SOFTEL IVR Survey

White Paper: Automation in Contact Centers

“Contact center automation enhances customer interactions, reduces effort and drives greater quality – but adoption in the industry is slow because old, legacy, on-site platforms weren’t designed to cope with them…” 

For decades leading up to the new millennium, businesses with call centers were at the cutting edge of technology for voice communications. Those once new technologies (ACD and IVR) reduced waiting times in call centers considerably, removing the need for banks of routing operators and directory services.

The problems for the contact centers of today began when the internet began to mature… literally dozens of new methods of personal communications became available. Even today, many businesses understand cutting edge automation techniques – but their legacy operations are holding them back because they simply can’t handle those new types of automated interactions. With the right application, new methods of interaction automation can support your contact centers, enhancing customer satisfaction, reducing wait time, providing intelligent auto-responses, reducing interaction times and improving key performance indicators and driving service level.

The explosion of technology advances in the last 5 years has led to technological gaps appearing within many customer- and support-based industries and their contact center infrastructures.

While consumers reap the benefits of cutting edge communications technologies in the form of new innovations, updated almost daily – the enterprise contact center struggles to keep up with those trends.

Whether it is the impracticalities of introducing a new “channel” to existing operations – or the complexity of deployments – we have found that it generally takes around 3-6 months for the “latest” technology to become fully embedded within an “on premise” contact center platform. At which point, that new channel may have already faded into obscurity!

This modern dilemma led to new methods for technology advancements, based on constant, iterative deployments – Agile is a good example of this. Mirroring the same in technology trends, Agile methodology calls for continual tweaking and re-positioning. The down side – as you might expect – is a lot of demanding work to get the balance right. The remedy for the inclusion of these new channel technologies appears in the form of the Cloud.

Customer Services Industry

Automation in Customer Services

Many enterprises are moving their contactcenter technology operations to the Cloud for a multitude of reasons. Chiefly because it is easier to maintain and operate – but peripherally because new channels can be easily adopted and incorporated as a service , (SaaS, PaaS, etc). For example: the inclusion of a Facebook feed to an existing enterprise (“on premise”) platform requires a series of deployments for multiple touch points across an internal infrastructure – in the Cloud, it’s just another plug-in…

The Cloud

“Cloud Services are becoming the new home for Contact Center operations. At the other end of the scale, local platforms are becoming more difficult to manage, with less new features – don’t be
the last in the queue!”

Cloud Services are not trendy, new buzzwords! All the current interaction services for contact centers are being rebuilt and repurposed, to centrally serve clients in the Cloud. Easier to manage and maintain, this means that operational areas within your enterprise can concentrate on your business needs, instead of your legacy architecture and infrastructure. Eventually, “on-site” technology stacks will become legacy burdens – and only “supplemental” to Cloud services, reversing current trends. That also means new techniques, new interaction methods and modern Unified Communications (UC) technologies of the future will only be available in the Cloud…

The emphasis for current unified communications (UC) technology advances are focused on Cloud interoperability – and automation. Sadly, Moore’s Law no longer applies – technology advances are more likely to double every 12 months, rather than every 2 years – and that advance is getting exponentially faster! For this reason, there is heavy investment in Cloud services and platforms. With a standard approach across Cloud platforms, pre-defined integration techniques using Cloud software development kits and application development interfaces makes it simpler and easier to connect disparate technologies, whenever they are created – and wherever they exist. However, the convergence of platforms and services in the Cloud is also draining local resource pools. Where there might once have been a “Center of Excellence” within a large Enterprise organization – a core of IT professionals to support the local infrastructure – those resources are also migrating to the Cloud. This is another reason why it is imperative for businesses with large IT pools to convene a strategy to migrate services – before your resources are gone, too!

Is the Cloud in your Future?

Consider your current local infrastructure and architecture; is it future proof? Can you migrate any of your services or platforms to the Cloud? Are you being tied-down by vendors and suppliers maintaining your platforms and solutions “on premise”? Migrations to the Cloud can seem a daunting prospect.

