Can I Opt Out of Omnichannel?

We have all, at least once, been stuck with an unhelpful customer service agent. My remedy is to hang up and redial.

I've hung up on many agents. I think of this as a "do-over," like we did as kids (or like a mulligan we do as adults). The odds have been in our favor that a new agent will be more helpful. However, to "better serve me," many contact centers are killing the do-over by implementing contextual routing.

Now I either get back to the same agent or the new agent begins where the old one left off -- with a negative response to my question. They're stripping me of my God-given right to a do-over.

The intent is reasonable. Every interaction provides an additional glimpse into the mind of the customer, or something like that. So, contact centers intend to harvest this data for insights that might improve service and increase sales. This process can even be done in real time with state-of-the-art contextual intelligence. It sounds great to the marketing folks, but to me it sounds like Groundhog Day.

There are several variations on this theme. Sometimes I get a different agent, sometimes the same. Regardless, my contextual notes are front and center (and there's no undoing a wrong answer). Sometimes, an agent even proactively calls me.

To be fair, this type of business intelligence has sometimes worked in my favor. There have been times, for example, where I was disconnected (where I did not hang up), and was grateful the agent called me back. That's why I view the do-over as a right, something I can choose to do.

More and more, contact centers are embracing what's vaguely described as the customer journey, so interactions are logged and analyzed. Do-overs are deemed a failure that should be eliminated, and that's partly accurate. They want to make my customer journey shorter, but sometimes it's circuitous on purpose. I'd rather they invest their efforts in training instead.

Omnichannel means that regardless of when, where, and how prior interactions took place, the agent can continue, rather than restart the conversation. There are obviously some great benefits to this for both contact center and customer, but sometimes omnichannel feels more like stalking, and can be creepy.

When we call a contact center, we expect the agent to be able to see our account information, but there is such a thing as too familiar. I don't expect or even welcome an agent to inquire about my kids or pets. We have an expectation about what they should know, and that's changing.

Brooks Brothers illustrates my point with its vision of in-store retail experience called "White Glove customer service." The company believes that when a customer walks into an unfamiliar store, perhaps while traveling, the associate should be able to deliver a personalized experience, including tailored recommendations. The sales associate, in theory a stranger, is provided past purchase history and gathered preferences.

It's not clear how Brooks Brothers identifies the customer, perhaps via credit card number, or a frequent customer card. This area is changing quickly to passive indicators such as recognizing a smartphone's unique ID and facial recognition systems.

The theory goes, I'm sure, that knowing the customer results with increased sales. Supposedly he or she won't have to endure yet another explanation of a preference for stripes over plaids. However, it also creates a relationship imbalance. The stranger behind the counter knows a whole lot of personal information.

Is purchasing history really that personal? Absolutely -- prior purchases could reveal a problem with weight management. What do purchases of men's and women's clothing in the same sizes represent? Past purchases may even reveal extramarital activities. It can be nice to be a stranger in a strange land.

Back in the contact center, customer identification is pretty easy via collected account information or even caller ID. Getting information to agents is easier too, because they're often facing a screen. The dynamics are the same: How much information should agents have? Should they know return history? Should they know about the one time four years ago after a dental appointment when a perhaps overly energetic representative elicited some non-polite responses?

Another option is to use artificial intelligence (AI) to equip associates with recommendations instead of data. It's an improvement, but still a violation of privacy. Why is the clerk insisting I want baby clothes? Remember when Target alerted a father that his daughter was pregnant? AI really should be renamed artificial pattern recognition; intelligence is something different.

We have come a long way, too far, from "on the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog" to "on the Internet, we know everything about your dog." What I really want is an AI algorithm that can hang up and call me back with a new agent.

There's a lot of merit in maintaining context and history as a conversation moves from browsing to chat to voice. There's tremendous value in supporting multiple modalities and even being able to transfer contextual history between agents. But there's a limit; there's too much of a good thing.

The best contact center implementations treat the customer (and his or her data) respectfully. The goal isn't to collect data to stimulate sales, but to improve service and experience which should increase sales. We should question when "context" is and isn't helpful.

Learn more about Contact Center & Customer Experience at Enterprise Connect 2018, March 12 to 15, in Orlando, Fla. Register now using the code NOJITTER to save an additional $200 off the Regular Rate or get a free Expo Plus pass.

Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

Follow Dave Michels on Twitter!
@DaveMichels