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In-person customer interactions have been limited this year, so call and contact centres are in the spotlight. Comms Business finds out the state of the market, and what innovations are on the horizon.

The technologies that power call and contact centres have been undergoing a quiet revolution over the past decade, yet the unique circumstances that have dominated this year have put these innovations firmly in the spotlight. With many in-person services put on hold, every company that handles customer queries via a contact centre has had to pay much closer attention to the processes and technologies in place.

“The shock of how suddenly the Covid-19 crisis took hold, and how quickly the situation escalated, put organisations of every type under significant and sometimes unprecedented strain,” explained Martin Taylor, deputy CEO and co-founder of Content Guru. “For the contact centre industry, which employs more than four per cent of the UK’s working population, [the] disruption [caused by coronavirus] proved to be a fast-acting stimulant, injecting increased remote working and the adoption of cloud technologies.

“We are not out of the woods yet, but the coronavirus is already positively impacting the way contact centres operate. Those who decided to move to cloud-based technology have discovered that, since operations can continue to run just as smoothly with home-based agents, flexible working [is] a viable option for their staff.”

The view that flexible working is here to stay was shared by every contact centre specialist we spoke to. Adam Wilson, regional channel manager for EMEA at Vonage, said, “Our way of working has fundamentally changed, and this will likely be a constant as workforce strategies continue to embrace a distributed, but highly connected, work environment.

“The need for companies to differentiate and deliver personalised, engaging experiences is exploding as customer demands grow for remote experiences that deliver a level of familiarity and connectedness through video, voice, chat, messaging and verification.”

Similarly, Natalie Keightley, senior director of global solutions marketing at Avaya, explained, “The old way of having contact centres in buildings and agents tied to desks has gone for good. Organisations that couldn’t change to the new way of working went into turmoil this year. Processes, structures, management styles that businesses have been holding on to – all these things need to evolve and adapt to the current landscape for businesses to not only survive but thrive.

“We now know with certainty that, with the right support and technology, a contact centre agent can work from anywhere – sometimes even providing better services.”

There has also been a widespread shift to the cloud this year. Matt Parker, CEO at Babble, said, “The contact centre hasn’t changed, but the way they are deployed has. Contact centres are now finally moving to the cloud, brought about by the need for business continuity and the need for businesses to be more agile and scalable in order to deal with disruption. CCaaS has enabled many businesses to survive, and be in a position to thrive when the opportunity presents itself.”

Nigel Dunn, managing director for EMEA North at Jabra, explained that remote-working and the cloud go hand in hand. He said, “Contact centres have become ever more crucial to customers during the lockdown period and have performed admirably in the face of adversity, but it has not come without its challenges. For contact centre managers, the reduced visibility and face time with their staff creates challenges in keeping staff motivated. On top of this, the extra demand from customers is also causing planning and staffing issues. Many contact centres have seen a shift in normal contact patterns caused by changing customer lifestyles and buying habits because of the pandemic.

“But the industry continues to rise to the challenge. The shift to homeworking has driven the need for contact centres to deploy UC and operate in the cloud. Traditionally, they have favoured on-premises solutions. While the move to UC has challenged IT managers within the contact centre to upskill and train agents, supervisors and managers to adopt and use the new tech, the benefits have already been seen and will continue to provide long term ROI for the contact centre.”

Aside from remote-working and moving to cloud-based services, AI has also come into its own this year. Paul Thomas, VP, NICE inContact EMEA, said, “In 2020, we’ve seen AI driven self-service explode as consumers looks for new more convenient ways to connect. For businesses who are still “on the fence” about AI’s impact in the contact centre, the pandemic showed that it could be a useful tool to connect people with information, especially in times of significant change.

Thomas added that NICE inContact has seen that those businesses that implemented AI found they could better handle surging call volumes, as well as achieving better business outcomes. “Not only are consumers happy to skip the queue and save time but letting them self-serve frees up contact centre agents to focus on higher-value interactions that require a human touch.”

Another area that has come to the fore this year has been mobile. Justin Hamilton-Martin, director at Centile, part of Enreach, said, “Mobile traffic has grown during 2020, and so it can no longer be thought of as an afterthought: the UK is beginning to embrace the ‘mobile first’ mentality that has been prevalent in the Nordics for years. Mobile is a big opportunity for early adopter partners, and the tools and services are in place so that they don’t have to make big additional investments or become mobile comms experts overnight.”

