A member of the Next Caller team, Zach Shaw holds a Philosophy degree from Princeton University with a certificate in Computer Science. Every so often, Zach shares his musings about the intersection of big data and technology with some age-old philosophical questions.
In her recent book Reclaiming Conversation, Sherry Turkle explores the effects of our constant use of social media on our mobile devices. Originally, the constant connection brought about by new technologies was seen as an extension of our personal identities. However, as Turkle notes, there are many adverse effects from these information communication technologies (ICTs) - foremost the replacement of face-to-face communication by digital interaction. People do not learn empathy through the use of social networks. They learn how to get the most likes on their profiles. Our self esteem is intimately linked with our popularity on such websites, and we'll do everything in our power to boost that popularity, including sacrificing an intimate conversation with a friend or family member. Even when we are conversing face-to-face, our mobile devices make it possible for us to be 'alone together.' We can be physically together with another person, but completely inattentive to them as a human being. As a society this is a major development, and, in the eyes of Turkle, a major problem.
Not lagging behind, the customer service space has adapted to such technologies. We can tweet about our bad experience on an airline. We can email the customer service department about our phone malfunctioning. We can online chat with a representative about our order on Amazon.com. Communication to address our concerns with a product or service has been extended by these ICTs; consequently, as customers, it is easier than ever to solve our problems. Yet, when we really are frustrated we still resort to the phone.
A customer service phone call is uniquely outside the grasp of distracting mobile technologies because both individuals on the call are focused on achieving the same goal: solving the customer's problem as quickly as possible. You, the customer, want your concern addressed, and, until it is, you will give your undivided attention to the phone call. Conversely, the representative will lose his or her job if not engaged. So in this one case, the ability to have limitless distractions and data at your fingertips does not hinder the quality of your conversation.
Let's compare this to a typical conversation with a friend. You both have several different goals. You each want to improve your status on Facebook. Maybe one of you wants some encouragement to work harder at your job from the conversation. The other friend wants to talk about the latest gossip. There is somewhat of a prisoner's dilemma here. Because you both took the time to hang out, let's assume that you both enjoy hanging out more than going on Facebook. Given that assumption, let's give the value of 1 happiness point to each of you for the action of going on Facebook, and the value of 5 for the other two activities of face-to-face conversation. However, if you choose to go on Facebook, you are guaranteed 1 point whereas, if you choose to engage in the face-to-face conversation where you both are pursuing different goals, it is likely that one of you will not achieve your goal.
Even if you are very risk-averse, you would probably choose the conversation at first - that's why you both are hanging out. But if the conversation starts to veer off course of your individual goal to another topic (I assume in my model your friend's goal instead), it is more beneficial for you to stop paying attention to the conversation and to go on Facebook. If there is a more comfortable, egotistical alternative to genuine empathy, we will take it. Therein lies the dilemma of being 'alone together.'
Conversely, returning to customer service calls, the conversation is actually improved by recently developed ICTs. Certain technologies allow representatives to access demographic information about their customers which these representatives can use to better meet their customers' needs. With new innovations like omni-channel integration, representatives can specialize their knowledge to specific products or services, and thus better achieve the joint goal of any customer service conversation: addressing the customer's concern. Instead of destroying the quality of these conversations, new technologies are enabling better communication in the customer service space.
In spite of the stigma arguments like Turkle’s have started to propagate against ICTs, customer service providers and call center professionals need to take advantage of these new technologies in order to maintain customer loyalty. The average person’s patience is dwindling because of the immediate gratification these technologies have brought to us. As a result, customer service needs to be better than ever before, and these new technologies are the only way to meet consumers’ rising expectations. Without adapting to this changing landscape, customers will go on Facebook if they aren’t satisfied within a couple minutes - and choose a competitor.
Interested in more of Zach's philosophical musings? Contact the author - firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Ian Roncoroni | CEO, NextCaller
Measured growth is greater than growth for growth’s sake
One of the most persistent debates for founders today revolves around growth vs profitability. More specifically, which metric is more important to attract funding. Truthfully, it’s a complex question dependent on multiple variables, including how the economy is performing, how liquid the fundraising climate is, how big the market opportunity is, what your competitors are doing, and so on.
In Twilio’s case, there’s no doubt that VCs, who have valued the company at around $1 billion, pegged their belief (and their checks) on the startup’s growth. Despite not posting a profit since its inception, Twilio’s revenue (up 78% YTD) and customer base -- which boasts the likes of Uber, Facebook and WhatsApp -- continues to grow at a steady clip.
While different investors will weigh different factors when deciding whether to invest in your company, if you’re able to show that you can capture your market through steady growth, they’ll certainly take notice.
