The next BriefingsDirect customer experience insights discussion explores how Contact center-as-a-service (CCaaS) capabilities are becoming more powerful as a result of leveraging cloud computing, multi-mode communications channels, and the ability to provide optimized and contextual user experiences.
More than ever, businesses have to make difficult and complex decisions about how to best source their customer-facing services. Which apps and services, what data and resources should be in the cloud or on-premises -- or in some combination -- are among the most consequential choices business leaders now face. As the confluence of cloud and unified communications (UC) -- along with data-driven analytics -- gain traction, the contact center function stands out.
We'll now hear why traditional contact center technology has become outdated, inflexible and cumbersome, and why CCaaS is becoming more popular in meeting the heightened user experience requirements of today.
Here to share more on the next chapter of contact center and customer service enhancements, is Vasili Triant, CEO of Serenova in Austin, Texas. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: What are the new trends reshaping the contact center function?
Triant: What's changed in the world of contact center and customer service is that we're seeing a generational spread -- everything from baby boomers all the way now to Gen Z.
With the proliferation of smartphones through the early 2000s, and new technologies and new channels -- things like WeChat and Viber -- all these customers are now potential inbound discussions with brands. And they all have different mediums that they want to communicate on. It's no longer just phone or e-mail: It's phone, e-mail, web chat, SMS, WeChat, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and there are other channels coming around the corner that we don't even know about yet.
When you take all of these folks -- customers or brands -- and you take all of these technologies that consumers want to engage with across all of these different channels - it's simple, they want to be heard. It's now the responsibility of brands to determine what is the best way to respond and it's not always one-to-one.
So it's not a phone call for a phone call, it's maybe an SMS to a phone call, or a phone call to a web chat -- whatever those [multi-channels] may be. The complexity of how we communicate with customers has increased. The needs have changed dramatically. And the legacy types of technologies out there, they can't keep up -- that's what's really driven the shift, the paradigm shift, within the contact center space.
Gardner: It's interesting that the new business channels for marketing and capturing business are growing more complex. They still have to then match on the back end how they support those users, interact with them, and carry them through any sort of process -- whether it's on-boarding and engaging, or it's supporting and servicing them.
What we're requiring then is a different architecture to support all of that. It seems very auspicious that we have architectural improvements right along with these new requirements.
Triant: We have two things that have collided at the same time - cloud technologies and the growth of truly global companies.
Most of the new channels that have rolled out are in the cloud. I mean, think about it -- Facebook is a cloud technology, Twitter is a cloud technology. WeChat, Viber, all these things, they are all cloud technologies. It's becoming a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS)-based world. The easiest and best way to integrate with these other cloud technologies is via the cloud -- versus on-premises. So what began as the shift of on-premises technology to cloud contact center -- and that really began in 2011-2012 - has rapidly picked up speed with the adoption of multi-channels as a primary method of communication.
The only way to keep up with the pace of development of all these channels is through cloud technologies because you need to develop an agile world, you need to be able to get the upgrades out to customers in a quick fashion, in an easy fashion, and in an inexpensive fashion. That's the core difference between the on-premises world and the cloud world.
At the same time, we are no longer talking about a United States company, an Australia company, or a UK company -- we are talking about everything as global brands, or global businesses. Customer service is global now, and no one cares about borders or countries when it comes to communication with a brand.
Gardner: We have been speaking about this through the context of the end-user, the consumer. But this architecture and its ability to leverage cloud also benefits the agent, the person who is responsible for keeping that end-user happy and providing them with the utmost in intelligent services. So how does the new architecture also aid and abet the agent.
Triant: The agent is frankly one of the most important pieces to this entire puzzle. We talk a lot about channels and how to engage with the customer, but that's really what we call listening. But even in just simple day-to-day human interactions, one of the most important things is how you communicate back. There has been a series of time-and-motion studies done within contact centers, within brands -- and you can even look at your personal experiences. You don't have to read reports to understand this.
The baseline for how an interaction will begin and end and whether that will be a happy or a poor interaction with the brand, is going to be dependent on the agents' state of mind. If I call up and I speak to "Joe," and he starts the conversation, he is in a great mood and he is having a great day, then my conversation will most likely end in a positive interaction because it started that way.
