At a time when it’s routine for millions of consumers to ask digital assistants (e.g., Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri) to tell them a good joke or ask if they need an umbrella, it’s surprising most businesses are still in the early stages of implementing intelligent automation technologies for customer communication. Even fewer have made critical investments in developing processes that optimize these systems.
Advancements in technology continue to transform consumer expectations for customer service interactions, but many consumers still prefer to speak to a live agent over an automated system. How do organizations overcome this conundrum?
According to recent research by my firm NTT DATA Services, the answer lies in building trust between consumers and virtual agents. The divergence between what consumers expect from automated services and what companies deliver derives from how organizations implement these systems.
Companies need to rethink how they execute their customer service processes to ensure that human and virtual agents can work smoothly together to provide quick and accurate service. A meticulously planned strategy that melds human and machine intelligence can reduce wait times, reduce costs and, most importantly, build trust.
According to the NTT DATA research, few companies have taken a systematic approach to automating customer service. In fact, 80 percent of business executives surveyed say they didn't have a comprehensive plan to automate customer service processes, and 54 percent acknowledge they have made only random or opportunistic investments in automation.
Successful automated customer care involves listening to consumer needs and following their lead to inspire confidence in the organization and ensure retention. Below are four steps customer service leaders should follow to develop a sustainable, successful automation strategy:
- Focus on customer outcomes. Automation gives companies an opportunity to put the customer back in customer service. Companies need to think about how to create a frictionless experience for customers at every point of contact along their automation journey. By placing the customer experience ahead of cost and prioritizing customer acquisition and retention, companies will build the trust they need for sustainable success.
- Create a solution based on speed and accuracy. Automated systems should be designed to meet quality rather than quantity requirements by eradicating or reducing wait times and resolving customer inquiries on first contact. Processes should be designed so when the virtual agent cannot resolve an issue, the customer is transferred seamlessly to an agent without having to re-start the process.
- Focus on people. Create a thoughtful approach to retrain employees and be sure to include employees in the transformation process. When companies engage their team and gain their input on how to effectively modify processes to incorporate automation, the response is rewarding to both employees and the company. Teams bring incomparable knowledge, and employees are empowered by being part of the creative process. Once automated systems are installed, workers are free to accomplish higher-level strategic work and grow professional. Furthermore, they're more engaged and productive, and companies often see a reduction in turnover, a long-standing problem in traditional customer service support functions such as call centers.
- Make automation part of everything you do. Automation is a long-term and extensive shift to customer service processes. Leaders should think about how to not only broadly employ intelligent technologies, but also manage them over time. Understanding the software development life cycle and processes for managing live and virtual agents is vital. Managing the expansion and maintenance of automation should become part of every customer service leader’s job.
The future of automated systems involves focusing on solutions that are quick, high quality and resolve customers’ issues in order to build trust in virtual agents. It's imperative that automation be part of the end-to-end internal process.
Although it's clear that automated customer service interfaces, such as virtual agents, are becoming more acceptable to consumers, there remains significant room for improvement. As the use of intelligent systems increases, consumers are becoming more comfortable with virtual agents. There's a huge opportunity for businesses to embrace automation to gain a competitive advantage, especially while customer service automation is still in early stages.
Kris Fitzgerald is the chief technology officer of NTT DATA Services, a company that partners with clients to navigate and simplify the modern complexities of business and technology.