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Posts Tagged ‘Self-service’

Interfaces of knowledge management (KM) systems can be applied to support and empower customer service via two key channels: (1) directly — used by customers (e.g., adjunct to self-service utilities, web-based or mobile app), or (2) indirectly — used by employees (customer service representatives [CSR]) to help them provide a better service to customers (e.g., more effective, timely, and accurate). These channels have some very different implications in form, scope and intensity of use of KM capacities.

The ‘library’ of a KM system should provide the customer with relevant background information that can help him or her make decisions (e.g., choosing between product attribute options, selecting among investment assets). The knowledge resource may also assist in completing technical tasks at one’s home or office (e.g., setting-up a software or device).  The content may include explanations on specific concepts or procedures, product reviews, and articles on related topics (e.g., an overview of a technology, medical condition, class of financial assets).

A crucial question is how the customer gets exposed to information relevant for the task at hand. General search queries often lead to many and spurious results requiring the customer to work hard to find and collate relevant information. The system has to do better than that in recommending truly useful information, to bring the user more precisely and quickly to a set of relevant knowledge sources. The customer may start by filling a short questionnaire that lets him specify his interests and goals. But as the customer accumulates more experience in using a KM portal and accessing some documents, the system can learn from his or her behaviour and update its recommendations. Alternatively, references to a KM resource may be embedded within a self-service facility (e.g., application for travel insurance) so that the system can refer the customer to supplementary information based on his or her progress in the service process (e.g., explanation of healthcare procedures in the country of destination, recommended features of coverage for the planned trip). As the system learns it may add a visual display of relevant statistics for guidance (e.g., distribution of options chosen by similar customers or in similar situations). Furthermore, a company can use its discretion to provide premium customers secured access to resources available only to its employees within the organisation.

Knowledge management portals for customers are not so common. References are more likely to be implicit, such as being embedded within the self-service platform of the company. More companies now provide an interface for interaction (chat) with an intelligent virtual agent (IVA) to get assistance. Such a robotic agent may give a brief answer and perhaps add a single resource for further reading; if the customer insists on asking a follow-up question, the agent may refer the customer to 1-3 more documents. Sometimes this kind of help is not sufficient and the customer has to make extra effort to drill more useful information from the IVA (a face wearing a smile to the customer is not always comforting). In more complex, sensitive and risk-prone domains, it is advisable to accompany the IVA with a portal that will display more resources in a coherent and viewer-friendly format, explicating what each resource would be most helpful for.

Having said that, there are circumstances in which the customer cannot manage on his own and needs to talk to a skilled person to resolve an issue. It may be because the customer encounters difficulties in fulfilling the task using the computer-based self-service tools or because the domain at issue is relatively complex and involves more significant personal implications (e.g., financial investment, insurance, medical conditions, sophisticated technological products). Researchers Shell and Buell of Harvard Business School suggest in a recent working paper [1] that having customers know that access to human contact is available to them for assistance, even without their taking advantage of it, can improve their feelings, particularly mitigating anxiety, and in turn recuperate their satisfaction and confidence in decisions they make during a self-service session; this will show especially in situations of heightened anxiety. Hence, making notice of access to human contact salient is essential.

Of course in some cases customers will choose to actually turn to a human agent for assistance and guidance; on many other occasions, however, merely knowing that human assistance is reachable may instill some more confidence and encourage the customer to continue independently to the extent that he or she can avoid calling for assistance (i.e., knowledge that human contact is available acts as a safety net). A company can offer human assistance from an agent by phone or chat (not an IVA/chatbot), yet as Shell and Buell propose, the company may also enable customers to get advice from customer-peers (though with more limited effect). Mitigating anxiety through offering human assistance as needed can help to reduce negative effects of customer anxiety on choice satisfaction and subsequently on trust in the company.

The utilisation of knowledge management portals by company’s CSRs aims to work at a different, professional level, to enable the CSRs address concerns and issues raised by customers in a more proficient and timely manner. For instance, it should save CSRs the time and effort of referring to a number of platforms (e.g., marketing, CRM, product) by bringing together different types of relevant and practical information onto one place from which the human agent can access it more easily and quickly. A KM portal display may integrate most recent history of interactions with the customer, relevant offers of products or service packages, or links to additional background articles (e.g., product profiles, technical materials). The KM portal may include essential customer information (e.g., identification and key flags) but it may not free the CSR completely from turning to a CRM system for more information (e.g., previous purchases); likewise, it may not free the CSR from turning to the billing system or a product database resource. The challenge of a KM system is to pull together those portions of information deemed most relevant and useful to the issue at stake from the broad knowledgebase of the company and lay them closer to the service agent (e.g., in a portal or dashboard display). An agent who listens to the ‘story’ told by the customer can give the KM system more clues to allow it to make the best recommendations. Information may be presented explicitly or as links to recommended documents and other external resources. This is expected to be part of the future mode of operation of contact centres, and it is already in motion.

