Contact centres are challenging environments and those who suggest all the work they do can be automated are failing to see this complexity.

Neville Doughty, Partnership Director

AI and the march to automation is a hot topic right now, with much being made of the gains that can be made through AI handling enquiries.

But the benefits of technology are perhaps being primarily considered in the context of larger operations, where the costs of servicing customers are easy to see.

What about the hidden contacts that organisations may be managing? The ones that are increasingly challenging to manage, that AI – for now at least – can’t deal with?

Information is power

Customers are better informed than ever before. They just need to spend a few minutes online to arm themselves with what they need before contacting you. From looking up reviews to seeking advice from social media groups on how other customers escalated a given complaint, or checking how regulations apply to your sector and how they should be applied in the context of their situation.

They may even know more about complaints to your organisation than some of your management team. Which means your responses need to be on point now more than ever.

Yet if former Dragons Den investor Piers Linney is to be believed, most contact centre activity will be automated by AI five years from now.

“There are undoubtedly times when speaking to a person is the only thing that will do.”

Realistically, nobody is denying that there are use cases that can be automated with better outcomes for customer, agent and organisation alike. Win-win. However, there are undoubtedly times when speaking to a person is the only thing that will do. And therein lies the risk of creating hidden contact centres in this futuristic AI-driven world. Indeed, they already exist.

What is a hidden contact centre and why do I need to worry about it?

In many organisations, contact centres already exist informally, even when they have bona fide real ones.

Groups of non-contact centre people are engaged in dealing with customers through calls, e-mails, chat or webforms, perhaps as part of their wider role. They are likely disbursed across multiple site locations or functions, handing off customers to each other and collaborating to resolve those queries.

Customers may be end users, other businesses or internal customers. The thing that unites them is that the queries are likely to be complex. And because it’s not their day job, everyone works a little harder to get the job done, sometimes at the risk of their other core tasks being delayed until the demand has passed.

Of course, none of this means these teams are doing a bad job in serving the customer. Processes may not be documented well, with best practice held in the heads – or languishing on the desktops – of team members, so they’re the best people for the job.

“The trouble with informal contact centres is that they aren’t set up to be responsive. Or have audit trails.”

But the trouble with informal contact centres is that they aren’t set up to be responsive. Or have audit trails. During holiday seasons cover may be limited and there is unlikely to be out of hours support for the customer. Reporting on contact volumes and contact types may not exist. Feedback loops for potential process improvement is probably dependent on the capacity in that team on a given week. And when servicing internal customers, inefficiencies may be magnified.

However, there may be limited opportunity for automation and self-service.

So maybe it is better to stay hidden?

Perhaps for some, ignoring all of this could be appealing. Especially if there are several “fractional” resources who are supporting and spreading the load. However, if those people are being taken away from their core roles, the decision (or lack of) not to address this could be a costly error. Those resources could be expensive for dealing with what in some cases may be low level queries. And not just in the time it takes them, but also unrecognised costs of double handling of queries, opportunity costs and even lost customers or lost revenue.

The first step is understanding if you have hidden contact centres. Speak with your people to understand what may be preventing them from getting core tasks done. If customer contacts, queries and complaints are part of that workload, perhaps it’s time to review and consolidate work to specialist staff who are set up to deal with these contacts.

Four red flags to watch out for:

  1. Team attrition – perhaps because they’re not getting opportunity to do the role for which they were employed?
  2. Customer attrition – are you seeing customers leaving you or not putting additional business in your direction?
  3. Non contact centre customer contact handling – do you have a group of people who you may not term as contact centre, but they are all consistently doing a role dealing with customers?
  4. Customer service levels aren’t matching your ambition – is it aligned to your values? Does it feel like a cost/burden?

If any of those resonate, then perhaps it is time to take time out and review whether you do, knowingly or otherwise, have a “contact centre” that could benefit from review or consolidation. To consider how this may benefit your people, your customers and ultimately your business.

What can you do about it?

First up, talk to people who understand the risks and opportunities of hidden contact centres. They’ll help you to decide on the approach that’s right for you, potentially with solutions you hadn’t considered. Whether you still want to keep activity within your team, or whether you need some additional help to provide increased coverage or flexibility.

For example, additional support and flexibility, including potential out of hours coverage, could improve services. You may not need dedicated resource, but the availability of someone to engage with your customers in conversation and support them at the right point in time may reduce the burden on your team during core hours.

If recruiting contact centre staff is a challenge for you, and managing and developing them is a further item on your worklist that you struggle to get to, it’s almost certainly time to seek guidance on how to address that.

And if you want to keep your ‘hidden contact centre’, it could be a smart move to examine your technology set up. Is it making it as easy as possible for your team? That doesn’t mean that everything could or even should be automated. However, implementing systems that enable omni-channel support – so that all details of the conversation can be easily linked and customers can skip across channels – will make it easier for both you and your customers.

“Technological developments over recent years mean that you could be able to improve life for your people and your customers.”

Contact centres take all kinds of forms. They can be managed in many ways and no one size fits all when it comes to dealing with customers. That’s why there are big in-house contact centres, hidden contact centres, and many different specialist outsourcers who deal with specific sectors or tasks – and often in ways that can give a competitive edge. Knowing which approach will help you to gain your competitive edge is critical.

Importantly, technological developments over recent years mean that you could be able to improve life for your people and your customers, reducing the impact on your business and the cost of servicing your customers. But wholesale automation is not the answer for all. And may never be, five, ten or many years from now.

Want to chat further?

Drop us a line. A problem shared is a problem halved and we love to share our expertise, whether you’re a client or not.