Simon Horton, VP of sales, Europe at Sangoma, said smaller businesses are now embracing the contact centre. He explained, “Many small and medium businesses didn’t really need to have a contact centre because they just had a receptionist who transferred the calls internally. Now, with employees working remotely, they need some kind of basic contact centre functionality. At Sangoma, we’ve been doing a lot of deals because we have the basic contact centre functionality included in our base product for free.

Horton pointed to certain features – such as music on hold, call back, callback when available, call queues, and inbound callers retaining their position in line if they hang up – that are particularly in demand. Inbound calls can be routed to both desk phones and mobiles, so customer service can easily be handled remotely. He explained “These all-important call centre features enable better customer service and make your company look bigger to the outside world.”

Perfecting the customer experience

There remains a need to improve the customer experience amidst the transition to new types of technologies. “The customer experience has become even more of a dealbreaker in 2020 than ever before, with engagement narrowed down to digital screens and phones,” said Hamilton-Martin, from Centile. “What matters here is making sure that customers get the very best experience. While they may be used to communicating digitally now, they are not going to put up with a poor CX for long. After all, how many of us have given up on an online purchase because we struggled with some of the boxes on the sales form, and the online chatbot was so basic that it didn’t help at all? Or maybe it took too long to get in front of a real human being to get an answer. Any improve[ment of] the contact centre experience is going to be an advantage.”

Paul Holden, head of sales at Akixi, said, “Customer experience can enhance or trash a brand so consistency across all channels of interaction is key. I expect the same level of service whether I use chat, social media, phone or email. It’s often quicker to use chat or social than wait for an email response 48 hours later. Brands that treat CX [customer experience] as a differentiator win!”

Tony Martino, CEO of Tollring, argued that customer experience has become a focus as, unlike the ongoing pandemic, it is a variable that businesses can control. He said, “In a year where businesses have had to operate at the mercy of a changing environment and disruptive policies, CX represents a welcome opportunity to invest in something that’s more (but not completely!) within their control. The trend for investing in CX is as strong as ever – it is a key lever to pull when defining a competitive differentiation strategy. As we all know, it is far more efficient to keep a customer than to find a new one.”

Jason Roos, CEO at Cirrus, pointed to four areas that his company feels are vital to a good customer experience. He said, “Customer experience is even more critical in 2020. We now live in a world of unprecedented choice and the emphasis is on businesses to adapt to the preferences and behaviours of the consumer.

“We see four factors that are critical in providing customers with the experience they are looking for in 2020 and beyond. Choice – consumers want to interact in the way they prefer at that particular moment in time. Effortless – it should be fast, easy and natural to get the service you need. Effective – your question is answered first time, your issue is resolved immediately. Confidence – consumers expect their personal and payment information to be protected, regardless of the channel they use.”

Sangoma’s Horton said that, when it comes to perfecting the customer experience, “anyone who is using a unified communication system has an advantage, and anyone who has some basic contact centre functionality as part of that has an even bigger advantage”. He added that “simply forwarding calls to your personal mobile number is not good enough”, customers expect much more streamlined, professional services in 2020.

Horton also explained why businesses need to consider the role company websites can play in the customer journey. He said, “With more people coming to your website, ensuring your website experience is great, including a really good chatbot experience, is advantageous.”

Matt Parker, CEO at Babble, discussed the role customer experience plays in delivering customer loyalty. He said, “Customer experience is more important than ever. Customer needs have changed during the disruption of 2020, and those businesses that have made resolution easy through the deployment of appropriate technology will have built a much stronger connection and earnt loyalty. In the long-run, this customer loyalty will pay dividends.”

Companies should also consider whether stop-gap measures put in place in light of the pandemic are sustainable long-term. Temporary fixes might be causing suboptimal customer experiences that might cause frustration down the line. Jabra’s Dunn explained, “Customer expectations have shifted in light of the pandemic and there is a general acceptance that calling companies will be a different experience right now. However, customers still have expectations that need to be met – such as the quality of the voice on the call, acceptable levels of background noise and hold times.

