I have this love-hate relationship with my smartphone. For someone who values a little privacy and dreams of uninterrupted down time, the hate part is easy. My mobile phone never ceases to blink about something—a missed call, an unopened text message, or the bucketful of emails that arrived since I last checked my inbox 47 minutes ago (slacker!). Like everyone else, my phone is always on and always nearby, and is a constant reminder that the down time I crave will only be realized in retirement.
And yet… my smartphone has bailed me out so many times it is impossible to count them all. I seem to constantly plan teleconferences for times I am not in my office, but no one knows because I can call into the meeting on my phone (safely bluetoothed into my car’s audio system, of course). I take international trips at the busiest possible times, yet remain completely in touch (emails included!) thanks to my global phone. At least once a month, I compose an email on my laptop that requires immediate delivery, only to discover I cannot get an Internet connection. Panic ensues, but only until I remember that my phone is a hotspot. Problem solved.
A More Natural State
While I may have some misgivings about mobile phones, I am at the same time thoroughly fascinated by them—or, more accurately, how they have so substantially changed communication. Phone calls used to be an event. Time was set aside, potential distractions were eliminated, and conversation points were planned out. Now, we communicate in short, frequent bursts, with little forethought and often while doing something else. Why? Because we can. In other words, this “ad hoc” approach to conversation is a more natural state than the traditional preplanned method employed in the past. Barriers have been lifted, obstacles removed, and there is no longer any valid reason to invest time thinking about what needs to be discussed or how to say it. Forget a point during a call? No problem, just hit redial. Or check the website. Or send a quick text. Or maybe send an email, if the follow-up will take more than 160 characters. In a world of unlimited phone, text and data, short burst communication is inevitable.
Impact in the Contact Center
And so we find ourselves with a level of communication convenience never before known in the history of mankind. Our contact centers are built for the express purpose of handling communication, so the impact of all this convenience has to be significant. Yet, when we consider our response to this mobile revolution, we too often think narrowly about the device itself and how we can (or should) be connecting more often through SMS. OK, point taken. As an industry, we have been a bit slow to utilize SMS. Far more significant to us, though, is the fact that mobile makes everything better. The web is more easily accessed, the phone is more readily available, social media is more visible, and text messaging/SMS is constantly ready for our input. It all results in a world where communication grows exponentially… and the growth is both vertical (total amount of contact) and horizontal (number of channels used).
While we may not realize it, the impact is already here. A recent study by the CFI group reported that 27% of customers who called a contact center went to an alternate channel first (website, email, text-chat, etc.). While the study did not break this out, you can bet the smartphone was often used to access that other channel (and may well have placed the ensuing call). This highlights the fact that short bursts are often not voice calls, but can be trips to a website, text messages, etc. In fact, the call to the contact center is increasingly becoming the “last resort” after all other avenues have been attempted.
Changes in the Contact Center
As the smartphone continues to gain momentum as the tool of choice, and as short burst communication becomes the norm, contact centers will need to keep pace with these changes. Here’s a short list of items we need to more fully embrace in order to succeed in this new environment:
Many contact centers use email, but this channel is limited by security concerns. General questions can be answered, but specific account-related information cannot be addressed. Secure e-messaging is done after a user has authenticated into a website. It offers a way to keep information private while still giving customers an easy way to “ping” us for a quick answer. Providing this capability to customers, and making it easy to spot links on traditional and mobile websites, is a great way to support short burst communication.
Yes, it has security drawbacks. It is viewed by many, though, as the most convenient form of communication. Expectations regarding turnaround time for read and response are fairly high (much higher than for email), yet both parties can attend to other tasks between bursts. In the contact center, SMS can be a great way to notify customers of the status of a case or to provide any other proactive information that is not confidential—just make sure that customers opt into it.
What seemed like a luxury a short time ago is now a necessity. We need to know when customers have accessed different channels, and what they were doing during those visits. Without this knowledge, our representatives cannot possibly handle contacts effectively. As customers will increasingly come to expect this cross-channel integration, those that cannot perform in this manner will be seen as far behind the times.
TEXT-CHAT ON MOBILE WEBSITES
Mobile websites are often very lean to accommodate small screen sizes. Trying to fit text-chat in a small space makes design that much more challenging. Without it, though, customers will view websites and then need to call for any questions. Many customers would consider that less convenient than having a text-chat option.
SHIFTING SELF-SERVICE TO THE WEB
IVR systems will remain useful in the future, but their value as a self-service tool will continue to diminish. For most contact centers, web self-service is simply better. Expanding self-service to mobile websites, or creating apps that support self-service, is a more certain investment today.
SHORT IVR MENUS AND EVEN SHORTER WAIT TIMES FOR AN AGENT
Remember, more and more callers will have tried an alternate channel to get information. That means time has already been invested, so we need to limit further investment from the customer in accessing service.
Mobile Is Here to Stay
No matter what you think of mobile communication, you can be certain it is here to stay. It is not simply a different type of phone or a different style of browsing. It is every communication tool rolled into one, and it is always with us. It is the first time in history that so many have had such easy access to nearly everything in the palm of a hand, and that has changed everything. Short burst communication is the new reality, and the contact centers that accept this are the ones best ready to meet the future head-on.
Jay Minnucci is Founder and President of the independent consulting firm Service Agility.