AI in the Contact Center: What Can We Learn From AlphaGo?

   By: Tim Prugar

           The nearly infinite moves a player can make in a game of Go makes it the perfect playground for AI. When DeepMind’s AlphaGo took on Go Champion Lee Sedol, the world wondered whether the AI Lab had been able to create a better Go Player. The reality was much more shocking.

            Early in the series, it became clear that AlphaGo wasn’t AI that played Go better…it was AI that played Go differently. By making moves that defied traditional human convention (an excellent rundown can be found at Quartz) AlphaGo demonstrated how to play the thousand-year-old game differently. Even more surprisingly, its human opponent was able to adapt and elevate his own creativity in ways that even confused the AI player.

            AI is a hot topic in the world of Customer Service and a constant on “CX Trends for 2017” listicles. Thought leaders debate whether Chatbots raise the specter of jobs lost to automation, while others laud the potential of AI to answer time-consuming, “quick fix” questions. Customer Service Guru Shep Hyken argues that AI has the potential to serve as a real-time Intelligent Assistant for customer service representatives, leading to more positive impacts on the customer.

            However, most of these conversations address what AI can do, not what we can learn. In five brief games, AlphaGo showed the world that even in 2017 there can be new moves and approaches.

What might Contact Centers be able to learn if they viewed AI as a resource rather than a tool?

How might AI allow businesses to find and develop entirely new ways of approaching Customer Service?

            The next leap in customer service won't be achieved by businesses that shop for AI to solve an existing problem. That leap will be made by companies who lean into adopting AI to find new and unique solutions that people never knew existed.

 

Tim Prugar is the Director of Customer Success at Next Caller. He can be reached at tim@nextcaller.com. 

TCPA in the Age of Trump : Kern v. VIP Travel Services

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

By: Tim Prugar

             For businesses that leverage telecommunications as a primary method for selling, whether through voice or SMS channels, the election of Donald Trump to the presidency signified a potential sea change in the way that the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) would be viewed and enforced. On the one hand, Trump has spoken frequently and publicly about the need to grow American business and remove regulatory barriers that might inhibit that growth. On the other hand, Trump’s new Chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, has come out swinging in his vows to stop the “scourge” of robocalling, a major business tool of telemarketers. With these two seemingly competing views of how to approach telemarketing and other telecommunications-based sales outreach, what can businesses expect from TCPA interpretation over the course of the Trump presidency?

            One of the only ways to make accurate predictions is to monitor, analyze, and discuss TCPA cases that are taking place right now. 

 

            Kern v. VIP Travel Services

             Last week, a United States District Court in Michigan issued an opinion in a class action lawsuit against a series of hotels by consumers who had been marketed to on their cell phones. According to the consumers, third-party travel agents were leveraging autodialers to reach them on numbers that were registered with the Do Not Call (DNC) Registry. The consumers alleged that these agents were not only violating TCPA, but that they were doing so with the full blessing of the hotels, who they alleged had provided material assistance in the form of resources and marketing collaboration. The consumers also alleged that the hotel logos were clearly visible on the third-party agent web sites.

            Naturally, the hotels objected to these allegations, and stated emphatically that the third-party agents were acting of their own accord. The courts sided with the hotels, noting that the contracts between the hotels and the the third-party agents clearly established the agents as independent contractors and explicitly stated that all laws governing marketing, including TCPA, should be adhered to. The courts found no evidence that the hotels gave consent for their logos to be used on the web site.

            The theme at the center of this legal dispute is the concept of “vicarious liability.” Essentially, the consumers were alleging that the Hotels should be held responsible for the behavior of the third-party agents. In this case, the courts argued that in order to prove “vicarious liability” in a TCPA suit, the party making the allegations has to prove more than the “mere nexus” of the defendant and the caller. They have to provide solid evidence - which the courts believed the plaintiffs failed to do. 

            So what does this mean for businesses? First, these kinds of lawsuits still cost defendants in the form of time, stress, and legal fees. Second, businesses working in the telemarketing space (whatever form that must take) need to be aware of and tuned in to the business practices of any third-party vendors to whom they might outsource sales or marketing. Their actions can come back to haunt you. Third, make sure that you are checking the validity of a number before every single outbound dial – cross-referencing the DNC Registry, checking for changes in porting, and confirming line type.

            The future of TCPA enforcement is still uncertain, but being wary, informed, and compliant will never go out of style.

 

Tim Prugar is Next Caller's Director of Customer Success. He can be reached at tim@nextcaller.com.

Get To Know Your Caller: The Power of the First 30 Seconds

Jenny is the Visitor Support Manager for DMV.ORG. With over a decade of customer service experience, Jenny has been recognized through social media channels as a thought leader. She is co-founder and a regular contributor on the Customer Service Life Blog (http://www.communciatebetterblog.com). She can often be found on the beach in San Diego, California.  Follow here on Twitter: jennysuedempsey

Jenny is the Visitor Support Manager for DMV.ORG. With over a decade of customer service experience, Jenny has been recognized through social media channels as a thought leader. She is co-founder and a regular contributor on the Customer Service Life Blog (http://www.communciatebetterblog.com). She can often be found on the beach in San Diego, California. 

Follow here on Twitter: jennysuedempsey

 

Ready...set...GO!

You have 30 quick seconds to make a million fast decisions.

First impressions about a company via customer service channels make lasting impressions to the customer and whoever the customer decides to share them with (friends, family, social media). When Sir Patrick Stewart waited 36 hours for his Time Warner Cable appointment he took his thoughts to Twitter on their initial customer support. It resulted in a media backlash that had the TW social media team on their toes.

In most cases, the single point of contact with a company is when they reach out to customer service.

How will you, mighty customer service representative, measure up to the clock?

 

1. Be Prepared

If you’re a customer service agent that is provided with a technology to pull customer data, such as a name, phone or account number, address, etc. on your computer screen before every call, consider your job made 10% easier. If you don’t, you still have the ability to do one simple thing: ASK. By referring to the customer by name throughout the entire call, as well as opening their account to read through any previous service notes, you are a step ahead of the game to kindling the fire on a great call.

 

2. Be Kind

You’re on the customer’s side. Your job is to have their back. When you answer the phone, are you answering in a tone that you’d use with your best friend? Setting and keeping a genuine and friendly tone during the conversation welcomes your customer to your company, starts to build trust and showcases your brand voice in a positive manner. Not only that, it will benefit the bottom line. According to JitBit, businesses lose upwards of $84 billion per year due to poor, untrustworthy customer service.

