The future of customer experience: the journey to reposition live assistance
5 mins read
Our previous articles have focused on the life and pensions workplace of the future, identifying new organisational structures, and working patterns that take account of the digital revolution we’re living through. Now we’ll turn our attention to the customer experience itself.
What are the new, agile experiences customers will demand from their financial services, banking, insurance, life and pensions providers in the years to come?
Changes seen in financial services
Lockdown has caused significant changes in customer behaviour. While voice remains important, especially for vulnerable customers, other ways of engaging customer service grew rapidly. So too did self-service. As a result, we are now seeing a significant shift in how the human touch is being used in contact centres.
More and more there’s an expectation of immediacy, ‘emphasised’ by the younger generations. Smartphone users are accustomed to instant access to information, whenever and wherever they want it. It’s more than ten years since Apple trademarked the slogan “There’s an app for that” – so there really should be an app to go with your savings, bank account, pension or life assurance policy, and now more so for accessing customer service from your bank, insurer or pension provider.
How will this affect the skills and profile of people we employ? Will our customer and business metrics need to change? When should we be using live assistance? or will automation and virtual assistance completely take over in time?
Contact centre adoption and support for first-generation digital channels such as email, web chat, video chat and co-browsing, are growing very rapidly, but customers today are moving beyond those first-generation channels. The development of self-service facilities as the first point of resolution will become commonplace as we put customers in touch with their data and in control of managing it.
The rise of digital
Next-generation digital channels - including social platforms such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. as well as advanced messaging like WhatsApp, WeChat, Facebook Messenger, Apple Business Chat, and many others - are beginning to take centre stage. Social media and messaging are well on their way to becoming mainstream contact centre channels.
While we see lots of digital tech, the value of being able to interact with another human being, as customers coped with the pressures and challenges of lockdown, is often mentioned. This has become particularly important over the last year and has become quite unique as a mainstream form of engagement.
The pandemic has created much more disruption and uncertainty in people’s lives. For instance, the threat to a stable income and the ongoing uncertainties we have seen around travel plans. These are emotive topics for customers and sometimes complex in terms of resolution. So, people instinctively turn to another person in those situations, often for the reassurance of voice. We can see this behaviour in the sharp increase of in-bound calls for banks, travel companies and airlines.
What we have been working on, of course, is to identify when customers would benefit more by using an asynchronous channel such as messaging or a virtual assistant able to consistently offer the latest information and advice or process simple, volume activities such as a refund.
Why is voice still important?
We have noticed that both voice and text have remained popular choices for live interaction. This has challenged conventional wisdom around the rise of digital channels and an implied slow decline in voice communications. This is true in some sectors, but overall voice has held up. It’s such a strong channel in terms of being able to express empathy and really connect with how customers are feeling, that its value has been rediscovered. Especially when engaging with vulnerable customers.
The other major trend triggered by the pandemic was rapid growth in digital first agendas and how live assistance and the human touch are beginning to fit into that vision.
Recently there has been a massive acceleration, a recent research study from McKinsey(1) showed digital interaction across Europe rapidly grew from 30% to 55% between Christmas 2019 and summer 2020. Throughout this year we have been ‘flat out’ helping clients to develop broader omni-channel capabilities, including self-service models, and all the background work needed in terms of data, processes and new platforms. We see that most of this has been happening in the context of a migration to cloud services, and the benefits they offer in terms of agility and new functionality. So digital first agendas are certainly now mainstream and a priority in terms of competitiveness. These are multi-year transformation journeys, so new capability is still arriving. But at the strategic vision level it is clear where live assistance and the human touch will fit in.
Human vs virtual – getting the balance right
We’re now leaving an era when people were needed for the majority of interactions and for the majority of time within a service or sale interaction. Automation is taking over simple administrative tasks. Natural language understanding allows us to understand customer intent in real time which makes self-service easier and more intuitive for users. Well integrated virtual assistants can do a lot these days in terms of delivering customer outcomes without any need to involve a person.
We’ve seen the success of this for a while now, in terms of people-to-people interactions getting longer as the simple stuff is dealt with. This fundamentally repositions the role of live assistance from being constantly needed to a designed intervention at certain moments we know matter to customers.
The rule of thumb is, when it’s emotive, when it’s complex, then it matters to the relationship between customer and the brand. This is when people are needed and are most valuable. Assuming of course that we have upskilled them and refocussed the way we support and engage them. The job also becomes much more satisfying for the call centre agents engaging with customers.
An interesting observation is how the value of live assistance will change. Assuming that self-service and automation allows live assistance to concentrate on the more complex and emotive tasks, how do we measure and coach for these new interactions?
What we see is that the value changes because customer expectations will continue to grow. If customers still need to find a person to deal with an enquiry and subsequently have to wait in a queue, will they be expecting a lot more back from that? What is already known is that customers are more likely to go looking for new brand experiences, as previous lockdowns have disrupted them out of previous loyalties. There is also evidence to show that brands only have to deliver a few poor service experiences before customers leave. Being able to navigate through all that and land a customer with the right outcome and also have them feeling positive about their experience is incredibly valuable. This is particularly true at present where organisations are very focussed on growth and need to keep existing customers close.
The power of empathy
As we move now into the post-pandemic era, the new challenge is how do we align our measure and coach and develop our staff. Conversations are less about the quantity and more about the quality. It is now equally about the functional and emotive in terms of measuring outcomes. It is about the connection that was made and degree of empathy as much as what was or was not said in terms of guidelines and compliance. All this needs translating into new metrics and coaching.