But if someone is frustrated, they had a rough day, they can't find their information, their computers have been crashing or rebooting, then the interaction is guaranteed to end up poor. You hear this all the time, "Oh, can you wait a moment, my systems are loading. Oh, I can't get you an answer, that screen is not coming up. I can't see your account information." The agents are frustrated because they can't do their job, and that frustration then blends into your conversation.
So using the technology to make it easy for the agent to do their job is essential. If they have to go from one screen to another screen to conduct one interaction with the customer -- they are going to be frustrated, and that will lead to a poor experience with the customer.
The cloud technologies like Serenova, which is web-based, are able to bring all those technologies into one screen. The agent can have all the information brought to them easily, all in one click, and then be able to answer all the customer needs. The agent is happy and that adds to the customer satisfaction. The conclusion of the call is a happy customer, which is what we all want. That's a great scenario and you need cloud technology to do that because the on-premises world does not deliver a great agent experience.
Gardner: Another thing that the older technologies don't provide is the ability to have a flexible spectrum to move across these channels. Many times when I engage with an organization I might start with an SMS or a text chat, but then if that can't satisfy my needs, I want to get a deeper level of satisfaction. So it might end up going to a phone call or an interaction on the web, or even a shared desktop, if I'm in IT support, for example.
The newer cloud technology allows you to intercept via different types of channels, but you can also escalate and vary between and among them seamlessly. Why is that flexibility both of benefit to the end-user as well as the agent?
Triant: I always tell companies and customers of ours that you don't have to over-think this; all you have to do is look to your personal life. Most common things that we as users deal with -- such as cell phone companies, cable companies, airlines, -- you can get onto any of these websites and begin chatting, but you can find that your interaction isn't going well. Before I started at Serenova, I had these experiences where I was dealing with the cable company and -- chat, chat, chat, -- trying to solve my problem. But we couldn't get there, and so then we needed to get on the phone. But they said, "Here is our 800 number, call in." I'd call in, but I'd have to start a whole new interaction.
Basically, I'd have to re-explain my entire situation. Then, I am talking with one person, and they have to turn around and send me an email, but I am not going to get that email for 30 to 45 minutes because they have to get off the phone, and get into another system and send it off. In the meantime, I am frustrated, I am ticked off -- and guess what I have done now? I have left that brand. This happens across the board. I can even have two totally different types of interactions with the company.
You can use a major airline brand as an example. One of our employees called on the phone trying to resolve an issue that was caused by the airline. They basically said, "No, no, no." It made her very frustrated. She decided she's going to fly with a different airline now. She then sent a social post [to that effect], and the airline's VP of Customer Service answered it, and within minutes they had resolved her issue. But they already spent three hours on the phone trying to push her off through yet another channel because it was a totally different group, a totally different experience.
By leveraging technologies where you can pivot from one channel to another, everyone will get answers quicker. I can be chatting with you, Dana, and realize that we need to escalate to a voice conversation, for example, and I as the agent; I can then turn that conversation into a voice call. You don't have to re-explain yourself and you are like, "Wow, that's cool! Now I'm on the phone with a facility," and we are able to handle our business.
As agent, I can also pivot simultaneously to an email channel to send you something as simple as a user guide or a series of knowledge-based articles that I may have at my fingertips as an agent. But you and I are still on the phone call. Even better yet, after-the-fact, as a business, I have all the analytics and the business intelligence to say that I had one interaction with Dana that started out as a web chat, pivoted to a phone call, and I simultaneously then sent a knowledge-based article of "X" around this issue and I can report on it all at once. Not three separate interactions, not three separate events -- and I have made you a happy customer.
Gardner: We are clearly talking about enabling the agent to be a super-agent, and they can, of course, be anywhere. I think this is really important now because the function of an agent -- we are already seeing the beginnings of this -- but it's going to certainly include and increase having more artificial intelligence (NYSE:AI) and machine learning and associated data analytics benefits. The agent then might be a combination of human and AI functions and services.
So we need to be able to integrate at a core communications basis. Without going too far down this futuristic route, isn't it important for that agent to be an assimilation of more assets and more services over time?