Local vs. Cloud Services

Local vs. Cloud Services

Many enterprise solutions have been built over decades and contain hundreds of tweaks and adjustments to ensure they do their job at each site – and that can seem overbearing. If not – then most likely you will be forced to migrate as older technologies become unsupported, in favor of Cloud services. It will always be preferable to plan to migrate early, than to be pushed and dragged through “end of life” statements and legacy technologies which have no support, somewhere down the line.

The good news is that most major vendors have pre-defined migration paths for exactly this scenario. Cisco, Genesys, Microsoft and Avaya all have Cloud offerings which emulate and supersede on-premise platforms and solutions.

Now is the time to ask your vendor what their Cloud migration strategy is…

What Makes a Good Automation Service?

“Information – presented in the right context – is the new currency in this age of data.”

To create the best experience from an automated service; the more information you can gather – and store – the better those services will become. But good contact center data without context is a poor combination. It is only with the right blend of processes that a good automation service will thrive. Not only for business intelligence and management information – but also in automated real-time business decision making…

Central Data Management information can be developed from any existing Enterprise Information Sources (EIS), which could be Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools, Accounting Systems, Debt Management Systems, Support or Incident Systems, HR or Resource Systems, Web Resources, Content or Knowledge Sources (see the section below) or any other “back end” data or information source.

The method used to capture the right information needs to be standardized, so that
it can be repeatable – and automatically extract relevant information, keeping Content and Knowledge Management up to date.

Central Data Management

Central Data Management

Once the right data and information has been captured, process methods are required, to present the combined information sources to target automation services. This can include; database links, extraction, transformation and loading (ETL) and data synchronization of any other content, into a standardized data warehouse for Content and Knowledge Management;

Content Management there may be several core information sources within an organization, depending on the businesses being provided.

Categorizing content is a crucial step in defining the “use cases” where the information can be applied, though Knowledge Management. Generally, content falls into these categories;

  • Customer; name, account number, account status, contact details, purchases, etc.
  • Products; names, designations, iteration/type, description, information (manuals, FAQ, etc.)
  • Services; customer, technical, commercial/financial, incident support, etc.

Each of these areas will contain information in a specific format which requires categorization, to enable its use within Knowledge Management. Categorization is also sometimes called Use Cases;

Knowledge Management once you have the content categorized for Use Cases, this is the method of presentation and distribution of content within an organization.

This includes access and integrations with unified communications and contact center-centric systems; Agent Scripting, FAQ’s, Dynamic Web Content, AI App Bot, AI Web Chat Bot, IVR Self Services, Cloud Services, etc.

Software as a Service – Is it for you?

“Many large enterprises are recognizing the ease of use provided by “as a Service” solutions from the Cloud, reducing enterprise complexity by providing the smallest of local footprints.”

Full-formed enterprise platforms, providing contact center software and services from the Cloud will soon become the standard offering for enterprise solutions. Whole IT Platforms, Contact Center Platforms, individual and supplemental Solutions are flooding the marketplace, ready to take on the tasks once occupied by on site architecture…

ITaaS Solutions

ITaaS Solutions

Migrations to Cloud services might not be for everyone. Your enterprise businesses may encompass private, sensitive, commercial or financial data or information, which requires levels of assured local security. But that doesn’t mean you can’t use services from the Cloud and incorporate them with your local data, in a hybrid environment. Cloud Services are built to supplement enterprise solutions and platforms – here’s a few examples:

ITaaS – Information Technology, as a Service

This is the provision of a full operating system, data repository and/or environment as a service from the Cloud. Virtual desktops, Virtual Workspaces, Virtual Data Warehouses and collaborative project platforms are good examples of how this method can be utilized by individuals and/or provide teams with project or program collaborative tools. IBM’s ITaaS is a good example of IT as a Service.

PaaS – Platform as a Service

Within the contact center context, cloud platform services is “where it’s at”. These are fully-formed suites of solutions and development environments, providing a complete range of services, in the Cloud. They provide individual solutions (resource management, channel integrations, workforce optimization, business intelligence, etc.) from a centrally-controlled, remote platform interface. Amazon AWS is a good example for a Platform as a Service.

SaaS – Software as a Service

Within unified communications, single software elements are provided for either development or deployment purposes. These can be integrated with local UC services or called into service, in the Cloud. Amazon Connect is a good example of Software as a Service.