 

3. Be Purposeful

The customer called for a reason. They may voice their frustrations immediately, not caring about your kind voice or that you know their name. What actions do you take then? By listening to the customer speak and release their dissatisfaction, you can zoom in on what the larger issue is at stake. You can then hold the reigns to define the purpose of the call to keep things on track and help your customer get to their desired resolution.  

 

Here’s a Customer Service MadLib Style Script for you to act as a baseline on how to keep the empathy in your word choices when you may be challenged by a difficult customer:


[After listening quietly to customer on phone]

______________  thank you for sharing your experience with me. I completely understand why you feel   

(Customer Name)             

_______________.

(Customer Emotion)

I am disappointed that _____________ has happened. Our company takes ownership of this and apologize.        (Sum up customer story)    

My goal is to resolve this. I will _____________________ and I look forward to working with you!

             (Realistic Customer Expectations)

 

In a nutshell:

  • Be Prepared.

  • Be Kind.

  • Be Purposeful.

Write that down on a Post-It and stick it to your computer monitor, friends!


All of this happens within the first 30 seconds of the call. And the power is all in your hands.

Top Call Center And Telecom Trends For 2016

Authored by: Sheldon Smith is a Senior Product Manager at XO Communications (XO.com). XO is a telecommunication services provider that specializes in nationwide unified communications and cloud services.  Sheldon has an extensive background in UC and he has over 15 years of experience in the technology industry. His position involves overall product ownership of Hosted PBX, SIP, VoIP and Conferencing.

Overview

Research and Markets, a market research store, states the global contact center market is on track for a compound annual growth rate of 9.26 percent over the next four years, as companies look to outsource communication services and improve the customer experience. However, growth isn’t just happening over the long term. With 2015 almost over, it’s worth taking a look at what next year may bring for the call center and telecoms market: Here are five top trends for 2016:

Improved Mobility

Most telecom providers have built-in support for mobile devices and in some cases, wearable technology — but according to research firm Gartner, 2016 will usher in a new type of mobility powered by the “device mesh.” Put simply, this mesh extends beyond “traditional” consumer devices to also include home electronics, automotive digital systems and environmental tools. For telecom companies, this means increasing demand from users to support any device, anywhere, anytime.

The Ambient Experience

Gartner also predicts the rise of “ambient user experience” over the next year. Enabled by the device mesh, the idea here is to create a customer experience that “seamlessly flows across a shifting set of devices and interaction channels blending physical, virtual and electronic environment.” This is a sea change: Consumers are trending away from devices as discrete channels but instead view them as part of a unified whole. For call centers, the means a rise in the number of callers who expect agents with full access to historical records along with any online, mobile or previous phone conversations.

Stepped-Up Security

Breaches are now an expected outcome for many companies regardless of size or industry. The same applies to telecom providers: Personal data stored by your organization is a hot-ticket item for determined hackers. In 2016, expect to see a rise in the number of security startups and VoIP providers that offer native encryption for all communication data — in transit and at rest. Improved controls for local admins are also on-tap: C-suites and security pros alike want to know what is happening on their network, why and how they can put a stop to it, as needed.

Power to the People

According to global online community Customer Think, one big change coming to call centers of the future is the ability for customers to help themselves with minimal assistance from an agent. While CT takes the long view and says 2020 is the year to watch for this kind of transition, the tech market of 2016 should lay critical groundwork. For example, improved interactive voice response (IVR) systems will make it possible for customers to “self-serve” most of their issues, in turn putting more pressure on front-line call center staff to become subject matter experts. Over the next year, expect the view of agents to shift from one of “first contact” to “final option” — knowledge and skills must improve to match demand.

Bandwidth for Big Data

If telecom providers want to stay competitive through 2016, they’ll need to do better with big data. It’s no longer enough to simply store this steady stream of information — consumers expect their provider to offer real insight when it comes to buying habits and predicted needs. Handling the big data deluge means providers need to shore up available bandwidth and make sure they’re ready to manage the transition from steady flow to rushing river as data demands. According to business news publication Trade Arabia, companies in the Middle East — the world’s second-largest mobile phone market — faces the challenge of dealing with a tech-savvy consumer base that effectively jumped over landline adoption to embrace Internet-connected devices. The result? Massive amounts of data to analyze and insights to glean, and the chance to get a leg up on North American providers that don’t dive headlong into big data.

Ready for 2016? The future holds better mobility, improved user experience and security backed by a tech-savvy populace with big data focus.

Top Advantages of SIP Trunking for Businesses

Companies often hear about the benefits of voice over IP (VoIP) communications as a way to increase corporate efficiency and deliver enhanced ROI. Yet, VoIP is just the beginning; as noted by Markets Morning, SIP trunking — which uses VoIP to facilitate a PBX connection — has been growing steadily over the past few years, with almost 60 percent of businesses now leveraging SIP in some form. Despite increased adoption, however, there’s still confusion about exactly how SIP trunking works and the specific advantages it offers your company. Here’s what you need to know:

SIP?

Before you can make best use of a SIP system, it’s important to understand the basics. According to Tech Target, session initiation protocol (SIP) is an IETF standard for initiating multimedia user sessions — in other words, it carries voice, video and data transmissions. This protocol allows companies to link their internal private branch exchange (PBX) with an Internet service telephony provider (ITSP) to provide worldwide VoIP-based communications.

Communication Unification

The ability of SIP trunks to combine data, voice and video streams into a single line offers the most obvious benefit — by leveraging SIP solutions, companies can make and receive local and long distance calls, use both mobile and fixed line telephones along with sending emails and texts. What’s more, the protocol also supports audio and video conferencing; together, these features provide the basis for what’s known as unified communications (UC), which eliminates the need for separate physical media for each type of connection. Often, this results in improved ROI thanks to reduced management costs and more efficient use of corporate PBX systems.

Enhanced Mobility

SIP trunks also provide the benefit of mobility. With companies quickly on-boarding BYOD and cloud-based communications, it’s easy for local networks to become fragmented, leaving IT to deal with a blend of plain old telephone service (POTS) lines connected to fledgling VoIP networks, while also managing the unique access and permissions requirements of BYOD deployments. SIP trunking, meanwhile, allows companies to easily connect any device — mobile, fixed or cloud based — to their network, in turn simplifying management and oversight.