It is important, nevertheless, to take into consideration the time a human service agent needs to review some of the information proposed in the KM portal, in relation to a customer’s enquiry during a live interaction with the customer. The CSR may have to trace, learn, judge and extract relevant information before delivering his or her insight, recommendation or solution to the customer, and all that within a few minutes. Some of the knowledge may be included, as suggested above, in resources like articles that the agent should access and read — think for instance of an article on a new travel insurance offer: the agent has to understand the terms before communicating it to the customer, and being able to answer questions. Three observations are in order on this matter:

  1. Human service agents (CSRs) should receive adequate training on choice, comprehension and evaluation of materials from the company’s knowledgebase, and also should be allocated paid “off-duty” time for reviewing new and updated content (e.g., products and service offers, technical support procedures) to reduce learning ‘time-breaks’ during customer interactions;
  2. The CSR agents should be ready and willing to learn and assimilate information they utilise as their own knowledge, together with experiences they accumulate, to be able to use that knowledge again with subsequent customers without having to process information from the KM portal every time and again — a KM system will be much less effective if CSRs rely heavily on what they see on the screen in every event, rather than using it as an aid and supporting tool;
  3. A key capacity of KM systems is to allow employees share among them experiences, lessons and information they have learned which proved pertinent to the service events they have been treating — by adding notes or updating a special forum, service agents can turn implicit knowledge into explicit knowledge that can help their colleagues in handling similar events in their own future customer encounters.

According to a research report by Aberdeen Group [2], companies that have a formal agent experience management programme gain a higher rate of annual increase in customer retention, above two times more than in other companies (12% versus 5%). These companies can also expect to benefit from about two times higher rates of year-over-year increases in revenues and customer satisfaction. At the same time, agent productivity is also likely to be better with a formal programme for supporting and enhancing the agent working experience (11% annual increase versus 7% in other companies without such a programme). Greater service agent satisfaction is linked to greater customer satisfaction; it requires that the agents feel they can do their work serving customers more easily and successfully with proper guidance and direction.

The Aberdeen report identifies three top factors influencing the agent experience. First, the prospect agent should bring to the job good technology knowledge and skills as well as strong communication skills to be fit for the job assigned. Second, the company should provide on its part the means in technology tools that will facilitate the ability of agents to perform their day-to-day tasks. A smart and effective knowledge management system that can quickly and pointedly lead agents to relevant information (e.g., instructive articles) should have a great role to play in improving the agent experience. Making agents spend extended valuable time seeking background knowledge and insights and delaying their handling of customer enquiries are key deterrents to agent productivity; it may be added that these impediments also are likely to lead to increased agent frustration. Nevertheless, side by side with the skills agents bring with them and the information and technology tools the company provides, agents should be given more autonomy while interacting with a customer (e.g., offer discounts, account credit, free shipping etc.). Aberdeen describes this third factor as providing agents the “sense of empowerment in addressing customer needs”. Employees-agents could be made to feel empowered when respecting their judgement in utilising knowledge resources and allowing them leeway in deciding how best to help the customers.

A knowledge management system incorporates knowledge resources with different types of information and technology tools to access that knowledge. The tools are expected to become powered more extensively by artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, to enable users to access relevant and practical information or knowledge more quickly and precisely. However, it should be appreciated that knowledge is most often what people make of information made available to them, and also the knowledge they can return and add to the system for the benefit of others. Whether the interface is used by any company’s service agents or the customers themselves (e.g., applying self-service facilities), the support and guidance of a KM system can enhance the service quality in important ways.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes: 

[1] “Mitigating the Negative Effects of Customer Anxiety Through Access to Human Contact”; Michelle A. Shell & Ryan W. Buell [2019]; Harvard Business School Working Paper 19-089 (unpublished paper).

[2] “Agent Experience Management: Customer Experience Begins with Your Agents”, Aberdeen Group [Omer Minkara], September 2017

 

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For over fifteen years companies are gradually shifting from providing customer service by live person-to-person channels to computer-based, automated and self-service modes. In the past three years the momentum seems to have even increased to replace bilateral human interactions with human-computer interactions — human on the customer’s side, computer on the company’s side. The trend is evident in a variety of sectors, including manufacturers and dealers providing maintenance and repair of goods, inherently service providers (e.g., mobile and Internet telecom, health, insurance, tourism), and retailers. The servicescape is definitely changing, and the repercussions are still unfolding (e.g., customer adaptation, social-related, customer-company relationships).

