Automation Nation: How to Build Buy-In
The overwhelming attention received by Paul English's www.gethuman.com Web site and the Citi Simplicity TV ads encouraging callers to "Press 0 to speak to a live person— anytime" suggest there is growing resentment against companies implementing automated phone systems simply to cut costs.
Callers may have the impression that companies care more about lining their own pockets than providing quality customer service. And some contact center agents have been known to try to undermine the success of automated systems, sensing that they are expendable employees that can be replaced by automation at any time. While the benefits of speech automation to a company's bottom line have been well established—average ROI payback is less than one year, according to the Speech Technology Magazine column "Revisiting the ROI of Speech" (January/February 2006)—clearly as an industry we've fallen short in effectively communicating the benefits of speech automation to agents and to callers.
Promoting Automation to Agents
Any automated phone system deployment strategy should include a communications plan to promote the new speech application and its benefits in advance of the rollout. This helps agents become more knowledgeable about the system and encourages them to support it, which will help drive caller adoption rates.
Specifically, agents need to be familiar with the experience a caller may have just had in the automated system prior to transferring. This helps agents and the entire organization have a better appreciation for the end-to-end caller experience. If callers opt out early or have trouble finding what they want, agents should be able to educate callers on how to use the system the next time they call.
Agents should know which tasks the automated system can and cannot address. This is important not only in helping agents coach callers on what they can use the automated system for, but also in helping agents and callers understand that automation cannot do—and indeed is not meant to do—the full variety of things a human can.
This demonstrates to agents that they are vital to the overall customer service solution. It's important that agents perceive automation as an ally in helping them better perform their jobs. If agents view the system as a beneficial technology, they will be more likely to encourage callers to use the system.
There are a number of ways to promote the automated system to agents. Inform agents early about the plan to create the new application and ask for their involvement as key consultants throughout the project. For instance, while conducting analysis about requirements of the new system, ask agents to provide insight about their interactions with callers and common customer inquiries. You may also wish to have agents assist with internal testing of the system. If agents feel they contributed to the project, they'll be more likely to support the technology.
Next, be sure to provide agents with training on the functionality and structure of the new application, guidance on how to handle partially automated calls, and strategies for encouraging callers to use the automated system. Agent training should occur prior to deployment, as well as periodically thereafter, in the event that modifications are made. Provide materials and tools in the agent work environment: high-level call flows with key commands that agents can refer to, agent scripting on how to encourage callers to use the system (emphasizing the benefits from the caller's perspective), and agent screen-pop data about what the caller was doing in the automated system prior to transferring.
One out-of-the-box technique is to plan and invite agents to a deployment party. It's essential that agents see the new system as something positive, and what better way to do this than with a little celebration? Or, run an internal incentive campaign that tracks and rewards agents who actively promote the automated system to callers.
Finally, one essential tactic is the creation of a feedback loop so that agents can provide suggestions for improvements to the system. If callers have comments about the automated system, agents are the first to hear about it. Without a mechanism to report this feedback, agents will feel frustrated and helpless when dealing with caller complaints. If here is a program set up for this input, agents will feel a sense of ownership in helping to improve the system.
Benefits from the Agents' Perspectives
Automated phone systems provide a number of benefits from an agent perspective. Routine tasks with high call volumes are the most likely candidates for automation. They're also the most repetitive calls for agents. By freeing agents from these calls, it can improve morale and job satisfaction. Agents can then focus on calls that add real value to customers—providing complex customer care and loyalty work—rather than just rote information. Ultimately, this lessens the stress for contact center managers associated with staffing shortages and turnover.
Automated systems also reduce queue times and call abandonment rates. This makes for satisfied callers and less stress for agents. Information collected by the automated system can be used to intelligently route calls to the most appropriate agent, resulting in fewer redirected calls. And if key data is screen-popped to agents, they don't have to ask for it again.
