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Three strategic priorities for CX success—during and after COVID-19

COVID-19 has profoundly shifted the relationship between customers and the organizations they depend on.

Unlike previous, longer-term trends in customer expectations, no brand is able to estimate this change. After all, every organization is run and staffed by people whose children are no longer going to school, who may be struggling to purchase basic groceries, who must provide for those that depend on them. It’s clear that now is a time for listening to customers and employees, identifying their needs, and meeting them as swiftly as possible.

For customer experience (CX) leaders already battling to manage abnormal call volumes with diminished and dispersed service teams, this is the tallest of orders. But some organizations are now adapting to make smarter use of existing CX tools, empower employees, and deliver experiences that customers will remember long after the pandemic has passed.

Some forward-thinking brands are even using this time to catalyze strategic transformation—accelerating the adoption of customer- and employee-centric processes, digital engagement channels, and AI-driven automation.

"Some forward-thinking brands are using this time as a catalyst for strategic transformation."

These organizations are focusing on three key areas: meeting demand with education and empathy; setting agents up for success; identifying and mitigating increasing fraud attempts.

#1 Meeting demand with education and empathy

The disruptions to daily life—including those created by social distancing policies--have led to a spike in customer contacts across industries.

While healthcare organizations and public entities work to handle an influx of inquiries directly related to the pandemic, utilities are fielding requests to defer payments, banks to extend credit lines, telecommunications companies to upgrade plans, travel companies to cancel bookings, and retailers to check inventory.

Even businesses that have seen a decrease in call volume are struggling with the impact of reduced agent capacity. As lockdowns took hold, one auto-insurer saw a 100-fold increase in the number of callers waiting in queue to speak to its depleted team of agents, despite receiving fewer calls overall.

"As lockdown took hold, one auto-insurer saw a 100-fold increase in the number of callers waiting in queue to speak to its depleted team of agents, despite receiving fewer calls overall."

CX leaders now face familiar challenges, but on a new scale. How do you identify the most urgent needs? How you do meet every need in the most efficient way?

Nuance is privileged to support a host of CX leaders and organizations that are approaching these issues with empathy, intelligence, and resourcefulness.

Proactivity is increasingly common

One common strategy for scaling up customer service has been to engage proactively, and answer customer questions before they are asked. A major global e-commerce company has moved fast to provide outbound messaging across its channels. As a result, it has been able to provide crisis information to its sellers en masse and help reduce inbound inquiries.

"A major global e-commerce company has moved fast to provide outbound messaging across its channels. As a result, it has been able to provide crisis information to its sellers en masse and help reduce inbound inquiries."

For many, education remains an important strategy, even after contact has been made. One Fortune 100 financial services company has experienced record numbers of calls, as customers have reached out to ask about deferring mortgage payments and insurance premiums.

Instead of keeping customers waiting, the company promoted the option to be contacted by an agent at a future time of the customer’s choice. In just seven days, this feature saw 5.8 million minutes of use.

As well as shifting call volumes to accommodate customer preferences, many organizations are successfully containing the inquiries driven by COVID-19 in their IVRs, or transitioning them to digital—for example, by sending an SMS message from the IVR, containing a link to coronavirus FAQs.

Organizations with mature voice channels have been able to move quickly: adding dynamic greetings that set customer expectations and updating systems to understand COVID-19-related terms.

Virtual assistants step into the spotlight

With organizations transitioning live agents to work remotely, and in some cases dealing with reduced workforces, virtual assistants (VAs) are shouldering more of the customer engagement load.

Some assistants, like the chatbot being developed by Canadian research institute, Mila, aim to have a direct impact on the battle against the virus, taking the strain off government COVID-19 helplines.1

Other VAs are helping brands to serve more customers, across a broader range of engagements. For one multinational telecommunications company, the outbreak of the pandemic has brought both a surge in online traffic, the closure of its physical stores, and a drop in live agent availability.

Virtual assistants are helping brands to serve more customers, across a broader range of engagements.

In response, it has worked to expand the scope of its virtual assistant. Previously dedicated to service inquiries, the VA is now operating across the company’s website to assist with sales and customer routing.

Whether they are proactively educating customers, effectively mixing voice and digital channels, or leveraging automation, organizations should view these efforts as more than emergency measures. Like learning to listen carefully to customer needs, these strategies will continue to serve them well in the post-pandemic-era.

#2 Setting agents up for success

For the CX leaders who are fighting these fires on a daily basis, it may feel as if coronavirus has dragged them through the looking glass, into a new and very different world. But even in these extreme circumstances, many service principles remain the same.

A case in point: happy agents still create happy customers.

As social distancing policies have closed many contact centers and decimated the capacity of others, organizations have had no choice but to ask agents to work remotely.

The smartest organizations are now paying as close attention to their agents’ needs as they are to their customers’, and setting them up to succeed—whether that means mastering new ways of managing their workforce, exploring flexible shift patterns, or responding with understanding when an agent’s child starts crying in the middle of a call.

