General AI News Retail & Commerce
Oct 31, 2018 ● VB Staff
How Messaging, AI and Bots Are Rescuing Customer Service

Today's customer service is in a sorry state but what customers want is simple

"If you asked anyone how they feel about contacting a brand for support, unequivocally they'll say they have a pit in their stomach. We all feel this sense of apprehension when it comes to contacting brands."
– Linda Crawford, Helpshift CEO

There's a deep communication disconnect between brands and consumers, centered around customer service and it's growing. It’s the gap between preferred communication channels used by brands and the channels consumers use every day. Between live conversations that have a beginning and end – and long waits in between – with periodic, customer-led communications. Between consumers embracing the future of communication, and brands clinging to the past. And it all can be distilled down to this: It's the difference between phone-based customer support and messaging-based customer support.

Chatbots, AI, and automation – cost-effective, easy to implement, and quick to transform your customer service – are changing this disconnect. And all indicators suggest it’s time that companies catch up to consumer expectations.

Today's Customer Service Is In A Sorry State 

A single bad experience sends 51% of today’s customers away from companies, and they'll never come back. Poor customer service means American companies lose more than $62 billion each year.

Customer experience is the new competitive battlefield, Gartner announced. And yet this is where we are in the customer service world: 80 percent of businesses believe they deliver a superior customer experience. Yet only 8 percent of their customers agree.

Customer service experience depends on your attitude toward your customers' wants, needs, and goals, and success is determined by how you design this experience from the bottom up: people, processes, and your response to what your customers are telling you.

And here’s what companies like Apple and Amazon seem to be saying in their customer service techniques: Live support as the first line of defense isn't working out. There's a reason those two retail giants have abandoned it in favor of automated customer serviceup front, holding their contact center phone numbers as the last step.

Only 8% of customers would rate their support experience as superior.

Customer service calls are such a pain point for your shoppers that 44 percent of Americans say they'd rather be scrubbing a toilet than calling customer support. Sixty percent of those customers flagged “long waits and hold times” as their biggest and first complaint. In fact, 75 percent of customers overallbelieve it takes too long to reach a live agent – and if they're on hold for more than two minutes, you've got an unhappy customer.

It's clear that asking anyone to contact your company via phone is a surprisingly large undertaking, especially if your contact center can't be open and available 24/7. A call means carving out a portion of their day, stepping away from their desks or taking up a chunk of their work break or weekend time, setting aside other tasks to wait on hold, get transferred, offer their information once, twice, a third time, in the hopes that they'll get their question answered or their problem resolved, with no options that can help them resolve issues themselves.

And if they don't have the time for that, they'll hang up. Will they call back? Again, just one bad experience can drive over half of your customers away, and 74 percent of consumers will switch brands if their purchasing experience is too difficult (plus it's pretty likely they've told 15 of their friends about that poor experience with your business).

74% of consumers will switch brands after a difficult experience.

But if you get it right? You’ll find that 72 percent of customers worldwide are willing to spend more, on average, for excellent service – and 65 percent of customers tend to spend more with a company by which they've been treated well. Increasing customer retention rates by just five percent can increase your profits anywhere from 25 to 95 percent.

What does getting it right look like? Communication – and more importantly, your communication channels – are the two keys.

What Customers Want Is Simple - Why Aren't They Getting It?

Customer preferences for customer service have seldom been as clear as they are now, in light of the complete cultural shift in how we communicate across the globe.

Let's start here: While we're still calling them smartphones, consumers are not using that supercomputer in their pockets to make phone calls. 1.4 billion people across the globe are sending over 50 billion messages to each other daily in messaging apps like Whatsapp, WeChat, and Facebook Messenger.

In their personal lives, and across every demographic, not just millennials, consumers spend five times longer messaging every day than they do on voice calls.

The messages are instantaneous, but the expectation that dialogue should be real-time, synchronous, and immediate is fading. In fact, the overwhelming preference is to be able to multitask, to drop conversations when necessary and pick them right back up where they left off, when it's convenient to chat again.

