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The "UC Contact Center" is the topic of today's UCStrategies podcast. Moderated by Blair Pleasant, the podcast also includes contributions from Art Rosenberg, Don Van Doren, Dave Michels, Michael Finneran, Paul Robinson, and Jon Arnold. The UCStrategies Experts take a look at how unified communications can take contact centers to the next level of customer service.
Blair Pleasant: Hi. This is Blair Pleasant with the UCStrategies team. The topic of contact centers and unified communications came up quite a bit during our UC Summit last month. We thought we would do today’s podcast about contact centers.
Art Rosenberg has some specific thoughts about the contact center from the end-user perspective. The role of contact center from the end-user is really true from today’s environment where everyone is mobile and using mobile devices, and Michael (Finneran) is going to be talking about that later. In fact, several companies have recently introduced mobile contact center capabilities that let users reach the contact center agents from their mobile applications on their mobile devices and we will be hearing many more new announcements about this in the near future. So Art, why don’t you kick this off and tell us about your perspectives in looking at the contact center from the end-user perspective.
Art Rosenberg: Thanks, Blair. Obviously the contact center, which is focused to a large degree on customer service, customer interaction, and so on, is very key to business operations because it is a source of revenue, customer satisfaction and so on. It’s necessary to look at the services a contact center provides to the customer as opposed to how you will support that, and the customer is starting to change in terms of how they will communicate, as Blair mentioned, they are going to be using other devices besides a wired telephone from their residence. They are going to be using personalized mobile devices that can communicate not just with voice but also with text and chat and also video conferencing is now coming up. All those capabilities of communicating with that business organization – a business operation – by a customer, is going to change, so the contact center has to change accordingly. Mobility is a very key factor, and so is multi-modality.
But it’s also not an inbound kind of situation, it’s also where the customer has to be notified by the business process of something timely and important in healthcare (for example), like reminders for appointments, reminders to take medication, notifications that there is something wrong with his or her blood pressure and so on. All of this is part of the support of the customer’s needs from a communication perspective that has to be accommodated within the new definition of what I call the UC Contact Center. So it’s a contact center, but it’s expanded. On that note, I would like to turn it over back to Blair, to have others make comment accordingly.
Blair Pleasant: Thanks, Art. Don, what have you seen, and what can companies do to improve the customer experience for their customers?
Don Van Doren: Thanks, Blair. I think to date, most UC deployments have been within the centers themselves. We look at IM and presence so that agents can reach supervisors or maybe they reach experts that are located within the center. We’ve seen a fair number of those kinds of deployments that have gone on and certainly there are some benefits there. The application I think that has been talked about for a long time is, how do you use presence and instant messaging and other UC tools to reach an expert who is outside the center, (or) conceivably even outside the company? I have been pushing this rope for about a half a dozen years. Frankly, there are a number of challenges we keep running into.
The first one is that contact center management is reluctant in many cases to lose control of the call; lose control of the customer experience. They have concern about, “how will these outsiders treat our callers?” On the expert side, too, there is a lot of reluctance to be “on call” when they have in their minds more important and more pressing work to do. I think in looking at this, the reason that we have seen so few deployments in this area is that these kinds of challenges that we are seeing have really gotten in the way. Where it makes sense I think to do this from a customer strategy perspective is to let people know throughout the company that getting on customer’s calls is part of everyone’s job. Then use some of the sophisticated scheduling tools that are available inside the center to schedule those outside experts.
But finally, look closely at the metrics you are using because I find that in many companies wrong metrics are really driving inappropriate decisions. It is important to note really though that this kind of an approach is not the right answer for all companies. Let me get back to that in another minute.
But let me back up for a second. I think one of the problems really is that the way many companies have looked at the whole UC and the contact center issue focuses on the wrong communications model. It’s basically layering new technologies on top of old processes. And the assumption that is core to this is that the agent is handling a phone call, and then somehow using UC&C internally to find access experts in order to answer questions. Art really brought up a couple of areas here where that model simply isn’t the right one. I would like to expand on that. I think, increasingly that is the wrong model. In some sense, in some situations, the contact center may not even be in the loop. Art points out that many different modalities are coming into play, mobile applications is one – Blair, you mentioned it; Art mentioned it; I think others may comment on that as well. The one I would add is secure customer portals. These are now being designed for both mobile apps and for any web browser. Basically, secure access portals allow customers to have direct access to data. And as Art mentioned, quite often that’s really what the customer wants – it’s just information. But also, when they need to get access to other people, there is a way to use secure, presence-enabled, UC-facilitated access to experts: specialists that the customer interacts with, for instance, but also customer forums and user groups or tutorials and technical information that is specific to that customer’s equipment; the ability to co-browse with agents when in fact, interaction with agents is appropriate. All these kinds of things.
