Why Does the Best Automation… Happen Behind the Scenes?

Jack Barton
6 October 2022

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Traveling for work recently I booked, checked in, and checked out of a hotel without speaking to a single member of staff. This is not very unusual these days; you’ve probably had a similar experience yourself. 

There were no humans involved in directly coordinating my experience. More than that, there may have been no humans directly involved in the background of the process. The booking system could be totally automated and the room key was an automatically generated QR code on my phone. 

From the point of view of convenience, this was superb. I had arrived late at night yet I had no more trouble getting into my room than if I was checking in at midday. But does that mean I prefer this streamlined system over one that’s totally dependent on human interaction?

Not at all. The automation in this experience is a useful addition but, given the choice, I would usually rather chat with the concierge. I like to try out my rusty language skills and ask about the local beers. I like to hear an insider’s opinion of the city I’m in and find out which taxi companies overcharge travelers. 

And I especially like the accountability a human brings to the process. If there’s an issue with my booking, I know that it’s down to them to resolve it. Whereas, if my QR code does not let me into my hotel room late at night, I’m in for a difficult time!

Based on this scenario we will take a closer look at the topic ‘automation‘.

In this article:

Do consumers want any automation in customer services?

Staying at a hotel is a useful analog for customer service in general. I want both automation and human interaction where appropriate, and I imagine the same is true for anybody who has stopped to think about it. Of course, understanding that balance is a big challenge for businesses. 

Very few consumers – just 3% – want customer services to be “as automated as possible”. At first glance that seems like bad news for businesses that intend to increase automation, or businesses like babelforce that bring automation to contact centers

But on closer inspection, there’s an obvious flaw in the question. It’s very likely that the consumers who responded to this survey had frontline automations like IVR in mind. Frontline automations, while often highly effective, are the area where consumers are more likely to encounter service failure. They are also where those service failures are most memorable. 

A more useful framing would split the question into two:

  1. Do you prefer to use an automated service like IVR for most common queries, or speak to an agent?
  2. Do you expect businesses to gather and process all of your information manually, or with automated systems?

How do you imagine respondents would answer the first question? I’d say that most customers will probably continue to state a preference for human agents over automated systems – while, in practice, enjoying the convenience that well-implemented systems provide. 

And what about the second question? How many 21st century consumers would imagine the amount of manual work that still takes place in contact centers? And would any of them oppose automation in that area? In reality, over half of contact center leaders admit to being seriously hampered by a lack of automation capability. Just over one third of contact centers have a strategy for effective process automation, and more than 40% of agent time is spent on repetitive administration tasks.  

So that is the state of play: customers are ambivalent about automation in customer services, but mainly because they don’t know quite how it applies to them. Businesses, though aware of the need to automate, seem to encounter enormous challenges in implementation. Where is it all going wrong?

Where does automation find its true home? 

I know from experience that, in a product demo setting, it’s usually the most cutting edge automation solutions that generate the most immediate enthusiasm. Showing off a sophisticated conversational assistant that can handle millions of queries has a “wow factor” which is guaranteed to capture an audience’s imagination.

Experience has also taught me that the most genuinely transformational automation solutions fulfill relatively simple functions. Let’s think for a moment about the primary causes of customer complaints. These boil down to just three broad categories: having to wait, having to repeat themselves, and being transferred. 

There are automation solutions for each of these issues. What’s more, they are the kind of automation solutions that customers have no objection to; the kind that they will never even be aware of. Let’s look at these problems and a possible solution for each.  

#1 Why do I have to wait on hold?

Waiting is a resource issue that occurs when a contact center has more incoming calls than available agents. Hiring more agents is too expensive to be practical. Self-service is essential, but implementation is a marathon, not a sprint. 

One of the most consistently popular and practical solutions is virtual queuing; three quarters of customers find the idea “highly appealing”. Customers enter a queue when they call and, if no agents are immediately available, they are given the option to hang up and receive an outbound call. 

70% of customers say that they become highly frustrated waiting on hold, not because of the wait itself but because of the specific “hold experience”. So is it practical to offer a virtual queue? 

It is, but only when several distinct steps are automated. First, the customer must be identified, either by their phone number or information they’ve provided during the call. 

Second, the offer of an outbound call must be made within IVR, based on some defined logic such as current waiting times or customer lifetime value. 

Third, the customers who accept and hang up must either be entered into the outbound call queue or offered a specific time slot.  

Fourth, the call must be placed automatically and linked to an agent who simultaneously receives the caller’s information

This is conceptually simple for the customer, agent, and the business as a whole. It’s a far superior service option from the customer perspective. And, from a resources perspective it achieves something all planners want: it moves calls away from peak times and into periods of low volume.

We have found one good home for automation. 

“The companies that derive value from automation are those that build the right foundation. They establish the right process for identifying opportunities, apply different technologies, robust governance, the right operating model, and engage with IT and business. Taking a longer-term strategic view and building the right foundations are the main differentiators.”

Alex Bentley, McKinsey

#2 Why do I have to repeat myself?