"Think about how you message in your personal life – that’s the same kind of experience we as consumers should feel when interacting with a brand," says Linda Crawford, CEO of Helpshift. "Why aren’t brands in service to us in the same way? Why are we interacting with brands at their convenience, during their normal business hours?"

And yet when they need support, the majority of customers are still overwhelmingly asked to drop everything: 65 percent of consumers still have to rely on phone calls in order to get help or ask questions about their order, explains Crawford. Only 15 percent are being served by email, and only five percent are able to contact companies via messaging.

65% of consumers have to rely on phone calls for customer support.

But two-thirds of consumers walk away feeling good about a company when they can handle a customer service issue without ever having to actually talk to a real person. They don't want to yell "customer service" into companies’ automated recorded phone messages. They don't want to repeat themselves to every agent they get transferred to.

Worldwide, human habits and attitudes around personal interaction and communication have irretrievably shifted. And your brand can actually benefit from that.

Brands need to listen to the 79 percent of customers who would prefer messaging-based customer service. It ranks as the number one preferred customer service channel for consumers in some of the biggest markets in the world: the U.S., India, Singapore, and South Korea. And it ranks in the top three across the rest of the globe.

Catering to customer expectations of efficiency and convenience cuts costs, increases customer conversions, and boosts customer satisfaction.

Why Automated Messaging Is A Game Changer 

Messaging-based customer service is what customers are looking for – and AI-powered automation is what makes it efficient and cost-effective even as it boosts both customer and live agent satisfaction.

It takes a chatbot – not the smart, AI-superpowered, natural language processing (NLP)-focused expensive kind of bot that was the tech-du-jour not too long ago, offering sophisticated small talk and telling jokes. Today's customer service bots can almost be referred to as "dumb" – even though they do use AI and NLP, albeit in a very different manner. They're inexpensive, easy to launch without a developer on staff, and offer a tremendous advantage with surprisingly low overhead in both talent and outlay.

They also get right to the point. A "dumb" bot is designed to respond instantaneously to customer queries. It might not offer emotion and personality, but what it is capable of is far more important: It listens to your customer, and then is able to personalize its responses to directly address the nature of the customer's problem.

79% of customers would prefer messaging-based customer service.

Right up front, an automated message bot collects user information. Its decision-tree structure and auto-classification ability means each customer response triggers relevant follow-up questions, which both identifies the user’s problem swiftly, and ensures that every answer is completely pertinent to their issue.

By following a decision-tree structure, they're able to respond to customer questions with the most effective and efficient course of action: finding the information the customer needs (like an order ETA), sending the customer to the right article in the knowledge base (because self-service is a high driver of customer satisfaction), or determining that a live agent is the best person to handle this request.

Excellent customer service can increase profits from 25 – 95%.

Over time, the bot improves as the machine-learned algorithms gather data, classify responses, and become increasingly accurate at addressing user problems, making your automated messaging more and more effective and personalized to the customer.

The bot also improves the ability of human agents to do their jobs more quickly and accurately, as well as provide personalized service that does not involve agents reading mechanical pre-written scripts to the customer. The bot has done a tremendous amount of heavy lifting before the customer arrives on the live chat line; it has already collected the necessary information about the issue from the customer, and the auto-classification engine has already assigned the ticket.

Results = ROI + Customer & Employee Satisfaction 

"For the first time, we see this incredible opportunity for brands across their whole business. For the consumer, it’s a familiar message-based interface. For agents, it’s the opportunity to work at a higher level. And then there’s the tremendous ROI on the back end for brands." – Linda Crawford, Helpshift CEO

Turning to messaging automation as your first line of customer service offers results almost immediately. Messaging is significantly less expensive than other forms of communication. It's estimated that phone interactions with your call center cost anywhere from $6 to $15 – while messaging interactions end up costing you only about $1 each.

recent report found that companies that have adopted messaging as customer service channels:

  • Achieve 2.9 times greater annual increase in NPS (net promoter score) compared to all others
  • Achieve 25 percent greater annual growth in revenue, compared to peers not using messaging
  • Show an 8.6 percent increase in average profit margin per customer

Companies using messaging for customer service achieve 25% greater growth in annual revenue.

