Take on any CX challenge with Pipeline+ Subscribe today.

Connecting With Anxious Customers

Connecting With Anxious Customers

Connecting With Anxious Customers

The cases for careful deflection, supporting preferred channels, and proactive outreach.

Everyone, it appears, is anxious, worried, and fearful. While the economy and employment has picked up, inflation has persisted, leading to feelings of uncertainty. And the superheated political rhetoric in the U.S. elections (and leading up to next year’s Canadian federal elections) has not helped.

In this environment, customers have less patience for long on-hold times and response times and for incomplete service when contacting organizations. But contact center staffing issues like high agent turnover have made timely connections with agents an increasingly daunting task.

There has been much attention and investment made in artificial intelligence (AI)-based solutions to assist with self-service and agent-delivered service across multiple channels.

But will such measures and others help to improve productive and reliable connectivity in the current, and likely future environment? Will they bolster the customer experience (CX) and foster customer loyalty: and sales?

To find out we reached out to and had virtual conversations with select industry suppliers. They are:

  • Catherine Forino, Senior Product Marketing Manager, NICE.
  • Jono Luk, Vice President of Product Management, Webex by Cisco.
  • Crystal Miceli, Vice President of Product and Industry
    Marketing, Talkdesk.

Q. Let’s paint the landscape. Are you seeing any changes in the volume of inbound live agent contacts and also in the reasons why customers reach out to agents? And if so, what are the drivers of these changes?

Catherine Forino

Catherine Forino: We are increasingly seeing more consumers turn to digital channels to solve their issues on their own or with chatbots. CX AI has made this possible by driving more efficient and seamless self-service for consumers.

Additionally, organizations are utilizing proactive outreach more often to solve consumers’ needs before they have to reach out.

AI has made this more efficient, alerting an organization when to reach out to a specific consumer, with the relevant context needed to deliver personalized proactive outreach. This has left agents with the more complex consumer inquiries that consumers couldn’t solve on their own.

Jono Luk

Jono Luk: The volume of inbound live agent contacts has been growing as customers have higher expectations, are increasingly vocal, and are more inclined to initiate communication with a business.

The human element remains irreplaceable in customer service. Despite advancements in virtual agents and AI, there’s a strong sentiment that when customers are frustrated or upset, they prefer - and sometimes insist on - interacting with a human being who can understand and respond to their emotional state.

This preference underscores a fundamental aspect of human nature: the need for empathy and understanding, which machines have yet to replicate.

Crystal Miceli

Crystal Miceli: The world’s digital shift, catalyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and growing consumer expectations for immediate service, have elevated customer engagement with contact centers across all sectors, but especially in industries like healthcare, banking, and retail.

With life’s conveniences increasingly going digital - from the uptick in eCommerce to telehealth to online education - customer support has largely moved online. Thus spurring more frequent interactions with self-service and virtual support services.

And while virtual agents are now capable of managing some customer interactions automatically, we are still observing a notable rise in live agent engagement, particularly among older demographics.

Now, more than ever, consumers demand immediate satisfaction and the highest level of customer support from every company, no matter the size or industry.

With these heightened expectations, consumers are more likely to attempt to bypass dated IVR systems, weak virtual agents, or outdated self-service portals in favor of immediate, live customer service agents for even minor inconveniences.

“Now, more than ever, consumers demand immediate satisfaction and the highest level of customer support from every company, no matter the size or industry.” —Crystal Miceli

It’s a scalability issue for contact centers and one that many CX leaders are hoping to solve with more autonomous, Generative AI (GenAI)-powered technologies.

Q. Are you seeing an increase or decrease in inbound customer contact deflection by automated self-service?

Jono Luk: There is an increase in the attempts to deflect inbound customer contacts through automated self-service solutions, such as virtual agents and chatbots. Businesses are exploring these options, aiming to reduce costs and streamline customer service.

In some contexts, self-service makes sense, such as opening a credit card account. However, not all attempts are successful or implemented effectively, as highlighted by public examples of bots that provide inaccurate information that ultimately mislead customers.

These failures can tarnish the reputation of automated systems. And push customers back towards seeking human interaction.

“In some contexts, self-service makes sense... However, not all attempts are successful or implemented effectively...” —Jono Luk

Therefore, while there is an uptrend in efforts to deflect customer contacts via automation, the effectiveness of these attempts varies greatly, and a few significant missteps often lead to a resurgence in preference for human-driven service.

Crystal Miceli: Deflection shouldn’t be the goal of the contact center. The goal should always be improved customer satisfaction, which results in greater brand loyalty and corresponding increased revenue.

The means to go about that goal may include methods that result in customers getting their needs served without having to interact with a live agent, but avoiding that contact is a secondary objective.

We are seeing that the secondary objective of deflection increases as contact center technology advances and virtual agents become equipped to handle customer interactions autonomously.

The rise of GenAI has allowed brands to put forth virtual agents that can interact with natural language, solving customer needs: and even anticipating them. Which, in turn, is leading to a decrease in the number of customers who need to speak with live agents to solve problems.

