CXO

Thanks for holding: Customer service gets automated

BPO innovation promises big savings, happier customers

Tired of being put on hold? Saritha Rai finds out about new software that could improve customers' interactions with companies forever.

If you have ever tried to call a freephone number to check on that credit card charge, convert frequent flyer miles or solve your computer glitch, you may have been confounded by recorded expressions of exquisite politeness such as: 'We are sorry, we cannot connect you at this time, please call later.'

Or: 'All our customer service executives are busy at this time, please hold.'

Or perhaps: 'We are sorry for putting you on hold... thank you for choosing to hold... thank you for holding... thank you for your patience...'

If California-headquartered BPO firm 24/7 Customer has its way, then wasted, frustrating interactions between consumers and companies will soon be a thing of the past. With a bulk of its operations in Bangalore and Manila, the BPO handles 10 million customer calls each month for 34 clients.

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24/7 Customer has now developed a set of products that help customers of banks, retailers, mobile phone companies and credit card companies avoid polite, meaningless interactive voice recordings (IVR) and futile website excursions.

Many Indian IT services outsourcing companies, which got a start by doing paid-by-the-hour projects, have moved up the chain to provide higher-value consulting services. It is now the turn of business process outsourcing firms, whose revenues are typically linked to the number of interactions, to innovate. The gloomy global economic climate and companies' renewed emphasis on reducing operational costs is speeding up the need for such advances.

24/7 Customer got started on products over three years ago by focusing on what triggers customer inquiries and how to respond without putting up hurdles such as IVR or hard-to-navigate web interfaces. Its experience in handling customer calls across industries and geographic regions - some 300 million calls in the eight years of its existence - was useful.

The insights on the dynamics of customer acquisition, retention and support were further leveraged using predictive modelling. PV Kannan, chief executive of 24/7 Customer, recently told me: "The question we constantly asked was, how do we increase sales, improve customer service and yet, reduce call volumes?"

The products were born out of linking customers' issues to the product or service lifecycle, such as pre-purchase, product delivery, initial usage or renewal, then predicting the issues based on patterns. The companies' interactions, whether voice or web-based, could then be modified to become proactive and faster.

With the web and newer technologies, customers expect quick and easy interactions. Yet most companies are completely unprepared for this. "Anticipation helps companies be better prepared," says Kannan. By anticipating, companies could also be wrong but that happens rarely, he adds.

The BPO believes that deploying intelligent, predictive modelling could eliminate half the number of customer calls - so, when a consumer interacts with a live agent, it becomes a productive exercise.

One of 24/7 Customer's new products SalesNext aims to help companies maximise sales, whether by telemarketing or ecommerce. Characteristically, web commerce's purpose is to minimise human contact. But even if a company gathers and crunches all the data from its website on customer behaviour and buying habits, only one per cent of all website visits ends up in a transaction.

SalesNext, now being put to use on the web by clients such as Adobe Systems and Capital One Financial, hopes to prove human intervention at a crucial point can convert more than 15 per cent of website visitors into buyers. The accuracy of prediction and timeliness and quality of intervention increases the conversion of browsers into buyers.

The web portion of the product works like this: using predictive modelling, visitors are classified and sorted out as hot and cold leads. Agents step in to make personalised contact with the most promising leads through web chats, using the interactivity to move the visitor to closing the deal.

"It is like deploying a top salesman at Brooks Brothers at just the right moment and using his timing and judgment to translate the visit into a sale," explains Kannan.

24/7 Customer's chat service only targets those visitors who are otherwise not likely to buy. For instance, if a visitor is clicking between three different versions of a high-end home theatre system, it's time for the web chat agent to step in.

As voice-based customer care becomes expensive, organisations are exploring web chat and self-service as cost-effective customer service mechanisms.

However, even deploying all the intelligent customer service products, 100 per cent automation is only a pipe dream. "Commerce will never be 100 per cent human-interface free because, we, humans, have a great desire to reach out and connect," says Kannan.

About Saritha Rai

Saritha Rai is an India-based journalist and commentator who covers technology, business and society from her ringside seat in Bangalore.

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