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The Resurgence of Voice in Customer Service

Rick McfarlandTo paraphrase Mark Twain, “Rumors of voice’s death have been greatly exaggerated.”

Despite heavy development dollars invested to expand and enhance the customer user experience in online and mobile app channels – and to encourage customers to use those vehicles, since they are generally more efficient for the business – voice is very much alive. In fact, it’s growing stronger, with businesses seeing an interesting rise in inbound call volume in customer service.

This counterintuitive upsurge of the voice channel comes at a curious time, because conventional wisdom proposed that as Web and mobile app use steadily gained popularity, they would become the dominant sales and customer-service communication channels, leading to a drop in voice calls. While this may have been true at first, it now appears to have been just a blip in the charts. The fact is, with the ever-present smartphone always at our side, customers are not only still making calls to solve their sales and service needs, they are doing so with growing frequency. This is particularly true in the service arena, where customer needs aren’t as cut and dry as purchasing a product.

Yes many companies have forsaken the voice channel – plus related tools – in their development pipelines. Have we gotten to the point of provoking customer dissatisfaction?

With inbound call volume rising, this has become an essential question for businesses and the partners who support them.

Automation Has Limits

What’s the main reason for the resurgence in voice? It’s a question of inherent service limitations in alternate models.

Stated a little differently, automation will only get you so far. When customers wish to speak to a human, they better be able to do so, and right away. Web forms and mobile apps work sensationally when customers seek swift, simple, self-service solutions where no human intervention is needed. The situation becomes a little stickier as the issue grows in sophistication, personalization or complexity. While Web and mobile user experiences are at their most highly developed form today, they are still created and refined by engineers who, though brilliant in development expertise, don’t have very much experience creating a “customer engagement experience,” as in designing for what customers expect to experience or how they behave. “If/then” planning and design logic begin to fall short as customer needs become more specialized and individualized.

Consider the case of Amazon and its popular Kindle tablet. Arguably, few companies on the planet can rival the massive investments in automation technologies that Amazon continues to make, or match their internal development muscle. Yet, when it came to customer service for the Kindle, Amazon, too, had to return to the essential imperative of not forsaking that human-to-human connection. After revaluating its ability to serve a multitude of customer expectations, it implemented its Mayday service intervention button. For all its technology mastery, and its desire to create an entire experience around an automated self-service model, Amazon remembered what all businesses today – large and small – can ill afford to forget: Despite the seductive siren call of turnkey self-service automation, human contact is still the most important and useful way to maintain strong, productive and fruitful relationships with customers. This is why voice continues to thrive in our ever-more-digitized world.

Consider the stubborn staying power of IVR systems, which were first introduced in the 1960s yet are still delivering tangible value today. In terms of standard technology product life cycles, IVR should have been long since extinct. But this species continues to re-engineer itself with downright Darwinian tenacity, proving its fundamental worth to business. This is especially the case when the IVR system in question has been designed and developed to genuinely parallel the preferences and behavioral patterns of the customers it serves. Even when the IVR’s self-service automation engine has been conceived and constructed to a very granular degree, it must still have an easy and ever-present “bail out” hatch for when the customer desires to speak to a company representative.

The challenge here, of course, is to ensure that the need for the bail out is not because customers are frustrated with a poorly designed IVR, but rather, because they realize their problem can only be solved by speaking to a person live.

Does this mean that companies must make a greater investment in people? Yes. Does it mean relying less on automated efficiencies? Yes. But it also means more satisfied customers, which are purchasing customers — without whom there would be no business.

Customer Service to the Core

Technology, at times, can distract a company away from its core calling, which is not to build products or develop services, but to serve the customer. At some point in recent decades, businesses forgot this essential truth. Intoxicated by the prospect of service automation, they began treating customer service as a necessary evil, a dreaded cost center. They even looked to outsource it, because they no longer regarded it as a core aspect of their existence, not like their products and services — or so they believed.

Just the opposite is true. And this is why today we are seeing outsourced contact-center operations increasingly returning in-house. Companies are remembering that serving the customer is not only core to the business; it is, indeed, the only reason for the business.

Social economists notwithstanding, the reason for this resurgence in voice has little to do with shifting age groups, changing demographics or evolving psychographics. It has everything to do with customers wanting what they want when they want it. At times, quick and simple self-service automation without having to speak to a soul, and at other times, a person-to-person conversation to manage an issue that could not have been resolved any other way.

The moral of the story is a simple one: It’s not rocket science, but sometimes the most basic truths prove the most difficult to see. Businesses must serve customers today with variety and versatility, making all channels of communication available – those based on self-service automation as well as those that facilitate human-to-human contact – and genuinely invest in each. This is what the omni-channel movement is all about: not just offering multiple channels simultaneously with seamless real-time bridges between them, but investing and exceling in each to offer a complete and individualized experience, one that feels personal to the customer.

Rick Mcfarland is CEO at Voice4net.


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