Scale on Demand

POTS and T1 lines are often considered less expensive ways to empower global communications, with SIP detractors pointing to the costs of deployment and integration as potentially limiting returns. Though choosing a SIP trunk offers a significant advantage: scalability on demand. With POTS and T1 solutions, companies must be constantly prepared with extra bandwidth in case of a sudden upswing in demand — this is both costly if unused and many prove insufficient if demand exceeds prediction. SIP trunking services, meanwhile, scale up on the fly to meet demand in real time and scale down when demand fades. The result? You only pay for what you need, and never for bandwidth you don’t use.

Choose Your Benefits

According to No Jitter, one of the biggest mistakes companies make when transitioning to SIP is investing because they “should” instead of defining specific reasons for the move. Best bet? Leverage a call center that relies on SIP. This provides all the benefits of SIP trunking and allows you to enjoy specific benefits — such as real-time call analytics or voice recognition — without the need to add extra services at a local level.

Considering a move to SIP? It comes with benefits: Unified communications and mobility to start, along with the ability to scale on demand and choose the best mix of services to suit your business needs.

Sheldon Smith is a Senior Product Manager at XO Communications. XO is a SIP Provider and also provides many types of cloud solutions. Sheldon has an extensive background in unified communications and process management.

Top Benefits of Hosted VoIP Solutions

Hosted VoIP For Call Centers: Top Five Benefits

According to data from Infonetics, the hosted VoIP and UC market is set to reach $18 billion by 2018, with hosted VoIP services making inroads across businesses and call centers of all sizes, and “more companies evaluating and choosing providers” than ever before. Yet what’s driving this adoption? Here are the top five benefits of going hosted for call centers:

Pay Less

It’s possible for call centers to save a significant amount of money by leveraging hosted VoIP services instead of traditional packet-switched telephone networks (PSTNs). Why? Because PSTNs are billed minute to minute, while hosted plans typically offer a set monthly fee plus small charges for extras such as long-distance calls or specific features. In addition, going hosted lets a call center run lean on infrastructure since all back-end installation and maintenance rest with the provider. This also means deployment time is almost negligible, helping to minimize spend from day one.

Talk More

As noted by Tech Republic, another big benefit for call centers using hosted VoIP is the ability to empower conference calls. Most businesses know that unlike traditional PSTN solutions, it’s possible to connect more than two or three people on the same call but often overlooked is the fact that VoIP solutions can be used to create “conference floor monitors” which manage invitations, requests to speak and can even mute users on demand.

Scale as Needed

Scalability is also key for call centers, especially when companies are expanding into new markets or enjoying periods of unexpected growth. Hosted VoIP solutions make it possible to add single lines, multiple features or tap new bandwidth on demand. What’s more, companies can scale both ways; expand when needed and then reduce the size of your hosted infrastructure when it’s no longer required. Cloud-based VoIP services also come with the benefit of utilization reports which detail everything from call duration to destination, cost and total bandwidth used, helping to minimize cost overruns and streamline operations.

Move on Demand

Another big benefit for call centers? Hosted VoIP solutions allow calls to be directed to any device or multiple devices on demand. The Huffington Post notes that you can have calls sent straight to voicemail, ring on more than one device at the same time, or “follow” a particular employee throughout his/her day. It’s now possible to precisely describe the behavior of calls; after two rings at a certain phone, for example, calls can be shunted to a mobile device and then eventually routed to voicemail. Simply put, hosted options give call centers total control over what calls come in, where they go and how they’re handled.

Port as Needed

The last big benefit for call centers when it comes to hosted VoIP? Portability. First, it’s possible to transcribe voicemails, making them more portable as emails or text messages. Decision makers still get the pertinent information they require and can listen to the full voicemail on demand but aren’t bogged down listening to the entire recording to pick a single piece of relevant data. It’s also possible to make almost any device apart of the VoIP ecosystem, allowing users to make any conversation portable. Phone battery running low or desktop out of commission? Laptops and tablets can be used as stand-in connections with access to all the same features.

Call centers are the front lines of communication for many businesses. Hosted VoIP offers a way to streamline consumer access and employee response by lowering total costs, empowering calls and offering scalability, movement and portability on demand.

Sheldon Smith is a Senior Product Manager at XO Communications. XO Communications, XO.com, is a telecommunications services provider that offers unified communications services and various cloud services.  Sheldon has over 10 years of department and process management experience.

IVR, CTI, and the Need to Act Now

by Jeffrey Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

If you have not had the opportunity to read Daniel Harris’s report on IVR design over at telecom review organization Software Advice’s site,  and you work in the customer care/call center space, do yourself a favor and get started on some light reading. The findings are quite interesting and merit a conversation (or perhaps a look in the mirror?) to gain a better understanding for how progress can be made within the industry. First, let’s tip our caps to Daniel Harris, who, in the course of his research, dialed up 50 Fortune 500 companies and researched their IVRs. I have enough frustration getting through the phone tree for my cable company or to change my flight; this young man has a high tolerance for pain. 

For the sake of brevity, I’ll summarize the findings and offer my own take based on the metrics that stuck out at me. The first surprise is that 65% of IVR’s wait until the third menu to offer any support from an agent. See the chart below where 1 denotes 1st menu and yes, there are some companies, evidently, who wait until the 8th menu to offer support from a real human being!

image

I’ve written about this before, and it still baffles me how businesses continue to ignore the needs of the customer when businesses like gethuman.com have literally built a business model out of the backwards-thinking mindsets of cost-conscious call center managers. At the Future Call Center Summit last January, Ashutosh Anil of Best Buy Canada spoke about turning the “cost center” (call center) into a “profit center.” It is not until customer care professionals look at the long term gains of being “inefficient” now that we might ever make progress on this front. That is, while it may indeed be costly in the short term to exact some of the change that would move the needle on the metrics above, the interactions might be so much more pleasant that indeed the businesses turn a profit in the long run. Unsurprisingly, when I call JetBlue’s Mosaic line, I have two options in the opening menu, and one of them is to speak to an agent. Although I love JetBlue’s customer service, surely this is only because I am a Mosaic member. Whenever I call, I gasp, because it seems too good to be true that I do not have to “zero out” to get to an agent, but I can just press “2” instead. It’s weird how both buttons get me to the same place but how much more I admire JetBlue when I press “2” instead of “0”. This is what I mean by building brand loyalty in the long-run. Yes, JetBlue spends more money to talk to me on the phone now, but earning a customer’s loyalty is hardly, if ever, free.

