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Contact center automation takes flight

Contact centers are wrestling with how to incorporate new communication channels into their strategies while reducing costs and boosting efficiencies. Enter automation.

In what is now known as the age of the customer, contact centers have new challenges to meet. Serving an increasingly...

discriminating consumer base is one. Another is managing a multichannel customer relationship management (CRM) universe, where customers want to interact through whatever communication channel is most suitable in the moment.

Sometimes a customer wants to call a company on the phone. But when he's on the go, he may reach out on a mobile device. Or if he hasn't gotten a resolution to his problem, he may turn to Twitter to broadcast his dissatisfaction to an audience of thousands. In still other instances, he may want more hands-on support through video live chat.

Contact centers are wrestling with how to incorporate these new channels into their strategies to create a cohesive picture of their customers and provide a seamless, up-to-the minute customer experience that will keep them coming back. That can be a difficult business, especially if customer service centers don't find ways to scale and become more efficient, ensure that customers and agents can easily access information, and monitor the quality of customer interactions. Without automation, contact centers are doomed to limp along, suffering from inefficiency and poor customer service.

Automation technologies help centralize information and make contact center processes far more efficient, customer-focused and quality-centered -- essential in the era of multichannel customer service. Contact center processes such as call routing, customer online self-service, workforce management and even knowledge management and training for contact center agents must be efficient. And they must accommodate rapid turnover and staff changes, continual changes in procedures and greater demands from customers. Automation creates a 360-degree view of customer accounts, issues and data, helping contact centers serve their constituencies more efficiently.

Let's look at the impact of automation on the following areas:

  • CRM systems
  • Contact routing
  • Multichannel CRM
  • Workforce optimization
  • Knowledge management
  • Multichannel CRM
  • Customer self-service

CRM systems

CRM technology has evolved from being a data repository to a system with a comprehensive understanding of customer relationships. An effective CRM system captures every interaction with a customer starting with the acquisition process, including all the products and services he's bought and every customer service interaction, whether self-service or supported by an agent.

As customers use multiple communication channels to contact organizations, and specifically when they cross channels during a single contact, it's critical for a CRM system to track their journeys so that the cross-channel process is smooth.

Without automation, contact centers are doomed to limp along, suffering from inefficiency and poor customer service.

CRM systems also need to be flexible enough to integrate data from other systems, such as billing, product inventory and ERP. Historically, this has been a sticking point for CRM systems, particularly with legacy applications. To some extent, cloud-based CRM software can help, given its more open architecture. But in other cases, again, often with legacy applications with decades of poor data, interoperability of systems isn't easy to achieve.

Contact routing

Since the advent of call centers, contact routing has been in place. Its primary form is an Automatic call distributor (ACD) that initially supported phone calls routing to available agents. Over time, ACDs have evolved into platforms for routing all types of contacts to agents. New systems can do the following:

  • Route specific types of contacts to agents who have the best skill sets for handling those contacts (for example, a social media-based communication from a customer should be handled by an agent versed in social media-based customer care);
  • Create a virtual contact center that exploits the skill sets of agents regardless of location, even agents in virtual contact centers or those working at home; and
  • Provide key performance indicators and metrics for all types of contacts and customer interactions.

Multichannel CRM

Maintaining a variety of communication channels allows customers to interact with an organization through means such as chat, video and SMS. As a result, call centers have evolved to become contact centers. By providing more media through which customers can communicate, companies have been able to streamline communications and boost customer experience and satisfaction. Some examples:

  • Using a live chat session to close a sale after a potential customer has browsed around a company's website;
  • Using SMS texts to communicate with customers through alerts or indicate the status of an order; and
  • Deploying video to demonstrate how a product should be used or to provide customer support.

The demands on contact centers to unify these communications in a 360-degree view of the customer have gotten complicated, though. Companies are straining to integrate social media threads, email messages and more to understand customers' issues -- as well as to ward off more serious problems when an incident goes awry.

Companies also need to invest in new channels, such as video, website personalization technology, mobile CRM and social media monitoring tools. Many remain in this transition. Others are confused about which channels to invest in when there are limited budget or staffing resources to manage multiple channels in a thoroughgoing way.

