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VoiceSage’s John Duffy says proactive engagement is of increasing interest to brands, but putting it in to practice is still proving a challenge

“We can see where we’d need to do proactive engagement – the channels people like to communicate with us on, which is often text, and if we could do it there we’d get results.

“Doing it is the hard part.”

A major UK publishing contact centre manager, crystallising one of the biggest issues in the market right now – how to be more proactive.

We know this – and secured that insightful quote – from a fascinating recent roundtable event attended by senior UK contact centre practitioners.

We set up the meeting with industry membership body the UK Contact Centre Forum to find out what progress brands are making into becoming more proactive. The event covered a broad range of sectors, ranging from manufacturing, to newspaper publishing, IT services and financial services consultancy.

The key finding from practitioners: they want to get more proactive, they rate the idea and recognise the value it could bring to their customer services – but implementing it is proving a challenge.

There are, it seems, considerable obstacles to address in connecting in a better and more agile manner with users. And as a banking professional commented: “We know we need to do this, but in the context of the business as it is now, it’s hard to prioritise it.”

Despite the proactive project not being an easy one, though – nonetheless, work has begun.

Brands know, after all, that proactive is crucial to enriching the relationship brands have with their markets. Marketing is the one area where proactive is being practiced successfully and is benefitting, for instance.

Moving from Marketing to Service

However, on the service side of the customer relationship, implementing proactive techniques is proving to be more of an issue for some brands. Practitioners are therefore searching for ways to manage the issues of better engagement from users. This includes incorporating new technology like AI and new channels like social media to help.

“It’s not contact we need to improve with our customers,” said another banking IT professional. “It’s making them dialogue with us. We don’t know how much of what we are saying gets heard out there, and that is problematic.”

Proactive – yes, but it has to be pragmatic

The search is on for ways to manage all this. But that also doesn’t mean organisations are willing to get there by any means. It has to be a pragmatic, evolutionary process, we are told. And at the end of the day, proactive has to be cost-effective if it’s going to occur in the near future, according to practitioners. “For compliance reasons, we need to send out a lot of information, in our case to around 800 businesses,” one financial services professional pointed out. “We can do that by paper or email, but to move to a more real-time way of doing this I’d need another 60 contact centre staff that I can’t afford. Technology would have to be the way to do this.”

The technology has also to integrate across all the elements in the customer journey. Is there a technology for proactive that would work across all industries? There’s no easy answer. Many businesses need to follow what their market demographics prefer, said some participants. “90% of our world is on paper, and that doesn’t look like changing,” as one attendee ruefully observed.

Nonetheless, any proactive solution implemented has to be as all encompassing as possible when it comes to channels. “We’re good on email,” noted one manufacturing executive. “We rely on it and have got some great triggers set up to handle all sorts of events. But we know we’re not good on social – we’re very behind on social media, let alone WhatsApp.

“That’s a potential blind spot for us, as we know there is more and more customer activity happening there, and we need the same kind of triggers for that too.”

Defining our terms

There was also a lot of debate on the difference between offering proactive and self-service. Practitioners acknowledge that offering online services and information up front can help active users, but they are less sure on when that merges into taking preventative actions to address problems before they occur (the explanation of ‘proactive’ from Forrester Research).

Other practitioners believe that the ideal place for proactive is to manage exceptions. “We run a pretty good service, at a high level,” offered one education sector IT support representative. “What would be nice to have is to see what we’re missing.

“Users tell us quickly enough about what’s broken and needs fixing, but if we knew a bit more about what their niggles were on a less critical level, then we could start thinking about what we could do to clear up some of those issues for them too.”

‘Keeping things simple’ seemed to be a definite route of travel for UK proactive thinkers, we were intrigued to learn. “If it’s simple, people will use it,” pointed out one participant. “The more we can make it easy to work with us as brands, the greater our success rate: it’s as simple as that.”

Laying the groundwork

One proactive technology that has created a stir: chatbots and AI. Some participants said they were confident that these emerging techniques could handle routine service queries, while others saw them as too limited and a better function for them would be to replace IVR.

“It’s going to be a while before this replaces any serious element of the contact centre workforce, but AI and chatbots do have a role to play, definitely” was the conclusion of a newspaper online site manager on this debate.

We concluded our discussion with our industry participants stressing they know the promise of proactive and are laying the groundwork to get there, but it’s all still a work in progress.

Why? Because crucial building blocks need to be put in place first. As one financial services expert said, finally seeing things from the customer point of view is the primary driver that needs addressing first. “Until we can get that cracked, proactive might have to wait,” she stated.

The author is Enterprise Consultant at customer service tech leader VoiceSage (http://www.voicesage.com).

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