It's Time to Rethink Voice as a Channel

How much of your customer service is conducted through voice channels? If you're responsible for customer service, you might know the answer to this question. Despite all of the talk about omnichannel experiences, the reality is that many call center operations still have different systems of record, managers, staff, and sources of knowledge than their counterparts in web service and other channels. Evolutions in web self-service, bots, social, and other digital channels and technologies have developed both because of customer demands and because the goal has been to cut costly call center operations.

We've invested in interactive voice response to accelerate call routing because it's faster for us.

We've invested in self-service and bots to deflect calls, because it's cheaper for us.

We've moved contact centers to the cloud because it's more cost-effective and flexible for us.

None of this makes a lot of sense for the customer, and it's time to rethink voice as a channel.

Years ago, it made sense for the voice channel to be separate from the rest of customer service. Voice traffic was analog, required physical switches and expensive hardware, and depended on the flexibility of agents— not the technology—to respond to changing customer demands. Companies that did customer service well did it with a bank of agents leveraging collective knowledge and coaching in one location, and other channels were low-value and low engagement.

Fast forward to today, and that's all changed. We can now apply natural language processing (NLP) and artificial intelligence (AI) to understand voice conversations in real time and use that information to coach at scale and at a distance. Basic call routing and infrastructure have become commodities and no longer require the physical presence of a call center, and any of us can buy a headset and get a job as an agent from almost anywhere.

So why are we still treating voice differently? The short answer is that companies that are thinking about a truly modern customer experience are not. They've brought traditional CRM and contact center workflows and queues together, orchestrating customer journeys across service with the intelligence typically reserved for marketing journeys, with real-time understanding of customer issues and sentiment, and route customers based on the best outcome for customer loyalty, not the cost of the channel. There is no secret code for customers to reach a human if they want to and no escalation strategy that relies on shadow channels like Twitter or other social media platforms. The result is a customer experience that is consistent across channels, and data that can be leveraged in real time to delight all customers regardless of channel.

So, how do we rethink our voice channel strategy? It starts by thinking of voice as just another channel. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Bring customer service together under one umbrella and give all agents and channels access to the same knowledge base, swarming and escalations, and case reporting tools.
  • Invest in real orchestration that focuses on the best outcomes for customers, not the cheapest channel, moving away from a cost-center model to one that incentivizes for customer experience (while measuring the real impact of a more positive experience on reduced churn and increased wallet share).
  • Apply analytics and AI to all customer interaction channels consistently to quickly identify the best customer journey based on the type of customer, customer history, and type of issue.
  • Direct customers to the best channel for the best outcome instead of asking them to guess which option will be the best.
  • Measure customer satisfaction and engagement with real metrics, not ones that look at voice as apples and other channels as oranges.

Yes, the voice channel is still more expensive than other channels. However, when we truly understand cross-channel metrics and journeys, we can reduce the cost of supporting a voice channel that isn't the channel of choice for many customers while improving real measures of customer satisfaction that contribute to top-line revenue. When we think about and measure voice just like any other channel, we optimize investments and innovations based not on the cheapest resolution but on the overall return on our investment in customer experience.

Rebecca Wettemann is CEO and principal of Valoir.