How Smart Machines and Social Media are Reinventing Customer Care

When CIO Magazine predicted four years ago that machine-learning would one day replace traditional interactive voice response (IVR) in call centers, some scoffed.

No one is scoffing anymore.

Technology has turned the entire call-center universe on its head. Cognitive IVR is just the start. Millennials who grew up texting and chatting online don’t want to talk to a person or a machine on the phone. They want fast, easy answers with a few clicks. So contact centers are gearing up to interact with them where they’re most comfortable – online, using social media, chatbots and virtual assistants.

At least that’s what the most advanced commercial contact centers are doing. Most government contact centers still have a way to go to catch up. Indeed, as commercial firms gain in sophistication, satisfaction with government call centers is slipping. Citizen satisfaction with government contact centers scored just 67 on a 100-point scale in CFI Group’s latest Government Contact Center Satisfaction Index. That’s well behind commercial banking (77), insurance (78) and retail (72).

Virtual aid
Even with Millennials opting out – for now, at least – the telephone remains the most popular means of citizen-initiated contact, accounting for 60 percent of all contacts with government, CFI Group reports. But internet options are rising fast, with computer-driven chatbots and virtual assistants rapidly picking up more and more of the workload as customers seek alternatives to the phone. And increasingly, machines aren’t just providing stock answers – they’re actually helping customers solve problems – often without human intervention.

This is where maturing machine-learning technologies come into play. As automated systems become more adept at interpreting tone and language and faster at coming up with an appropriate response, machines are also able to take on an expanding range of customer concerns. “Machine learning is the enabler to all of that,” said Jeff Beelman, senior director for contact center solutions at General Dynamics Information Technology. “Today, the machine can hear the nuance in how a person asks a question. It can interpret the slang. It can hear the same question asked in a number of different ways and still be able to understand it.”

Modern cloud computing and artificial intelligence work together to advance the state of the art. “I am willing to imagine that within five years, 80 percent of questions coming in via voice and digital channels will be answered by a virtual agent,” Beelman said.

Contact centers have vied for years to weed out as many calls as possible with voice prompts and invitations to go online to answer queries. And it’s helped. But customers also grew frustrated with inevitably complex phone menus and what they perceived as manipulative delay tactics. “The virtual assistant makes a lot of sense when you have a set of questions that are asked over and over again, where the answers are all the same,” said Tonya Beres, contact center manager for USAGova former co-chair of the Government Contact Center Council, a working group of government call center executives. But when things get more complicated, virtual assistants start coming up empty.

“They can’t do as well with questions that are complicated, that are technical, that are just a little off from the usual,” Beres said. A chatbot might help someone get a copy of a birth certificate, “but when [a caller] starts to say that ‘I was born abroad and my parents didn’t file a certificate of my being born,’ then it gets a lot more complicated.”

Social Strategies
Social media already is a part of the customer contact experience – and needs to be – even for agencies that have not hopped on the Facebook train. As CFI Group notes, 63 percent of those who shared their call center experiences with others do so using social media.

Among respondents who heard back from government after posting about an agency on social media, 97 percent said they appreciated the outreach. Those individuals were significantly more satisfied than those who did not hear back after posting – rating their satisfaction at 80 to 100, versus a 63 for those who posted on social media but received no response.

At the National Cancer Institute (NCI), the largest of 27 institutes and centers within the National Institutes of Health (NIH), social media has long been seen as a natural extension of other customer contact activities.

“The contact center’s experience handling public inquiries from other NCI channels (phone and email) transfers beautifully to social media,” says Candace Maynard, senior program manager in NCI’s Cancer Information Service, in a 2014 blog post. “This approach helps NCI maintain consistency and accuracy in its messages across all public-facing channels and leverages the skill of contact center staff when helping the public.”

That’s a critical point, notes Donna Fluss, president of the contact center analyst and consulting firm DMG Consulting LLC. Social media cannot be seen only as a marketing function and must be entrusted to customer care experts. “The vast majority of actionable issues that come over social media are customer service inquiries,” Fluss said. “This can and should be a contact center function. The contact center has the best practices in place to do the things that need to be done when issues come up in social media.”

The customer journey
Cross-channel integration is key to success, demanding that each new channel must be integrated with those that came before it. And tracking what users do as they try to solve a problem is essential to improving those outcomes over time. Insiders call this Customer Journey Analytics (CJA). Broadly defined, CJA covers applications designed to track and correlate customers’ touch points across an organization. “Once you can do that, then you are positioned to figure out where things are going wrong,” Fluss said. “You can figure out where to put your emphasis and energy.”

Customer experience, she said, “is not just about the contact center. It is about every single touch.”

“Whether you call into a call center, whether you email or chat or SMS – however it is you contact that organization – you want them to know who you are, and if you move from channel to channel you want that information to come with you,” Fluss said.

CJA technology helps agencies and businesses make that happen. In Charlotte, N.C., for instance, the combined city/county 3-1-1 call system is linked to customer relationship management (CRM) tools and an extensive knowledge base. Managers use those back-end information systems to drive real-time response. “3-1-1 is more than just a number,” said 3-1-1 Director Janice Quintana. “We need all those tools to be able to work efficiently and deliver great services.”

Those tools include directory assistance for city and county offices, schedules for meetings of City and County government and information about city and county services, and also access to trained specialists in complex issues like taxes and utilities.

Tying multiple systems together is valuable because it creates a clearer picture of a citizen’s interactions. For any service-oriented government agency, “you need to have an omni-channel presence, you need to be able to track where the customer has been so the next time that person touches [one of your systems], you know what they have done before,” Beres said.

But agencies have to be careful they don’t go too far. Privacy must be protected, said Blair Pleasant, president and principal analyst of COMMfusion LLC and a co-founder of “You have to be careful about security and privacy and making sure information isn’t shared where it shouldn’t be,” she said. Agencies benefit when they share, but creating a detailed portrait of a citizen’s interactions with multiple government entities may raise concerns about “big brother.” Similarly, a customer may be pleased the county system recalls resolving last month’s problems with the water bill, but he might not want to be reminded about it when paying annual business taxes.

Getting these things right is critical because it is through contacts with government that citizens determine whether their taxes are well spent and their elected officials are doing what they were elected to do.

“Good customer service legitimizes government,” said Bruce L. Belfiore, senior research executive and CEO at contact center consultancy BenchmarkPortal. “Bad customer service de-legitimizes government. One of the primary functions of the contact center is to make sure the citizen walks away feeling that yes, my taxes are well spent, my government officials are doing their job and are overseeing an entity that is properly run. This is about confidence in government competency and caring.”

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