..On Self-Service technologies

I found an old interview I'd done with Contact Centre World back in 2005 about self-service technologies (while I was at BT). Everything that was said then is just as relevant today.

Nik Sargent - Self-Service Product Manager, BT On Self-Service Technologies

What do you think are the three biggest mistakes managers make when choosing a self-service technology?
A common mistake is getting too bogged down in the technology. It's important to remember that the technology is a means to an end, a way of delivering a better service to customers. The three most important things to consider are usability, usability and usability. It is also important to have a framework that can grow and adapt with your business without holding you back. But that's as much about your people and processes as it is the technology.

In your opinion, what criteria should be used when evaluating different self-service solutions?
It's easy to be lured by cost alone, both in terms of cost of the solution and the promise of cost savings.  This should absolutely be part of the decision-making process, but it's also necessary to understand that your self-service solution is an important customer touchpoint: it can win and lose customers for you.

From a service point of view, how are you going to be able to deliver a slick customer experience: is designing this your core business, or do you need to buy this in? What flexibility will you have to modify your solution as your business evolves – and who will ensure your service works as well after it is changed as it did on day one? From a technology point of view, are you getting robustness and flexibility to shrink and grow and handle the volume you need to? If customers like your solution, then they will start to depend on it.

Within the next five years, which self-service technology do you think will have the biggest impact on the contact centre industry?
Speech Recognition will have a huge impact. Adoption rates of the technology are steadily increasing and organisations are seeing significant benefits. The availability of mass-scale solutions demonstrates that the technology is totally viable, and also educates the public about these types of services and how to use them. As we have seen, anything that can transform the cost base of the contact centre industry – such as outsourcing – can have a big impact, and Speech Recognition fits this profile.

What types of questions do you believe online self-service technologies should be able to answer?
I think the days of the Internet solely being a glorified brochure-publishing medium are over. Users are increasingly savvy and looking for more. What organisations shouldn't forget is that consumers are using this medium to educate themselves and to ask and answer complex questions. As a result, consumers that call your organisation may actually have more knowledge than some of your employees, which then results in frustration and wasted cost.

Traditionally, self-service only catered for the "average" consumer, yet the technology can now segment and analyse customers to provide personalised experiences. This is a major boost for companies that want to offer a more comprehensive web service. For example, if I'm looking for car insurance, but cannot get an answer online because there is no way to ask if my particular circumstances are covered, I will have to revert to speaking to an agent. This costs the organisation a series of calls that could have been answered online, and costs me my "web discount" – so effectively results in a lost sale.

What do self-service technologies aim to accomplish?
From a user's point of view, self-service should be simple, speedy and satisfying.  From our own personal experiences we know this is what makes for a good self-service experience, be it a vending machine, a cash machine or a telephone transaction. From a service provider's point of view, self-service technologies shouldn't divert you from your core business – they are a means of extending your customer touch points to offer choice, capacity, flexibility and reduce costs. A good self-service solution reduces costs, but a great one also delivers a rewarding and effective user-experience.

How can a contact centre utilise its self-service technology to increase contact centre capacity?
It's about finding the right business processes, or parts of them, that are simple and repetitive enough to automate, and driving volume through this. This might be self-evident for certain businesses, but for complex technologies like speech recognition it usually needs an expert to analyse processes.

The important thing to realise is that a self-service channel and an agent are not the same thing, and do different tasks differently. Rather than using self-service to try and fully replicate your agents and create capacity that way, have it do the tasks that it is suited to, and take those tasks away from agents in their entirety. This changes the balance of how your run your contact centre, and the roles agents perform – to get maximum value from them.

Once again, it's about having a user-centric view. Getting it wrong can end up generating more work for your contact centre. This was one of the great "shocks" of the web for early adopters – they ended up generating even more support calls.  Businesses should also tread carefully when thinking about forcing customers to use a self-service solution. This means you may take your eye off the usability ball, and in the long run this could backfire. On the other hand, a well-designed solution will have customers sailing through it and completing tasks that used to require an agent. If you can automate 30 seconds of a 2-minute call, then you've effectively increased your capacity by 30%.