Artificial Intelligence plus human support
Triant: I'm glad you brought up AI and these other technologies. The reality is that we've been through a number of cycles around what this technology is going to do and how it is going to interact with an agent. In my view, and I have been in this world for a while, the agent is the most important piece of customer service and brand engagement. But you have to be able to bring information to them, and you have to be able to give information to your customers so that if there is something simple, get it to them as quick as possible -- but also bring all the relevant information to the agent.
AI has had multiple forms; it has existed for a long time. Sometimes people get confused because of marketing schemes and sales tactics [and view AI] as a way for cost avoidance, to reduce agents and eliminate staff by implementing these technologies. Really the focus is how to create a better customer experience, how to create a better agent experience.
We have had AI in our product for last three years, and we are re-releasing some components that will bring business intelligence to the forefront around the end of the year. What it essentially does is alIow you to see what you're doing as a user out on the Internet and within these technologies. I can see that you have been looking for knowledge-based articles around, for example, "why my refrigerator keeps freezing up and how can I defrost it." You can see such things on Twitter and you can see these things on Facebook. The amount of information that exists out there is phenomenal and in real-time. I can now gather that information … and I can proactively, as a business, make decisions about what I want to do with you as a potential consumer.
I can even identify you as a consumer within my business, know how many products you have acquired from me, and whether you're a "platinum" customer or even a basic customer, and then make a decision.
For example, I have TVs, refrigerators, washer-dryers and other appliances all from the same manufacturer. So I am a large consumer to that one manufacturer because all of my components are there. But I may be searching a knowledge-based article on why the refrigerator continues to freeze up.
Now I may call in about just the refrigerator, but wouldn't it be great for that agent to know that I own 22 other products from that same company? I'm not just calling about the refrigerator; I am technically calling about the entire brand. My experience around the refrigerator freaking out may change my entire brand decision going forward. That information may prompt me to decide that I want to route that customer to a different pool of agents, based on what their total lifetime value is as a brand-level consumer.
Through AI, by leveraging all this information, I can be a better steward to my customer and to the agent, because I will tell you, an agent will act differently if they understand the importance of that customer or to know that I, Vasili, have spent the last two hours searching online for information, which I posted on Facebook and I posted on Twitter.
Through AI, by leveraging all this information, I can be a better steward to the customer and to the agent.
At that point, the level of my frustration already has reached a certain height on a scale. As an agent, if you knew that, you might treat me differently because you already know that I am frustrated. The agent may be able to realize that you have been looking for some information on this, realize you have been on Facebook and Twitter. They can then say: "I am really sorry, I'm not able to get you answers. Let me see how I can help you, it seems that you are looking online about how to keep the refrigerator from freezing up."
If I start the conversation that way, I've now diffused a lot of the frustration of the customer. The agent has already started that interaction better. Bringing that information to that person, that's powerful, that's business intelligence -- and that's creating action from all that information.
Keep your cool
Gardner: It's fascinating that that level of sentiment analysis brings together the best of what AI and machine learning can do, which is to analyze all of these threads of data and information and determine a temperature, if you will, of a person's mood and pass that on to a human agent who can then have the emotional capacity to be ready to help that person get to a lower temperature, be more able to help them overall.
It's becoming clear to me, Vasili, that this contact center function and CCaaS architectural benefits are far more strategic to an organization than we may have thought, that it is about more than just customer service. This really is the best interface between a company -- and all the resources and assets it has across customer service, marketing, and sales interactions. Do you agree that this has become far more strategic because of these new capabilities?
Triant: Absolutely, and as brands begin to realize the power of what the technology can do for their overall business, it will continue to evolve, and gain pace around global adoption.
As brands begin to realize the power of what the technology can do for their overall businesses, it will continue to evolve and gain global adoption.
We have only scratched the surface on adoption of these cloud technologies within organizations. A majority of brands out there look at these interactions as a cost of doing business. They still seek to reduce that cost versus the lifetime value of both the consumer, as well as the agent experience. This will shift, it is shifting, and there are companies that are thriving by recognizing that entire equation and how to leverage the technologies.
