August 03, 2021

Balancing Technology and Costs with Empathy and Experience

Customer support agent headset showing empathy

Consider how many times you’ve typed or shouted, “Speak to a representative,” at a chatbot or interactive voice menu that struggled to understand your question. “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.” Perhaps you’ve encountered an overseas call center agent who couldn’t solve your problem.

When we’re frustrated by poor customer support, it’s easy to see why some might think a company’s best bet is to keep support in-house.

The decision to outsource or automate customer support is generally about cost-cutting. But given that brands now compete on experience, is customer service something we can afford to pass off to chatbots or an external provider?

The answer is, it depends.

On its own, technology can’t manage the empathy required to navigate tough or complex customer service situations. And low-cost outsourced teams often lack the context and support to provide meaningful help.

Achieving true cost savings and delivering exceptional support requires an investment in people, processes and technology. The companies that get it right stand to see stronger brands, increased revenue and, yes, cost savings over time. Read on to learn more.

What Do Customers Want?

Customer service is about much more than fielding calls and queries. It’s about relationships, empathy and, well, feelings. Before we dig into the pros, cons and bottom-line impact of outsourcing and automating support, let’s look at where customers are today.

  • COVID-19 has changed how we work, play and interact with one another. It only makes sense that the pandemic has also changed the expectations that customers have for the brands they purchase.
  • According to one recent report, customers expect to be able to communicate with a brand on at least 10 different channels.
  • Vonage’s 2020 Customer Engagement report found that voice calls, email and chat are customers’ favorite methods for getting in touch with a business for urgent matters—regardless of demographic. And while a relatively small share of respondents said they preferred to connect via video chat, adoption increased by 67 percent between January 2020 and August 2020 (peak lockdown).
  • According to CGS research, customers are becoming more interested in receiving augmented reality (AR) support for things like installations, set-ups and technical support tasks. And, per an earlier report from Forrester, customers prefer knowledgebases to other self-service channels.
  • Salesforce’s 2020 State of the Connected Customer found that 74 percent of customers say they’ve used several channels to start and finish a transaction. Some 76 percent of customers expect consistent interactions across departments, yet 54 percent say it seems like marketing, sales and service teams don’t share information.
  • Just because customers are embracing new support channels doesn’t mean they’re done with human interactions. In a 2020 Deloitte study, consumers said human interactions had the greatest impact on whether they felt valued by a company.
  • The Salesforce report also found that 66 percent of consumers say they expect companies to understand their needs, and 68 percent said they expect brands to show empathy. However, only 37 percent said they believe brands generally come across as empathetic.

The key trend here is, customers are figuring out that some channels are better than others for solving a specific problem. You might want good knowledgebase content if you’re doing research, while a chatbot might be your best bet for finding quick answers to simple questions.

Gartner VP analyst Don Scheibenreif told CIO Dive that the key is to strike the right balance between empathy and automation. He says that where that line is depends on your company, customers and the situation.

Across the board, empathy has been a huge factor in helping people navigate pandemic-related challenges. And it’s unlikely the demand for kinder, more personalized service isn’t going away, even as many of us return to “normal.”

How Outsourcing Customer Support Can Enhance CX

Outsourcing customer support gets a bad rap. We’ve all had a bad call center experience or engaged in a “live chat” with an agent that doesn’t have all of the information they need to do their job.

At the same time, outsourcing support tasks can tackle many of the big CX “pain points” companies deal with. Outsourcing allows brands to extend their resources and offer support on the 10+ channels where customers expect to find them. It also enables them to provide 24/7 support in a variety of languages. Additionally, outsourcing allows brands to access a skilled workforce on-demand. This is critical for companies struggling to respond to the pressures of digital transformation and COVID-19.

Businesses can access talent with experience in AR, AI-enabled analytics and omnichannel support. And those external teams can work closely with your in-house staff, helping them solve problems and develop new skills.

It’s also important to mention that you get what you pay for. There’s a big difference between high-quality service providers and those that fail to add value beyond labor arbitrage and low hourly wages. To secure a competitive advantage, you’ll need to invest in the outsourced talent best suited to helping you achieve your business goals.

It’s a matter of not only looking at skills and potential cost savings, but also where the services are delivered from, cultural alignment and the ability to communicate in a common language.

How Tech Can Improve CX

AI and automation enhance the customer experience on many fronts.

Deloitte’s Global Contact Center Survey found that 56 percent of respondents reported that they were investing in conversational AI to improve their cross-channel CX strategy. While AI is a significant investment, conversational AI stands to reduce customer support costs by as much as 30 percent. What’s more, companies can expect to start seeing returns within three years.

One of the key issues is when many brands don’t have a clear picture of what technology can and cannot do. They might invest in a tool because it’s “trending” without first thinking about the use cases.

As Computer Weekly points out, AI investments yield the biggest returns when applied to simple, high-volume use cases. In other words, they shouldn’t be handling activities that require soft skills like problem-solving, empathy or situations that require individualized solutions.

A big challenge facing businesses today is that it’s nearly impossible to form authentic, 1:1 connections with every customer. To address this challenge, natural language processing (NLP) and sentiment analysis enable agents to respond to requests—quickly and in context.

They’ll have personal details and a complete history of a customer’s interactions with a brand, allowing them to reliably deliver the best solution to any given problem.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review piece, the most common methods for gathering data about customer sentiment—Net Promoter Scores (NPS) and Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) surveys—have a huge blind spot. They don’t tell you anything about how customers feel.

