Customer Service: five technologies to keep an eye on

By August 18, 2016
Customer Service

There are a number of technologies that have the potential to really transform customer service, enabling companies to take the overall customer experience to a whole new level.

According to Forrester Research, three quarters of all consumers say that efficient customer service is the cornerstone of a satisfactory customer experience. Moreover, a report published by US ‘enterprise cloud contact center & workforce optimization solution’ provider Aspect reveals that 76% of all customers feel that the after-sales service a company provides demonstrates the importance it attaches to its customers and is a marker of the relationship of trust between the company and its customers. Nevertheless, indications are that a large number of companies today are not exactly brilliant performers in terms of their customer service quality. In the United States, the American Customer Satisfaction Index is currently at its lowest point for ten years, despite a modest upturn recorded in the first quarter of 2016.

Now that advances in artificial intelligence are raising questions over how customer service will be organised in the near future, the job of the customer service agent is also changing. For one thing, it is getting more stressful, suggests Ian Jacobs, senior analyst at Forrester Research in San Francisco, who co-authored a recent Forrester Research report entitled ‘Plan now for Customer Service 2021’. “On average a customer service agent stays in the job for six months. The job is badly paid and tedious. Moreover, customer expectations have increased, with good reason. In recent years we’ve seen firms emerge that are customer experience champions, such as Uber, and this results in even greater customer demands. These days, agents are expected to do more and better. So in the first place companies need to make life easier for their customer service agents,” underlines Jacobs. The agent should be the starting point for any initiative designed to improve customer service, rather than the customer him/herself.

Two-way video: underrated potential

Today it is the customers who make the rules, for the simple reason that they hold unprecedented conversation power. The Forrester report cites the example of action taken by a subscriber to Comcast, a US telecoms firm. The subscriber created a bot which automates the sending of a complaint tweet to Comcast every time the connection speed is lower than the offer he had subscribed to. This initiative shows that nowadays it is a must for companies to dialogue with their customers. However, Forrester reports that only 16% of the firms which claim that they are prioritising initiatives to enhance the customer experience are actively working with consumer focus groups to trial new approaches.

With close to 80% of the US population now owning a smartphone, two-way video, which enables direct interaction between customer service agent and customer, seems an obvious first step towards maintaining dialogue with customers. The technology has been around for some time – it was invented before the Second World War – but its potential has been largely underestimated and firms still make very little use of it. Interactive two-way video allows customers to actually show the customer service agent the product that is faulty or in need of adjustment. And two-way video really comes into its own when a firm has a wide range of products and models – such as a window manufacturer. In such cases the company agent is able to use the camera to see the product and find out exactly what the problem is and can then start the ball rolling immediately.

When it comes to services that require a high degree of trust, such as banking services, video-based interaction can be an effective approach. “Which technology will be the most efficient for your company is a constant question for decision-makers. As an analyst, I would say that it depends on the firm’s value proposition. If we’re talking about a bank whose goal is to increase the portfolios of its wealthiest clients, video is probably the technology best suited to the task. When the agent is also aided by artificial intelligence, s/he can also take better decisions in real time. The health and personal care sectors are also excellent candidates for two-way video, as visual contact is extremely important here‟, Ian Jacobs points out.

Using messaging tools to enhance the customer experience

Adoption of messaging apps is now booming. Facebook Messenger recently passed the milestone of a billion active users, as did WhatsApp a few months ago, so it is probably in every company’s interest to go and talk with their customers on these channels.

Although Forrester argues that the technology underpinning messaging systems is easy for any firm to implement, the market research specialist also points out that it will have a definite impact on the way the firm is run. Take for example the case of a customer who has been in dialogue with customer service agent A for some time without solving the issue. The customer then disappears for a short while from the chat app, subsequently reappearing a few hours later. If customer service agent A is no longer there when the customer wants to pick up the conversation again, s/he will be redirected to another agent, B. In order to create a smooth, seamless experience, agent B needs to have the history of the conversation at his/her fingertips so as to be able to pick up the thread of the discussion precisely where it had paused. In such cases streamlined data transmission is a must in order to ensure consistency throughout the customer journey.

Le succès des applications de messagerie à l'échelle mondiale

The number of messaging app users is booming (source: eMarketer)

Ian Jacobs insists moreover that “companies should not think of chatbots as a means of cutting costs but rather as a way of providing a better customer experience. Chatbots are all the rage today in the same way as social networks used to be. Today, the stir caused by the potential of social networks in terms of customer service has died down a bit. Hardly surprising when you think how many people have been disappointed when they tweeted or wrote Facebook posts to firms that didn’t take the time to reply. The boomerang effect is as powerful as the initial excitement: customers interpret the failure to dialogue to mean that the firm doesn’t wish to get into communication with them.” He underlines that “choosing a technology that you’ll be relying on to improve customer service basically comes down to identifying the benefits you want to bring to your customers in the long run.” The report lists telecoms, online commerce, restaurants, hotels and transportation as sectors that would benefit especially from integrating messaging tools into their customer service strategy.

Connected objects a promising area for hardware manufacturers

Another development which is going to really shake up the customer experiences is the spread of connected objects. US-based research and advisory firm Gartner predicts that 20.8 million connected ‘things’ will be in use by 2020 , three times as many as in 2016. Firms working in the Internet of Things (IoT) field will be gathering an incredible amount of data on their users, providing almost unlimited opportunities to develop a closer relationship with them and fine-tune their customer service. “A supplier of physical goods embarking on an initiative to improve customer service should think hard about connected objects,‟ stresses Ian Jacobs.