There are two scenarios where customers often find themselves repeating information. The first is when something is changing; when they are moving between channels, between agents, or when there is a period of time between calls on a single issue. 

This lies well outside of consumer expectations; 96% of people – virtually everyone – expect to move between channels without losing the information they’ve already provided.

The second scenario is about recognizing customers, and needn’t be related to a specific complaint or service issue. Almost three quarters of consumers expect customer service teams to know who they are, in any scenario, including their name, their time as a customer, and their previous purchases.

Are these unreasonable expectations? After all, that information exists in some well-maintained and very expensive systems that any business has. 

Let’s start with scenario one. Clearly, once customer information is recorded in any location, it needs to remain associated with the customer, rather than the channel or the agent. So a simple solution – and certainly the one babelforce opts for – is to create a ticket on the customer’s account for common pain points like channel switching. The result is an overview of both the customer’s situation, including things like chat transcripts of recorded messages, and the status of the situation – all visible to any agent who interacts with them. 

Scenario two can be even more straightforward. Think about this: when a friend calls your cell phone, their name appears on the screen because you already have their number stored. 

Likewise, you have your customers’ numbers stored and can therefore easily bring up their name as well as any piece of information from their CRM profile that you think will be helpful. Automated systems can direct customers based on open tickets or key CRM data, and agents can greet callers by name. 

It’s concierge service without any delay, and it’s another good home for automation. 

“If agents cannot easily access relevant information, they obviously cannot deliver fast, convenient, accurate experiences for customers. They also cannot connect with customers. Agents who fumble through multiple screens cannot pay sufficient attention to the customers with whom they are interacting. They, moreover, cannot readily access the insights they need to make meaningful connections.”

Brian Cantor, Contact Center Success in the Automation Age

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#3 Why am I being transferred?

Contact centers are very keen to help customers in the first interaction and at the first resource. 92% of businesses make First Contact Resolution a medium-to-high priority for the very obvious reasons that a) it’s cheaper and b) it is definitively better for customers.

Nonetheless, frequent transfers are a staple for the majority of contact centers. This may be because they reached the wrong individual or team. It may be that the customer requires specialized support that the general pool of agents can’t offer. It may even be that the call must be escalated to a senior team member. 

Whatever the situation, most call transfers are a manual task happening late in the interaction, rather than an automated one happening early. The solution is more granular contact routing that can use customer data intelligently. 

The specific skill sets of individual agents and teams are a factor. Likewise, CRM data and Helpdesk tickets can direct customers not only to the right departments, but even to the agents who are handling their open queries. 

In a standard 500 seat contact center a 1% improvement in FCR can create cost savings of €180,000 per year. Bear in mind also that 73% of online consumers say “valuing their time” is the most important element of good service and it is clear that we’ve found our third good home for automation. 

“Just imagine if an agent suddenly recovered 30-40% of their work-time. They’d not only be less stressed and more satisfied with their day-to-day, but agents could use that time for critical thinking tasks and complex customer interactions. In the meantime, companies could develop their employees into a creative and empowered extension of their brand.”

Mikhail Naumov, Forbes

Is it truly practical to automate these areas?

How simple is it for a hotel to automate my booking and check-in experience? Honestly, I couldn’t say – that’s not my area of expertise. But when it comes to contact centers and customer service teams, I know that automation is often wildly difficult and expensive. 

Each separate task must be conceptualized, briefed and created by software developers. For virtual queuing, we listed four such tasks, at minimum. That is both time-consuming and expensive, and, worse than that, any further updates you later need to make have to go through the same process. 

Historically, it has been enough to prevent many businesses from even considering real automation projects. 

But that is starting to change. In a Gartner survey on citizen development, 41% of respondents have active No-Code / Low-Code initiatives. Of those which do not, 20% are evaluating how to get started.

What we’re seeing is the snowball that starts the avalanche – and it already has quite some momentum. 

Gartner predicts that:

  • By 2023 over 50% of medium to large enterprises will have adopted a low-code or No-Code platform as one of their key strategic platforms.
  • By 2024 80% of technology products and services will be built by those who are not technology professionals.
  • By 2025 half of all new No-Code / low-code clients will come from business buyers outside the IT organization.

In practice, this widespread adoption of No-Code platforms means that operational professionals within customer experience teams are able to define and create services without going outside of their own team. 

Automation will therefore no longer be a goal to strive towards; it will be the default. At its core, any automated process is just a predefined rule that says “if X happens, do Y”. 

Typically, the skills required to define that rule have been developer skills which take years to cultivate. In the No-Code world, that is no longer the case.

Any intelligent person can build any of the customer services we’ve discussed in this article. I know, because babelforce helps businesses to achieve this every day.

And that democratized access to service design is why a heavily automated customer experience needn’t be cold or impersonal as consumers tend to fear, a hotel with nobody at the desk. Far from it; a world with accessible No-Code automation frees humans to focus on the part of service they’ve always been best at – building relationships with one another. 

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