Authored by Jon Arnold from J Arnold & Associates
Voice is central to how we have always communicated, whether face-to-face or over distance. The inherent qualities that make voice so primal are many, but a few to consider would be its warmth, intimacy, clarity, and immediacy. No other communication channel is as effective at making people clearly understood, but beyond that, the emotion and nuance of voice adds a richness that makes it the preferred channel when other options exist.
"...the emotion and nuance of voice adds a richness that makes it the preferred channel when other options exist."
As technology reshapes our modern world, it can be easy to overlook how important voice is to the human experience, especially with the rise of digital, Internet-based channels such as chat, messaging, and video. While these channels are very efficient and low/no-cost, they really only lend themselves to certain forms of communication. Digital natives are often defined by being always-on and multi-tasking, and for them, these channels are expedient for the way they like to do things.
But while the role of voice channels has changed, it remains an integral part of a complete customer experience strategy within the contact center environment. As popular as digital channels have become, they shouldn’t be viewed as an either-or choice with voice.
When filtering all this through the lens of a contact center, some fundamental challenges arise. Prior to the rise of digital channels, customer service was telephony-centric, so agent interactions were voice-based.
With a view to improving wait times and call flow, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) emerged as a solution to automate some forms of service, and remains widely-used in the contact center. More recently, digital channels have become part of the customer service toolkit. Most of these new technologies served to provide alternatives to voice – which was a big step forward – but little attention was given to improving the voice experience. In practical terms, this was by design, as agents are the biggest cost factor in running a contact center.
By offering more non-voice channels and options, contact centers can reduce the reliance on voice for customer interactions. Despite all of voice’s great qualities, not all forms of customer service require it, and contact centers are endlessly trying to optimize this mix of voice and non-voice channels. Ideally, you want agents to have a full but not crushing workload, and have customers use digital channels where voice is not essential to get a good outcome.
"...contact centers are endlessly trying to optimize this mix of voice and non-voice channels."
Technology evolution plays a central role for helping optimize this mix. In recent times, the call center has become the contact center, and this largely reflects the shift from a telephony-centric model of service to multi-channel, where customers have both voice and non-voice options. To manage all this in a singular solution, vendors have developed omnichannel platforms, that seamlessly support all these channels, not just in isolation, but also in combination.
While this is a big step forward for contact centers, consumers have taken even bigger steps forward in how they adopt new technologies. It’s much easier for consumers to access leading-edge technology than for contact centers, and this has created a gap in terms of today’s customer expectations.
This has put great pressure on contact centers to keep up, and for a variety of reasons, most omnichannel investment has been directed to digital channels. Not only is this a more cost-effective form of service than voice, but it’s often the preferred mode for customer engagement.
Since different forms of customer service require different forms of interaction, contact centers must manage a complex mix of needs, and omnichannel serves to provide the foundational capabilities and agility needed across all these scenarios. This becomes even more important when recognizing the recent shift in focus for how businesses view the contact center.
Namely, their raison d être isn’t just to provide customer service, which tends to be very transactional. Rather, it’s to provide a better customer experience (CX), which is based more on building relationships that cater to each and every customer’s particular needs. This is a bigger challenge for contact centers, and more than ever, they need the right mix of tools.
IVR has been a contact center staple for decades, and while legacy flavors have been much-maligned, it remains widely-used. More importantly, IVR is a form of self-service, and this capability is becoming central for CX. Whereas most self-service options are text-based, as per its namesake, IVR is voice-based. However, this form of voice is very different from telephony, as the focus is on self-service without agent involvement. This form of interaction is person-to-machine based, where pre-recorded voice prompts guide the customer select predefined options to expedite service.
We all know how frustrating IVR can be. That said, IVR has evolved somewhat, where customers can use voice to describe their issue instead of choosing options from a checklist via the keypad on their phone. However, there is no real-time person-to-person interaction, so this form of self-service is only as good as the scenarios it is built to handle. When properly designed, IVR can still play a valuable role in directing repetitive and simple queries in an expedient manner, contributing to improved CX as well as making agent workloads more manageable.
Since the need for self-service is so pressing, more modern forms of IVR have evolved, thanks mainly to the advent of AI. Legacy forms of IVR can manage basic, routine inquiries such as querying account balances, address changes, bill payments, etc., but this only addresses a subset of possibilities for self-service.
AI has dramatically improved IVR-style self-service, both for text-only interactions, and those that also utilize voice. The mechanics are beyond the scope of this analysis, but the main idea is that AI technologies for CX are more conversational, intuitive and can understand the intent from what customers are saying. This greatly expands the range of inquiries that IVR and other forms of AI-based self-service can handle and gets the contact center closer to that optimal mix of live agent and self-service interactions.
While AI has helped reimagine IVR, the end game here is not to automate all forms of service and take live agents out of the CX equation. That time could come some day, but contact centers aren’t thinking that way, and nor is executive management. Contact centers are still widely-viewed as cost centers, and in that model, the ideal is to get costs as close to zero as possible.