Researchers argue that relying on qualitative measures alone means missing out on critical feedback. A numerical score can’t tell you why someone gave a product or experience a particular rating. Customers tend to review their “true feelings” in freeform reviews, social posts and in the open-ended comments section of a survey.

AI allows organizations to dive deeper, analyzing sentiment at scale. This wasn’t possible when interviews and focus groups were the only options brands had for collecting qualitative data.

Striking the Right Balance

Striking the right balance between technology, cost-savings and empathy starts with strategic partnerships. Partnerships between in-house teams and outsourced talent. Partnerships between humans and machines.

You'll want to break your strategy into three separate groups: in-house, outsourcing provider and the machines. Here’s one approach you might take:

In-house Team

Start by looking at your business strategy.

MIT recently surveyed 626 publicly-traded B2Bs and 4,105 of their customers. Researchers found that companies with high levels of cost-cutting and low levels of customer value (measured by customer satisfaction scores) had the worst gross margins. Those companies with high levels of cost cutting AND high levels of customer value had the highest margins.

The takeaway is cost-cutting isn’t necessarily at odds with perceived customer value. In fact, if you’re providing products and services that far exceed customer expectations, you’re cutting into your profit margins. Cost-cutting without considering the impact on customer value—not cost-cutting in general—is what kills profit margins.

In the report, authors recommend against piecemeal cost-cutting. They recommend that organizations reduce “value-added waste,” which is activities that don’t align with customer priorities. Instead, brands must create more value by aligning strategic initiatives with customer priorities. Think about activities that drive loyalty or have a direct impact on NPS or CSAT scores.

Gartner recommends outsourcing customer support tasks with a limited impact on CX. Analysts suggest evaluating the “criticality” of CX activities against the following factors:

  • Does this task/function create a competitive advantage for your brand?
  • If something went wrong with this process, would it pose a significant threat to the company?
  • Does this activity have a significant impact on the customer experience—and by extension, does it drive long-term loyalty?
  • Does this task/function take place close to the customer?

Activities with a strong impact on any of the above factors represent an opportunity to generate the most business value. And because of this, you’ll generally want to keep them in-house. Examples include sales reps and customer success teams who generally deal with more complex interactions on an individualized basis.

The report suggests that activities like basic tech support, collections or processing a claim can be outsourced. But you’ll still need to make CX a priority and work with external partners to develop a cohesive strategy that reflects your brand.

Outsourcing Provider

Great customer service comes from great employee experiences and a great company culture. That same logic extends to your outsourcing provider.

If you don’t invest in helping your team’s success, they won’t invest in supporting your customers. There’s a reason some overseas customer service and tech support agents get a bad rap. Businesses outsource to save money, but don’t give their outsourced team the tools they need to be successful.

The problem is that the service team becomes completely siloed-off from the business that hired them. To combat this issue, you’ll want to make sure you nail down the following before you start contacting potential service providers:

  • Map out your business strategy and identify the support tasks it makes sense to outsource. Tech support? Claims? Collections? Identity verification?  
  • How do those tasks impact your business strategy? Who needs to manage this project? Will your in-house team be working closely with the outsourced team? How will you handle hand-offs, milestones and communications?
  • Consider what expertise/experience is necessary to carry out these tasks—language proficiency, experience in your industry, cultural alignment, experience working with AI, automation, AR/VR, etc.? For example, working with an outsourcing provider who has expertise in this transition from legacy systems to the latest advancements in AI, AR and automation can be of great value in mitigating risks.
  • Create a detailed list of requirements and documentation. What information does your provider need to understand your brand, business goals and what a “good” service experience should look like?

AI and Automation

While science fiction tropes might suggest otherwise, AI wasn’t designed to replace human agents. The bots bring speed, accuracy and cost savings, while the humans bring empathy, ethics and creative problem solving.

Bots are rigid. They’re great for processing information and sorting it into categories. They can effectively answer questions with only one right answer. However, they’re not good at determining when to bend the rules when, say, someone needs an extension on a bill or needs a refund on an autopay transaction.

Companies that fully replace human agents with technology are creating barriers to meaningful support.

It might not be a big deal when a customer is trying to find out how late the local grocery store stays open. But it’s a different situation when they have fallen behind on credit card payments due to COVID. Or if they are trying to navigate a healthcare system after receiving a serious diagnosis.

You’ll want to approach your tech investments with human augmentation in mind. That means investing in solutions that help your in-house and outsourced teams better assist customers.

A few examples:

  • Automating back-office processes so agents can focus on high-value interactions
  • Using an AI chatbot to answer common questions/surface relevant information
  • Routing complex queries to live agents and/or investing in a hybrid tool that allows chatbots to engage an agent if it gets stuck and trains the bot on how to respond to similar situations in the future. Agents can work on more cases at a time, while ensuring a seamless experience for the customer
  • Using AR technology to help outsourced agents with remote diagnostics, installations and repair
  • Using predictive analytics to help guide agents through service interactions

Final Thoughts

Cutting costs doesn’t mean you have to cut corners. Outsourcing and automation have been reshaping the way we do business for decades. Both offer a huge amount of promise to transform the customer experience. We're talking faster resolution times, personalized service, and consistency across every touchpoint.

From the back office to the call center, CGS offers innovative, scalable business process outsourcing (BPO) solutions. Contact a BPO specialist today to learn how our AI-enriched chatbot, RPA solutions, and AR technologies support multilingual customer service teams across thousands of call centers.

 

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