Turning the traditional customer service flow upside-down


Some of the main frustration points from customers calling into the contact center:

  1. Having to go through an IVR first to get to a live person
  2. Long wait time
  3. The agent asking for the same information again when already given to the IVR

The typical self-service call flow has an IVR in the front-end to first find out something about the caller, then after retrieving the customer record, the call gets passed to a queue for a live agent. In essence, the IVR acts more like a receptionist to direct callers to the (supposedly) right department.

This is now the common flow in customer service. It’s the product of contact center industrialization, an evolution stemming from goals to lower labor costs, increase efficiency, and adopt automation.

That’s why now there’s a machine separating you, the customer, from obtaining good service.

How about flipping the flow — live agents first, IVR second?

When the caller dials the toll-free number, let an agent answer first. Well, go ahead and program a warm greeting nonetheless but that’s it. Then pass the call to an agent, queue the call if necessary.

All the agent has to do is say, “Hi. Thanks for calling Acme Bank, my name is Sam. How can I help you?”

There might be a brief silence on the other end of the line because the caller is probably surprised to be speaking with a live person at this point. And because the caller did not go through layers of menus and instructions, s/he has no expectation that the agent would know his/her account number, name, or other identifiable info. (Of course, some may propose an ANI match up-front to gather more info, but that usually has a low rate of success. Just keep it simple.)

The caller then tells the agent about the purpose of the call. The engaging agent now asks, “Would you like me to help you with that, or would you prefer our self-service system?” Imagine that — giving the caller a choice of how to obtain service! No forcing the use of DTMF, speech, or questionable gestures.

The caller can pick either one of those options: help me or self help. But guess what? Whichever option is chosen, it’s going to be a happy caller because s/he was in control.

Obviously, for this to work effectively the agent has to be well trained (and I mean, really well trained) and the IVR still has to have good design. But my theory is that you’ll end up with:

  • Happier callers because they don’t go through an IVR initially and get to talk to an agent sooner
  • Happier agents because they’re given better training and are empowered (first-tier service providers as opposed to getting the “leftovers” from IVR)
  • Shorter queue times because callers will be less frustrated and those who decide on self-service are unlikely to go back into queue
  • Simpler call flows because all inbound calls queue to an agent and the IVR only handles customers willing to use self-service
  • Better disaster recovery and business continuation because if the IVR goes down the agents are already capable of handling most aspects of customer service (might even be an added bonus when the caller hears “Sorry but our self-service system is unavailable at the moment. Allow me to assist you.”)

The big question: What about cost?

And that’s a good question. My thinking is that with this paradigm, some money typically spent on an IVR upfront solution can be shifted to invest in the agents because it’ll be less IVR ports, less IVR licenses, and less professional services (simpler call flow). So maybe the cost is comparable, but hopefully you end up with higher customer satisfaction scores and less agent turnover.

Have you seen something like this in the field? What pitfalls can this paradigm bring? Do managers prefer to invest in hardware, software, and licenses rather than people? Is this feasible in today’s corporate contact centers? And what the heck is Eugene smoking?

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