A Bird in the Hand
In general, most startup founders want to stay private longer, simply because of the red tape and scrutiny that comes with going public, not to mention the risk of having your stock prices moored down when going public because of a perceived inflated valuation -- hello Square. I once heard the CEO of a privately held unicorn respond to the question of whether or not he’d ever go public by saying, “Go public? Why would I go public? I already have a pocket square.”
Because of this, some have speculated that Twilio might not have received the valuation they wanted from private investors, and were prompted to go public sooner than they would have liked instead of seeking additional private funding.
While this is purely speculation, there is a lesson here for founders. During times where capital is harder to come by, it’s better to make a reasonable compromise on valuation than risk running dry altogether, or making a deal that almost certainly sets you up for failure down the road, especially if you aren’t turning a profit that can help you sustain dryer times.
Friends in High Places
As a Twilio partner, their IPO filing is very exciting for us; it gives us quick exposure and legitimacy, much like going through a top-notch accelerator like YC. For any startup, integrating with such a high growth platform and brand is a way to reach more customers than you might have been able to do with an early stage sales force.
Twilio is no stranger to this philosophy themselves. The company’s rocketship growth has in part been driven by integrations with some of Silicon Valley’s most prized unicorns. Uber’s mobile app uses Twilio to update riders with mobile messages, while WhatsApp uses the service to verify the 1 billion+ users on their platform in a deal that drives more than $28M a year in sales for Twilio.
One of a startup's biggest challenges lies in crossing the chasm between early adopters and the mainstream market. Companies like Twilio are great vehicles for startups looking to make this leap because they understand that small companies can (and often) do things larger companies can’t, and therefore are more apt to seek partnerships with other young startups. At the same time, these companies are big enough to be respected and even feared by some of the biggest companies in the world.
A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats
While an IPO by a company like Twilio is a positive signal for telecom startups that enterprises continue to adopt cloud-based technology, I believe there could be bigger picture implications here.
Many have been lamenting the cool IPO climate thus far in 2016 and pointing to it as further proof that we are entering dark times. Others say we just need a rock star IPO to open the window and rally companies to go public again.
Whether or not Twilio will be that rockstar to reenergize the IPO market for 2016 remains to be seen, but there’s no shortage of folks who are betting that their stellar business model, consistent performance, and strong leadership will get the waters churning and create a spillover of funding for startups throughout the rest of 2016.
Law of the Land: Spokeo, Inc. v. Robins
By: Ryan Cash
The recent Supreme Court case involving Spokeo, Inc. and Thomas Robins has implications for data providers and companies handling consumer information. Next Caller takes a deeper dive into the case, decision, and importantly, the dissent, to evaluate what this means for the industry moving forward.
One can search Spokeo for personal information (address, marital status, age, economic health, occupation) about an individual via his or her name, phone number or email address. The case invokes the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1970, (FCRA), which applies to companies that provide information bearing on someone’s credit standing, character, reputation, etc. Given the nature of the information Spokeo provides, it is alleged to be subject to FCRA. Companies subject to FCRA must follow “reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of” consumer reports. To make sure reporting agencies follow FCRA, Congress grants consumers the right to sue noncomplying agencies.
Thomas Robins’ Spokeo profile contained inaccurate information. He was unemployed and claims the misinformation affected his ability to get a job. By presenting wrong information, Robins says Spokeo willfully violated FCRA’s requirements. The key is establishing whether Robins has standing to sue. To have standing, he must show that Spokeo’s conduct caused him “injury in fact” which requires “particular and concrete harm.” In English, Spokeo’s conduct injured Robins himself, as an individual, not the greater public, and the injury is real, not hypothetical. The District Court ruled Robins’ did not meet the requirements. The Ninth Circuit reversed saying Spokeo violated his rights under FCRA, and the mishandling of his information harmed him as an individual, so he has standing to sue. The Supreme Court evaluates the Ninth Circuit’s decision.
Decision and Reasoning:
The Supreme Court rules the Ninth Circuit’s analysis was incomplete. This rests on a distinction between the terms “particular and concrete.” According to the Supreme Court, the Ninth Circuit wrongly combined the two independent requirements, and their analysis only satisfied one of them: “particular.” They successfully showed that the handling of Robins’ personal information affected him as an individual, rather than the greater public (ie. the wrong information in Robins’ profile did not harm you or I). However, their analysis did not take up the question of concreteness. They did not adequately address whether the FCRA violation resulted in real harm. Justice Alito provides examples of where FCRA violations may cause no harm, such as if Spokeo gives an incorrect zip code, it would be a rather innocuous violation. It’s important to understand the Supreme Court is ruling on the Ninth Circuit’s analysis, not the case itself. The Court takes no position on whether the Ninth Circuit’s conclusion was correct or not. They simply rule that the analysis is incomplete, and send the case back to the Ninth Circuit.