Something else that stuck out at me is that nearly half of the IVR’s are not voice-enabled:

image

So, you’re telling me that the robot can speak to me, but I cannot speak back? If you are going to take personality out of the equation with your brand, you can at least make the customer feel like they are not also as robotic and unautonomous as your brand, no? We here at Next Caller have tested IVR’s ourselves, and I know personally from trying to fool Interactions’ IVR that the right provider can do a really good job of understanding people with various lingos and accents, which brings more personality back into the equation and helps more customers get what they need. 

The list goes on, and even mentions cases in which the IVR hangs up on the customer. You get the idea: we have a long way to go. As someone who speaks to large and small companies every single day, I cannot say I am surprised. We have written about the advantages and disadvantages of working with big companies, and it is certainly not always the case that bigger means better. Many of the Fortune 500 are not even CTI-enabled, which means their agents are still using telephones from the 1980’s and manually inputting the customer information into a computer. 

The point of this post is not to disparage the professionals in the industry; in fact, quite the opposite. Technology moves at a fast pace, and it is hard to keep up. And look at how far the industry has come – you can use so many channels today that you could not use 20 years ago, that it is almost no surprise at all that phone support may not always be “up to speed” so to speak. It’s not easy to manage so many channels.

That being said, trends can show us where we need to spend our focus. And the trend right now is that everything is moving to the cloud. Plain and simple. While decision-makers can elect to implement the technology they truly need to be successful one or two years from now, those one or two years are just going to be lost time where their competitors made a significant push. By getting to the cloud now, by implementing cloud-based systems and getting away from the clunky on-premise solutions, a million headaches are solved now rather than later. And sometimes you need to take one step backward in order to take two steps forward. What am I saying? Think outside the box. Although a certain measure may be costly now, it may ultimately yield unforeseen profits down the road. And although making the jump from a legacy provider to something innovative can be daunting, it is almost always worth the jump across the chasm.

Stop Freaking Out About Comcast

by Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

You’ve probably heard about this by now. If you haven’t, you either live under a rock, or maybe under a hard place. But here it is: a Comcast call center agent recently had the worst 10 minutes of his life. A customer, Ryan Block, who happens to have a lot of social clout (over 80,000 Twitter followers), tried to cancel his service. The agent wasn’t having it. For 10 minutes, that agent condescendingly repeats the same question: “Why wouldn’t you want the fastest internet service?” And Mr. Block recorded the entire train wreck.

I am here to say one thing: please, let it go. 

Here’s why.

Comcast receives tens of millions of calls every year. Tens of millions! And this was just one. Yes, I know - Comcast has notoriously bad customer service. They are ranked very poorly year in and year out. Eerily enough, my parents just cancelled their service with Comcast. As a Time Warner Cable customer, admittedly I am nervous about the impending merger and what that means for my ability to get quality care.

Even South Park has made big cable companies a punching bag. This spoof is one of the funniest out there. It’s probably not safe for work, but it summarizes many of our feelings. And those feelings are that the cable companies might even enjoy making us miserable. 

But is it only because of this reputation that Comcast is receiving so much heat now? We cannot rationally be this upset over one phone call. If any of you reading this blog right now were to have recorded your worst customer service experience, and you had 80,000 Twitter followers, your experience would have gone viral, too. But you didn’t have the nerve to do that. 

The problem with social media today is that context is missing. It’s so easy for people to publicize their thoughts now that the thoughts themselves are quite thoughtless. Because news agencies and reporters have an agenda, and when it is convenient for them to leave certain facts out, they do that. My Facebook is littered with pictures of people doing horrible things and organizations therefore asking people for help. But little would the viewer know that the pictures were taken 20 years ago. 

And such is the case here. We don’t know if this agent’s girlfriend dumped him right before the call. We don’t know if the customer before Mr. Block in the queue yelled at the agent for 30 minutes. We don’t even know the agent’s name. Why? Because Mr. Block did not care to share that with anyone. He took what will surely be the worst 10 minutes of this poor agent’s life and broadcasted it to a wide audience in an intensely intrusive and hurtful way. 

There’s no doubt that said agent is incredibly unlikeable. But he is unlikeable in 10 minutes of what sounds like 25+ years of life. For all we know, he donates his weekends to the elderly or with kids afflicted with cancer. We seriously know nothing about him – we only know that Mr. Block is a big shot influencer on social media who can get away with things like this. By the way, is it even legal to record phone calls like this? I know Donald Sterling’s girlfriend did it without consequence, but it seems a little sly, weak, and cowardly. Am I off here?

If I sound a little bit angry, it’s because I am. We as a society need to take more control of what we put out there for the public to consume. This is a terribly damaging situation for Comcast’s brand. And it’s not deserved. Yes, they’re not perfect all the time. But if any of us here were to post our worst experience, it would go viral, too. We don’t, because it’s immature. Imagine if someone were to capture you in the worst 10 minutes of your life, without your permission, and then re-broadcast it for all the world to see. Kind of messed up, no?

A few months ago, I had a horrible experience with a technology brand. I accidentally wiped my computer, and with it went the products from this brand. Without my product key, I would need to buy the new versions. I spent literally an hour on the phone with their call center in India, spelling out my name, e-mail address, and product keys letter by letter to no avail. It was one of the most maddening experiences in my life, and had I recorded it, I might be some sort of internet millionaire right now, since apparently the public enjoys this. But I didn’t, and I have redacted that brand’s name here to protect them from this one unfortunate incident out of the many millions of interactions they have year over year. I was hung up on by one of their agents, and though I dislike her incredibly much from our short interaction, I have the wherewithal to remember exactly that: it was just one, short interaction together. I don’t know her, and I forgive her for her mistake.

The larger issue in play here is a concept called failure demand. Failure demand is when some type of failure in the organization causes a further burden elsewhere in the business. For example, if you do not understand your cable bill, you call Comcast to ask questions to gain clarity. However, Comcast can avoid this call altogether if they provide more clarity on your bill and clearly outline why you are being charged for this or that. 