So I think companies need to sort of shift the model in their minds in terms of how they are really looking at this. The challenge, of course, is how to make these kinds of decisions. In our consulting experience what we find is that it really comes down to understanding what the customer experience needs to be and how that relates to the overall corporate strategy. So for example, those companies whose competitive differentiation is based on customer intimacy should try and look at how do we establish different methods of customer interaction? And those companies that focus on operations efficiency – those two models for example for overall business strategy will drive very, very different behaviors both in terms of what UC&C technologies are deployed, what tools the customer will have access to, how the staff will interact with them and what the role of the agents will be in supporting all of these interactions. The future is very exciting and that’s going to be really helpful, I think.
Blair Pleasant: Thanks, Don. Those are all great points. It’s interesting that you brought up the concept of the expert agent because I know we both have been talking about that for a long time. I gave a presentation called “The Call Center Without Walls” back in 1998 talking about this. We are starting to see some companies implementing this now that we have capabilities like presence and IM and chat and things that let people do it. It’s still at the beginning, but we are starting to see companies doing this.
Dave Michels, let’s change the topic a little bit. Can you talk about turning customer service into profit centers?
Dave Michels: Thanks, Blair. A couple of thoughts there; before I jump into that one I want to jump back to what Art had mentioned about the self-help mechanisms. I think that various options that we have available to us from the web and other mediums – it’s amazing how much we can now do self-service and how we can do self-service 7/24 and I think that’s wonderful. By the same token, I think that we have barely made a dent. I can book an airplane ticket, I can select my seats, I can request meal restrictions or a special kind of diet if an airline actually serves food anymore. I can put in the TSA information, I can do all that fairly well. But if I want to make a dentist appointment or whatever, for some reason that still requires a live operator. I think that there is so much opportunity to open up more mechanisms to self-service modes in so many industries. I think that we have barely scratched the surface of that. I think what is interesting about this phenomena is that we generally want self service. I know there is a lot of things, we go back to the airlines... that I will do almost anything – I will spend a half hour if I have to trying to solve my problem on my own than trying to call the airlines. I think that there is a huge opportunity and it’s changing the type of calls that call centers are getting. If the call center doesn’t have a self-help alternative they get all kinds of basic calls. And as soon as you open up all these self-help opportunities the calls that come into the call center are much more sophisticated and interesting, for that matter. I think that changes the quality of the calls and changes the quality of the conversations.
To your earlier point there about the profitability of the contact center. I think for the past several decades contact centers have been on the riding the wave of reducing costs and increasing automation. They have done it very efficiently and effectively. We can sort calls, we can queue calls, we can get them to the right agents, we can have agents working at home. We have done a lot of things to really automate the way we handle calls. We can now process calls with less agents at a higher profitability. But at the same time I think some service has suffered from that. At the UC Summit we talked about some of the retail industries as an analysis of what is happening in the channel. One of the things we talked about was that some businesses we talked about Costco, Target, Kohl’s there were a few others, Walmart, that were considered on top of their game right now in their sector and they are really easy to work with. People want to work with them and specifically the return policies are very generous and easy to deal with.
A lot of businesses aren’t easy to deal with anymore. The thought of calling a contact center is just painful. And I think the pendulum is going to swing the other way now. I think over the next five years I think we are going to see an emphasis more on service and using that customer service capability as the key differentiator where people want to call. They are going to want to solve their problems I said earlier with the self-help mechanisms. But when they do need to call they get the call answered and they get an empowered agent that can actually say yes to things and solve problems. I think that is really missing right now. If the call center industry was restaurants, all we have right now is fast food. I think there is an opportunity for the high-end restaurants to come back. I think people are willing to pay for service. That is what I mean about the profit center. And realize that these customers aren’t just metrics or calls, but they are customers who have a choice in who they give their money to.