There’s tremendous ROI on the back end for brands which can flow right to the bottom line, or be reinvested to continue improving the overall customer service experience.

Employee experience and retention is improved as well. For agents, it means being presented with all the pertinent information right off the bat, so that they're able to get right to the heart of the customer's issue and solve the problem as seamlessly and as quickly as possible. It also means that agents will be spending less time on routine interactions, so that they can turn to more satisfying, higher-level work. If your company can provide work that’s gratifying, rewarding, more challenging, then you have a higher likelihood of keeping those individuals as your employees for a much longer time – beating the high turnover rate that most call centers have.

Turning to messaging can have tremendous impact on every facet of your business – and the overhead is surprisingly low, now that there are easy-to-implement, low-cost ways to integrate a customer service platform based in the cloud. You're not building bots any more, backed by a team of data scientists and developers; you're launching them.

The Messaging Automation Playbook 

With increasingly sophisticated tools based in the cloud and a no-developers-needed kind of implementation, it's easy to begin a messaging strategy. But before you dive in, there are a few things to consider.

Customer experience first. Customer service is about about solving your customers’ issues, but also enhancing your customers’ experience. So when you're designing a message strategy, step one is mapping out the customer journey. You need to understand everything from the work flows you have within your company to how work in the contact center will change, and how cases can be elegantly offloaded between automation and humans when appropriate, and more.

Phone last. Rather than phone being a channel for starting a conversation, it should become a channel of escalation. This is where ROI soars, as you funnel the majority of your customer service contacts into messaging – much like what Amazon and Apple are doing right now. Every interaction with these consumer giants, no matter where it ends, always begins with a message.

Call center evolution. Your phone agents’ work will change – and that will change the entire way your call center works. For example, rather than hiring a raft of seasonal workers to work on phone channels during busy times, you'll be using messaging and automation to deflect a hefty chunk of that surge.

You'll need to rethink hiring, to start. If you need far fewer agents because they can handle multiple issues at once, combined with the fact that your agents need to have much greater, in-depth knowledge about a variety of issues, it makes sense to move away from outsourcing and start hiring permanent employees and work to keep them longer.

Gradual AI adoption. Automation and messaging doesn’t mean going all-in with artificial intelligence initially, which is expensive and complex to get right.

“We’ve seen a lot of failed attempts at rolling out bots,” Crawford says. “Some of it has come from the overuse of natural language processing engines.”

Be cautious when you use that kind of AI technology to power your bots; those bots learn, and they can learn bad habits. Use NLP to detect intent, and for prioritization, routing and tagging – but don’t forget that bots cannot replace live agents for certain complex issues. Deeply solving customer service problems in the end requires a combination of AI, bot questioning techniques, and handing off to an agent when appropriate.

Start with simpler workflows and use cases that can move customers quickly through the queue and get them to the right answer or the right place to find that answer, whether that’s self-service or the agent waiting to take their call.

Be a pioneer. "I am very much of the mindset that you should move fast," Crawford says. "The brands that get this right the fastest are going to have tremendous business benefits across all three of the most important stakeholders – consumers, contact center employees, and ultimately business owners."

Start by identifying a simple flow and then use A/B testing to evaluate and optimize. Keep iterating and push forward, because it delivers great business value, and as a strategy, bot-powered messaging for customer service is going to happen quickly across industries, because messaging just makes sense.

And in addition to all that time and money saved, there’s a tremendous opportunity to go further. Using the vast amount of data collected about what your customers want and need, you can develop solid strategies to go beyond issue-solving. You reach out. You engage, you surprise and delight, when and where your customers are most pleased to hear from you. It's a whole lot of levels above “would rather clean a toilet.”

This article originally appeared in Venture Beat 

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VB Staff