The unfortunate victims of failure demand are usually the people who work in the call center. They are berated over the phone because the customer cannot understand their bill, or their wi-fi is not working, or the technician did not show up on time. These issues are rarely (if ever) the fault of the agent. And yet the agent is there to help rectify the issue. 

I applaud Mr. Block for keeping his cool during these 10 minutes. I would not have done the same. But, I also would not have recorded this conversation and broadcast it to over 80,000 people to improperly insinuate negativity about Comcast’s brand. This creates the idea in peoples’ minds that all call center agents for Comcast must be like this. Now imagine being the guy who sat next to that Comcast agent at work, and having to deal with angry customers who have heard about this experience, and who will now reference it on their customer service calls. As if your life was not already a daily grind, it just got much worse – and for no fault of your own, mind you.

Recently, a US Airways social media team member accidentally tweeted an inappropriate image, sexual in nature, to a customer. It was a mistake. Mistakes happen. I’ve made several mistakes today in my daily life (hopefully this blog is not one of them). And as it turns out, the employee who sent the embarrassing tweet is still on staff with US Airways. Why? Because people make mistakes.

As consumers, we often contribute to the problem. We forget that there are real people on the other end of the line, and go into the situation both expecting that they handle our every whim or demand to perfection. If they do not, it apparently gives us the right to ridicule, mock, and antagonize them as if is the brand itself is who we are talking to, when in fact its just an individual, under immense and often unrealistic pressure to perform.

As soon as Mr. Block hit record, he did it to bait the rep into failure. He listened with glee as the agent floundered, and due to what he believed to be his higher social status, continued with his immature ploy. What if we were to follow Mr. Block with a recorder for his entire life, and capture his most embarrassing 10 minutes, without his permission? Mr. Block recently came out and said that he hopes the employee does not get fired. What would truly impress me is if instead of Comcast apologizing to Mr. Block, Mr. Block would apologize to the individual who he so absurdly threw under the bus with a few clicks of a button. I am nervous for myself what will happen if he ever reads this blog.

Remember next time you talk to an agent, if things do not go your way, try to ask yourself how you can make this person’s day better. Chances are, they want to help you as much as you want to be helped. I called US Airways recently to ask a basic question about changing a flight, and even with all the work involved, the agent remarked, “It’s so nice talking to you, you’re the first person to not yell at me because of the weather delaying flights.” People yelling at agents as if they control the weather, too.

Let’s all take a deep breath and remember that about the poor individual who probably lost his job today, who is probably measured by how many customers he retains, who surely deeply regrets the worst 10 minutes of his life. 

It's Time to Accept Responsibility for Your IVR

Reposted with permission from the Interactions blog

by Dan Fox

There is a customer service revolution afoot. Consumers will no longer put up with poor customer service. As the number of product and service alternatives rises, the companies that provide the best customer experience will gain and retain, while the companies that don’t struggle to stay afloat. I swear I didn’t mean for both of those to rhyme.

Corporations are paying closer attention to the value of their customers. Those of you who follow Net Promoter Score are aware that detractors of your company (unhappy customers who feel trapped in a bad relationship with the company) are 3x more likely to speak about their experience and 2x more likely to speak negatively to 10 or more people. On the other end of the spectrum, Net Promoter Score leaders, i.e. those whose customer base contains primarily promoters (loyal enthusiasts who continue buying from the company and “promote” the company to people they know), are growing at more than 2x the rate of their competitors.

So how do you provide good customer service? Although that subject extends beyond the scope of this post, I can tell you where you can start, which coincidentally is probably the last place you’re looking: your automated system.
 
Most companies are focusing on adding channels to their customer support, such as social media, live chat, and smart-phone apps, and simultaneously adding features to enhance their contact centers, such as click-to-call or allowing premium status callers direct access to a live agent (as we’ve seen with the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card). However, they all seem to be dancing around the subject of their IVR. Instead, they are looking for ways to boost every channel around the automated system in efforts to reduce the impact of a detrimental IVR or to reduce the call volumes into their contact centers. What’s the point of creating a brilliant multichannel customer support chain if your IVR is a broken link in that chain? I will now defer to the overused, yet appropriate cliché – putting a band aid on an open wound.
 
Why is my IVR so bad?

Hey, I’m glad you asked! Your IVR is so bad because it lacks the ability to understand your callers. Your callers are frustrated with your automated system before they even use it due to an abysmal track record and a lack of innovation in traditional Automated Speech Recognition (ASR) for the past 10 years. In fact, new research confirms that Natural Language Understanding is currently performing at a 65% accuracy on average. Callers expect:

  • The need to repeat information in the IVR that they give in the IVR
  • The need to repeat information to the live agent that they give in the IVR
  • Low expectation that they will be routed to the correct destination
  • Menu options that don’t fit their needs
  • Difficulty in reaching a live representative

 
Where does your ASR fall short? Do your customers have to repeat information to the live agent that was given in the IVR? Intelligent CTI will take care of that. Do they have difficulty reaching a live agent? If you truly care about your customers, you could design an IVR capable of addressing that problem. However, if your system suffers from speech recognition failures, an inability to granularly route, and inadequate menu options, you probably can’t do anything about that with the technology you’re currently using.
 
Why is my IVR’s automated speech recognition so crappy?

Don’t be so hard on yourself, it’s not your fault. Our traditional copper wire phone lines carry only audio quality that is easily understood by the human ear and brain. That “standard-definition” audio has a limited amount of data. Yes, even when someone is calling in on their iPhone 4S, with its “high-definition” microphone, their voice is still ending running on a “standard-definition” telephone system. It’s like the difference between hearing a song on the radio, and hearing it on those tinny 2001 ringtones – much more difficult to identify the song from the ringtone.
 
This is why, when you’re interacting with an IVR during your coffee break at Starbucks and you have a Scottish accent, you’re out-of-luck. Background noise and accents are an ASR’s worst enemy. Simple triggers can also set it off, such as the minute difference between b,c,d,e… (they all have an “eee” sound) when you are spelling out your first name, or words that sound similar, such as Boston and Austin.
 
