This content is part of the Essential Guide: A guide to mobile CRM applications

The future is now for mobile contact center apps

Mobile contact center applications are still maturing, but they should service the new default: Consumers' mobile way of life.

Consider the typical mobile consumer: She's walking to work with a smartphone in one hand and a latte in the other. But before reaching the office, she wants to clear up that question she had about her cable bill.

"Mobile is a way of life," said Eric Camulli, vice president of marketing at Akron, Ohio-based technology vendor Virtual Hold Technology (VHT). "Mobile represents a cultural shift in our society, and contact centers need to engage their customers in a way that recognizes this shift."

The mobile revolution

customer experience is the new differentiator. "How easy is it to do business with you? How enjoyable is it to do business with you?" Camulli asked.

The payoff is customer loyalty and retention. Loyalty and retention are so important these days because the always-connected customer now "has the entire world at his fingertips," he said. "It's very easy for them to shop around and switch brands."

With 56% of all American adults now smartphone users, the number of potential customers and customer interactions via mobile is exploding.

The mobile opportunity

A growing number of companies, particularly banks, airlines and insurance agencies, are beginning to offer mobile applications for customer care. These apps can engage the customer at just the right time along their journey with the company, said Kate Leggett, principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Take, for example, a mobile application for a car insurance company. If a customer has been in a car accident, he can take a picture of the accident and begin filing a claim right on site, from his device. The claim gets routed to an agent who can come to the accident site and settle the claim on the spot.

From the customer's point of view, this is a much better experience," Leggett said. From the insurer's perspective, "they've found that claims that are settled immediately end up being cheaper to resolve than claims that sit around a couple of weeks."

In this case, the company's mobile app connects to a customer service representative, which will allow the customer to ask questions. It is also equipped with a camera and geolocation, which can enhance the overall customer experience above and beyond what is available either by Web alone or the phone, Leggett added. "This is not just customer service anymore. It's the entire engagement journey."

This is not just customer service anymore. It's the entire engagement journey.
Kate LeggettPrincipal analyst, Forrester Research Inc.

More typically, though, a company's mobile app is the starting point of a journey that leads it to a call center agent. But now, because a customer has already signed in through the app, the call center can know more than ever about its customers, which can reduce call times and call volume, and improve customer satisfaction, according to Daniel Hong, director of product marketing strategy at 24/7 Inc.

"With mobile devices, you can identify on a granular level who is contacting you," said Keith Dawson, principal analyst of customer experience and interaction at Ovum, a London-based consultancy and research firm. "You can tailor your response to a specific age, gender or whether they are the head of a household, among other indicators."

What's more, companies can now more precisely and proactively reach out to customers to preempt unnecessary call volume in the contact center. "What you have is a device in customers' hands on which every contact channel that's ever existed is now rubbing shoulders, all brushing up against each other," Dawson said. "It's a complicated business environment."

One challenge is context. Customers aren't tethered to a single location anymore. Companies now need to serve their customers from anywhere.

Today's customer is on the go; often the information the contact center may be requesting won't be on hand, Camulli said. "If I'm walking along, talking on my cell phone, it would be foolish for the contact center representative to ask me for account information. Reps need to be aware of what's happening."

A bottomless queue

The self-service experience and the contact center are currently "loosely connected at best," Camulli said. "A conversation bridge embedded into a mobile app will allow a customer at any time in the self-service process to simply tap for a call-back or tap for a chat session so they have immediate access to a representative."

When the customer talks to a contact center agent, that agent will be able to identify the customer and the status of the issue. Camulli explained that, for the most part, when customers cross channels from mobile app to voice, they have to start all over again, "listening to voice menus, reentering account information, repeating themselves, wrestling with a speech recognition system, even waiting on hold. When you combine all of those things, it's truly an unacceptable experience."

Other vendors are making inroads as they tackle the mobile question, improving contact center responses with apps that use voice, Web, SMS text, social media or video. The goal of these providers is to harness transactional data gathered via the mobile app to add contextual value, like account numbers, sales history, demographic information, geolocation and other details, producing an enhanced customer service experience.

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Zappix, a mobile customer service portal, uses a cloud-based visual interactive voice response (IVR) system to allow smartphone users to access voice and non-voice channels at the swipe of a finger. Fonolo allows customers to connect to a live agent directly from inside the mobile app and request a return phone call if desired. When a customer makes a mobile support request through a PoundZero-powered mobile app, information such as account number, age and current location is forwarded directly to the live agent's desktop software.

But sometimes a lack of internal collaboration between IT, marketing, and customer service squelches the ability of a contact center to move forward and provide excellent cross channel experiences.

"We found the integration of care features within mobile apps still to be very rudimentary," Dawson said. "And a lot of that has to do with squabbles between departments over ownership of mobile."

This also requires forethought in creating these features. "We advise companies to think about customer care in the development of these apps instead of retrofitting an app with care features once you realize your customers are going into a bottomless queue."

Too often, mobile customer service offerings tend to be lagging behind marketing and e-commerce mobile apps, Leggett said. "It's very much an afterthought for a lot of companies."

"Companies are still really grappling with this," Dawson added.

"You have to see mobile as part of a continuum of dramatic changes overtaking service delivery," he said. Customers have radically changed expectations in how they engage with companies. They expect service when they want it and how they want it. And they have the technology at their fingertips to demand it."

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