Forbes recently declared ‘Empathy’ as the topical word for 2021(2) . Is empathy an assumed competence which needs to be explicitly called out? Maybe it’s the collective trauma of the pandemic that has re-sensitised us to what kindred spirits are going through? As empathy author Mimi Nicklin(3) recently observed: In order to continue to offer the resilience and endurance to face another year of challenge, people subconsciously demand a far higher level of mutual connectivity.
If we take the hint and make empathy core to how customer engagement is designed and delivered, there are the implications for organisational culture, role profiles, associated skills and experience. If we think about empathy being the ability to absorb the customer’s reality and see their issues and concerns from their point of view, then teams need to be helped to focus on active listening and be provided with the space to concentrate on making an authentic connection with every customer. This can be challenging when queues are busy, and conversations all sound the same, so we are tempted to just race through them(4).
The opportunity to do this does assume we’ve made major inroads into the volume of contact using automation and self-service as I mentioned earlier. But assuming this, then we need an empathetic culture in terms of how customer-facing teams experience the way they are engaged and managed every day. Over time, we will see a redefinition of the type of person who thrives in this type of work, as well as the type of life experience they need, and the mindset for authentic engagement. It also implies a similar reappraisal of team leader and coaching roles, what we focus on in terms of quality and performance management and which skills we prioritise in term learning and development.
We recently partnered with technology solutions provider Avoira to implement a real-time voice and digital analytics solution that helps clients to provide exceptional customer service. Assisted customer conversations captures keywords from conversations with customers and service agents, detecting a range of emotions. Its ability to analyse this data gives agents crucial insight into how to successfully resolve customers’ queries and allows them to deliver consistently excellent service.
Harnessing people and data for tomorrow’s contact centre
Customer-centric service in the next decade is going to have to reckon with the fact that industries are blurring. Individuals have a plethora of financial needs: insurance, life assurance, pensions, savings plans and more. Our aim should be to try to meet those needs in an integrated way, whether that’s through providers diversifying to offer a broader range of financial services, or simply working together by standardising and sharing data and processes to deliver a seamless customer experience.
The latest data analysis tools can help us to map customer journeys and be smarter in tailoring our offering to personal circumstances and attitudes. We can evaluate a customer’s risk profile and present information and products that are likely to suit their preferences based on past decisions. As the Institute for Customer Service has observed, “success will depend on delivering intuitive, straightforward customer journeys alongside personalised and ‘live’ experiences and services.
We have more customer data at our disposal than ever before. Using it in innovative, collaborative, and responsible ways will enable us to deliver more seamless and agile customer experiences.
Future-gazing into the next 3- 5 years customer communications will become smart, predictive, personalised and contextualised. If you think you don’t need people, then you may have missed the point. You can’t completely replace people with bots - live assistance, conversational AI and self-service portals all have their part to play, however humans are the glue to this, and as we go more virtual, so will the demands for a higher level of skill. As we begin to see new types of services driven by 5G such as IoT and edge-based analytics, we’re likely to see contact centres become more outbound, swapping immediacy for certainty. This includes mapping the right person to the right outcome, aligning the best resource to the knowledge and interpersonal skill needed for the conversation.
Voice is not likely to go away, as people ultimately prefer to talk to people when they need to, particularly in a crisis or where there is vested emotional interest. Ultimately digital will continue to be used particularly when it comes to transitional tasks such as booking appointments or taking down address details, where cost can be taken out. Overtime Digital assistants such as Alexa for customer service are likely to become more common as new services evolve.
So, while technology underpins many changes, because so much of the customer relationship depends on trust, the human factor will never be eliminated and cannot be underestimated. While technology is shaping the customer experiences of tomorrow, it’s ultimately our people who’ll be responsible for delivering them. The technology is always evolving, but the future of customer service excellence is fundamentally the same as the present: the right people, with the right tools and the right training, delivering the outcomes customers want and the solutions they need.
A trusted, industry-recognised partner
Our high-quality service has been recognised with a number of accolades. We’ve been classed as market leaders in Everest Group’s customer experience management (CXM) peak matrix research for 2020. It’s a reflection of our advanced digital capabilities, our ability to implement and manage change, and our proactive approach to customer engagement.
Our regulated services team recently won the award for ‘Planning Team of the Year’ at the annual Forum Awards which recognises excellence in contact centre, field services, back office, and retail operations. We’ve worked to support operational teams to deliver great customer outcomes in the life, pensions, financial and regulated services sectors(5).
Our number one goal is to deliver excellent customer experiences for our customers and clients, so we’re proud to have been recognised by ISG Provider Lens as a leader in the contact centre. Our inclusion in the Customer Experience Services 2020 quadrant demonstrates our capability in key areas of contact centre operations including end-to-end services, talent development and management, and digital offerings such as automation and AI.
 Digital adoption through COVID-19 and beyond | McKinsey
 New Research Shows Why Business Leaders Struggle With Workplace Empathy (forbes.com)
 Softening the Edge | Mimi Nicklin
 Understanding Empathy. Its Value & Challenges (brainfoodextra.com).
 Planning effectively and anticipating customer needs with data analytics | Capita
Account Based Marketing, Capita
Gabriel specialises in Account Based Marketing, With over 25 years’ experience working in IT organisations, Gabriel is passionate about innovation, creative thinking and enabling and supporting Senior Sales stakeholders in achieving their goals.