“Companies that want to compete to offer the best customer experience in 2020 will be taking steps and investing in technology to ensure that advisors have the right equipment, information and environment to be able to represent their company well and to meet customer expectations around wait times with clear communication.”

Meeting expectations with AI

AI has been a common thread throughout these conversations. There is a consensus that AI-based technologies have reached a new level of sophistication at a time when people are becoming more accepting of them. Contact centre agents and supervisors alike can benefit from weaving these technologies across their daily duties.

Paul Thomas, VP, NICE inContact EMEA, explained that the events of 2020 have made AI-based services a lot more palatable than in the past. He said, “With consumers and agents working from home, maybe even with children in the background, digital communication is more critical than ever before. Contact centres are seeing customers show a willingness to try new things.

“Those bots and IVR systems that might have been intimidating before are helpful solutions in this chaotic age. The pandemic has motivated consumers to pursue new channels of communication to accommodate the chaos of life in quarantine. Contact centre leaders failing to adopt digital are missing out on an enormous opportunity to create meaningful connections with customers.”

Akixi’s Holden added, “The future contact centre agent will be both bot and human, will be located anywhere in the world, always on, connected [and] focused on customer experience.”

Avaya’s Keightley explained that AI will become more pervasive as contact centre supervisors look to better support their remote agents. She said that support for employees working from home “needs to take an entirely different form” from that given in physical call centre environments. AI and machine learning can help supervisors spot instances where they should intervene and offer support to agents.

She pointed to two key use cases for an AI engine. The first is AI as a virtual co-worker, where it could search for relevant information to help the agent quickly understand the background behind a customer enquiry. The other is background noise detection; this could help in a scenario such as a remote worker’s family coming home and generating more background noise. The AI could identify that the agent might be less suitable for audio tasks and automatically switch them over to non-audio work.

Keightley added, “With humans, productivity tends to drop after around two hours of doing the same job. Machine learning can anticipate this and schedule a task-change to keep interest and productivity up. Also, post-call work, such as updating notes which involves a lot of cut and paste, is often where human error can occur – so why not have the machines do this stuff? Humans are valuable but machines do what they are programmed to do, so let them do it.”

Roos, from Cirrus, highlighted the role of conversational AI in initial customer dialogues via phone, chatbot or email. These interactions will only be satisfactory to a customer if the language is natural and the AI can correctly identify what the customer wants. He added, “Conversational AI automates many customer interactions, reducing the pressure on agents and enabling them to respond to enquires that are best suited to live agents. It applies intelligence to the way interactions are routed increasing one-touch resolutions, and it empowers agents with a knowledgebase.”

AI is not only important for handling customer queries today – it can also inform future contacts. Jabra’s Dunn explained, “AI will be integrated into many different areas of the contact centre in the coming years. From being able to predict customer behaviour using interactional analysis, to using skills-based routing to help predict and respond to demand peaks. The key is that AI is deployed to improve customer service.

“A less discussed benefit of AI is the monitoring and data analytics capabilities it can provide. As staff work remotely these tools are becoming more important to monitor the performance of agents while also supporting on-going training and advice.”

Chad Willard, head of operations at Plan.com highlighted the progress made to AI engines. He said, “AI has evolved to the point where it can reliably interpret speech across a variety of dialects and accents, understand tone and in ection, and perform lookups and actions across a variety of systems.”

Yet we must not let AI run away with itself. Avaya’s Keightley summarised what is at stake here. She said, “Machines can’t do things such as showing empathy and compassion or taking a personal approach, which are especially needed in a working from home set-up to avoid agents feeling isolated.”

Future contact centre agents

These technologies will continue to evolve and future contact centre agents will become increasingly influential in delivering business outcomes. NICE inContact’s Thomas anticipates that future agents will need to deliver outstanding customer experiences across both synchronous and asynchronous support channels. He said, “Contact centre agents of the future will be well versed on all channels, regardless of business size and will likely have awareness of emerging digital channels before there is critical mass on customers leveraging those channels.”

Martino, of Tollring, added that the contact centre needs to become more collaborative. He said, “It cannot be a silo where information in or out is limited – it must be properly embedded within an organisation’s total communication and customer service flows.”

