Connecting with Your Customers: The Internet of Things Is Poised to Disrupt the Contact Center

You just plunked down $1,600 for a Whirlpool Duet "smart" dryer. The concept sounds so cool—the appliance has integrated sensors that connect it to technology from "learning" thermostat technology provider Nest, and can do things once only portrayed on the Jetsons. Stuck at work? No problem, just set the dryer on the "away" feature. Feel like doing laundry at 6 p.m.? The Whirlpool dryer will advise against it, sensing that energy demand is at peak levels. But what happens when a connected device stops functioning? Do you call a manufacturer's contact center and talk to tech support? Not necessarily. Contact centers that are prepared for Internet of Things (IoT) products may have already received a notification from the connected device or system alerting them to a problem.

The IoT concept—that various technologies can be connected to each other—is no longer just a buzzword, but a reality. From cars, lighting, security, and thermostat systems, consumer demand is on the rise. According to a 2014 study by Acquity Group, a subsidiary of Accenture, and based on over 2,000 consumer surveys in the U.S., 69 percent of consumers said that they expected to buy an in-home IoT device within the next five years.

"Long-term potential adoption rates across categories of consumers underscore the significant opportunity for retailers and companies," the report states. "Even though widespread adoption of IoT technology is not here yet, the market is showing future signs of massive consumer adoption of connected devices and objects."

Shipments of smart-home devices are expected to climb at an annual rate of 67 percent over the next five years, with 1.8 billion units shipping by 2019, according to research firm BI Intelligence. Analysts at Gartner project that by the end of 2015, there will be nearly five billion connected offerings, and that number is expected to soar to 25 billion by 2020.

A 2014 report by Leslie Hand, research director at IDC Retail Insights, noted, "Consumer demand for convenience, product availability, and personalized and contextualized interactions will drive retailers to adopt multiple IoT technologies."

ThingWorx, a platform provider and early IoT pioneer, stated that all this connectedness will forever alter the business/customer dynamic. "IoT products fundamentally change the relationship with the consumer from transactional to service-oriented, embracing application-centric systems where connected products include end-user apps that transform business and increase customer loyalty."

That concept is about to trickle down to the contact center level, too. John Cray, vice president of product management at Enghouse Interactive, recently spoke with Smart Customer Service about riding the IoT wave with connected customers in the contact center and offers his thoughts.

Smart Customer Service: What’s your take on technology in general in the contact center?

John Cray: For a long time I think the world of contact centers and communications was pretty stagnant. It moved to multichannel about 15 years ago, and for a long time it sat in that state. But that's radically changing now.

Part of the change is that now customers can interact with you from anywhere, using any communication at any time. Once you're talking to customers, it can become any kind of interaction that makes sense—you can start out on a call and turn on a video camera. Now it's become omnichannel.   

Do you think that the next wave of technology in the contact center is the IoT?

We're not seeing it in a big way yet, but it's on our radar. The Internet of Things area is not about people being able to contact you from anywhere at any time. Now, it's about the problem being auto-discovered and notifying the contact center. We're looking at the contact center and how it plays [with the IoT]. It could be either a good thing for the contact center or a bad thing. 

Why would IoT be a negative?

The concern is that there could be an incredible rush of interactions that contact centers don't anticipate. There could be a huge volume of issues now hitting [contact centers] that they've never had before. That's not something that's easy to handle because every time contact centers gets notifications [from a connected device], you then have to diagnose where the problem is coming from, why it's coming, and whether it's true or false.

Do you think that IoT will be affecting the contact center anytime soon?

It's hard to say. This might roll out very, very slowly, although we're already seeing it with automobiles that are connected to OnStar. If your car malfunctions, there's an OnStar agent calling you in your vehicle. So, we're already seeing it there—that's a live person who you didn't call, your vehicle called.

What’s a positive with IoT and the contact center?

When you open that [IoT] up to every air-conditioning, alarm, or security system or appliances, it makes sense from a cost-benefit perspective. Someone commented on my blog about this, asking if his toothbrush would be contacting an agent; I would say no because there's no cost benefit. It's much cheaper to replace the toothbrush than it is for an agent to get involved.

But for an automobile, or a complex system in a building or a refrigerator, any other expensive appliance, it does make sense to get a person involved. With a washing machine, for example, it makes sense—there's a cost benefit to have a relatively low-cost technician be able to diagnose a problem remotely and determine if they need to send out a replacement part, for example. This is where the world changes.

Do you see other IoT-related benefits?

This has a ripple effect into so many areas. If something fails, it could be an upsell opportunity. An agent may call a customer and say, "We noticed your system failed. We have a new one with a warrantee." But there could be false positives that indicate there is a problem when there isn't one. 

[Enghouse has] been in the contact center for so long, and we've seen a lot of changes, but the fundamentals of the contact center doesn't change. You might get higher volumes of interactions, or need different tools, but the support doesn't change, it adds to new capabilities. You still need to manage an effective contact center. 

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