That said, productivity gains from call deflections will vary based on the sophistication and effectiveness of the virtual agent technology in the contact center, as well as how well it is implemented to meet the demands of their customer base.

Customer Contact Channel Changes?

There is now a growing array of customer interaction channels. But which ones are customers actually using?

Catherine Forino: Agents are not just handling calls anymore. They are handling voice and digital interactions which include social. Agents are meeting consumers on their preferred channels, which are increasingly digital/online.

We’re seeing more automated, unassisted interactions across channels, voice and digital, as repetitive, mundane interactions are offloaded from live agents to free up their time for higher priority tasks.

Jono Luk: There is a discernible shift toward more adoption and experimentation with non-traditional channels such as social media to complement core live agent channels.

Businesses are increasingly using [social media] platforms not just as a means to interact but also as listening posts to gauge customer sentiment and issues.

A customer may start by expressing a concern via a direct message on social media, but for more in-depth resolution, the conversation often transitions to more traditional and higher fidelity channels such as phone or email.

This is because while social media provides valuable signals about customer needs and frustrations, these platforms are not always optimally designed for detailed service interactions or to provide comprehensive resolutions.

Therefore, while there is a recognition of the rich data provided by social channels, they often serve as the starting point for customer service interactions rather than the sole medium for resolution.

Crystal Miceli: We are seeing increased interactions on mobile devices, via SMS and often inside applications, whether banking apps, shopping apps, healthcare portals, or directly on social media platforms.

If there is a means to reach a brand on any channel, customers will take the opportunity to use it: sometimes even attempting multiple channels simultaneously to see what is the fastest.

A great illustration of this is travel disruptions. If a flight is canceled, a passenger may call, post on social media, request help via the application, and stand in line in person at the airport: all at the same time.

We are seeing contact centers mature to support these customer expectations. One way they are extending their ability to operate across multiple channels without significant expansions in staffing is through GenAI-powered contact center technology.

[It] can operate 24/7 in multiple languages via multiple channels: even if brands don’t have the resources to support after-hours resources or multilingual teams.

Similarly, GenAI is helping to expand the accessibility of live agents, by equipping them to communicate using SMS, through virtual chat applications like WhatsApp or in their collaboration apps like Microsoft Teams: in any language automatically.

Offering the ability to interact with customers virtually and live without the limitations of language or time-based availability is a differentiator that helps to avoid the risk of customer frustration stemming from cultural differences and lengthy wait times.

Brands with outdated support models based on legacy technology like IVR systems with hefty setup and maintenance requirements, especially to support global or complex use cases, are already losing brand reputation at a time when alternative options are rapidly expanding for consumers.

Q. Are you seeing any changes in the use of outbound to connect with customers? By live agent versus automated channels?

Catherine Forino: We are seeing more organizations utilize proactive engagement to connect with their consumers. AI has enabled organizations to be more personable in this outreach, monitoring interactions in real-time and historically pinpointing when an organization should reach out proactively.

For example, proactive communication can be used to let a consumer know about a contract renewal or when an upcoming power outage is scheduled to happen. When proactive engagement is done right, it can reduce the number of inbound inquiries as consumers’ issues are solved before they have to call in.

“We are seeing more organizations utilize proactive engagement to connect with their consumers. AI has enabled organizations to be more personable in this outreach...” —Catherine Forino

Jono Luk: Absolutely. There is a change in the usage of outbound communications with an increased emphasis on proactivity: getting ahead of problems before they escalate.

Businesses are leveraging automation to initiate outbound contacts efficiently, aiming for proactive and personalized CXs that can prevent issues from becoming more serious, thereby increasing customer satisfaction.

However, there is a clear distinction in the role that automated systems and live agents play in outbound communication.

Automated systems are being employed to handle the scale of outbound contacts due to their efficiency. Rather than having a live agent call hundreds of people, automated messages can reach out en masse.

When a customer responds or engages with the automated contact, a live agent can then take over to provide a more personalized and nuanced service. This strategy allows for a better allocation of live agent resources, using them where they are most needed and effective.

Nonetheless, challenges such as fraud detection and customer reluctance to respond to automated contacts pose significant issues. Customers may be hesitant to engage with automated outreach due to concerns over legitimacy.

While outbound automation is increasing and can initiate conversations, complex issues like fraud are still better managed by human agents. Many interactions initiated by automation are ultimately redirected to humans for resolution.

This balance ensures that the efficiency of automation is paired with the critical thinking and problem-solving capabilities of live agents.

Should Contact Centers Deflect Customers?

Contact centers have long deflected live customer contacts to automated self-service to lower costs and manage workloads and continue to do so. But should they? And if so, what types of contacts and in which channels?

Jono Luk: Contact centers can and should indeed strive to increase inbound deflection rates for routine and simple inquiries through automation, allowing human agents to concentrate on complex, nuanced, or new issues that require a more personalized approach.

