon Alexa.

However, we’re now seeing AI applied to more complex situations. For example, intelligence voice assistants (IVAs) are now automating council planning processes and mortgage approvals. Those processes often take weeks and months to complete but AI is going some way to speeding these up and unlike in the past is being used to tap into unstructured data.

Using AI in the contact centre

But as exciting as some of these examples are, we should remember that a customer may value reassurance rather than speed in certain circumstances (such as wanting to make an important hospital appointment or needing assistance with a utilities service). In such cases, not allowing the customer to use an interaction rather than a self-service transaction will have a considerable negative impact on their opinion of the organisation, far outweighing any costs ‘saved’ by self-service.

We also need to consider that some customers simply prefer speaking to another person, and even the best self-service application is unacceptable to them.

In these circumstances, the role of AI is to automate the interaction for the contact centre agent and make it as easy for them to serve the customer. The tools used by customer and agent are often not that different – both need access to information quickly and accurately.

To the future

How will things evolve? It is likely that interactions generally between organisations and customers will continue to grow. For one, consumers have become savvier. We continue to shop online more than ever, we switch suppliers more often and are quick to pull organisations up if we feel disappointed in them.

So, we can expect all forms of self-service to continue to grow whether that be voice-based via the web or chatbots and the nature of enquires these channels handle will continue to increase in complexity. However, we should remember that contact centres are the place in which businesses interact with customers at their most ‘human’ – whether happy, upset, or unsure – and will stay that way.

Customer service is an opportunity to compete on more than just price, and understanding the customer experience throughout the organisation will shortly become even more important.

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