We can identify several stages a company may go through in reducing its direct human interaction with customers — transitioning from face-to-face to phone touchpoints, then to self-service on the Internet and by mobile applications. In-between companies have applied methods such as IVR on the phone and Web-based live chats with human customer service representatives (CSR). But the latest technological advance in computer-based self-service entails a potentially more extensive substitution of intelligent virtual agents for human service agents. It means that a larger variety of issues handled thus far via phone conversations and live chats on the Internet would be resolved by chats, at different levels of sophistication, with virtual agents.

Certainly a customer would not want to rush out to a physical branch of the serving company for resolving every problem with a product or service when it can be settled by a phone call to the company’s call centre. Some enquiries and technical issues can furthermore be resolved by means of e-mail or Web-based interfaces and resources without talking to anyone — many customers prefer nowadays to make a phone call to a company only after they have exhausted their options to solve their problem by means of self-service. There are clear advantages (e.g., convenience, control, independence) in using the computer-based modes of service. However, in cases where problems cannot be resolved effectively by self-service, and reaching a live representative of the company is made harder, it may engulf a wider gap between the company and its customer, possibly inducing frustration and anger. It may be even worse for consumers who are less computer-orientated and have difficulties using those online tools (e.g., tasks that may seem obvious or easy-to-do to Millennials [Generation Y], and to a large extent to Generation X consumers, are less likely to be so for earlier generations born before 1960).

Companies have a strong incentive of cost reduction to reduce or limit forms of human personal service  — various estimates suggest that the cost of interaction may fall from $10-12 when face-to-face to $5-6 by phone to less than a dollar by e-mail, online live chats or social media, and even less in human-computer interactions that do not involve a human on the company’s side. The face-to-face channel seems to fare the worst. Some companies eliminate branches for meeting with customers, reduce their accessibility or span of services provided face-to-face, and generally de-motivate customers to come and see their representatives for service.

  • A few examples: (a) A mobile telecom company that receives customers at its service centre only for acquiring new phones or leaving a phone for repair at the lab but not for issues related to changing a service package or billing; (b) An airline that prefers customers to arrange and order flights by phone and better on the Internet, and de-motivates them to come and make their travel arrangements face-to-face; (c) A ticket agency (e.g., live concerts) whose office is unaccessible, relying only on phone and online contacts.

While consumers are more willing to utilise computer-based self-service tools and resources, and are doing so more frequently, this does not mean they are ready to give up access to a person from the company. That is a wrong interpretation by certain companies who make it more difficult for customers to access their representatives, by phone or face-to-face. The last thing a company should do is to let its customers feel that it is not interested in hearing or seeing them in person. Consumers should have the privilege to choose how to receive their service. Otherwise, it is a slippery slope whereby a company may distance itself too far apart from its customers.

  • There are a number of cases where acquisition and service are intermingled. For instance, when (a) consultation is required prior to a purchase decision; (b) the buyer is a repeated customer; and (c) a purchase transaction is made online for a product or service consumed or experienced in the real physical world.

Intelligent virtual agents (IVA) may operate in several forms with regard to their level of exchange with users. They all rely on advanced methods of artificial intelligence and abilities to interpret natural language, and they may also utilise knowledge gained through Big Data analytics (e.g., of previous customer enquiries) to improve their quality of response (e.g., Watson by IBM, Siri by Apple, Optus by IntelliResponse). In one form, that may be described as less dynamic, a user poses a question in his or her own words, to which the IVA replies with the most accurate answer it could find from existing content in the company’s knowledge base (e.g., product profiles, service procedures, bill structure). The information, provided in text, is standard for any similar question on the same topic. The agent may assume the still image of a real person with a first name. A more sophisticated form of chatbot is an animated figure that behaves more like a live agent and can actually speak. The content may not differ from that given by the agent described formerly but it gives a more realistic “lively” feeling of speaking with another human being.

The advantages of this new breed of IVA are not to be underestimated. The IVA can save customers considerable time that is often needed in reviewing multiple results for a search query, referring the user to various pages from a company’s knowledge base. The IVA is also more flexible and efficient than the anachronistic method of pre-edited FAQ. The IVA can construct a relevant answer ad-hoc on a much larger variety of issues than a typical FAQ and it is much faster and more accurate in providing the correct relevant answer than a user searching the company’s resources. Yet, a virtual agent’s answers are based only on information that is pre-existent in the digital library of the company — if a customer asks for more details on a topic that are not available in advance, the agent may revert to repeat itself (links to related or additional details may be enclosed in an answer, thus excusing the user from posing the next question). The virtual agent also seems to provide standard answers not related to a specific personal problem described by the customer (e.g., particular monetary figures in the customer’s recent bill). For that purpose, the virtual agent should promptly escalate the call to a live CSR; the question remains, how readily IVAs are configured and able to do so.

Hence, IVAs at least at this stage may be able to promise consistency of relevant answers but not real ingenuity. Other aspects that also remain debatable are, for example, the ability of IVAs to identify the correct context of questions posed in natural language and their sensitivity to the mood of customers as a chat proceeds. These capabilities call upon a combination of experience and intuition that human representatives should still have the advantage in exercising over intelligent virtual agents.

