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Connecting the Customer Service Dots at ICMI 2019

Last month at ICMI 2019 Contact Center Connections, an annual conference for contact center professionals, contact center managers from across industry verticals met to discuss the latest technologies, best practices for customer services, and how digital transformation is impacting (for better and worse) their jobs. One big takeaway from my time at the event? Companies must figure out a way to ease the burden on agents if they’re going to be successful in their gambits to improve customer experience.
 
Improving Customer Service? Talk to IT
Following a quick tour of the expo hall, visiting with Edify, 8X8, Nice InContact, and LogMeIn, to name a few companies, I attended a session titled “The Future of Engagement: What You Need to Know,” presented by Bob Furniss, VP of Smart Contact Centers, Bluewolf, an IBM company that focuses on Salesforce consulting, and Amas Tenumah, founder of Better Experience, a customer experience consulting agency.
 
The conversation started with a look back at customer service and its role in the enterprise. “There was a time you had to convince companies and brands about customer experience,” Tenumah said. “And [now], it’s gone mainstream.”
Despite many predicting the “end of the contact center” with each new technology (first email, then social media, and so on), large enterprises are now looking to contact centers to lead and inform, based on insight gleaned from data collected, on an enterprise’s overall customer experience strategy, Furniss said. Driving this point home, he added: "What we're finding is the bigger organization is saying 'we have to get better at service.' And so, here's this opportune time for [contact centers] to step into that gap.”
 
The push to improve customer experience is leading many companies to digital transformation initiatives in the contact center, Tenumah and Furniss said. As the conversation on digital transformation continued, however, something became clear – contact center managers are overwhelmed with the technology they and their agents need to do their jobs. In a live poll, almost all participants cited “technology” as their number one issue in the contact center. One attendee who works in banking said she had to operate 26 different systems. Other attendees voiced similar frustrations.
 
Regarding this dilemma, Furniss posed the question: "How do we tell that story better to IT?" Contact center agents should discuss technology issues with their managers, and contact center managers should discuss these issues openly with IT decision-makers. Likewise, IT professionals are equally encouraged to open lines of communications with contact center workers to see if they might reduce the number of systems in use and provide a better experience for agents and, ultimately, customers. “We're not going to go from 26 systems to one," but with agents providing IT suggestions and feedback, an enterprise can work to "reduce them as much as possible," he added.
 
In addition, Furniss recommended that contact center management invite IT executives, as well as the CFO and CEO, to visit their contact centers. This will give them a better understanding of the environment and agents’ needs — and help guide digital transformation strategy.
 
Bots Make It Better
In a session directly following, the conversation turned to another potential solution for alleviating agent workloads. In “Fantastic Bots and How to Build Them,” Kaye Chapman, learning and development manager at customer experience solutions provider Comm100, discussed what goes into an effective chatbot implementation strategy, and how enterprises and contact centers can benefit from chatbots.
 
It all starts with a strong knowledge base. That’s because “artificial intelligence isn’t just intelligent [by] design,” Chapman said. Chatbots need to be programmed with "an idea of the right answer"; a knowledge base provides chatbots with it. Similar to other technology implementations, up-to-date data that comes from a single source is ideal for chatbots, she added.
 
The next step is to see what tasks are best suited for the chatbot and what channels are best to deploy them on. Chatbots are best used for simple transactional tasks like "taking payments, making data changes, booking appointments,” Chapman said. And don’t overburden chatbots with formats that aren't ideal, she warned — text is "reasonably straightforward, but voice "is a whole different ballgame.” With voice, AI jumps "two hurdles," understanding the request (picking up tone, pacing, and accents), and then fulfilling the request, she explained.
 
Rather than deploying customer-facing chatbots, contact centers might opt to first deploy chatbots to assist agents. Bots can provide agents with "thoughtful responses, so they don't have to go searching" and are considered "lower stakes" since customers won't be exposed to any chatbot errors, Chapman said. Additionally, "agent-facing AI can reduce costs simply by shaving off … a few seconds" that it would take agents to search for an account message or pull up a knowledge base.
 
Many enterprises are looking to chatbots to reduce costs and improve workforce productivity, but the time and money saved from chatbots can be best used to “doubling down on quality” by "investing in agent training, ... spending more time on onboarding, [and] by giving them the support they need to deal with really horrible queries," Chapman said. Chatbots can focus on simple tasks, and agents can be delegated more complicated tasks that require a human touch.
 
Whether its implementing chatbots or opening channels of communication between IT and contact center management, the two sessions provided suggestions for how to reduce the workloads of contact center agents. The result for both: happier agents and better customer experiences.

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