Oct 30, 2019 10:34:00 AM
Let’s get one thing out of the way – working phones is tough. There's a reason why customer service agent attrition floats between 30 and 50%, nearly topping the list of occupations with the highest turnover. If you visit your average customer service floor, then visit again a few years later, almost nobody who was on the floor during your first visit will still be there.
You don't need piles of research to imagine why - micromanaged metrics and repetitive work are the bread-and-butter of customer service, with many also suffering from inconsistent leadership, limited upward mobility, poor training and coaching, and frustrating tools. Add to that the fact that many people jump into customer service work as a bridge between opportunities and you've definitely got a recipe for low morale and high turnover. Staying in the industry while maintaining a passion for helping others is a challenge, and every customer service teammate deserves tremendous respect for taking on that mantle.
At Solvemate, we develop easy-to-use chatbots that save people's time; from the customer who is frustrated that their delivery hasn't arrived, to the customer service agent who takes their call. That’s our main goal, and we really mean it. As our CEO recently wrote, we believe that time is the new gold.
Yet articles that talk about how beneficial chatbots are (or are not) tend to overemphasize the side of the customer. Yes, customers appreciate the instant service - that’s one of the huge reasons chatbots are on the rise. Far fewer discussions talk about the benefits of chatbots for the folks on the other side of the phone. And that’s where I’d like to focus.
In what ways does a chatbot like Solvemate help save the customer service team’s time? And where else would this saved time be used?
The most commonly advertised benefit of chatbots is reduction of request volumes. Everyone loves a good story of ticket volume decline - we have plenty of customers who have seen calls decline by up to 40%. But ticket volume does not always decline one you've launched a chatbot. As any customer service manager understands, if you give your customers more avenues to contact you, customers who were previously turned away by the threat of having to talk to a real person on the phone might be more than happy to submit requests through a chatbot. This "hidden volume" of would-be requests is largely invisible - until you open the floodgates. But is that fear a valid reason to avoid getting a chatbot?
If a chatbot’s only goal was to reduce ticket volumes, this argument would give you pause. But there are actually several other reasons a chatbot can help a customer service team (I won't get into the customer experience benefits here, but it goes without saying that making it easier to get the service they need is great for end-users).
First of all, let's look at the type of requests you are getting rid of when you use chatbots. A properly-configured chatbot will help avoid repetitive and easy questions. Period. If a customer isn't sure how to navigate to their account balance and you answer their questions clearly and concisely in a well-structured chatbot, they will have no need to submit their request. Even if you see ticket volumes increasing, you can be quite well assured that the additional tickets coming through are not the kind of repetitive requests that are a customer service department's bane. The best-performing teammates in customer service would far rather answer tricky questions than boring FAQs. One teammate I worked with once made the analogy of acting like a private investigator, figuring out what caused the customer’s issues. Ensuring teammates get more “investigative” questions and fewer repetitive ones is a key lever to increasing job satisfaction.
Secondly, tickets that are submitted through a well-configured chatbot are easier to handle than a typical call. Chatbots gather basic information for you - customer identity, nature of the problem, and so forth - saving precious minutes of repetitive drudgery at the beginning of every call. And a well-structured chat flow will also let you route queries far more efficiently than the infamous automated telephone/IVR system ("press 1 for rental services"). Whereas a large chunk of customers will "zero out" when faced with an IVR, chatbots provide a far less frustrating way to send tickets to the right place and avoid unnecessary transfers.
Thirdly, chatbots help companies collect data and insights around contact reasons at a level that is unprecedented for most companies. In traditional customer service, identifying a spike in an issue (for example, a website bug that begins driving contacts) requires customer service teammates to notice a trend, then report it to their team leads who in turn report to the director of customer service. But such communication is ad hoc, dependant on the personal observations of each teammate, and rarely drives change quickly. Few companies have anything resembling automatic speech-to-text transcription for their service calls, let alone the machine-learning capacity to cluster calls into topics and a framework to prioritize issues. Here again, a well-structured chatbot can help - saving the time the service teammate spends on post-call work (e.g., painstakingly recording what kind of issue the customer saw) and giving leadership a nicely packaged summary of recurring pain-points.
So, keep in mind that chatbots will reduce ticket volumes... some of the time. But even if a chatbot isn't directly reducing ticket volumes, it evolves the kinds of tickets the customer service department receives, makes the tickets easier to handle when they do come in, and collects data to help prioritize customer pain-points.
Like every other business department, customer service departments are never short of work or initiatives they "wish they had time for". Unfortunately, they tend to be under even more of a time crunch than most other departments. From my experience, the first thing to suffer is employee development - training, coaching, mentorship, and other "unproductive" time off the phone. Ironic, given that there is a fairly unambiguous corpus of research (and common-sense!) that correlates career development opportunities with job satisfaction.
I've spoken to teammates who lamented that their team meetings (so-called “huddles” at some companies) used to be an hour, but were shortened to 30 minutes in the name of efficiency. I've spoken to leads who couldn't find the time for a monthly team lead roundtable, cutting out an important channel for sharing learnings. I've heard great ideas for employee engagement - bringing in teammates from different departments to explain their roles, giving teammates opportunities to distinguish themselves by organizing mini-trainings, making department-wide announcements to celebrate successes, roleplaying difficult calls to build up conflict-management skills; and I've heard these ideas shot down for a lack of time.
By saving time (both through reducing tickets and through making them easier to handle), chatbots can provide the breathing room that the customer service department so sorely needs. When the majority of repetitive requests are being dealt with by a chatbot, closing a few phone lines has a lower likelihood of triggering an unstoppable backlog of tickets. This flexibility can then be used for any number of initiatives.
Customer service will always have arguably the biggest time management challenge of any department - if you want to host an additional training or make a special announcement, you can't just pull the entire floor off the phone - but our hope is, with the direct and indirect help of chatbots, we will help make small steps towards addressing these constraints.
One important argument that I want to address before closing. A cynic could say that all of this is well and good, but that saving time in a customer service department just gives the head honchos an excuse to start chopping jobs.
Do they have a point? Yes - and no.
The only sustainable, large-scale way to reduce the costs of customer service is by improving the product or service offering. If the product or service works “as it should”, then the need for customer service will be low. Optimizing for the bottom line is not the goal; it is the result. Short-sighted job-slashing tries to jump over this middle step of improving their offering. This approach goes against our culture, goes against human decency, and, we firmly believe, will not succeed in the long-run. And companies who take this approach are not the kind of company we want to work with.
We've put a lot of thought into defining who we do want to work with. When we approach a potential customer, we aren't just looking to sell - we are looking for long-term partnerships that will help both us and our customers grow. We are very careful when qualifying leads, and only "allow" a lead through if there is a clear use-case.
Some indications that a company is a good fit for us include a deep care for quality of service and at least 10,000 requests per month or 10 service agents.
Chatbots aren't some kind of customer service panacea, but they do directly address some of the frustrating aspects of the job. By saving time, they can also indirectly address a host of other issues caused by the time-crunch. Which is why the ticket volume argument is a good gateway into understanding the need for a chatbot - but it isn’t the only metric by which to measure a chatbot’s success. And, for the companies who care about their customer service teammates and their customers - a chatbot could be the perfect tool for their needs.