Justice Ginsberg leads the dissent, and her reasoning rests on two arguments. One is historical precedent. She provides multiple cases where the terms “concrete and particular” were combined in the ruling. In other words, historically the court has not needed to discuss “concrete” and “particular” independently, as this ruling claimed it did. The second, and in my opinion, more interesting argument, is that Justice Ginsberg believes the violation of FCRA’s requirements in this case did in fact cause concrete harm, and that Thomas Robins has standing to sue. She essentially finds the court’s observation to be a red herring. The opinion stated there are cases where an FCRA violation would cause no harm, such as providing an incorrect zip code. However, in Ginsberg’s eyes, this case is fundamentally different. Spokeo misrepresented Robins’ education, economic status and family situation, which could create an impression that he is overqualified for the positions that he is seeking and materially affect his job prospects. FCRA’s requirements were designed to prevent situations exactly like this. Therefore, she sees merit in Robins’ complaint and would affirm the Ninth Circuit’s decision.
Discussion and Implications:
Okay, enough legal jargon. So what does this mean? There are important considerations embedded in this ruling. First, the Supreme Court did not officially rule in favor of Spokeo or decide on the merits of Robins’ allegation. They gave the legal equivalent of a “maybe, but I’m not convinced yet; go back to the drawing board.” In other words, this case is very much alive and not settled. Second, Justice Ginsberg’s dissent gives an indication of the type of reasoning that will be used moving forward. She says there is concrete harm here. The misinformation from Robins’ Spokeo profile constitutes real and concrete harm to his employment prospects. The Ninth Circuit’s judgment simply did not address it in full, but if they do, they can reaffirm their decision. Hopefully they do not just copy and paste, but you never know.
For data companies, it’s important to be aware that protection of consumer information is top of mind for litigators and the courts. Companies need to take extra precaution to ensure that they are carefully, responsibly and accurately handling consumer information, and they are compliant with relevant statutes, like FCRA. If you do not wish to fall under FCRA, know that a disclaimer alone is not enough to exempt you. Know who is using the information you are providing and how they are using it. Ensure that those using the information are aware of the requirements of legislation like FCRA, because if they use it in a way that violates said requirements; the hammer comes down on the agency. If you provide information that could relate to credit, character, personal characteristics, etc. make sure it is not being used for discriminatory practice or creditworthiness evaluation (ability to pay bills, employment, etc.). For further reading on best practices consult the FTC Big Data Report here.
Jeremy Watkin is the Head of Quality at FCR, one of the most respected outsource providers. He has more than 15 years of experience as a customer service professional. He is also the co-founder and regular contributor on Communicate Better Blog. Jeremy has been recognized many times for his thought leadership. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome customer service and experience insights.
Why are call centers still relevant in today’s age of social media?
Call Centers are irrelevant in this day and age, but thankfully “Contact Centers” aren’t. That single change in word really points to the way contact centers have evolved along with technology and the growing needs and preferences of both businesses and customers. While phone is still king, email, chat, social media, and SMS are definitely gaining steam and the evolution is far from over. That being said, supporting customers over the phone is still a much more effective channel for clear communication and de escalation of customers.
How do you ensure a frictionless customer experience?
This starts with contact centers realizing just how important their role is in the overall customer experience. Many interactions with customers occur because there is friction in the customer experience. Observations gained on the front lines from talking directly with customers along with feedback from customer surveys is a gold mine of insight for reducing friction in the customer experience. Customer service needs to work with all other departments in the organization to make sure those insights are shared and acted upon. This must become a regular discipline.
What are your largest challenges in providing excellent call center service?
From the perspective of the agents, the largest challenge is having the tools, training, resources and support to solve problems. The better leadership does at putting those things in place and having enough engaged customer service professionals to answer the calls, the better customer service will be. From a leadership standpoint, the temptation is to live in “fire fighting mode” all of the time and never step back and find ways to become more efficient and really improve customer service.
How does knowing more about your caller improve the call experience, both for the customer and for the agent?
In a contact center, the more you know about your caller BEFORE they call, the less you have to ask them during the call. Looking up an account and verifying the caller’s name and number takes a minute on a good call. I’ve listened to calls where english wasn’t the primary language and it took several minutes just to look up the account. When you talk about reducing handle times by minutes there is real cost savings associated with that. Besides that, what customer actually wants to spend any more time than they have to talking to customer service? You should see improvement in customer satisfaction as well.
In one word, what is your guiding value for your call center(s)?
People! Focus on your people first. As a leader, you should embody the same great customer service skills that you expect from your agents on every customer interaction. Listen to them, learn what frustrates them and do something to improve that. That will absolutely trickle down to customers.