CCaaS – Contact Center as a Service

Many of the major vendors have various “flavors” of Cloud-centric contact center services. From voice, through multimedia and social media interactions, to workflow and workforce management, onto business intelligence and management information systems. All provided with seamless integrations to local platforms, solutions, systems and software.

Voice Self Service Applications – the Modern IVR

“An IVR will never be popular – but it will always remain a business necessity. Interactions based on more complex conversations are becoming commonplace – to the point where it is difficult for the caller to know whether they are speaking with a person – or a machine.”

A caller’s expectations of an IVR are set from the very first second that they connect. Creating the right balance of persona, automation, information and interaction is not an easy task. Advances in Automatic Speech Recognition, Text-To-Speech services and more integrations with direct services means IVR’s are becoming more autonomous with “terminating” self-services, where the caller has no need to interact with any other resource…

The IVR has come a very long way in quite a short space of time. This is due mainly to the introduction of more interactive and intelligent computing components – and the level of interactivity an IVR now has with business and other legacy systems. What once was a “dumb terminal” which served only a single purpose – two at most – has evolved into what can be a multi-purpose platform;

Interoperability:

IVR’s have always had a level of connectivity with some back-end business systems – usually through a series of intermediate services. Generally, a lot of financial transactions are conducted through an IVR, which is considered a matured, secured portal to payment and purchasing systems. But those connections have grown – a lot! IVR’s can now interface with a multitude of business systems, databases and (web) portals, allowing it to become almost autonomous in its pre-defined role.

The “dumb terminal” can now send back validated information and update inter-connected systems. Customer decisions, choices, orders, amendments, cancellations can all be directed at a back-office system without the need for dozens of pass-through points or adaptors.

Automatic Speech Recognition:

Speech recognition (ASR) has been around for over a decade – and it’s become very good at its job. Picking out key words and phrases, the IVR pieces together what the caller wants, one syllable at a time. An IVR can now pass along much more data and information to an Agent, before the call arrives.

As a footnote; aside from a “standard” ASR approach for an IVR, there are now a bunch of small companies concerning themselves with Emotive Content Mining or Sentiment Analysis. Plucking out and extrapolating moods, words, expletives(!), brands, product names, and the general “feeling” of your callers (and Agents!) can help in many ways. Not least of which would be to refine or define the way in which your business deals with its customers.

Text to Speech Engines:

With modern TTS engines expression, volume, speed, tone, intonation, dialect and enunciation are all in the mix to bring you some quite stunning, seamless results.

Rules Engines:

Rules Engines (or “Routing Engines”) for IVR’s have become very intricate, indeed. Basing decisions on immediate events and actual points in time, a business can create a comprehensive, seamless interactive guide for their callers. And that is based on a lot of information from within a business – not just the caller’s button presses!

Terminal Self Services:

This means that your caller has called, interacted with your IVR and has completed a transaction of some kind – without the aid of an Agent. Many banking and account services use automated terminal services to deal with repetitive transactions, which require some form of Identification and Verification (IDV) with which to secure any transaction.

The “innovation” here is in introducing Rules Engines and Knowledge and Content to identify repeat Processes and Services that your Agents currently deal with. Armed with enough information from your IVR, you can plan to reduce real-time workloads by off-loading any identified, feasible, repeatable processes to your IVR – and save time and resources for the more complex queries from your customers.

Artificial Intelligence Applications – the Rise of the App Bot

“Artificial Intelligence is far from removing the need for real people as resources within a contact center. Advances have begun to make an impact in areas where Bots are taking standard, repetitive tasks away from contact center staff, allowing them to concentrate on more complex issues with their customers.”

The “up” side of Artificial Intelligence, Bots and Autonomous Interactions means mundane, repeat tasks can be easily automated, releasing resources for other tasks. The “down” side is a workforce must now be geared towards excellence in providing multiple disciplines and complex support, where those automation techniques have failed…

The march towards putting utilities and services into the palm of anyone’s hand continues. Having a Smartphone App – or even a “mobile-friendly” responsive website is testament to the fact that consumer interfaces are getting more and more compact. But does this mean the end for the more traditional channels of interactions in the contact center?

