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Think Outside the AI Box


A white stucco mission in California
Elizabeth English

If you were anywhere near Enterprise Connect 2023 this year either virtually or in person, the words “artificial intelligence” are probably still echoing in your head. What does artificial intelligence (AI) have to do with vision, and what is required to advance customer experience in your organization?

Are we advancing or is history repeating itself?

During the late 90s, I was commuting from the Western Slope of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado to the Boulder area for a consulting project. Consulting for a living can be unpredictable and this period was particularly busy. The holidays were approaching, and I had limited spare time to order presents for my geographically distributed clan. Being the tech-savvy consultant I was, I used cutting-edge technology (cell phone) in the mountains to call Eddie Bauer, place orders, and have gifts shipped directly to the intended recipient.

While this may not sound revolutionary by today’s standards, it was one of the first inflection points in call center history, made possible by extensive cell phone coverage and the ability to distribute calls to a multitude of agents. Just a few years prior to that, when cell coverage was sketchy and massive call centers weren’t a thing, there were only two choices for purchasing and shipping goods: 1. Walk into a physical store, purchase something, then go to a shipping center for boxes and slow mail it, or 2. Fill out a catalog form and send it by regular mail to the catalog company (or fax if you were really cool) and have them ship it direct.

Online ordering and same-day delivery weren’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye at that point.

In the 1990s the ability to use a cell phone in the mountains to order by phone was like cloning myself because I could do two things at once. And Eddie Bauer no doubt increased sales by making it easy for me.

What made this possible was the convergence of two technologies, one of which relied on someone’s vision of covering the entire globe with technology that would allow calls from anywhere, and the other relying on advancements in PBX platforms which allowed for massive call centers with sophisticated routing.

While calling to place an order over the phone sounds archaic now, consider what little progress has been made in the customer experience space since then. Customer interactions are generally abysmal, inefficient, and downright frustrating with a few exceptions being those companies that have implemented award-winning customer experiences that are completely seamless experiences. They accomplished this by ensuring the technology supports the process, rather than building the process around the technology and ensuring the process aligns with the vision of what the organization wants to deliver.

Considering the advancements which have been made in technology over the last 30 years, one would expect the customer experience to have substantially improved. Yet it hasn’t. If technology is available, why haven’t the advancements been greater? My point is this: Most organizations still think linearly about how to connect with their customers, patients, constituents, or members. While organizations may add digital apps, they are still thought of as separate streams. When most companies think about modernizing their contact center, they think in terms of “adding” channels (e.g., email, chatbots, etc.) rather than embracing an organic vision that considers how people connect in the real world.

A Current, Salient Example of Poor Vision

For example, my doctor’s office recently implemented a secure app. Awesome. I can connect via mobile or the Web. Yet when they wanted to reschedule an appointment, they sent a text telling me I had a message in the app. I logged into the app to find a message that said “Please call us, we need to reschedule your appointment” but didn’t include the office phone number. I went to the Web site to look up the phone number, called it, and rolled to voice mail. Someone from the office called back and of course, I was in a meeting. So, while the “tools” were in place, no one had thought strategically about how to create an integrated patient experience.

By comparison, my call-in order 30 years ago was orders of magnitude better.

Yet my experience with my doctor’s office seems to be the norm. How many interactions do each of us have daily that result in high levels of frustration? The absurdity is baffling.

Visionary Buy-in is Essential

What do excellent companies do differently? What sets one organization apart from others? Excellent companies align technology and processes with organizational values and strategic vision while simultaneously ensuring that enough budget and resources are allocated to make sure that vision is brought to life. The critical differentiator is buy-in from the top down, ensuring the resources to execute the vision.

Most changes to contact centers are driven by an event – technology replacement, for example, or the need to add features – what is often missing is a strategic approach that ties into the overall vision. Revolutionary thinking and execution are necessary to transform an organization so that it focuses on how people connect in the real world.

Without buy-in from the C-suite, downward pressure on the technology budget will limit the scope of the revolution. Decisions will be made to replace like for like with the promise that new features will be “added later.” Or there’s a forklift upgrade from premises to the cloud that essentially takes what’s in place today and just moves it to the cloud. “Later” never happens and the cycle repeats every five to ten years.

Historical Visionaries

Prior to moving from California to the East Coast, I visited every Mission in California. (If you’re wondering, there are 21 of them.)

An Spanish mission overhung with wisteria
Elizabeth English

What struck me most about them was the imagination required for someone to say, “Let’s send some ships a really long way around the globe (at a time when some still believed the earth ended and you literally go over the edge in a ship), build a string of footholds to expand, establish mini colonies along the coastline, organize the activities (farming, leather works, candle making, animal husbandry) required to sustain it.”

While one can debate the appropriateness of taking over space occupied by others, California, much of the west, and parts of Mexico wouldn’t exist as they do today without vision.

The same level of expansive vision must be applied to customers and the experiences they have with your company. Meet the challenges and embrace the technology trends in a useful way – delivering excellent, seamless experiences regardless of how they choose to communicate with you.

Imagine the vision needed in the 1950s to believe we could travel to the moon and return alive to tell the story. But 60 years later Captain Kirk made it to space in real life! Commercial space travel for regular citizens is on the near horizon.

A photo of the space flight

With all the available technology at our fingertips, such as space travel, clean energy, and water distribution, why hasn’t humanity in general moved further along? I can’t answer for humanity in general, but we are seeing a glaring lack of vision in the customer experience space.

Revolution Requires Vision

The standard thinking for building “call flows” still revolves around asking callers to press or say a number even though natural language intelligence and automation are available today. Why isn’t natural language more widely adopted? Or to take it one step further, is a phone call really the gold standard?

Many of our discussions with clients about modernizing their contact centers begin with their desire to add communication channels to existing call centers. That focus on channels versus strategic vision often holds organizations back from delivering a unified customer experience. Shifting the discussion to that strategic vision and the business processes required to “make it so” is a better starting point.

If AI is a historical inflection point, and your focus for the near future is on adding channels, you may miss the boat on whatever the next wave turns out to be. But, those who focus on the strategic vision of a unified customer experience across channels with the business processes to back it up will be leaps and bounds ahead of the pack.