It's Time to Get Personal in the Contact Center

The outrage at the scourge of big tech today is primarily focused on the way that personal information is gathered and used to sell folks stuff or get them to click on just one more news story before they go to bed. Companies gather personal data and use it to drive customer experiences because it works. People who are looking at air conditioners online might be doing so because they think A/Cs are really cool and fun to look at, but usually people look at air conditioners online because they are hot at home and want to buy something to cool them off. If I sell air conditioners, I want to know who's been looking at them.

Yes it gets creepy, and we don't like thinking about who is gathering information about us. My wife is convinced that an Alexa system at her office overheard a coworker complain about her blender and she started seeing blender ads. She never searched for blenders or had any online presence in the blender world.

Much worse, this data builds tribalization. When news apps see which stories people select and provide them more stories along those same lines, they turn smartphones into personal propaganda machines. No wonder it's so hard to understand where other people are coming from sometimes.

It's different in customer service. There is a difference between creepy stalking of web activity, reading news stories, or talking of blenders and providing even the most basic customer service. While marketing departments might know our every move and thought before we do, contact centers so often seem lobotomized, unable to carry context from an interactive voice response self-service application to the agent who gets the call when the IVR is stumped. Repeating your name is as frustrating as unexpected blender ads are creepy.

Much of the problem historically has been technology. The pieces have been in place to gather and manage this information for decades, but it's been too hard to put it all together. CRM data presented from a screen pop is something that most people know all too well, but data is so often spread around different systems. It is not at all uncommon for an agent to need to check five back-end systems to answer one customer question. Sometimes, connectivity is too hard to make work; there are still AS400 systems out there serving as back-end databases for many organizations, and they are still not easy to integrate.

Contact center and IVR systems interact with customers constantly but erase all knowledge beyond a disposition code after each interaction is complete. So why worry about being too creepy or too personal in the contact center when you don't have the basic knowledge to get creepy in the first place?

Technology is Getting Out of the Way

After spending the past several weeks looking into contact center-as-a-service vendors for my latest Forrester Wave report, I learned that the leading vendors in the contact center space are focused on providing a transaction history of customers, in many cases a history of all interactions with the contact center across all channels. All vendors that provide these customer data repositories have some level of connectivity that will allow companies to add data that would allow agents to see customer interactions beyond customer service, to see which marketing programs were made available to the customer.

It's getting easier. The day when we can worry about being too personal with customers in the contact center is coming. But we don't really need to worry.

Customers actually want the contact center to know who they are and why they are reaching out. Customers expect companies to know about all interactions, including marketing-driven programs and customer service experiences. Customers don't see company silos; they just see the company, and if they have a problem to be solved, they want it solved as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Customer insight is required to provide personalized customer service. Your customers expect you to know that history. It's not creepy to them; it's helpful. Look into what data you can gather, and look at which options you have to keep that data to make your service better. Look to see which capabilities your system provides. It's probably best to start small with data just from the contact center and build on that over time to create a far more comprehensive picture of customers.

You won't creep out your customers. In fact, they will thank you for being so personal and smart.

Max Ball is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.