Information gathered in automation can also help differentiate customer segments. This provides agents with guidance on how to handle each call. For instance, it may be appropriate to spend 15 minutes with a high-value customer, but for other customers an agent may receive an alert to wrap up the call more quickly. Or, if a particular caller has been receptive to upsell or cross-sell opportunities in the past, it would be worthwhile for the agent to spend a few extra minutes to explain the latest offer.
Many contact centers are finding it difficult to keep pace with ever increasing call volumes while maintaining current cost structures. Automated systems provide a way of handling greater call volumes at reduced expense. Without knowing the full picture, some agents jump to the conclusion that the new system will eventually replace their job. But the reality is that automated systems are a means of retaining and maintaining current staffing levels, without cutting salaries or outsourcing jobs to accommodate a rising flood of calls.
Promoting Automation to Callers
The primary reason for promoting a new system to callers is to let them know it exists and encourage them to use it. Communicate the benefits to callers. In doing so, they'll view it as a solution that enhances their personal experience with the company.
Callers need to know which telephone number to dial for which service. And they should be assured that they could access an agent, if needed. The automated phone system should be viewed as an extension of—not a replacement for— the current contact center experience. In some cases, callers will be entirely satisfied with self-service. In other cases, partial call automation may be appropriate, resulting in a transfer to an agent for additional support. Preventing callers from opting out by disabling or hiding commands such as "0" or "agent" is ineffective. Callers quickly figure out how to exit automated systems and routinely complain about this poor level of customer service. Ultimately, they're less likely to use the system in the future. This is the worst possible way to promote use of an automated system.
The system needs to be advertised repeatedly to callers through multiple channels. Possible methods include mailing inserts, Web site postings, visibility on member ID or bank cards, company literature, advertisements (TV, radio, etc.), and most importantly by agents actively encouraging callers to use the automated system.
Arm callers with the information they need to be successful users of the automated system. Offer them a high-level diagram of the main menu structure; information needed when placing the call (for example, account number); an alert if the mode of interaction has changed from touchtone to speech; and a list of helpful hints, such as You can interrupt or say "transfer me" at any time.
Other detailed features and functionality do not need to be described to callers in advance. These should be obvious to callers upon dialing into the system, provided the application has been intuitively designed and has undergone thorough usability testing.
If there are major changes to the system over time, these should also be shared with your callers. However, it's not necessary to play a prompt stating: Please listen closely, as our options have recently changed. Usability studies show that callers routinely complain about having to listen to "empty messages" and tune them out because they've heard them so often on other automated systems.
To encourage use, consider running an external campaign to reward callers who actively use the automated system. For example, offer an incentive if they try the system within 30 days. Alternatively, discourage (but don't prevent) callers from using agents, by charging an additional service fee to callers who use an agent for a task that otherwise could have been completed in the automated system. This latter approach is often used by financial institutions for transaction or stock trading fees.
Benefits from the Callers' Perspectives
Callers will be more willing to use automation if they understand the tangible benefits: 24/7 customer service, elimination of complex touchtone menus, and simplified interaction since callers can use natural language to direct their calls. These customer-driven interactions put the caller in control and lead to greater usage and satisfaction. Also, many callers prefer to enter personal information (social security numbers, credit card numbers, etc.) into an automated system rather than present it to a live person.
Automation provides consistency of caller experience. Well-designed virtual agents are never sick, rude, impatient, or poorly trained. Live agents are, well, human. Customer service quality varies based on the day and the individual. For routine inquiries, callers may prefer using the automated system, rather than interacting with an unpredictable human.
Obviously, one of the biggest benefits is that automation reduces operational costs. This is good for the company and it's good for consumers. It helps keep costs down and allows savings to be reinvested in value-added products and services that customers want. Live agents can cost more than 10 times what an automated system costs to complete a similar task. It's not good customer service to do away with all automation and raise prices 10-fold—or cut corners on the quality of your goods and services—just so you can afford to handle all calls with only live agents. The industry needs to educate customers that they are ultimately the winners when using automation.
Lizanne Kaiser, Ph.D. is a senior principal consultant at Genesys Telecommunications Laboratories, Inc., specializing in voice user interface design and usability testing, focusing on the strategic use of speech solutions in contact center environments.