Today, while our phones are never out of reach, we largely avoid talking on the phone. Ironically, most people use mobile phones primarily for email, texts, internet search, social media and other apps rather than as a phone (ie. to make and receive calls)! Why?
It’s true that there are many other forms of digital communication – email, texts, social media and apps – which enable us to communicate quickly and share multi-media content with multiple recipients.
Yet, phone calls, not social media, were once the standard go-to for all communication. So much so, people would know their friend’s and family’s phone numbers by heart. Memorising someone’s phone number was like remembering their birthday – it was the hallmark of a firm and lasting relationship. Meanwhile in business, the phone was the primary way to engage with companies, colleagues and clients.
There was a time when the phone would ring, and you would just answer it – you wouldn’t check the caller ID or worry if the caller might waste your time or try to scam you. When you made a call, you wouldn’t stress about how long you might wait on hold.
If customers have stopped calling perhaps it’s due to a growing prevalence of ‘phone anxiety’. After too many frustrating, time-consuming experiences on the phone, your customers may dread the thought of picking up the phone.
Resolving an issue by phone, such as quickly cancelling a subscription, finding out why an online purchase hasn’t been delivered, or seeking technical support, leads to the fear of pressing the wrong number, sitting on hold, being transferred to different operators and wasting valuable time. Listening to a recorded message saying “your call is important to us, please continue to hold” after a while becomes an excruciating form of torture.
The solution to helping customers overcome phone anxiety is not to simply hang up for good, but to enhance the speed and quality of customer conversations so talking becomes a positive experience once again.
Artificial Intelligence (AI), ironically, may be the answer to preserve human interaction so it is not replaced by digital communication altogether.
AI has opened a lot of doors for the human race. While many people are wary about the emergence of AI, in some sectors the technology is providing genuine solutions. It’s not necessarily replacing jobs with robots, but rather taking some of the mundane, repeatable tasks away from people so they can become more efficient and able to focus on their primary skillset.
In the sales and customer service sector where customer calls volumes mean higher sales revenue and satisfaction, the use of AI technology is exciting, helping brands win a competitive advantage by raising the customer experience bar.
How does it do this? When a customer calls your business, AI can rapidly recognise them personally and instantly deliver their customer data to the staff member answering the call – so your staff can speak to the customer on a more personal level, marrying the intuitive, empathetic conversational skills of a customer service professional to the richer context provided by AI.
The telephone provides a rich dataset that is largely untapped by many companies because it was considered an ‘offline’ channel. Now, with AI, companies can collect and use crucial insights each time a customer calls.
With a 360-degree view into all customers’ previous voice interactions across any channel, the contact centre agent can deliver a more personalised and memorable service. In an era where competition is fierce and customer loyalty is difficult to gain, winning on ‘the customer experience’ metric will become even more vital for a brand’s survival.
Yet, to fully capitalise on the richly powerful phone conversations that companies are having with customers, AI and machine learning must be applied in the right way.
AI as a replacement for real people – in the form of chatbots and voice assistants – can do more harm than good regardless of the medium… whether on a website, social media or over the phone. It can be easy to destroy a customer relationship by forcing the customer to interact with a faceless, charmless machine and feel their enquiry is a nuisance rather than a brand’s number one priority to resolve.
AI should be used to enhance, rather than replace the real person at the end of the phone.
With the support of AI, when a customer call, they will be automatically directed towards the agent best equipped to deal with their query, instantly feeding the agent information about the customer’s current situation, previous purchases and interactions with the brand.
Equipped with this information, the call could be completed more efficiently and intelligently, reducing waiting times for other customers. Finally, an algorithm could analyse the tone and content of the call, enabling managers to act on the analysis and offer more targeted training.
Ultimately, our future with machines will be, or more importantly, must be, one of partnership and enhancement, not a sweeping replacement. The great potential of AI for brands is to maximise the human qualities that a flesh-and-blood person can bring to customer service.
Charles Heunemann is Managing Director and VP Asia Pacific of Natterbox Limited Australia.