In 2008, Apple opened its “App Store” for mobile devices. Since then almost 4 million Apps have been developed across the major smartphone platforms – and more than 100 billion Apps have been downloaded. But that download trend is beginning to plateau. Why? It’s simple, really; human capacity can only take so much.

Consumers use an average of just 26 Apps on their Smartphone, which could also be considered as their “maximum usage”.

Over time, the lesser-used Apps are removed, as “clutter” on their device. A lot of that “clutter” are utilities and other services the consumer rarely uses. But then, when the consumer does need that service, they tend to go via Google – then direct to source – the service provider’s website. It’s a bit of a merry-go-round which does make sense from the human interaction perspective. That is, until you realize there is another type of “sub-App” waiting just around the corner… A Bot is a plug-in which works within an App or Service – but it’s usually one of those 26 Apps which the consumer uses on a regular basis.

Bots are more intelligent and more intuitive than Apps. An App has a set number of options and functions, whereas a Bot is designed to allow the consumer to pose their own questions – and then carries out automated tasks on their behalf.

Examples are already popping up in common Apps. Take Skype, for example; recent updates have introduced Bots including “Summarize”.

“Summarize” allows the consumer to paste-in a web address and get a summary of the information on the page, in a Skype chat window. What does that have to do with Skype? Well – nothing. But what is does do is prove that you can nest Bots within an App on the consumer’s screen. One less App icon to worry about – and a more intelligent and useful addition to the functions on-screen.

Aside from intelligent searches, Bots are being developed to allow consumers to book reservations, order goods and manage other aspects of their lives using a level of Artificial Intelligence (“AI”). The Bot interface speaks the consumers’ local language – and interfaces with other technologies and services to carry out its tasks. But what does all this have to do with Contact Centers? Let’s assume that your business either has an existing Enterprise Smartphone App – or your web site is designed to accommodate smartphones.

Agent-Less Self Services

Agent-Less Self Services

Your App probably contains the most common functions; ID&V, Account Management, Services, Customer Support, etc. Those are what you might consider to be some of your channels of interaction. You probably also have traditional voice channels, an IVR, multimedia – and you keep your finger on the pulse of Social Media with a plug-in.

Taking the current trends into consideration, your “next big thing” will be to develop your own Bot, which the consumer can add-in themselves – as simple as adding a new “Friend” on Facebook. But a Bot isn’t simply another interaction channel. A Bot is looking for answers and wants to perform actions on behalf of the consumer. How do you do that? Suddenly there is another level of complexity to your interaction channels. Here’s a wonderfully – if not quite scary – future thought; a Bot performs an action which requires it to interact with your IVR, navigate it and to connect with a “real person” – suddenly, your Contact Center Agent is talking to a Bot on behalf of the consumer… Developing an Enterprise Bot that resides within an App is not a simple task. It requires a lot of planning – and a lot of nurturing. A Bot needs Content and Knowledge Management with which to build on its own “AI”.

Your Brand and your Services need to be “baked in”. It’s not unlike the elements which form current “auto-responses” and “Agent Scripts”, today – you can define the essence of what needs to be communicated and let auto-responders carry out those tasks. In this way, Bots also bring with them automation on a grand scale. Many of the more time-consuming tasks for enquiries and standard transactions can be performed in real-time, with the right tools. Much like the “Self Service” aspect of an IVR – a standard, secure method of providing more services, without burdening your own resources. The footprint for the Bot, residing in an often-used App, also means it is unobtrusive and ready to use at any time. Looking further than the advent of the Bot is like moving into Science Fiction. “Beyond the Bot” is where AI comes into its own. Multiple sources of information, masses of data and intelligent learning will surpass even the need for Bots. Consumer’s habits and trends will contribute to the learning processes, leading to pre-emptive AI…

…But that’s a whole new chapter!

© November 2017 SOFTEL Communications – for further information: info@SOFTEL.com –  SOFTEL supports business, operational, technical and commercial studies for contact center modernization, Cloud services, IVR modernization and Artificial Intelligence integration to legacy enterprise systems.