Call centre automation could save economy £23bn a year

I don't even need to think about this heading in order to come to conclusion it could very well be true. Call Centre automation technology has the ability to rip out upto 95% of the costs of conducting contact centre transactions, and yet it has been deployed and designed so badly in the past that it is almost universally hated by everyone. Almost everyone has a tale of woe about a bad voice self-service experience and it's even de rigeur for comedians to make fun of it.

When I saw Kevin Bridges at the Edinburgh festival this year, he was at it regarding a cinema booking line. (Which incidentally does have a fundamental flaw that I spoke about at a conference almost 10 years ago, and it hasn't been improved). It's exactly this kind of lip service to good design that needs to be challenged. And there's no excuse not to do so, and do so well, when the savings can be so high.

For what it's worth, I think Gartner are totally wrong on this one. The technology is absolutely mature enough for the big time - what isn't mature enough is the commitment to user-centric design rather than cost-oriented and departmentally siloed project mentality.

Here's some of the article:

In an interview with Computing, local government CIO Jos Creese said local authorities should be looking to move as many services as possible into self-service. However, a report from Gartner last month argued that the technology was not yet sophisticated enough, and that self-service struggles to solve more than one eighth of IT problems.

A step towards self-service, at least from the perspective of the consumer, is call centre automation.

A study released yesterday and carried out by the Centre for Economics and Business Research estimates that UK organisations and consumers could save more than £23bn a year by reducing inefficiencies in public and private sector call centres using call automation technology.

The study, called The Economics of Call Automation, said firms could recoup £14.8bn through call centre automation, and consumers could save £8.3bn a year through not being put on hold at call centres.

The potential public sector gains rise to £13bn per year if increased call automation is applied across doctors' surgeries, universities and government departments, as well as call centres.



The Art (and Humour) of Error Messages

Error recovery strategies and the verbiage around them has always been a hot topic of debate. We’ve all heard the classical “I’m sorry I didn’t hear you.” and “I’m sorry I didn’t understand you.” messages that are normally implemented as global prefixes to further attempts to help users get back on track. Some other designers prefer to eliminate this generic approach and opt instead for a more context-sensitive alternative, where based on the possible cause of error, you could very well eliminate them completely and simply attempt to reprompt the user in a more natural way, with maybe a slight change in intonation to convey the meaning of “Hello, are you listening to me?” in a subtle way.

In regards to the content of the error messages themselves, we’ve all heard that they should not simply be repetitions of what the user has already heard, but rather slightly different variations based on the context and possible cause of the problem in the first place, so as to try to help them recover: is it due to a noisy environment? is the user providing me more information than I’m requesting? are they struggling to find it? do they need more time? are they getting confused by what I’m asking?, etc.

Of course, errors are nothing new and are particularly prevalent in the software and web world, where the value of the message and its ability to help users recover is very often dubious (or flat out ridiculous), resulting in bad user experiences. Some examples:

“Unknown Error -1″

“Keyboard error (press F1 to resume)”

“Wrong parameter”

“An unexpected error occurred, because an error of type – 110 occurred.”

“It is not necessary to dial 0 after the country code for this country.” (If they know that, why not simply recognize it, remove/ignore the 0 and move on?)

Some others here and here.

With that in mind, I have to say I found it very refreshing when my Firefox browser recently crashed and I was presented with the following message:

[for the full article]

Nuance Study Finds Automated, Live Agent Preferences

Nuance Communications has announced the findings of a commissioned study conducted by Forrester Consulting on behalf of Nuance titled, “Driving Consumer Engagement with Automated Telephone Customer Service.”  

It found that consumers rate automated telephone customer service higher than live agents for certain straightforward interactions. 'In five out of ten posed scenarios, consumers preferred automated telephone customer service systems over live agent interactions for tasks like prescription refills, checking the status of a flight from a cell phone, checking account balances, store information requests and tracking shipments.

Consumers’ satisfaction with customer service leaves a lot of room for improvement, too, the study found: 'Only 49 percent of U.S. online adults report being satisfied, very satisfied or extremely satisfied with companies’ customer service in general.' 

And we're just used to it by now: Automated telephone systems are 'an expected and accepted customer service channel,' the survey found, with 82 percent of US online adults having used an automated Touchtone or speech recognition system to contact customer service in the past 12 months.