Technology is nothing without action and result. There have been some really cool things that have existed for a while, but they don't ever produce any result that's meaningful to the customer so they never get adopted and deployed and ultimately reach some type of a mass proliferation of results.
Gardner: You mentioned cost. Let's dig into that. For organizations that are attracted to the capabilities and the strategic implications of CCaaS, how do we evaluate it in terms of cost? The old CapEx approach often had a high upfront cost, and then high operating costs, if you have an inefficient call center. Other costs involve losing your customers, losing brand affinity, losing your perception in the market. So when you talk to a prospect or customer, how do you help them tease out the understanding of a pay-as-you-go service as highly efficient? Does the highly empowered agent approach save money, or even make money, and CCaaS becomes not a cost center but a revenue generator?
Triant: Interesting point, Dana. When I started at Serenova about five years ago, customers all the time would say, "What's the cost of owning the technology?" And, "Oh, my, on-premises stuff has already depreciated and I already own it, so it's cheaper for me to keep it." That was the conversation pretty much every day. Beginning in 2013, it rapidly started shifting. This shift was mainly driven by the fact that organizations started realizing that consumers want to engage on different channels, and the on-premises guys couldn't keep up with this demand.
The cost of ownership no longer matters. What matters is that the on-premises guys just literally could not deliver the functionality. And so, whether that's Cisco, Avaya, or Shoretel, they quickly started falling away in consideration for technology companies that were looking to deploy applications for their business to meet these needs.
The cost of ownership quickly disappeared as the main discussion point. Instead it came around to, "What is the solution that you're going to deliver?" Customers that are looking for contact center technologies are beginning to take a cloud-first approach. And once they see the power of CCaaS through demonstration and through some trials of what an agent can do - and it's all browser-based, there is no client install, there is no equipment on-premises - then it takes on a life of its own. It's about, "What is the experience going to be? Are these channels all integrated? Can I get it all from one manufacturer?"
Following that, organizations focus on other intricacies around - Can it scale? Can it be redundant? Is it global? But those become architectural concerns for the brands themselves. There is a chunk of the industry that is not looking at these technologies, and they are stuck in brand euphoria or have to stay with on-premises infrastructure, or with a certain vendor because of their name or that they are going to get there someday.
As we have seen, Avaya has declared bankruptcy. Avaya does not have cloud technologies despite their marketing message. So the customers that are in those technologies now realize they have to find a path to keep up with the basic customer service at a global scale. Unfortunately, those customers have to find a path forward and they don't have one right now.
It's less about cost of ownership and it's more about the high cost of not doing anything. If I don't do anything, what's going to be the cost? That cost ultimately becomes - I'm not going to be able to have engagement with my customers because the consumers are changing.
It's less about cost of ownership and it's more about the high cost of not doing anything.
Gardner: What about this idea of considering your contact center function not just as a cost center, but also as a business development function? Am I being too optimistic.
It seems to me that as AI and the best of what human interactions can do combine across multichannels, that this becomes no longer just a cost center for support, a check-off box, but a strategic must-do for any business.
Multi-channel customer interaction
Triant: When an organization reaches the pinnacle of happiness within what these technologies can do, they will realize that no longer do you need to have delineation between a marketing department that answers social media posts, an inside sales department that is only taking calls for upgrades and renewals, and a customer service department that's dealing with complaints or inbound questions. They will see that you can leverage all the applications across a pool of agents with different skills.
I may have a higher skill around social media than over voice, or I may have a higher skill level around a sales activity, or renewal activity, over customer service problems. I should be able to do any interaction. And potentially one day it'll just be customer interaction department and the channels are just a medium of inbound and outbound choice for a brand.
But you can now take information from whatever you see the customer doing. Each of their actions have a leading indicator, everything has a predictive action prior to the inbound touch, everything does. Now that a brand can see that, it will be able to have "consumer interaction departments," and it will be properly routed to the right person based on that information. You'll be able to bring information to that agent that will allow them to answer the customer's questions.
Gardner: I can see how that agent's job would be very satisfying and fulfilling when you are that important, when you have that sort of a key role in your organization that empowers people. That's good news for people that are trying to find those skills and fill those positions.
