It is starting to be widely appreciated there has been a rapid change of behaviour in the way customers now expect to receive sales and service support. Enforced isolation has flipped habits. There has been a huge migration to doing everything online, from shopping to engaging digitally.

In some cases, this has been forced on customers as contact centres have struggled to return to full productivity as a result of homeworking. While in some sectors, demand for live assistance has outstripped capacity resulting in long queues. Money worries such as card and mortgage repayments have dominated the conversation. I’m even aware of a major retail brand losing the whole of their outsourced capacity to provide live chat and having to cope with demand entirely through self service and very limited telephony support.

A New Engagement Model

What we are witnessing is the acceleration of a new model for customer engagement. It is one based on anticipating customer needs using the pattern recognition capabilities offered by AI technologies. Google search and Amazon style recognition engines have shown it is possible to recognise the similarities of customer needs at scale. Once captured, they can be used to proactively help other customers automatically find relevant answers or suitable products.

These algorithmic predictions can add even greater personalisation when the real time digital footprint of each customer journey is added into the mix. Together with whatever is already known about individual customers in terms of their previous interaction and transaction histories.

When this type of capability is used within well designed service journeys, the self-service experience is usually positive. The customer is continuously nudged towards the outcome they are looking for. Intelligent search, dynamic content and personalised suggestions provide a low effort route to success.

Of course, self-service sometimes needs to add in live assistance and well-designed contact strategies recognise that sometimes customers need the help of another person. In these instances, the critical point is to provide continuity of experience. Advisors need access to the full story. No-one ever wants to repeat themselves. Nor do they want to have previously rejected suggestions re-presented to them. So, maintaining context across modalities (voice, text, video) and channels (mobile, web, contact centre) is an essential capability in whatever engagement architecture you invest in.

A New Freedom to Experiment

The description of how customer engagement is evolving is not entirely new. I’ve been presenting on what AI in contact centres means for a few years now. However, what has changed is the speed and appetite for making the transition.

The COVID crisis has forced organisations to experiment, work at breakneck speed and avoid getting bogged down in undue oversight and adherence. In short, an entrepreneurial spirit has been released and those advocating genuine transformation are no longer leashed by corporate politics and expectation.

The core goal is to enable everything to operate within a digital context. Our newly acquired habit of working remotely has forced us to rethink how everything is done. We are learning how to either substitute or blend the physical (environments, people, paper) and the digital (automated, secure, trusted, scalable). Sometimes upgrading, sometimes inventing new ways of getting things done. Digital has become central to every interaction. In some cases, it has become the only customer engagement model. Contact centres are being transformed as a result.

In one sense, nothing is new. Digital transformation has been on corporate agendas since the mid-1990s. But there is a difference this time according to a recent ZDNet article.

“All along, digital transformation has been mainly seen among businesses under competitive threats such as tech-savvy industry disruptors. COVID-19 may be the mega-event that pushes everyone toward digital transformation. The crisis is an accelerant that is pushing even the most reluctant businesses into hyper-digital mode”

In other words, the new normal will no longer consist of a group of AI and API savvy start-ups and disrupters versus the rest of the world. Everyone is now figuring out their future based on a virtual workforce and online orientated customers, partners and suppliers.

The evidence surrounds us in the online discussions that are taking place as organisations network and learn from each other the new art of the possible. During a recent Coveo webinar I attended, one well known organisation shared how they had redeployed some of their retail staff to digitally support customers given a rapid shift in engagement habits.

Another stated they were accelerating their omni-channel plans to match evolving customer needs. Someone else was looking for technologies to enable remote client meetings and training. The worry of the next unknown crisis and its impact on service availability was taxing the mind of a senior customer service director in terms of new strategies for resourcing flexibility.

To my mind this shows a level of creativity has been unleashed and a willingness to try things out is becoming the new normal. This is because there is a justifiable urgency in corporate thinking as new economic realities start to bite.

As a recent McKinsey article put it:

“Businesses that once mapped digital strategy in one- to three-year phases must now scale their initiatives in a matter of days or weeks. Now is the time for bold learning at scale.”

The silver lining to this current crisis is that whatever excuses organisations made for their own status quo are blown to the four winds. ‘Needs must’ and the next chapter of reinventing how we work and engage customers and employees is in full play with receptive audiences to boost adoption and create invitations to go further.

The strongest approaches seem to centre around iterative testing, designed by teams enriched with diverse minds and experience.  Thankfully, we also have an abundance of smart technologies we can now wrap around and embed into existing foundations to help us rapidly realise our new digital goals.

Contact centres are sitting in the middle of this new revolution. The ability to access and use knowledge for relevant engagement is a key part of this next phase.

Resources to help contact centre leaders: