The “smart” technology that revolutionized our cell phones is finding its way into just about everything: medical devices, baby monitors, smoke detectors, thermostats, running shoes, even cows. Yes, cows: A company in the Netherlands developed a sensor that attaches to a cow’s ear, monitors its vital signs and transmits the data to a computer, which reports back to the farmer via email or text.
The pace at which technology marches forward is just incredible. The researchers at Gartner estimate that nearly 12.5 billion devices are connected to the web, a phenomenon industry folks refer to as “The Internet of Things” (IoT). By 2020, the number of connected “things” is expected to rise to 30 billion. That means more devices will be connected to the Internet than people.
Should we be worried? Are computers finally taking over? Probably not, experts say, like Carlos Dominguez, a technology evangelist with Cisco. Reassuringly, he predicts that, although machines will be automating more and more processes, humans will still be in control—and responsible for the outcomes.
When it comes to the power of IoT and data, it’s high time customer engagement gets involved, and it all begins with the contact center.
By the year 2020, your washing machine breaks down. It’s a relatively new model, equipped with sophisticated sensors that automatically alert the manufacturer if the appliance needs service. The manufacturer then notifies you (via email, which it recognizes as your preferred method of contact) that the machine needs repair.
A virtual agent initiates a service call by accessing your Outlook or iCal calendar to set up an appointment. On the scheduled day, the tech gains access to your home by entering a one-time passcode into your front door (which is outfitted with a smartlock), completes the repair, and triggers an automated confirmation email to you and to the manufacturing center. The ticket is closed. Your washing machine is up and running before you even missed it.
For contact center leaders, however, this vision of the future might seem daunting. A service environment with this level of automation, one that blurs the line between agents and distributed “experts,” doesn’t just establish itself, and it certainly doesn’t happen overnight.
As more agents are working remotely, in different countries, different time zones and in different languages, the contact center’s systems—for workflow, CRM, analytics—will have to be more tightly integrated.
The expansion of self-service options—from the traditional IVR to website help to community-based tech support (what some call “social customer service”)—will also increase, enabling customers to get fast answers to their questions, especially routine ones, without human interaction. Remember that however service is delivered—by a human or by a machine—the customer is still interacting with your brand. Is that interaction positive or negative? Does it strengthen or weaken your reputation? Understanding these touch-points and how they shape your customer’s experience will be more important than ever.
If self-service and automation are the norm in 2020, what does that mean for agents? People’s roles will certainly change, and the need for specialized care from subject-matter experts inside the enterprise is likely to rise.
In the future, the first point of contact for the customer whose problem is not routine might be a subject-matter expert. Ideally, contact centers will know enough about who is calling (or emailing or texting) and why the customer is reaching out so they can automatically direct the customer to the right person right away. The boundaries between agent and external expert will blur.
As customer service becomes more specialized, it will also broaden, making everyone in the organization a customer-facing “agent.” In order to solve customers’ problems swiftly and efficiently, every customer-facing employee must be able to access the same service processes and technologies.
Twenty years ago, customers had basically one channel: the phone. But call centers obviously aren’t just for calls anymore—you have email, chat, social media, even texts to manage, too. In 2020, you’ll probably have more channels, and your contact center must be flexible enough to support all of them.
Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication, a term referring to technologies that enable wireless and wired systems to communicate with each other, will be the channel of the future. We saw that in the washing machine scenario, where the sensors in the machine “talked” to another machine—a computer—and set the whole process in motion. Touch-points are going to multiply and standards will become critical.
As the Internet of Things marches on, sensors and smart technology will be built into more and more products (many of which we can’t even imagine yet). The problem is that today these things are created with their own protocols, for a specific purpose, to function in one specific environment—meaning they may not be compatible with other things. As standards are developed by the technology community, this vast network of connections will become incredibly useful. But it also means that much more data must be aggregated to transform it from information into knowledge and then, ultimately, into wisdom.
With all this virtual connectedness and emerging channels comes the need for tighter security—not only at the network level, but also physical security at the end point. Of course, security is not a new concern for contact centers. You’ve always had to worry about protecting customer data, from credit card numbers to medical records. The Internet of Things creates many new layers of vulnerability.
Think back to the washing machine scenario. Imagine the security risks at every point in that process (access to the customer’s calendar, physically entering the home, having to trust their home’s network security, and so on). For folks like Carlos Dominguez (the guy who assures us that people will still be in control), security is one of the biggest challenges we face in the future.
“Intelligence and security at the edge will be critical,” he says. “We’re moving from millions to billions of connections, and as more things connect to the network, the requirement that intelligence and security work at the local edge will have a profound impact on product and network design. Identifying what is connecting, how to protect it and how to manage it will be critical.”
Without a doubt, analytics will be absolutely vital for the multichannel contact centers of 2020. It will be more important than ever to have systems in place to handle all that data, organize it and mine it. And once you’ve mined it, you must also be prepared to act on it based on best practices.
With the right analytics systems, you can take huge volumes of data and pick out the important patterns and trends—without having to know the right questions to ask. With the right analytics, you can tap into one of the single most powerful competencies in the contact center: real-time, root-cause analysis. And with the right analytics, you have a reliable decision-making engine, providing directional guidance for the road ahead.
What incremental changes can you make in the next six to 12 months? In terms of security? Analytics? Automation? Channel readiness?
While it’s hard to find the time when you’re putting out fires left and right, it’s essential to make an effort to research new tools and technology. Find out which ones could help improve performance and service and catalyze top line growth. My advice may sound obvious, but seek out systems that are easy to use and clear as crystal; the more complex your systems are, the simpler your interfaces must be. Some call it “simplexity”—the idea that a simple interface can dramatically improve the usability of complex systems.
If the future looks to be anything, it’s complex. The good news is that the right tools—ones that are flexible and extensible—can make all the difference. With the right tools, you’ll be able to keep up with the data, the billions of connections, the myriad channels customers will use to reach you. And these complex systems will harvest more data, which will enable pure analysis, and ultimately lead to better decisions.
Prepare to open the eyes and minds of other leaders in your business, advocating where necessary for investments in new resources and software. The consequences of not keeping up with changing technology could be dire.
I think about Kodak—how, in the same month that Facebook bought Instagram for a billion dollars, the camera pioneer filed for bankruptcy. Either Kodak never saw the changes coming or didn’t ready itself for the future.
In fact, I think it’s one of the two essential survival skills for 2020. The other one is being customer conscious, which will be one of the few ways companies can differentiate themselves in a highly automated environment. Marry the two—innovation and service—and you’re likely to keep your customers happy long into the future.
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