He added that future agents will also need to be empowered to improve their own performance and to provide feedback that can help improve processes. Yet Martino added that empowering agents is “one side of the challenge”. He explained, “A meaningful agent experience can only occur when augmented with effective supervisor tools, allowing predictive resource modelling and better coordination of agents’ efforts.”

Dunn, from Jabra, highlighted the future role of AI. He said, “AI advancements will change the way in which agents are supported by managers. Traditional coaching time will reduce, and AI support will become more prominent to help staff understand customer needs, access the resources needed to answer the customer’s questions and track customer satisfaction throughout each call.”

Shifting ways of working will make contact centres more inclusive working environments. Avaya’s Keightley said, “Agents balancing work and life, especially those who have children, have traditionally not been well catered for. Eight hour shifts in an office doesn’t fit well with the school run or tea-time. But, in a work from home scenario, an agent can work around their family life. There are many other people who, for various reasons, are not able to work in office buildings. This new way of working is much more inclusive – it’s about being able to work with people the way they are, not ask them to fit into the way the contact centre wants them to be.”

“The main evolution of the live contact centre agent will be in becoming more of a specialist resource, dealing with complex, non-standard queries that necessitate live interaction with customers,” explained Taylor, from Content Guru. “Standard queries will be offloaded from the human agent and handled by automated processes, powered by AI and other digital technologies. As such, contact centre agents will evolve beyond the stereotype of a person answering calls, to a person dealing with omnichannel queries that can be intelligently and rapidly tied to customer records.”

Vonage’s Wilson agreed that having AI take care of simple queries will allow agents to focus on higher value interactions. He said, “With only the most complex problems ending up in a contact centre, agents will become super agents. They will need to adapt their skill set to meet the demands of the future customer and the expectations placed on the contact centre. Aside from excellent communication skills, they’ll need analytical problem-solving skills, project management and – in some cases – technical training, in order to understand the finer details of the product or service. Agents’ training needs can be most easily identified via speech analytics, highlighting best practices to be shared and areas that need refinement, coaching and re-education.”

Discussion of AI invariably raises the question of what their adoption means for human workers. Hamilton-Martin, from Centile, said, “The elephant in the room here is, of course, will AI take over from human agents? I really believe not. A lot of the more routine tasks that take up valuable time can be carried out by AI bots, meaning that humans — whose real-time and authentic empathy cannot be replicated digitally — can focus their time on dealing with less straightforward requests. And that is going to lead to a better customer experience.

“However, there is a caveat here: the process of getting through to an agent needs to be smooth and non-frustrating: the technology is there, so why are people being presented with delays and misdirections, meaning that by the time they get through, they are annoyed?  There is no need.”

Partner value-adds

When asked whether partners are developing their own IP in this area, or if they should, Centile’s Hamilton-Martin said, “It’s less a matter of whether partners should develop their own IP, or rather, do they need to? The evolution of UCaaS technology, with AI functionality becoming increasingly built-in, means that for most partners there is no need or incentive for them to build their own IP.”

Hamilton-Martin added that, due to the complexity of natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning systems, most companies developing AI for contact centres will build their solutions on the top of solutions offered by the likes of Amazon, Google, Azure and IBM. “What is vital is that those solutions from UCaaS vendors allow room for customisation and verticalization. Partners cannot compete in a cookie-cutter, one-price-fits-all future.”

Similarly, Plan.com’s Willard said, “We have seen progressive partners taking steps towards developing their own IP. In the ever-changing competitive space of mobile connectivity, it is important for partners to differentiate themselves to stand above others in the crowd.”

Integrations will remain a key area where partners can add value to a vendor’s solution. Taylor, from Content Guru said, “A key value-add for introducing any new software-based solution to a customer is the ability to integrate into their existing environment. This could mean plugging into other key software applications such as CRM, ITSM and custom databases, as well as back-office communication applications like Microsoft Teams.”

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Charlotte Hathway

Charlotte is the editor of Comms Business and writes content to inform and educate the Channel about the latest technology and business developments from across the industry. Prior to her current role, she wrote for other MA Business titles New Electronics, Land Mobile and Critical Communications Today. Before moving into journalism, she spent five years working in public relations and has worked with various technology companies spanning telecommunications, cyber security and software development.

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