So I think that I’m looking forward to that swing in the pendulum but I think that comes with the ability to have more self-help mechanisms so that the quality of the calls that come in are, like I said, are more interesting and challenging for qualified agents. Thank you, Blair.
Blair Pleasant: Great thoughts, Dave. Michael Finneran, where does mobile fit into all of this?
Michael Finneran: Hi, Blair. Interesting because for years mobile didn’t really fit into the contact center much at all. We have seen some interesting new applications coming out particularly from Genesis and more recently the Mobilizer app from Interactive Intelligence. Essentially these are apps on your smart phone that allow you to either schedule or reschedule a callback from a contact center, which in my mind makes perfect sense. You have your smartphone, your life has become mobile, things change. So it’s a way of improving service, but as Dave referenced before, giving more power to the customer. Of course, at the end of the day it is still a phone call we are talking about, but essentially using the capabilities of the smart phone and mobile data network to help organize how that all gets done.
I’ll be real interested to see how things work out; how widely they are taken up. Most importantly, this is obviously the first inning. I want to see what else comes out of this as well as businesses are starting to realize the impact smartphones have on people’s lives and how we can better work those into the service experience. I am watching this one real closely, Blair.
Blair Pleasant: Michael based on your mobile and wireless connection, there is still a lot of work to be done. Paul Robinson, did you have something to add to this?
Paul Robinson: I think that everything has been covered. It’s certainly clear that businesses need without doubt, to answer a number of questions what has been said gets to. And that is, how will the company be able to respond to customer’s demands for higher levels of personal service and responsiveness, how will it increase customer loyalty and extract maximum value from customer relationships? And two other ones; how will it achieve competitive differentiation and how will it acquire new customers while retaining existing ones? The points raised I think cover those particular areas.
Blair Pleasant: Okay, thanks. Art, do you have any final thoughts? Since you opened this up.
Art Rosenberg: Yes—thank you. I just want to point out that while we want to provide online self-services in whatever modality is appropriate, with a device that can let you do that, with a customer can do that, there’s always the possibility that there could be a problem. So you always want access to assistance when you are in a self-service application. So the ability to click for assistance, it is not necessary for a voice conversation, it could be anything from a chat or even from email on up to a video call if you will if you have to be able to see something... So the flexibility of UC across all of these modalities and media, with mobility, means that the end user now is accessible at any time for both inbound as well as outbound activities and whatever it is they want to do in terms of application. That kind of flexibility has never been there before, and now the end user is going to be able to control how they do business, and on the other side of the coin, the businesses have to respond flexibly to what those end users want. The technology will let them now do that.
Blair Pleasant: Okay, great. Jon Arnold you have some final thoughts to add?
Jon Arnold: Sure. I just wanted to amplify some of the things especially that Art has been saying that in many ways UC really is tailor made for the contact center. And I think it is a very important tool for enabling and empowering the agents, as we have been saying, to communicate the way customers want to communicate. I think it’s time for the contact center to look at that as a more integrated way to go because it’s really the only way to keep pace and we haven’t even touched on social media as another channel that we have to deal with, which can either be on the mobile or the landline and wired devices. But clearly there is a lot of new ground here to be explored and we have mentioned that already it is an exciting time to look at the possibilities. So there are a lot of openings here for companies to be creative with how they update the contact center experience to really do business the way the customers want to deal with them.
The other point we haven’t touched on yet, of course, is the whole kind of cloud thing, and that piggy backs a bit on what some of us saw at the Interactive Intelligence event last week. I think the idea here that the cloud-based solutions are maturing now for the contact center, and if you follow where Interactive Intelligence is going – their takeup of the cloud – they’re seeing a lot of that. And it really just opens doors now for companies that couldn’t possibly have sophisticated contact center capabilities before. So I think this is a really good kind of transition in technologies with the cloud coming into focus with UC together, really creates opportunities now for a large piece of the market that really hadn’t been in the contact center experience game before. Now, when they see the value of doing the job there and the affordability and practicality of the cloud, there really isn’t anything holding them back at this point. That is the way I am starting to see it now and I think this just expands the market opportunity for contact center type of solutions out there that bring UC into the package.
Blair Pleasant: Totally agree. Great insights, everybody. Thank you all for participating and I know that this is an important topic to everyone and will certainly be continuing the discussion. So thanks all, very much.
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