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New technologies like automation, chatbots and artificial intelligence are surely the biggest revolutions to take place in customer service operations this year. Gartner’s distinguished analyst for CRM and customer-centric web strategies – Michael Maoz – rightly points out that some of these solutions might come off as artificial, superficial, condescending, or insulting to customers. Yet, one of the bigger worries is the hype surrounding these solutions and the willingness of many to dive headfirst into an AI panacea without scrutinising the costs or benefits to the business.

All too often we measure a technology’s success in how it solves an issue, rather than what it might positively achieve for a business. That focus on return on investment is crucial to the business for obvious reasons, but it’s also important to the customer service (or IT or Marketing) team’s ability to secure budget for future projects too. That’s why it’s been so good to see more positive results win praise at the recent Engage Customer awards. Two of Transversal’s customers – Wolseley and Utility Warehouse – were rewarded for large-scale business transformation projects. Both companies changed the way they shared and managed knowledge across their organizations to enhance the efficiency and quality of their customer service.

However, too often in customer service we tend to use these new technologies to address age-old problems. Spiralling costs? Automation will reduce them. Customers frustrated at wait times? Automation will serve them efficiently. Agents under pressure? Automation will reduce their workload.

Forrester’s Principal Analyst, Kate Leggett, recently talked about contact centres drowning under the volume of customer service channels and rising staff costs, and recommended automation as the only way to service customers. While we certainly wouldn’t disagree that new (and some well-established) technologies bring huge benefits in addressing these problems, this approach reduces investment into new technology as a cost-exercise for a business, rather than something designed to help business growth.

When we focus on fixing a problem, we miss the positive benefits service automation can bring to an organisation. In that instance, technology is just a tool to avoid being overwhelmed by external pressure, rather than a strategic business investment. It’s akin to the organisation’s only goal being to run faster to stay still. But worse, it makes the technology investment’s true value, in monetary terms, so much harder to prove.

Yet, when organisations turn that thinking on its head, they often find that the right service technology can contribute significant business growth and fix problems. It improves performance metrics that weren’t even targeted for improvement, because they were previously considered normal rather than issues to be addressed. Rather than do more to stand still, organisations can start to see positive progress.

Wolseley UK, the UK’s biggest building and plumbing suppliers, implemented Transversal’s knowledge management technology to make customer interactions within the contact centre more efficient. Rather than simply fix a problem around queue times or call volumes, the project’s goal was to help contact centre agents be more knowledgeable about the company’s product range, which would improve customer interactions and satisfaction, as well as reduce training times to onboard new staff. The initial key performance indicators (KPIs) included:

  • Agent training time reduced from an average of 12 weeks to 8 weeks
  • Agents now assume responsibilities across the full spectrum of Wolsey’s products from the beginning
  • First call resolution increased from 76% to 98%
  • CSAT scores increased from 80% to 96%

Those were already substantial gains. The company then observed a further improvement that hadn’t been targeted in its basic KPIs. Ultimately, it was making more money. Implementing self-service knowledge management meant that Wolseley’s contact centre agents were quicker and more knowledgeable at answering customer queries, and this meant they had more time during customer interactions for up-selling and cross-selling. With quicker access to product knowledge, agents were also better placed to target and conclude sales. Monthly sales increased by several thousand units, amounting to £2 million in additional revenue each month, simply from increasing the efficiency of knowledge retrieval.

Investment in new technologies to improve the efficiency of self-service does more than address problems. The more easily customers find information, the less likely they are to abandon a transaction and the more likely they are to rate the company positively. The less time agents spend hunting for information, the more time and attention they have for higher-value tasks, such as selling. The more efficiently the company handles its existing business, the better placed it is to take on new business.

This is all said with one big caveat: not every contact centre can become a source of profit. That depends on many factors. But scrutinising the ROI of AI and starting with the positive reasons to invest in automation can be one of the most impactful ways to reduce costs and maximise opportunities for profit making.

By Heather Richards, CEO of Transversal

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