"The smartest organizations are now paying as close attention to their agents’ needs as they are to their customers’."

Support and supervision—in isolation

At the present moment, most service agents have a lot to contend with. Aside from the personal challenges that many will face while living in a state of lockdown, they face fresh professional challenges too.

They must stay on top of evolving COVID-19 offers, practices, and messages. They must handle more difficult calls, in more difficult circumstances, with greater sensitivity and care. And they must do it all without the human presence of their supervisors and co-workers.

Simply put, service agents need all the support their employers can provide. The organizations that have embraced AI, advanced analytics and automation in their contact centers are best poised to deliver.

Some already use AI to assist agents, surfacing customer preferences, presenting contextual information during engagements and recommending best actions. Such tools can be readily adapted to guide agents through the new conversations created by COVID-19—and since many are cloud-based, agents can harness them no matter where they are located.

"AI tools that assist agents can be readily adapted to guide them through the new conversations today and beyond. "

The same is true of agent performance tools. While CX leaders must strive to maintain human connections between supervisors and agents, those with mature contact center analytics capabilities may find their data is as rich as ever.

Shifting to simultaneous, and asynchronous engagements

As well as empowering service agents to succeed in their new working lives, some organizations are finding ways to increase their capacity—including reallocating phone agents to digital channels.

Asking verbal communicators to engage customers by text may be far from best practice, but in a time of crisis, it can be an effective short-term solution. Instead of handling a single phone call at a time, an agent engaging with customers through live chat can typically conduct up to four concurrent engagements, effectively quadrupling contact center capacity.

But as organizations work to modernize service and empower agents, they also have to contend with one of the longest-standing barriers to contact center transformation: the need to keep customer engagements and information secure.

#3 Identifying and mitigating new criminal threats

Fraudsters thrive on change.

Career criminals have been quick to exploit the opportunities created by widespread public anxiety, abnormal service agent workloads, and operational disruption. The US Federal Trade Commission estimated that by mid-April, coronavirus-related fraud had already cost the US $13 million.2

Beyond the malware-laced maps3 and phishing scams4 that play directly on COVID-19 concerns, many organizations have logged a record number of fraud attempts since the pandemic began. One investment company has reported a 2x increase in cases of attempted fraud. For one retail bank, the increase has been 400%.

"One retail bank has seen 400% increase in cases of attempted fraud."

But it’s not just the fraudsters that are moving fast. In the early days of the outbreak, one Nuance customer took steps to ensure its service agents would be able to leverage biometric authentication, even as they worked from their kitchens and living rooms.

A new wave of occupational fraud

Biometric authentication tools, which authenticate customers based on a unique characteristic, such as their voice, are also helping organizations mitigate the increased risk of occupational fraud.

This is a serious concern. New pressures are being applied to all sides of the classic “fraud triangle”, giving employees the opportunity, motivation and rationale for breaking the law, stealing and selling customer information, or defrauding the companies they work for.

"There is new pressure on all sides of the classic “fraud triangle,” giving employees the opportunity, motivation and rationale for breaking the law."

With biometrics solutions, the need for a customer to share Personally Identifiable Information with a service agent is minimized—ensuring that even for remote-working, financially-pressured agents, the opportunity to commit a crime is minimized too.

Fighting the rise in “friendly” fraud

It’s not just agents who are under financial pressure right now; the same forces that are acting on service agents are acting on other, formerly honest members of society. Indeed, for one Nuance customer, the pandemic has led to a 2x increase in fraud attempts initiated by legitimate account holders.

Some banks and insurance companies are already trialing credibility authentication technologies to identify and reduce “friendly” fraud attempts and false claims. Such tools use AI to, for example, assess how genuine a caller is being based on their behavior. It’s another field in which COVID-19 is driving service innovations that may deliver immense value to organizations in the longer term.

A catalyst for strategic transformation

As the immediate CX challenges of COVID-19 eventually pass, the new mindsets, processes and capabilities organizations are developing to survive in these difficult times will endure.

More effective use of voice and digital channels, fewer barriers to working from home, stronger, smarter security—the brands who build on this legacy will be the CX leaders of tomorrow, better prepared to meet new expectations, in a new world.

Art Schoeller, Vice President, Principal Analyst at Forrester Research has been speaking to organizations about thriving in that light at the end of the tunnel. His recommendation is that organizations take a step back, and ask, “What did we learn? What are some things that we need to hold on to as we go forward?”

Nuance is proud to be helping customers overcome the very immediate challenges they face. At the same time, we’re starting to guide them in answering the crucial questions about what comes next, so we can all emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.

1 https://mila.qu ebec/en/mila-and-its-partners-rally-the-scientific-community-to-develop-novel-data-driven-solutions-to-assist-with-covid-19-outbreak/?utm_source=bambu&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=advocacy
2 https://www.theregister.co.uk/2020/04/15/scammers_coronavirus_fraud/
3 https://www.techradar.com/uk/news/hackers-are-spreading-malware-through-coronavirus-maps
4 https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/phishing-messages-surge-coronavirus-1.5513315