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Customers still prefer to talk – don’t underestimate your voice communications

Rafael Cortes, Foehn head of marketing, explains why voice and human interaction still play essential roles in the world of multi-channel business communications.
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The hyper-competitive battle for customers across all markets today means that any technology innovation arriving in the contact centre environment becomes an immediate focal point for businesses prepared to risk early adoption in exchange for competitive advantage. Innovation is crucial to contact centre strategy but implementation of the incoming technology must also take into account the role of existing technology that has driven the core business successfully in the past. Taking the eye off this ball can be damaging.

This is the scenario facing voice communications in the contact centre today. Since call centres were established some 50 years ago, voice has dominated the communications portfolio and continues to fulfil between 60 per cent and 70 per cent of customer interactions for most businesses today. Now, with the advent of digital communications, including the likes of chat, email, SMS and social media, businesses are reforming their CRM strategies around multi-channel communications to serve the “Y generation” users that demand a consistent “omni-channel” service.

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Whilst there is no doubt that recent years have seen growing demand for these new media, with more to come in the future, claims of a corresponding decline in demand for voice cannot be further from the truth. The fact is that whilst low cost digital media are successful in dealing with simple, repetitive, low cost customer transactions, voice is moving up to deal with the more complex, higher value, VIP customer relationships that are so important to repeat revenues and profitability.

For most businesses, voice is already guardian of the customer base crown jewels and, despite the noise surrounding the digital disruption, there is evidence that a quieter voice revolution is under way.

Voice everywhere

After several years of apps, clicks and text, customer engagement is again calling for human intervention and voice is in demand. The fusion of technology and conversation is undergoing a refresh by global vendors that set the communications agenda. For example, Google has integrated voice into Google Hangouts, Skype for Web now has voice and video, Salesforce has introduced Lightning Voice into its Sales Cloud and GoDaddy has just acquired FreedomVoice to enable a growing suite of office services.

All these vendors recognise that an increasing number of inbound calls is being driven by the unstoppable growth in smartphone users together with a proliferation of new devices like smart watches. Further momentum comes from advances in the quality of voice-activated search, via “personal assistants” in the phone or in the car, and click-to-call features that avoid fumbling with a keypad.

By simplifying the physical task of making a call, technology is lifting a barrier to the preferred voice channel. This is typical of the small but valuable features that are so important to the “connected” lifestyle of new generation users – just ask one of the 700 million smart phone users in China faced with a four inch screen and Chinese characters.

The click-to-call catalyst

The tedious process of calling a phone number from a smartphone keypad is exacerbated if the caller has to first visit a web site to access the number. Removing this process has been the challenge of Google who is testing click-to-call phone numbers in organic search results on mobile devices. This is a progression from the one-click phone numbers that have always been an option on paid search and local listings. The inclusion on organic search listings acknowledges Google’s view of the importance of phone calls to mobile phone users who want to contact a business without visiting their web site first.

Facebook and Twitter are following Google’s lead with similar advertising functionality, giving mobile lifestyle users the instant access they need to meet the demands of life on the move. Forget dancing around web sites and “contact us” pages, serious buyers want minimal fuss and the quickest route to a purchase, whether that means text, email, app or, best of all, voice.

Meeting the demand for personalised services

For some contact centre managers, the phone is now viewed as a last resort for queries that cannot be resolved in any other way. Some forecast that digital will overtake voice-based interaction within the next couple of years, their judgements based on the stereotypical requirements of a tech savvy generation. Ultimately, the same managers believe that customers under 40 years old would much rather use social media and web chat than making a call.

However, the real evidence shows that this projection is short-sighted and inaccurate, often based on specific examples of products and services serving 18-24 year-olds or simply an over-enthusiastic response to the technology hype. For sure, the negative public perception of “call centres” of the past, with the frustration and delays associated with poorly planned IVR, has encouraged customers to move to self-service, web chat and self-help through forums.

This is history, though, and the truth today is that voice is still the channel of choice for a quick response, selected by more than 60 per cent of UK consumers as the best way of handling the most urgent and complex of queries. When a caller has a complex or immediate issue they will automatically reach for the phone and expect the help of an agent that can provide the high level of product or service knowledge required to resolve the detailed issues that other digital channels cannot accommodate. This new breed of agent needs to think and respond without relying on scripts and have the skills to deal with longer, in-depth conversations.

“Expert agents” of this kind now offer an “escalation channel” when all other options have been exhausted. They are also responsible for a surge in ‘personalised’ interactions, designed to retain the loyalty of high value customers. Teams of expert agents are now thought to be employed in around 40 per cent of contact centres.

In addition to dealing with the too-complex-for-digital issues mentioned earlier, these teams manage incoming callers requiring specialist treatment to do with foreign languages, personalised product sales, high status on social media, repeat calls, loyalty club membership, etc. Personalised services are further enhanced by offering dedicated executives, unique telephone numbers, personalised greetings and prioritised queueing.

Improvements in voice technology

Personalisation strategy is, and always will be, driven by human conversation but, increasingly, personalisation and voice calls are being enhanced by other complimentary channels. Digital screens can supplement conversation without replacing it. Voice plus co-browsing, video, chat, etc, offers another dimension that adds clarity and value to the call.

WebRTC is a major driver in bringing these technologies together and giving instant access to calls from a growing number of web and mobile applications. At the same time, developments in voice delivery are enhancing audio quality, with inbound noise cancellation and audio enhancing technology.

Similarly, SIP reliability, quality of service management and bandwidth availability for VoIP are all contributing to the feasibility and cost of voice as a dominant channel. Cloud phones and cloud contact systems are comparatively simple and quick to deploy and have the benefit of integrating voice closely with multi-channel communications.

Digital when you need it

Sweeping statements about the demise of voice in favour of the digital media are misleading. The confusion arises because contact centres have gone to great lengths to incorporate digital channels but this widespread implementation does not reflect the current level of digital usage, particularly compared with voice. On average, 90 per cent of inbound communications are received as voice, email or IVR. Chat, SMS, social media and others account for the remaining ten per cent. These proportions will change over coming years, but there is no sign of voice diminishing significantly.

The need to offer a full suite of multi-channel communications arises because the younger, wealthier, more demanding consumer of today demands it. Availability of all services is considered mandatory by these discerning customers and, even though usage may be only occasional, absence of the digital option when needed is considered a big negative in the customer experience.

Summary

Digital, multi-channel contact centres are essential to provide the full portfolio of channels that move CRM towards the omnichannel experience. At the same time, voice is essential to serve the majority of interactions, particularly the most important. Business managers that recognise both of these imperatives are best equipped to grow and maintain customer base in the coming years.

For 16 years, Foehn has been developing voice and contact centre systems, with the agile and innovative features afforded by cloud hosting and open source software. See how Foehn balances these voice and multi-channel imperatives with deployments that have streamlined operations and taken customer experience to new levels.

Foehn has produced a series of “Buyers Guides” for cloud phone systems to help companies learn more about improving their business communications. Access Foehn’s free Buyers Guide series here.

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