Automated channels are well-suited for standardized processes with high conformity across interactions, such as rescheduling appointments. In contrast, live agents should handle interactions that are highly variable and require real-time thinking, such as medical triage or new product concerns.

The key is to continuously monitor the effectiveness of deflection in enhancing customer satisfaction, ensuring that automation does not compromise the quality of the CX.

Crystal Miceli: Contact centers can increase inbound deflection rates with the help of GenAI technologies, but this is not, and should not be, the primary goal for contact centers.

In fact, there are many situations where call deflection as a metric would impede the effectiveness of the contact center entirely.

For example, a 911 operator or healthcare provider will not want to deflect inbound contacts at the same rates as a retailer. Even within retail, luxury brands who provide a higher level of service may not have call deflection as a top goal.

In those cases, the most effective contact center technologies aim to route the customer to the right agent, with the right skills and insights, at the right time, instead of deflecting them to a virtual agent or self-service.

This is where we are seeing the rise in importance of agent effectiveness tools like copilots, which can use GenAI to sift through vast quantities of data and context about the customers and the situations, both historical and in real time. These tools surface guidance to ensure that agents make the best use of the time spent in the interactions.

Low-hanging, easy-to-manage, or repetitive customer calls should be handled by autonomous virtual agents. [But only] if they are implemented intelligently in a way that doesn’t detract from the CX while the more complex interactions should be handled by a live agent.

Success should not be measured by the number of deflections, but instead by the satisfaction customers have with their customer experience whether that be with a virtual or a live agent.

Q. What are your recommendations when choosing, deploying, and using inbound and outbound customer contact applications?

Catherine Forino: Organizations need an effective strategy for both inbound and outbound interactions. They need to be able to effectively manage every interaction across every channel.

This is possible with a unified cloud platform leveraging purpose-built AI for CX. When organizations have this, they can not only handle the volume of inbound interactions but also be strategic about generating personalized proactive outreach.

If an organization has an effective strategy and the right CX AI solutions in place, they can promote more proactive outreach to decrease the volume of inbound interactions.

As more organizations adopt CX AI, we will see a significant increase in proactive outreach as organizations are able to generate more personalized interactions, anticipating consumers’ needs before they have to reach out.

“By proceeding step-by-step, you can adjust strategies based on real-world feedback and results...” —Jono Luk

Jono Luk: When choosing, deploying, and using inbound and outbound customer contact applications, it’s essential to start with a clear understanding of the desired outcomes and unmet needs.

  • Identify whether the goal is to reduce customer wait times, serve more customers, or another specific objective. This will guide the selection process.
  • Partner with a vendor that aligns with your company’s needs and values, ensuring they can be a long-term partner for growth and innovation.
  • It’s critical to select a platform that is not only capable of meeting current requirements but is also adaptable and scalable to future needs or unforeseen requirements.
  • Ensure that the chosen solution can evolve with changing customer behaviors and technological advancements.

Lastly, adopt an incremental approach to deployment. Implementing changes in stages allows for accurate measurement of success and identification of which changes are having the most significant impact.

By proceeding step-by-step, you can adjust strategies based on real-world feedback and results, ensuring a more controlled and effective enhancement of your customer contact capabilities.

Crystal Miceli: Brands will need to invest wisely in their contact center technology to see a real improvement in inbound and outbound effectiveness without sacrificing the main goal of improved CX.

Rapid innovation, technology infrastructure, customer proof points, and industry specialization should drive a brand’s decision when choosing customer contact center applications.

Since technological advancements in CX solutions are moving at a rapid pace, businesses will have to look closely at each provider to determine if what they offer is unique compared to what anyone else can provide.

“Brands will need to invest wisely in their contact center technology to see a real improvement in inbound and outbound effectiveness...” —Crystal Miceli

Every technology company is claiming to be a GenAI company now with little differentiation and regardless of ability to deliver on promises. So it’s important to look beneath the surface at how the platform is architected. Is it a single platform, purpose-built, or a cobbled-together mix of acquisitions and partnerships?

Brands should also consider the speed at which a vendor can provide and adopt the latest technology as well as the underlying infrastructure that enables it. For example, brands limited by outdated on-premise architecture won’t be able to adopt integrations and innovations as rapidly, so they should be looking for a cloud-native solution.

Finally, brands should look for proof points from other customers in their industry to ensure that the technology functions properly for the tasks at hand. Making the right choice could make the contact center and overall CX a meaningful and value generating differentiator for the brand.

Brendan Read

Brendan Read

Brendan Read is Editor-in-Chief of Contact Center Pipeline. He has been covering and working in customer service and sales and for contact center companies for most of his career. Brendan has edited and written for leading industry publications and has been an industry analyst. He also has authored and co-authored books on contact center design, customer support, and working from home.

Brendan can be reached at [email protected].

Contact author


Most Read

Customer Experience

The Four Pillars of CX

Upland 20231115
Cloud Racers
Verint CX Automation
Go for the CX Gold Report