Fully-automated self-service is the answer here, but nobody sees that as being realistic for years to come. Efficiencies aside, executive management is more interested in brand reputation, and the CX model is very much about having agents solve the messy problems that can really impact the brand.
"...the CX model is very much about having agents solve the messy problems that can really impact the brand."
Even the best forms of self-service are a long way from being trusted enough to take on that mantle, so the winning approach to CX is that optimal mix of voice and self-service. While routine inquiries can benefit from the human touch, no contact center has the luxury of having live agents handle everything. There clearly are scenarios, however, where the application of voice channels can have the most impact in today’s contact center map, and here are a few to consider.
Consider unhappy or anxious customers, who become emotional, and only more agitated when not getting a helpful response, or having to keep waiting for help. Self-service is great when customers are calm and rational, but otherwise impersonal when human contact is what’s needed the most.
Complex situations are another prime use case for voice and human contact to assure customers you understand their needs and the subtleties that make this a non-routine inquiry. We’ve all experienced this, where there are often unrelated but interconnected issues that give rise to a problem – or multiple problems – that cannot be addressed via standardized menu checklists.
Another common scenario involves personal information and sensitive issues. We all have varying degrees of comfort disclosing these things to other people, let alone to an IVR or a chatbot. Trust is another factor as well; how do you know where that information will go once you type it into a chat window and engage with a virtual agent who may or may not understand your situation? The same could be said when doing this with a live agent, but the key difference is the empathy and assurance provided by the agent that the customer can trust.
These are just a few examples to show where and how live agents – and the human voice – are the best way to engage with customers. There certainly is a broad spectrum of trust, whereby self-service can handle some of these situations, but for the time being, it’s quite limited. Forward-thinking contact centers will be willing to push the envelope here, but if your goal is providing great CX, this is where live agents make all the difference.
"...if your goal is providing great CX, this is where live agents make all the difference."
This is another piece of the CX puzzle, and it’s important enough to warrant separate commentary. For any company, demographics are fundamental to understanding your customers. The more you know about age, gender, education, income, occupation, etc., the better you can target your offerings, and from there, provide the right type of CX.
No customer base, of course, is homogenous, so it’s essential to properly segment along demographic variables. When it comes to balancing voice and digital forms of CX, age is a particularly important demographic, mainly because different segments have different communications styles and preferences.
When it comes to technology adoption, a key demarcation is made between digital immigrants and digital natives. This basically means pre- and post-Internet generations, where the former are rooted in analog technologies and legacy communications, especially telephony. Digital channels weren’t part of their world, but for digital natives, this is where their preferences lie. To be clear, these are not absolute truths, but it’s widely-viewed that older generations prefer traditional, human-based forms of interaction.
These differences need to be considered in your mix of voice and digital channels, not just now but going forward. As the table below from the US Census Bureau shows, 16.3% of the US population was 65+ in 2020, and that incidence is about one-third higher than it was in 2000. In absolute terms, this is substantial – roughly one in six is over 65, and that level could well be higher for your customer base.
Not only that, but that segment is growing quickly – by 2040, 65+ will be 20.4% of the US population, so it will then be one in five customers. These numbers support the trend for an aging population, so no matter what business you’re in, seniors will be a growing segment of your customer base. To temper that, it’s important to note that just like with digital natives, seniors are becoming more tech-savvy, so their preferences will evolve as well. As such, the digital native/immigrant distinction isn’t truly hard-coded, but it would be short-sighted to ignore or overlook them when it comes to communications preferences with your contact center.
As noted at the outset, voice and digital channels should not be viewed as an either-or proposition. All customer bases will have a mix of preferences, and the same holds for customer service scenarios. There are simply too many CX variations to say that all can be effectively addressed only by voice or only by digital channels. Telephony is still the dominant channel in the contact center, and we’re a long way – if ever – from digital channels and self-service being the only options for customer service.
Digital channels and self-service options will certainly keep improving - and need to be - if contact centers are going to catch up to today’s customer expectations. The stakes are just too high, so contact center leaders are right to keep investing along these lines. However, it would be a mistake to abandon voice, despite the high costs involved. The use cases where voice and human interaction are needed are just too important, where the price will be even higher if taken away or watered-down.
"The use cases where voice and human interaction are needed are just too important..."
In terms of setting strategy, then, the implication is for contact center leaders to develop an adaptable approach to support this full range of channels. CX is not just about being super-efficient with automation and self-service, and nor is it about providing the personal touch for every interaction. The bigger picture is investing in the technologies and platforms that are flexible enough to support all CX scenarios. Technology continues to evolve, and while exciting innovations in AI will keep coming, you shouldn’t lose sight of how important voice and telephony remains for driving CX and meaningful customer engagement.
"...you shouldn’t lose sight of how important voice and telephony remains for driving CX and meaningful customer engagement."