In a main feature article in Fortune magazine (August 2015), Geoff Colvin discusses the impact that 21st century’s technological changes, particularly advance of automated computer and robotic systems, have on members of society, whether as employees or as consumers (1). He is critical of a spiral of underrating humans versus computers which may lead further to degrading human touch. In response, Colvin proposes areas of activities that humans should insist on continuing to perform, no matter the abilities of computers: remain in charge (e.g., be accountable to others, making judicial decisions); work together to set collective goals; sustain an advantage in satisfying deep interpersonal needs (e.g., in doctor-patient relations).

Colvin refers to a study by a research firm where employers were asked about the skills they expect to seek in five to ten years. We may predict those would be mainly analytic, business and financial-related (e.g., note warnings of a shortage in decision scientists). Yet, according to the study cited the future skills more demanded by employers include relationship building, teaming, co-creativity, brainstorming, cultural sensitivity, and ability to manage diverse employees. These stated priorities are partly at odds with employers’ own inclination to be more reliant on computer systems for service and allowing less leeway to customer-facing employees to act on their own judgements. Social interaction and empathy are expected to be in high demand in the 21st century. However, social interaction may regress when people become increasingly occupied with their smartphones and invest more in interacting with others through social media networks; and empathy, as Colvin shows, appears to be actually in decline among college students since 1990. Colvin concludes in suggesting that people should take the challenge by computers as an opportunity and work harder on their social skills and value as humans.

Forrester Research issued recently a brief report on the changed characteristics of young contact centre agents from the Millennial generation and how to accommodate them in the workplace (2). It is a new breed of (live) agents who are well-seasoned users of computer devices and computer-based tools and applications, an experience that shapes their approach to digital technology in leisure as well as at work. They have their own “philosophy”: any information they may need is stored in some repository these days (online or offline) and their skills should be directed to finding it. There is therefore no need for them to memorise facts and procedures. At work, they seem reluctant to learn details of products and services the way workers of previous cohorts have done. They prefer to learn where to find the information, being free of memorising details of product support. That clearly poses a challenge to professionals who develop the applications that agents should use for delivering computer-assisted service. Forrester proposes going towards the new agents with tools that reenforce their information search and navigation capabilities  (e.g., improved knowledge management, context-wise tools). Additionally, it is advisable to provide them hardware such as touch screens which they are so familiar with and comfortable operating (e.g,, as on their smartphones), and compatible graphic interface.

The focus on new information skills is welcome and in due time, and companies are most justified to enhance them in the young service agents. But Millennials, and others  in the same mind, should realise that their approach could be self-defeating. In order to excel at work, such as delivering an exceptional customer service, one should utilise in the best way his or her rich declarative knowledge in a domain and the practical experience one accumulated. Memorising information cannot be discarded because with expertise it means the CSR is better able to quickly provide the most effective solution to a customer’s problem. Can it be done equally well by looking up the solution or clues to it in a company’s knowledge repository? This is yet to be proven.

In the realm of keeping a sensible balance between human competence and computer technology, customer-facing employees are required to demonstrate professional aptitude (e.g., domain knowledge, proficiency in using information, responsiveness) and certain personality traits that can contribute to dialogue (e.g., reaching-out, courteous, open-minded)(3). Domain knowledge resides in one’s head (brain), not by sole reference to knowledge management systems. Thereby the human agent can develop the proficiency of using information retrieved from both own-memory and the information system as the task calls for. Companies are expected to reward exceptional CSRs. Even more advanced computer technologies may offer the agents the opposite — greater dependence on and integration with the computer system. Forrester suggests that live agents should be reserved for more complex context-sensitive conversations. If human service agents cannot demonstrate exceptional capabilities, companies will be encouraged to replace them with even-greater-intelligent virtual agents in future.

Companies as well as customers and customer-facing employees may perceive benefits in greater reliance on advanced computer technologies, for preferences or interests of each party. But there is a price to pay in company-customer relationships. What indeed is a relationship without a human factor, engaged on both sides? Companies should find it very hard to talk of a bond with their customers if they have little or no human contact with them. They should not expect too much loyalty from their customers in such conditions. The three parties have much to gain  from preserving and supporting live person-to-person service.

Ron Ventura, Ph.D. (Marketing)

Notes:

(1) Humans Are Underrated; Geoff Colvin; Fortune (Europe Edition), 1 August 2015 (Vol. 172, No. 2)  , pp. 34-41.

(2) Brief: Retool for a New Workforce Reality — New Technology for a New Breed of Agent, Forrester Research Inc., December 2014.

(3) Adopted from a 2011 post: The Human Shortages of Relationship Marketing

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