The basic limitations of audio quality explain why, with traditional Automated Speech Recognition, you will not be able to capture e-mail addresses, log-ins, and other alphanumeric data to a high degree of accuracy. If your automated system requires any account identification or authorization, you have to find a creative way to dance around alpha-numerics. In fact, most IVR systems today focus on creative ways to make it easier for the automated speech system to recognize the caller, and less so on how to make it easier for the caller to use the IVR system. Even with data strings your ASR should be able to capture, it’s likely your callers will be forced to confirm or to repeat themselves. And if their responses include verbal disfluencies like uhm, ya know, or yeah, the likelihood is even higher. For most callers, this is a major frustration point.
 
While it’s true that Automated Speech Recognition and Natural Language are getting better every year, there will always be a disparity between ASR technology and human understanding that prevents your callers from communicating in their own words. Your caller doesn’t want to Technical Support -> Home -> Internet Router, she wants to fix her broken Internet! Natural Language, at its best, still doesn’t allow your callers to speak in their own words. Directed Dialogue forces your callers into speaking in a way that works for the system. You’ve heard them before: “How can I help you? You can speak to me in full sentences, but you can only say ‘make a reservation’ or ‘cancel an appointment.’” Clearly, I’m exaggerating, but my point remains. Your callers want to express their problems in their own way because they believe that their call is unique (which is why they are calling – they probably already looked to complete their request on your website) and that your automated system won’t be able to meet their needs.
 
What am I supposed to do?

Call Interactions. No, I’m just joking. But seriously. You need to think creatively. ASR works in many areas, but as I explained, there are many areas in which it fails. Supplementing your ASR with human-assisted understanding provided by several thought-leading companies, such as Interactions, can make your IVR work. (If you are unfamiliar with human-assisted understanding, check out a demo.) This approach will eliminate the pain points, providing greater understanding that will enable you to build more functionality into your system. That being said, many IVR companies have tried to build human-assisted understanding IVRs themselves, but have been unable to meet their ROI requirements. When they quantify the benefits to the call center infrastructure and compare that number to the price tag for improving their system, the math doesn’t work. But at the risk of sounding like a marketing professional (which I am), I have to tell you that Interactions has cracked the code. Our many customer-centric clients can attest to that.
 
Do I need analytics to tell me what I’m doing wrong?

Yes, of course you do. You need to know the route your customers are traversing. Are you receiving a heavy call volume for something that could easily be accomplished in self-service? On that note, you also want to know why they are hitting the contact center. Is the self-service functionality not prevalent enough? Is there even a self-service functionality on the website for that command? Perhaps an abnormally heavy call volume for that command can even alert you to a bug on that part of the website.
 
Analytics allow you to have greater control over the flow of your customer support channels, identify bottlenecks, and better design your support structure to optimize customer experience and improve your economics.
 
You’re not telling everything, are you…

You’re right. Analytics are great in theory but most companies and self-service analysis providers treat customers like sheep. The predominant thinking is “I have this huge call volume and these expensive agents, I need to save some money, so let’s build this menu option here, and this self-service functionality there, and link them to the website here. In turn, we’ll increase containment, cut down Average Handle Time (AHT), and increase customer experience.”
 
That’s all well and good. However, I return to my original point:
You can gather and analyze all the customer data you want, but if you are still relying solely on ASR to respond to all your customers’ needs, you are missing a big piece of the puzzle. Instead of forcing the customer to communicate in unnatural ways that suit your system, you need to build a system that accepts and responds to what they have to say. You have to accept responsibility for your communication mediums and stop forcing your customers to speak in the way that’s best for the IVR. It’s time to get creative. Stop thinking about your IVR as a gateway to your representatives, and start viewing it as a critical, strategic initiative.

Recent studies have shown that customers are willing to interact in self-service if the automated system works for them. Unfortunately, traditional speech-based IVRs cannot meet customers needs and perform at a 65% accuracy on average. In a new whitepaper entitled “Broadening the Conversation” Interactions’ CTO, Yoryos Yeracaris takes a look into new Adaptive-Understanding™ technology that transforms self-service into a value-added service in customer care.

See What I'm Talking About?: The Future of Visual IVR

by guest blogger Laura Zegar (@LauraKZegar)

“Sorry, I didn’t understand you. Let’s try this a different way.”

Think about the last time you had a less than stellar interactive voice response (IVR) experience. You probably heard something like this phrase, didn’t you?

So do most customers, and it’s the number one reason so many actively dislike IVRs. Chances are good the IVR will misunderstand, route them to the incorrect agent or, worst of all, both.

A typical experience: Customer Bob dials his Internet provider’s IVR from his mobile phone to pay his bill. He is immediately greeted by a slew of menu options and misses the billing option the first time. After fumbling on his phone to bring up the keypad and select the “repeat main menu” option, he decides to speak into the IVR for the remainder of his call. He says “Billing” into the phone when he hears the appropriate menu option.

And then it starts. “Sorry, I didn’t understand you. Please try again,” the IVR replies. Bob repeats his selection and hears “Sorry. I still didn’t understand you. Let’s try this a different way. Please key in your selection.” Frustrated, Bob ignores the IVR’s instructions and snaps “Agent!” into the phone.

“OK,” the IVR replies cheerfully, oblivious to Bob’s growing irritation. “Tell me what you’re calling about.” The IVR repeats the same menu prompts.

“[Expletive]! AGENT!” Bob yells desperately.

The IVR finally relents and transfers him to a customer service agent. Bob is so annoyed by the experience that he vows never to call his provider again. With a customer experience like that, who can blame him?

Enter visual IVR.

Designed to eliminate customer experiences like Bob’s, visual IVR is exactly what it sounds like. Using a mobile app or website, customers complete typical self-service IVR transactions or connect to an agent via visual prompts instead of speaking or keying in their choices into a telephone IVR.

If, for example, Customer Mary wants to pay her wireless bill, she can simply access the mobile app and click the “Pay Bill” menu option. She can enter and visually verify her authentication data, then follow the appropriate prompts to enter her payment information, date and amount. Because Mary quickly comprehends her available options in the visual IVR, she is more likely to successfully complete her self-service transaction instead of abandoning it or requesting agent assistance.

If she has additional questions after her transaction, she can easily initiate a call or chat with the correct agent. Once connected, the agent receives Mary’s customer and account information, transaction and call history, and reason for her call. Mary does not need to re-authenticate or restate her inquiry.

She can also enter complex or sensitive information into the visual IVR, rather than speaking it, to ensure privacy and accuracy.

