Done well, conversational messaging should be engaging and user-friendly. Offering real-time back-and-forth dialogue between an organisation and individual customers via their channel of choice, it aims to provide immediate response, address specific needs, and foster a sense of rapport with every interaction. 

This can be achieved through live conversations with agents, AI-enabled chatbots, or a mix of the two. However, striking the right balance between automated and human interaction to ensure you meet your customers’ needs fully, quickly, accurately, and cost-effectively is hard. The answer to the question, “How much automation is too much?” is different for every organisation, and arguably for every consumer and type of enquiry. 

The balance also changes at different times and is affected by the market. The recent cost-of-living crisis is a case in point. It led to huge increases in inbound-contact volumes across many sectors such as utilities, finance, health and social housing. For example, a heat network contact centre was handling six times its normal quantity of enquiries at the peak of the crisis. At the same time, the level of complexity of issues being addressed and the need for empathetic as well as timely, well-informedand informative responses – aka conversations – was higher than ever. 

Scaling the personal touch

This situation highlights a fundamental and perennial customer experience question, namely, how do you provide fully personalised conversations at scale?

The short answer is, with a lot of careful training, planning and ongoing evaluation and adjustment.  The sweet spot between the competing needs of personalisation, speed and economics will be constantly shifting, so be prepared for continuous dynamic and responsive management of your systems and the people operating them. 

When thinking about possible approaches, here are some things you might want to consider:

1. Know the need

It goes without saying, the starting point must be a full and up-to-date understanding of the evolving communications requirements of every section of your client base. Are they tech savvy? Time-poor? Vulnerable? Would they pick self-service over interacting with a person? Do they prefer WhatsApp to Facebook Messenger or webchat, or would they rather speak on the phone? Don’t forget to look at the demographics of your website traffic, too, to see who’s visiting and the types of information they’re looking for.

2. Recruit wisely

Your team is a huge part of your adaptability. Seek out people with the skills and personality to go off script appropriately while building rapport in a personable and empathetic way. That likely mean they need to be able to absorb sizeable quantities of continuously changing information and clearly present the relevant parts rapidly as needed. 

3. Support your people

As well as the best system for your customers, you’ll want to consider the needs of your contact centre team. What would help them to do a great job and enjoy their working day, while allowing them to be authentically themselves? Good conversations demand happy employees and a low staff turnover. 

There is also greater scope for mistakes or imprecision in human conversational messaging than with scripted or automated dialogues. Make sure your team are kept up-to-date with the latest information and can refer to it quickly and easily. AI can help here by serving up relevant facts and info from an intuitive knowledge base.

4. Choose an adaptable solution

You need a system that is highly flexible and responsive to constantly evolving demands, from day to day and contact to contact. It should give your agents plenty of room to manoeuvre quickly and easily between channels and approaches to meet the needs of each conversation. Also stay informedof new software out there. We live in a digital age with new pieces of technology coming out every day. It’simportant to keep your eyes peeled and assess whether a new software could help your team do their job more effectively.

5. Get the help you need

There are a number of third-party consultancy services that can help with any or all of the above. Investing in an independent guide to help you navigate the burgeoning market and find the best solution for your organisation could help you avoid damaging errors. 

Sector case study: Seeing customers through difficult times

If you’re not sure how heat networks work, you’re not alone. Heat networks are critical to the Government’s strategy to reach net zero by 2050, so the number of households connected to one is growing at speed. For a heat network metering & billing provider, this means every customer contact is an opportunity to educate. Ideally, all messaging should be conversational – and that’s a good thing.

Because heat networks are large and complex systems involving several suppliers and hundreds of customers, billing calculations are complex. Things like management charges, maintenance fees, payment defaults, empty properties, heat losses, and equipment life-cycle costs must all be factored in. Without the understanding of what all this means and why, this can feel unfair to residents, especially given they can’t simply switch suppliers if they’re unhappy. 

Metering & billing providers don’t have the power to reduce their tariffs; only their heat supplier (e.g. property manager, housing association) can do that. But few residents understand this initially. It’s these networks they come to when they have a problem, because it’s their logo on their bill. 

What communication services can be offered, no matter the issue?

Some of the complaints received relate to concerns outside of their scope of responsibilities. But these networks should always try to help, whatever the issue. Make sure your agents are adept at turning round difficult conversations to focus on what they can do, not what they can’t.  Even if you’re over-servicing your contracts, it’s adding value to your business.

As the sector expands, the customer base and volume of daily enquiries are growing. Meanwhile, heat network regulations and energy price caps are changing all the time. The quantity and scope of information the agents must be ready to provide are daunting. Perhaps these networks should be looking to introduce AI to make it easier to pull answers quickly from a large knowledge base and ensure responses are aligned across the team. There should also be aims to integrate new contact channels to serve a younger demographic and add automatic translation into webchat.

Customer service is our main ‘product’, so we have to get it right. 

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