Workforce optimization 

To maintain a productive labor force, organizations turn to workforce management technologies. Such tools help schedule staff, measure performance and provide feedback. They're critical for contact centers, where 70% to 80% of its operating expense is invested in labor.

Workforce management software is used in contact centers for agent budgeting, forecasting and staffing. The technology uses historical data along with key subjective information to determine staffing requirements. Small contact centers may use spreadsheets to do this, but as more demands are placed on contact centers, attaining specific service-level goals, forecasting and staffing of agents becomes trickier.

Historically, quality-recording technology (both voice and screen capture) has been used to gauge agent performance and monitor agents' adherence to guidelines. Speech analytics tools have created new opportunities to use quality recording to better understand customer issues. Speech analytics allows agents to identify types of customer calls. Consider these scenarios:

  • Calls with specific words or phrases can be isolated. It can be beneficial to forward calls in which customers say, "I want to cancel" to call center managers, for example.
  • Calls in which a customer speaks with frustration can be isolated. It can be beneficial to forward calls to a supervisor if the issue is common for a specific agent.

E-learning systems can deliver online training to contact center agents at their desks during downtime. These systems should be integrated with workforce management tools so managers can identify the most efficient times to deliver training. This technology also saves time because agents can train at their workstations; they can balance work time and training time.

Knowledge management

These systems provide a repository of accurate, up-to-date information for contact center agents. They enable them to learn about products and services, instruct customers and look up items during the course of a contact.

Historically, this kind of information resided in online help systems or paper manuals. But current knowledge management systems provide easy-to-use search functions along with supporting processes to allow for the easy maintenance of current information. Information in the contact center is constantly changing, and there's never enough time to train agents in all of the changes. Knowledge management systems have become critical in ensuring that agents know the material underlying their communication with customers, understand process changes and have the latest information at their fingertips so they can better serve customers.

Customer self-service 

Technologies that enable customers to help themselves have been available for more than 20 years. Historically, they have focused on reducing costs for an organization but have fallen short on customer experience. More recently, online customer self-service has focused on ease of use, so it's gaining ground among companies -- and users, particularly those who are digitally savvy.

Voice response is one of the oldest and most predominant self-service technologies. It enables a company to provide 24/7 customer service and, when it's designed correctly, provides streamlined customer interaction. Instead of providing layer upon layer of phone-based menus, organizations are starting to eliminate these needless steps and hoops for customers to jump through. Let's say a customer has filed an insurance claim. If the system knows where he is in the process, the voice response system can automatically provide an up-to-date status for the claim -- for example, "We have approved your claim and sent a check for X dollars on Y date" -- without the caller having to navigate through multiple menus.

Web and mobile technologies are expanding phone-based self-service, enabling customers to make inquiries and resolve issues at their convenience. Further, these technologies' interfaces are becoming easier to use and more customer-centric.

But while companies may be enthusiastic about the cost and time savings they can garner from self-service options, they need to continue to support all channels and different tiers of service. They have to remember that even with the rapid growth of these channels, they can't replace the value of human interaction or high-level service. While self-service may be ideal to address lower-level customer problems, organizations also need to compete by offering outstanding customer service on more labor-intensive channels such as the phone.

While automation can have a serious impact on contact center operations, companies have to be ready to make the investment and align the organization around a new way of doing business. Where organizations have previously operated in a siloed, segmented, single-department way, they now need to think about bridging gaps in data and in operations between departments, such as social media teams, marketing, sales and traditional customer support agents.

Contact centers may also need to consider new technologies, such as speech analytics to connect the dots between agent performance and quality customer experience. Additional software such as social monitoring tools and workforce management as well as knowledge management are also key to keeping contact center facilities efficient and cost-effective and in ensuring agents are informed about products, services and customer accounts.

Finally, customer data silos cannot survive in a contact center driving toward greater automation. Companies serious about making operations more efficient and serving customers may need to invest in modern CRM technologies as well as data management tools to leap into a more automated future. All these considerations require budget, decision-making and the will to change at the core, not at the margins.

Next Steps

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