To provide Mary with additional visual support, the agent can push documents (including maps, PDFs, support documents, photos, etc.) through the IVR to her. If, for example, she requests a technical support agent to troubleshoot an issue, the technician can provide visual aids to quickly educate her. Mary can save the documents on her phone for future reference without writing anything down.

Overall, a great customer experience for Mary.

But she’s not the only one who benefits. Companies who adopt visual IVRs also reap significant rewards.

Efficient call handling is a clear win. Because visual IVRs provide customer interactions and data at a glance, agents spend less time verifying, explaining or searching during calls. Agents can quickly push information to the customer to address complex inquiries. And if a transfer is required, agents can view the call history and route the customer directly to another agent or supervisor

As a result, agent handle time (AHT) decreases while first call resolution (FCR) increases. Agents accomplish more in less time on the phone while reducing repeat callbacks.

Another benefit is rich, complex customer insight. Companies can use visual IVR data to track customer interactions from start to finish and use this information to better understand how customers use and experience the IVR. Traditional IVR reporting lends visibility to call center metrics, but doesn’t always provide a clear picture of the customer’s full IVR experience.

With visual IVR, companies can see exactly where a customer falters or initiates an agent interaction, then use this data to improve common customer pain points or inquiries. At a micro level, they can modify IVR scripts and flow to create a more nimble customer experience and further improve metrics. Meanwhile, at the macro level, companies can translate these additional layers of customer insight into their overall customer experience strategy, addressing IVR, call handling procedures, agent experience and customer interactions all at once.

The result? Everyone wins.

Companies offer a seamless, efficient and tailored customer experience, while customers resolve their inquiry instead of struggling to reach an agent or repeating themselves. The agent and customer quickly understand each other and work together for resolution.

Bottom line: Visual IVR is the ideal method for today’s multichannel customers to quickly, painlessly interact with a company or its agents via one mobile access point. Watch as more companies adopt this technology into innovative and unique customer experience strategies.

Oh, one more thing.

Remember our friend Customer Bob?  He recently switched Internet providers to one with visual IVR capabilities.

He is beyond pleased that he no longer needs to scream “AGENT!” into the phone just to reach one.

Next Caller & ICMI

Conferences are fun. San Diego is fun. Needless to say, the Next Caller team is looking forward to heading to the ICMI Contact Center Expo in San Diego this week for the very first time. 

This will also be the first time that we can get together with our good friends at Zendesk to throw a happy hour on Wednesday evening of the conference. Details on that are in the most recent blog post at blog.nextcaller.com.

Since Next Caller only recently launched at TechCrunch Disrupt in September 2013, most of the ICMI community may be unfamiliar with us.

So what is Next Caller?

Next Caller is advanced caller ID for businesses. Our database of over 220 million profiles is the largest in the US. Next Caller delivers important data on inbound callers in real time so that the customers never have to spell out bits of data over the phone, like their name and address, among other things. This saves time and money, but it also makes agents and customers happier since they can get right down to business on every call, rather than asking and answering mundane questions.

This video summarizes it succinctly: https://vimeo.com/nextcaller/advanced-caller-id

Make sure to stop by the Next Caller booth, #335, and say hello! We are excited to be a part of this community. We hope to share our excitement by providing some free breath mints (much needed after talking all day at a conference) and sunscreen (much needed for that warm, San Diego sun). 

See you in sunny San Diego –

–Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

The History of Caller ID

by Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

“You blocked me on Facebook…and now you are going to die.” These are lyrics to a popular song called “Internet Friends.” While these lyrics are certainly hyperbolic, it is still fascinating to think about the society we live in today, where privacy seems like an afterthought. In this fictional scenario, blocking someone from seeing your personal information leads to your impending doom.

Years ago, it was a rule of thumb not to answer the phone during dinner time because presumably you were busy, but also because you assumed it was a telemarketer. Then caller ID came out, and suddenly when you got that important family phone call during dinner, you could answer the phone. That relative you don’t feel like talking to right now? Well, maybe they can wait.

The point is, caller identification is part of a growing movement where information is shared more easily and seamlessly. The invention of caller ID not only allows us to “screen” our calls before answering, but it also eliminates the 15-20 seconds we used to have at the beginning of every phone call figuring out who is calling to begin with.

What’s amazing to me is the lack of innovation in this arena in the past few decades. Seriously, what improvements have you seen to caller ID ever since it first came out? The best I have seen is that on my iPhone, I can now see a picture of the person calling me along with their name. And while a picture may mean a thousand words, it really does not offer much additional insight – like what the person has tweeted lately, or what products they are searching for on Google.

The first prototype of modern Caller ID was developed in 1971 by Theodore Paraskevakos. In patents related to those devices, he proposed to send alphanumeric information to the receiving apparatus, and this was received with great success. His invention was improved by Japanese inventor Kazuo Hashimoto, who in 1976 built a prototype of a Caller ID display device that could receive Caller ID information. The first market trial for Caller ID was conducted by BellSouth in 1984.

But since 1984, there has been very little innovation to traditional caller ID. In 1995, call waiting ID was introduced by Bellcore, but this only allowed caller ID to be transmitted while the user was simultaneously on the phone; it did not make any improvement to traditional caller ID. Rising popularity of cellular phones is actually making caller ID increasingly obsolete; most networks do not support the necessary infrastructure to support the transmission of this data. For this reason, carriers report the name as “unavailable” or “wireless caller.” In 2002, mobile users surpassed landline subscribers, and in 2014, cell phones outnumber landlines 6:1. In ten years, it is anticipated that this ratio will grow to 18:1.

We at Next Caller are working hard to finally improve caller ID once again. What kinds of improvements do you foresee in the world of caller ID? What is missing today that would be helpful to your business?

5 Reasons Why Your Customers Want to Talk to a Human

by Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

If you’re anything like me, you don’t spend too much time looking for the answer to your question online because it is time-consuming, tedious, and sometimes painful. Oftentimes, in looking for the answer to your question online, you just come up with more questions. I will be honest – I reach for the phone almost immediately. It’s just my personality. I want immediate answers, so I can get on to the next issue or task in my life.

If you Google “customer service human,” there are a variety of different websites and articles that are devoted to teaching you the tips and tricks required to get on the phone with a human as soon as possible. Many of these links are associated with specific brands, i.e., “When X airline asks whether your reservation is entirely within the United States or Canada, just press 0.” Indeed, I am used to pressing 0 as much as I can until I get a human on the phone. Why is this?