Les objets connectés en plein boom

The Forrester report argues that too many companies are still unaware of the opportunities, as evidenced by the fact that that only 10.6% of vendors collect data from their devices on a regular basis with a view to improving their customer service.

With the IoT, agents working remotely by phone could have access to data that would speed up their work: they would for instance be able to work out more quickly why a device had stopped working and focus right away on the core part of their job, where the real added value of customer service lies – i.e. in solving complex problems that require expert advice from a trained company employee.

However, the main challenge posed by the IoT has to do with liaison between customer service centres and after-sales service at the customer’s home. Technicians on the ground must also be able to draw on user data so as to do their jobs more efficiently.


Virtual Reality bridging the online-offline gap

Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality startups raised a total of $658 million in equity financing across 126 deals in 2015, reports New York venture capital database firm CB Insights. Meanwhile sector M&A advisor Digi-Capital estimates that the Virtual Reality/ Augmented Reality market will be worth over $150 billion by 2020, while TrendForce puts total turnover at $70 billion for VR alone by 2020. As regards hardware, Deloitte is predicting that 2.5 million VR headsets will be sold during 2016, a figure set to rise to 110 million in 2020, according to IDC.

These two vibrant technologies have considerable potential to transform the user experience in a wide range of industries and service sectors, also promising new ways of delivering customer service. Hewlett-Packard has for example been working on applying Augmented Reality to customer service. In 2011, recognising the potential of AR, HP bought Autonomy Corp., which created the Aurasma AR platform. From this acquisition emerged an app, available since 2013, which is designed to assist owners of HP printers in changing an ink cartridge. All you have to do is download the app, position your smartphone camera on the printer and you will be guided step by step through the process of replacing your printer cartridge. 

The Forrester report encourages firms to spot likely opportunities to use VR and AR and carry out some basic tests with these technologies. If we are talking about a service where trust is key, using VR could save precious time for both customers and customer service agents. A person who requires information about obtaining a bank loan could for example start the process of applying for a loan by taking a number of virtual reality steps inside the bank branch, including supplying some basic details, before being handed over to a customer advisor. This would save the advisor the time and effort of going through the mechanical, routine steps with the customer, enabling him/her to concentrate on the more complex questions which differ from case to case.

Virtual assistants ensuring fluid dialogue with the customer

Like chatbots, virtual assistants are currently enjoying unprecedented media coverage. However, Ian Jacobs rings the alarm bell when it comes to using virtual assistants for customer service. “The current craze for virtual assistants needs a reality check. These tools are still not fully mature. Companies should invest in pilot projects to test these technologies out, i.e. they ought to start in a modest way rather than making huge investments immediately,” he argues.

Nevertheless, recent progress in voice recognition allows us to glimpse the overall potential of artificial intelligence. As a cognitive conversational system, the virtual assistant is able to respond to a series of questions from the customer. Coupled with machine learning, the tool can become ever more intelligent. The Forrester report quotes Matt Dyer, Sales Director at contact centre solutions provider Sabio, as saying: “one could imagine having a natural language search engine which would learn by listening in from behind the window to a conversation between a customer and a real advisor. So if a similar problem came up in the future, the virtual assistant would be able to answer on its own.‟

SoundHound, which started out as a competitor to Shazam, has developed an ultra-high-performance virtual assistant called Hound. This is the first time a developer has succeeded in drawing on a variety of different databases in order to process highly complex requests, which it does in record time. In a video posted online by the Santa Clara, California-based startup, we see the virtual assistant point immediately on Google Maps to the nearby cafés equipped with WiFi that are open after 9pm on Sundays. It will also calculate within a few microseconds the monthly interest on a loan and give you an immediate response if you alter any of the variables – loan amount, rate, time. To date SoundHound has not been bought up by one of the Internet giants as other virtual assistants such as Siri have, which looks like a great opportunity for any company looking to improve its customer service to forge a partnership.

However, points out Ian Jacobs, virtual assistants still pose challenges on the hardware side. “The software is already very advanced. However, the hardware still needs to be brought into line. Amazon speakers have directional microphones, whereas the iPhone and most other smartphones do not. Understanding natural language and the context are additional difficulties that need to be addressed,” explains the Forrester analyst.Jacobs argues that the first thing companies ought to do is invest in recruiting people who are qualified to run this type of project, but they must not neglect to invest money so as to integrate these technologies into the firm’s operations.

To sum up, two-way video, messaging systems, connected objects, augmented and virtual reality and virtual assistants all offer considerable potential to take customer service to the next level.However, it is also vital to bear in mind the importance of providing a smooth, seamless customer experience. Introducing a new technology can shake up the way a company is run. Instantaneous transmission of customer data between virtual and human customer service agents, and between the different customer touchpoints, is therefore key. Ian Jacobs concludes: “Today United Airlines provides a good example of a seamless experience. If I phone customer service on the day of my flight, a synthetic voice asks me first of all if I’m calling about my flight that day. This is doubly useful: on the one hand the customer feels that s/he’s being listened to, and on the other s/he saves precious time. The company is demonstrating that it values the customer’s time. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the service is the fastest possible. Here again, it depends on the product or service the company is providing and on the customer journey. If we’re talking about the health of my child, I’d like the consultant to take the time to go through my questions in detail in the same way that if I’m putting together a portfolio of funds for my retirement, I don’t want my request to be handled in three minutes!”  

Understanding your internal processes, your customers, and looking to make life easier for customer service agents are all first steps to be taken before deciding which technology would be most beneficial for the company’s customer service department.

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