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Extract from Customer Focus Magazine: Issue 31 (Jan 2021)

Twenty-five thousand agents; multiple sites; every industry covered, dealing with every customer interaction imaginable. This is Capita – the UK’s largest business process outsourcing and professional services company.

On behalf of companies (including the likes of O2, British Gas, RSPCA and William Hill), Capita’s outsourced customer service teams help them acquire, retain, upsell and even recover debt from, thousands of customers every day.

And yet, what’s less well-known are some of the people behind this organisation – individuals like Alan Linter – its director of innovation – and Charlie Whitworth, its service design and delivery director. These people, with job titles that prick the imagination, are actually at the vanguard of innovation in service handling. And they’re thinking about service in such different ways – some of what they’re researching now could change current ways of working forever.

‘Customer service challenges are moving so fast, the challenge is now how to stay ahead,’ says Linter, who is responsible for Capita’s Data Science practice which looks at how best to link complex data sets and derive value from them. ‘We’ve arrived at a place where everyone knows (or should know), that it’s the customer’s “experience” that matters most. Things the service sector used to get hung up about – metrics including such things as the number of rings before an agent answered, or whether calls were resolved first time etc – are now largely taken as basic essentials.’ He adds: ‘Process engineering has done a lot of good here; it’s reduced the cost to do business with customers; it’s brought self-service where appropriate; it’s seen the development of conversational artificial intelligence that now triages people to the right places faster. But this is now almost taken for granted. What’s really been exposed by all of this is the need for service professionals to “add value” now – to make their conversations with customers more engaging; to engender more emotion and create more loyalty. The task for organisations is undoubtedly how they create a point of difference.’

The difficulty with all this, he accepts, is that it’s precisely because of better background processes, that what’s left – real interactions between agents and customers – have become more difficult.

‘When people do actually need to speak to someone, the reason for their call is suddenly more complex,’ he says. ‘It’s more emotionally loaded sometimes. This means being “different”, in the right way becomes even harder.’ He adds: ‘The challenge facing organisations now is meeting customers’ much more varied and nuanced contextual reasons for calling, and ensuring agents do the right thing by them.’

One of the areas Linter and his team have been addressing this is by furthering developments in real-time speech analytics. It has created software that gives agents suggestions (mid-call) about how they can be what Linter describes as ‘more human’. At a practical level, the technology gauges what’s being said, and the way it’s being said and will prompt an agent about how best they might handle the call – to perhaps ask how they are finding things, and inject more empathy. Ironically, to do this, state of the art AI is required, but the result, says Linter, is to ‘use robots to take the robotics out of the human’.

He says: ‘What we’re doing is moving into a much more dynamic space. It’s hard being a contact centre agent now. This technology is able to spot vulnerable customers and emotive situations. It looks at what emotions are being articulated in a conversation, so agents can be prompted about whether they should be giving customers more or different information during a call.’

What’s interesting about this technology is that it doesn’t just help callers, but agents too. ‘The analysis will tell agents whether they are talking too quickly, for example, for the caller to follow,’ says Linter. ‘But it can also highlight in real-time where the content of a conversation may be distressing. This means we can better support agents and ensure their safeguarding and support needs are being met. Supporting agents is just as important to us as supporting customers,’ he adds.

Another way Capita is focusing on enabling service differentiation is through its new ‘Life Moments’ concept – a project Charlie Whitworth has been working on. ‘It’s taking onboard the idea that the reason people call contact centres is due to them going through a life moment,’ he says. ‘It could be a marriage, buying a house or car, or death, or even something far less seismic, such as a caller having a home appliance break down, or a needing to buy a gift, that’s now left them short of money temporarily.’

According to Capita’s own research, around 10-15% of all inbound calls to its call centres have one ‘life moment’ or another attached, rising to many more amongst particular clients. For instance, since the start of the pandemic, Whitworth says calls to one of Capita’s utility clients registered a 50% rise in customers saying they were under financial stress. ‘The customer experience approach taken will be gauged accordingly, based on what people are calling agents about,’ says Whitworth.

Unlike the previous use of analytics, the software won’t try and predict what someone’s life moment is – that could result in all sorts of trouble – but the software will prompt advisers on the best course of action to take while that call is happening.

Says Whitworth: ‘Sentiment analysis technology has been around for years, but it’s always been retrospective; looking at calls after the event. We believe this ability to offer agents in-conversation prompts is new territory in the contact centre world. While advisers still take their own decisions on how they decide to deal with a call, the prompts are there to help them make a customer experience better, by helping agents form better, more empathetic connections.’

Linter and Whitworth are so confident about the technology that they believe one mainstay of customer contact metrics – compiling customer satisfaction scores – can also be done in real-time too.

‘We believe we’re almost at the point with this where we can score how customers rate their experience with a brand without even having to do a distinct follow-up call, because all that data can be found in the actual call itself, and be rated in real time,’ says Linter.

If this is possible, both argue it could permanently change measurement of customer satisfaction scores for good – because the software will detect (there and then), if there’s been a good, bad or indifferent customer call.

And they’re not stopping there. Also in development is research in Augmented Reality (AR). During the summer Capita formerly created a partnership with AR firm London Dynamics – founded by the former vice president of digital transformation at IKEA, Michael Valdsgaard. The collaboration will see it investigate innovative new ways to revolutionise online shopping and – by association – deliver higher standards of experience for customers.

Says Linter: ‘The possibilities are almost limitless. Customers will be able to hold their phone up to a product – say a sofa – and see exactly how it will fit in their home, or whether it will look better in a different colour.’ He added: ‘Right now it’s more important than ever for retailers to differentiate themselves from competitors, by delivering more captivating and emotive online experiences.

AR could be the answer to exciting people about shopping again.’ He adds: ‘The AR can then be used in combination with conversational AI, or to channel people to call centre agents, who can then talk in more detail about their product choices.’

It’s clear from both that when it comes to customer experience, maximising the customer journey, and helping clients to engage rather than ‘sell’ to customers, things are being taken very seriously indeed.

Concludes Linter: ‘This whole new space feeds into the fact customers want different experiences. We call it “phygital” – the combining of the best of the physical and digital worlds.’ He adds: ‘But one thing is clear; the nature of conversations are changing. If anything, people want more interactions with real people, because needs are getting more complex. But what customers today require is greater levels of human-to-human understanding. The good news is that the future we foresee is really starting to be played out now – and it’ll happen even sooner as we carry on taking the robot out of the human.’

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