1. Quick Resolution

This is by far the most important reason anyone wants to talk to a human. If you have reached the point where you need to pick up the phone, presumably it means one of two things: either you exhausted all other means to obtain the right answer to your question, or you altogether do not care to try any of these means and just want to talk to someone right away. It’s simply easier to sit on your couch and get an answer to your question than it is to dig around for it until you find it somewhere. In both situations, the phone IVR is destined to fail before it even gets started. 

2. It Feels Cheap

This might just be me personally, but complicated IVR systems that try to route me to the right place just seem cheap. It feels like the company is making every effort not to connect with me as the consumer, which makes me feel less valued as a customer. If a company is taking steps to avoid a conversation with me, why should I do business with them?

3. Doubt That Your IVR is Actually Helpful

Many consumers doubt that the IVR will actually make the process more efficient. What if what I need is Option 9 every time? This means I need to listen to 8 other options over and over again before selecting mine. Sure, when I get on the phone with someone, the call might be more efficient, but will that make up for the lost time listening to options over and over again? Why not just talk to someone immediately and let them transfer me to the right representative? Seems a lot easier that way.

4. They Have Multiple Questions

Some consumers are genuinely happy to engage with your IVR, but they have multiple questions that need resolution. This means that they would have to either make several phone calls and go through the IVR, or just call once and get transferred around to the various reps who could handle each concern. The latter seems a lot easier. Along those lines, many customers have very precise questions that they suspect going into the call are the types of questions that really do not fall into any sort of pre-determined category set up by the brand or company being called. In this scenario, it’s easier to just get someone on the phone.

5. Emotion is Involved

You know how this one plays out. The angry customers who yells “YES!!” when being prompted with a Yes or No question, and repeatedly dials 0 over and over again until some poor agent on the other line answers the phone. Let’s face it: emotion is involved when you feel wronged by a brand. Where logic and reason might guide you to a simple solution online (rather than taking a few deep breaths), emotion instead takes over and you do something you might regret later. I always try to kill people with kindness when I have customer service questions or complaints. That’s really the best way to get what you want. Unfortunately, not everyone feels the same way.

5 Reasons Why Your Customers Hate Calling You

by Jeff Kirchick (@JeffreyKirchick)

There is a negative stigma associated with calling customer service, but is it deserved? Personally, I have friends who have driven to a company’s physical location out of fear that said company might mishandle the situation over the phone. If you go on twitter and just follow the #CustomerService hashtag, chances are you see the words “sucks” or “horrible” quite frequently. Let’s face it: though customers are more likely to talk about negative experiences, such negative experiences are occurring still too often today. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the telecommunications industry, everyone seems to be moving forward. You can do just about anything on your smartphone today, but what you can’t do is make all of your customer service needs frictionless.

So, why are customers so afraid of calling customer service?

1. Waiting on hold

We live in an on-demand world. We’re spoiled. Everything is at our fingertips: TV shows on Hulu, games on your cell phone – you can even see a doctor immediately through a site called DoctorsOnDemand.com. Waiting in line is a thing of the past. And now that people are so used to getting immediate results, waiting on hold when they truly need your help seems all the more irritable. It doesn’t help that hold music eerily resembles elevator music, and what happens when the customer suddenly gets disconnected after a long hold? If the customer is already angry about something, making them wait minutes at a time adds up to hours and days wasted on hold at the end of the year (by our calculation, the average person wastes more than a day per year on hold!). 

2. Your IVR is all messed up

I recently called one of my credit card providers to notify them that I would be traveling abroad. But first, I had to wait about a minute for the company CEO to apologize to me about the recent hacking at Target of sensitive credit card information, something that was irrelevant to me specifically. There was no way to dial out of this lecture, so I had to sit patiently before dialing “0” over and over again so that I could talk to a human. And that is precisely the issue – you invest in setting up an IVR that customers are ready to bypass before even listening. Websites like gethuman.com are designed to teach consumers the easiest and fastest way to reach a human for your company. That means the customer calls you with a predetermined plan for what to do once they get through – regardless of the protocol you have set up on the other end of the line to help streamline the process.

3. Spelling information over the phone

I have wondered why when I call airlines with questions, why I must have my confirmation code handy in order to be helped. Can’t they look me up by name? The same goes for hotels and a host of other brands. There is nothing more infantilizing than spelling your name over the phone. With the last name “Kirchick,” I have had to do this hundreds of times. And what happens when you get to a letter in the alphabet that is hard to come up with a generic word for? “C” as in “cat”…but what bout “I”? At Next Caller, we say “P” as in “pterodactyl” to poke fun at this archaic method of relaying information. The telephone was meant for conversation, not relaying bits of data. And your customers are calling you to ask questions, not answer them. I literally just got off a customer service call with Microsoft in which I spent thirty minutes spelling letters of product keys, email addresses, and physical addresses to a representative in India who repeatedly confused the letter “C” with the letter “T.” All of this for nothing, too. Which leads to the next problem…

4. An unhelpful agent

Part of the negative stigma associated with call centers is the reality that many of them are outsourced to other countries. This oftentimes leads to the feeling that the employee is not truly a part of the company, more of a mercenary working on behalf of whomever the customer is calling. What it also means is that the agent might not speak perfect English. Not only does this lead us back to problem 3 above, but it also leads to common misunderstandings over the phone. This certainly is just as likely to happen with any agent, not just those for whom English is a second language. Customers call customer service for resolution, and if their inquiry is unresolved after speaking with the first agent, this just adds to the frustration of the entire experience.

5. Being transferred to another agent

So what happens when the first agent can’t help you? You get transferred to a second agent. Many things can happen from here, but the most frustrating is that you suddenly get disconnected. Or, potentially even worse, the next agent knows nothing about why you are calling, and so now you are starting from scratch. I vividly remember last year trying to claim frequent flier miles through my preferred airline for a flight I had with one of their partners. Both companies insisted I needed to call the other airline in order to be serviced, and maintained that they would stay on the line when transferring me to resolve the issue together over the phone. And yet, every time these alleged “three-party” encounters were set to occur, the airline I had initially called would always hang up when transferring my call…leaving me right back where I started. Statistically speaking, first-call resolution is important to the consumer. So, it is important to make sure you are working to get it right the first time.