Why customer service automation goes awry

Customer service automation brings speed and improved quality to the effort of serving consumers. If poorly managed, it can also do the opposite.

Customer service automation is increasingly becoming non-negotiable for companies today. Without it, contact centers would be overwhelmed with calls, emails and social media posts, with no way to filter and sort them so they get answered quickly. Agents would have no screen pops with information on the customer contacting them. Customers wouldn’t get automatic order and shipping confirmations, or be able to automatically view updated account data. Shipping and fulfillment would likely be paper-based and it may take days, not hours, to send a package. The “Sneakernet” may even become  the technology of choice for managing business processes. 

From intelligent routing of calls and automated order confirmations to virtual agents and predictive analytics, automation allows contact centers to get an early jump on customer service problems, while also improving the quality and speed of service. But it isn’t fail-proof,  and when it fails it can taint a company’s reputation.

For instance, automated text analysis and reply scripts make managing customer emails much faster. But according to Donna Fluss, a contact center expert and president of DMG Consulting, sometimes it may misread a customer’s question and provide an inappropriate reply.

“Then the company has to backtrack and apologize,” she said.

Even the most sophisticated new technologies can – and do – fail. Jeff Toister, CEO of Toister Performance Solutions, a customer service consultancy in San Diego, recalled his encounter with an airline system that proactively looks for delayed flights and probable missed connections, then rebooks the customer before the first flight has landed.“Generally, customers love it because it’s proactive and it saves money because it doesn’t require people. But, if it’s not set up correctly, it falls down,” Toister said. In his case, the system noticed his first flight was delayed and rebooked him on a later connecting flight – but to the wrong airport.

“If I hadn’t noticed it right away and fixed it, I would have been even angrier than if I’d just missed my connection,” Toister said.

Likewise, automated voice response systems can confuse or cut off callers, and call routing may transfer the customer, but not carry the information with it. The core problems that have plagued automated phone systems — poor system design, lack of data integration or business process integration and a failure to regularly update systems – also trouble other forms of customer service automation, according to Kate Leggett, principal analyst at Forrester Research.

According to Toister, Fluss, Leggett and other experts, customer service automation failures can be reduced by following these five best practices.

  1. “There should always be a fallback option to get to a human being. As great as your technology may be, it doesn’t always work for everyone.”
    Shep Hyken, customer service expert
    Merge support channels. There are many channels for customer support,  including email, text, Web chat, social media, phone, and it’s a challenge to support them all well. Many operate differently and require unique skills, and are served by different IT systems. Lori Bocklund, president of Strategic Contact, a contact center consulting firm, advises companies to unify the management of the different channels so that customers receive consistent service on all of them. Jill Dozier, COO of ABC Financial Services, a Sherwood, Arkansas, provider of fitness center billing software and services, said the company recently merged its email support and call center queues to achieve more consistent response times, which reduced email response times from two to three days down to one. It’s now consistent with phone and Web chat support, she said.
  2. Integrate customer data. Even within the same channel, many companies fail to integrate information about a caller with the person’s data in a CRM system, said Toister and others. “The technology has existed for a long time to connect them so that when an agent takes a call, he has all (the information) in front of him,” Toister said. When companies don’t do that, he says, the frustrated customer is forced to repeat the information over and over.
  3. Integrate business processes. BPI (business process integration) tools enable processes to move across channels or departments and push tasks forward so that customer cases get resolved, say experts. BPM is also useful for automating complex processes for agents, thus helping to standardize the level of service that customers receive, according to Leggett.
  4. Maintain a human escape hatch. Another automation pitfall is when the entire system is automated, with no human option for customers who aren’t getting what they need. Fixing that is as simple as adding a phone number to the email or website or providing a touch-tone option on the automated voice response system to speak to an operator. “There should always be a fallback option to get to a human being,” said Shep Hypken, author and customer service expert., “As great as your technology may be, it doesn’t always work for everyone.”
  5. Enable automation with human intervention, maintenance. Automated systems need human maintenance, especially where there are multiple applications, processes and integration points. ABC Financial Services, which fields approximately 170,000 inbound calls and 33,000 emails a month, has to maintain multiple support channels including phone, email, club kiosks, and a Web portal,  along with Web chat and screen sharing for technical support. Enterprise Telecommunications Manager Bill Whisnant explained that the company monitors and updates the systems and their integration points frequently. The systems include Interactive Intelligence Customer Interaction Center software, as well as the Content Object Factory (Cofax) Web content management software, Microsoft SharePoint and Exchange and Web services. As Whisnant noted, “There are a lot of moving parts.”


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