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. 

Offline Interactions Don't Exist: Wisdom from Dan Gingiss

By: Tim Prugar         

           Last week, I had the pleasure to sit in The Standard Club in Chicago, Illinois and listen to Dan Gingiss present to a room full of Customer Experience Executives regarding his philosophy on social customer service. With a single, calmly delivered thesis, Dan changed the tone of the room from interest and curiosity to stunned realization: there is no longer any such thing as an offline experience.

            This point is even more pertinent during the recent whirlwind of airline controversies. Whether it’s assaulted passengers, threatened parents, slapped cell phones, or retaliatory reservation cancellations, it’s clear that what happens on airplanes or in airports is not probably going to find its way on line, but is certainly going to do so. An endless spate of blog posts have been penned expounding upon the need for empathy and knowing the full situation before reacting (or in these cases, overreacting). However, when these PR nightmares explode online, brands typically have at least a few precious hours to huddle, fact-gather, game-plan, and ultimately craft an A/B tested response with more complete information.

            But what if you’re a Contact Center agent, and your “Customer Service Nightmare” is happening with you, on the phone, in real-time?

            The strongest agents have an ability to de-escalate, gather information, express empathy (or even sympathy!) and work rapidly towards a resolution. However, even agents possessing those incredible professional and social skills start the conversation from behind the proverbial 8-ball. So what can brands do to ensure that a contentious customer service phone call doesn’t become a viral social media debacle?

            It’s simple. Arm your agents with more information before they even pick up the phone.

            If I’m experiencing a CX nightmare, and the first thing I have to do is spell, respell, repeat, and re-respell my last name? I am certainly not going to de-escalate any time soon. If it takes upwards of 2 minutes to link my call to the item I’m calling about that was never delivered? Not helping the situation. If agents are able to acquire information as basic as the name and home address of the caller, or as advanced as the caller’s email address or social media profiles, they are immediately better equipped to skip the friction-filled portion of the call and get right down to collaborating with the caller to solve the issue.  

            There is no situation where more information or more context cannot better prepare the customer-facing brand representative to do their job more effectively.

            Keep yourself off of the internet for bad reasons and on it for good ones. Give your agents the information they need to handle every interaction, every time.

 

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

The Endangered Customer - A Next Caller Interview with Richard Shapiro

Richard R. Shapiro is Founder and President of The Center For Client Retention (TCFCR) and a leading authority in the area of customer satisfaction and loyalty.  For 28 years, Richard has spearheaded the research conducted with thousands of customers from Fortune 100 and 500 companies amassing the ingredients of customer loyalty and what drives repeat business.  His first book wasThe Welcomer Edge: Unlocking the Secrets to Repeat Business and The Endangered Customer: 8 Steps to Guarantee Repeat Business, was released February, 2016.

You can order a copy of The Endangered Customer, a Next Caller favorite, here.

 

NC: What inspired your interest in customer service, and ultimately, to write this book?

Richard: In the book, and this is true, it came from my dad, working in his store. Age 10,11,12. My father was the ultimate salesperson and he clearly believed in relationships and treating people as people first. I was in retail until after college, every summer through high school and college I worked in a retail store, and I think retail is the best way to learn about customer service. Retail can be hospitality or working at a department store. Both of my sons worked in the local pizza parlor starting at age 14 and both are very, very passionate about service. If I’m hiring somebody I love to see that they worked in a pizza parlor or a gas station or anywhere where they talked to consumers one-on-one.

NC: What do you see as the largest challenges facing businesses attempting to provide outstanding customer service in this day and age?

Richard: Budgets are very tight. In any business there’s always money for some things and not money for others, so it’s a challenge to work within a budget. They’re penny wise and pound foolish – to me, the strongest loyalty is to a person – not to a company and not to a brand. Under that basic premise you need to hire good people and treat them well and keep them because these days, products and services are very complicated and if you don’t keep the people who really are knowledgeable- that’s a tremendous asset that you’re losing. As a company, look at where you’re spending money and continually invest in hiring the right people, training the right people, and making sure that they’re customer friendly. That’s one of the ingredients of generating repeat business. Coupled with that, companies think they can save money by having customers shop online, but unless they’ve set up their site to be people to people instead of people to computer they’re turning their products into a commodity. My eight steps are really good for call centers, brick and mortar or eCommerce. That’s the exact same thing for a call center. Unfortunately in the call center, most of the time companies are paying their employees very low wages and many times they’ll leave for another dollar an hour – it just doesn’t make sense to have them go for another dollar an hour.

NC: In your opinion, what differentiates "great" from "outstanding" customer service?

Richard: The great are kind of like my first five steps – the customer really feels that they had a really good customer experience. Their rep was friendly and knowledgeable and engaging, all those things make it a really good customer experience. I’m going to say that makes it great. Where it goes outstanding are my last three steps – getting them to return, showing them they matter, and surprising them in good ways. The customer experience continues. It should not be "one and done." That experience can be great, but if you want it to be outstanding and you want to generate repeat business you have to continue the customer experience. Tell them you want to see them again, call them again, let them know that they matter. Especially in a call center environment, the company many not know them before, but now they reach out to the company so you can collect that information, once you have that customer in your database, you can show them that they’re a loyal customer and they count. That’s what makes the call center so important, after you solve the problem how you continue to communicate with that customer – through email or promotions or letters – is really critical. That way you can continue to build upon that database.

NC: How can companies use enhanced customer information to improve their customer service?

Richard: Number one, if they do the first step which is make them feel welcome, which is why I love Next Caller’s information. It’s really hard, even for the best rep, to enter all that information while also having a personal conversation. The more that the fields are populated with information, then I think that it does allow psychologically, physically, and mentally for the rep to establish some kind of personal relationship at the outset of and during the call. Then three or six months later reach out to the customer again – we know you had an issue, we wanted to let you know that we appreciated your business and care about you, things like that really help. In addition, so many companies that keep good track of their consumers and have it categorized. Sometimes a product is discontinued, and knowing who those consumers that would care about that to reach out to them is important.

NC: Any parting advice for call centers regarding customer service?

Richard: Yes! So many times in a call center environment somebody will say "Thanks for you help!" and the rep will say “No problem” – and they should never be saying that – they should always be saying “No, my pleasure.”

 

Like what Richard has to say about customer service, call centers, and knowing your customer? Check out his book here.

Don't Call it a Call Center - A Next Caller Interview with Jeremy Watkin

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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.