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Taking the Next Step in CX: Agent Assist, Channel Guidance


Illustration of people waiting in line for customer service
Image: IRStone -
As I discussed in my previous post, part one of a two-part series, digital customer care, self-service, and automation are critical tools in helping contact centers deal with interaction volume that is growing faster than they have the capacity to handle. But these alone aren’t enough. To be successful, organizations must also adopt agent assistance and provide channel guidance, as I’ll discuss here.
Agent Assistance
Automation and self-service in isolation are doomed. Businesses need to implement these together with agent assistance for exceptions, escalations, and confirmations. With simple inquiries pushed to self-service, the profile of inquiries that agents handle changes pretty dramatically. These inquiries not only are more complex, but also are more challenging to deal with. Customers who have already provided information and put in time for resolution expect a fast response from a competent agent, fully aware of not just their history with the company but the specific context of their inquiry.
Agents need to be better equipped to handle such interactions. This starts with providing them a unified desktop, which, thankfully, is included in most modernization projects today.
Because these are potentially emotion-laden interactions, agents should be able to receive signals about them. This is possible with AI capabilities such as sentiment analysis and emotion detection, but businesses too often consider these as a nice-to-haves, not essentials. Organizations eventually must give agents easy and instant access to all the information needed to address customers' issues. This is possible today with AI, this time in the form of agent-assist applications. Agent-assist programs mine voice or digital conversations, both during self-service sessions and in real-time agent interactions, and deliver relevant information, pulled from the company’s knowledge bases, to help with resolution.
The complexity and breadth of issues to address also requires routing customers to the right skilled agent with higher precision. This starts with being able to retrieve the intent and topics from the self-service segment of the interaction. Organizations need to review and oftentimes redesign routing strategies to encompass a larger and more specific set of required skills. Over time, I expect the number of scenarios to grow beyond what an organization will be able to program using traditional interaction workflow tools, accelerating the adoption of AI for routing.
Another consideration to address is the tradeoff between time and precision. Operationally, callback is the most promising solution: When no agents with the needed skills are available, it is better to propose a callback with the right person later rather than making the customer wait for that person or routing them to whoever is available.
Workforce planning needs to evolve as well. Work from home (WFH) is changing the definition of shifts. New workforce management solutions can better schedule work with shorter shifts instead of the straight eight hours of continued presence in the office. WFH is becoming working from anywhere with more flexible work arrangements. It creates the opportunity to revisit agent sourcing beyond contact center departments and business process outsourcers, to tap the expertise of other employees. Peer-to-peer support, a model by which customers help each other, is enjoying a revival of interest. Each of these approaches provide incremental improvement. Combined, they can expand an organization’s talent pool in a material way.
Channel Guidance
Digital is the other route pursued by organizations to cope with larger volumes of customer service requests. Digital interactions aren’t just helping on the volume front but are more convenient for many questions and are easier to automate. Because they’re not waiting in queues, on hold, customers perceive digital interactions to result in faster resolution. From a business standpoint, digital channels open the possibility of agent multitasking.
Despite all these benefits, most companies struggle to deliver effective digital customer service. As Gartner discussed in a webinar on results of a 2019 digital customer service survey, on average, the number of channels offered grew from 3.7 in 2014 to 5.4 in 2018. But, whether measured by CSAT or effort, satisfaction was about the same across voice and digital channels. Besides, brands offering fewer channels didn’t experience lower loyalty. The study showed instead that the number of interactions required for resolution is growing linearly with the number of channels proposed!
What’s happening is that brands feel pressured to offer a broad choice of channels but don’t recommend the best one for different types of questions. They also fail to provide expected response times. Customers end up starting on one channel and then hopping on to another. Sometimes, more often than you think, they try several channels at the same time because they are unsure when they will get their answer. As the (average) number of interactions required to resolve a customer service request increases, so do costs and customer frustration. This represents a dangerous trend that businesses must stop. They need to provide channel guidance.
Some channels are better suited than others for many jobs to be done. Studies show that, while customers may have channel preferences, they remain open to using others and welcome being directed. Furthermore, customer service organizations need to stop looking at channel performance in isolation and go back to the discipline of tracking and improving first “call” resolution (FCR).
Digital customer care, self-service, and automation are essential solutions to help businesses of all sizes handle an ever-growing volume of customer service requests and inquiries. However, to be successful, they must be deployed using an end-to-end service design discipline together with human assistance and guidance.

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This post is written on behalf of BCStrategies, an industry resource for enterprises, vendors, system integrators, and anyone interested in the growing business communications arena. A supplier of objective information on business communications, BCStrategies is supported by an alliance of leading communication industry advisors, analysts, and consultants who have worked in the various segments of the dynamic business communications market.