Vasili, we only have a few minutes left, but I'd love to hear about a couple of examples. It's one thing to tell, it's another thing to show. Do we have some examples of organizations that have embraced this concept of a strategic contact center, taken advantage of those multi-channels, added perhaps some intelligence and improved the status and capability of the agents -- all to some business benefit? Walk us through a couple of actual use cases where this has all come together.
Cloud communication culture shift
Triant: No one has reached that level of euphoria per se, but there are definitely companies that are moving in that direction.
It is a culture change, so it takes time. I know as well as anybody what it takes to shift a culture, and it doesn't happen overnight. As an example, there is a ride-hailing company that engages in a different way with their consumer, and their consumer might be different than what you think from the way I am describing it. They use voice systems and SMS and often want to pivot between the two. Our technology actually allows the agent to make that decision even if they aren't even physically in the same country. They are dynamically spread across multiple countries to answer any question they may need to answer based on time and day.
But they can pivot from what's predominantly an SMS inbound and outbound communication into a voice interaction, and then they can also follow up with an e-mail, and that's already happened. Now, it initially started with some SMS inbound and outbound, then they added voice - an interesting move as most people think adding voice is what people are getting away from. What everyone has begun to realize is that live communication ultimately is what everybody looks for in the end to solve the more complex problems.
What everyone has begun to realize is that live communication ultimately is what everybody looks for in the end to solve the more complex problems.
That's one example. Another company that provides the latest technology in food order and delivery initially started with voice-only to order and deliver food. Now they've added SMS confirmations automatically, and e-mail as well for confirmation or for more information from the inbound voice call. And now, once they are an existing customer, they can even start an order from an SMS, and pivot back to a voice call for confirmation -- all within one interaction. They are literally one of the fastest growing alternative food delivery companies, growing at a global scale.
They are deploying agents globally across one technology. They would not be able to do this with legacy technologies because of the expense. When you get into these kinds of high-volume, low-margin businesses, cost matters. When you can have an OpEx model that will scale, you are adding better customer service to the applications, and you are able to allow them to build a profitable model because you are not burning them with high CapEx processes.
Gardner: Before we sign off, you had mentioned your pipeline about your products and services, such as engaging more with AI capabilities toward the end of the year. Could give us a level-set on your roadmap? Where are your products and services now? Where do you go next?
A customer journey begins with insight
Triant: We have been building cloud technologies for 16 years in the contact center space. We released our latest CCaaS platform in March 2016 called CxEngage. We then had a major upgrade to the platform in March of this year, where we take that agent experience to the next level. It's really our leapfrog in the agent interface and making it easier, bringing in more information to them.
Where we are going next is around the customer journey -- predictive interactions. Some people call it AI, but I will call it "customer journey mapping with predictive action insights." That's going to be a big cornerstone in our product, including business analytics. It's focused around looking at a combination of speech, data and text -- all simultaneously creating predictive actions. This is another core area we are going in an and continue to expand the reach of our platform from a global scale.
At this point, we are a global company. We have the only global cloud platform built on a single software stack with one data pipeline. We now have more users on a pure cloud platform than any of our competitors globally. I know that's a big statement, but when you look at a pure cloud infrastructure, you're talking in a whole different realm of what services you are able to offer to customers. Our ability to provide a broad reach including to Europe, South Africa, Australia, India, and Singapore -- and still deliver good cloud quality at a reasonable cost and redundant fashion - we are second to none in that space.
Gardner: I'm afraid we will have to leave it there. We have been listening to a sponsored BriefingsDirect discussion on how CCaaS capabilities are becoming more powerful as a result of cloud computing, multimode communications channels, and the ability to provide optimized and contextual user experiences.
And we've learned how new levels of insight and intelligence are now making CCaaS approaches able to meet the highest user experience requirements of today and tomorrow. So please join me now in thanking our guest, Vasili Triant, CEO of Serenova in Austin, Texas.
Triant: Thank you very much, Dana. I appreciate you having me today.
Gardner: This is Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator for this ongoing series of BriefingsDirect discussions. A big thank you to our sponsor, Serenova, as well as to you, our audience. Do come back next time and thanks for listening.
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