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Call Center Articles

Is the Future Our Friend or Foe?


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Be Ready for Artificial Intelligence to Revolutionize Your Call Center

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter Lyle DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections Magazine

One of the spaces I inhabit is the call center industry. Another of my worlds is writing. These two areas intersect in this column. Another commonality is how technology, specifically artificial intelligence (AI), will affect both sectors.

Futurists in the writing community talk about how AI will arise as a disruptive force. Indeed, the disruption has already begun, with computer programs writing poetry, song lyrics, a screenplay, and even a novel. Much of the writing community isn’t aware of this emerging reality. Other writers deny that AI even exists and consider it a pipedream. Some see it as the end of writing as we know it and a threat to their livelihood. Last are those, like me, who see AI as a tool that will help us write more, write better, and write faster. Yes, writing as we know it today will change dramatically, but that change is something to embrace.

AI is also making inroads into the call center industry, and the reactions to AI in the call center space are much the same as in the writing world.

Blissfully Unaware

Many people in the call center industry aren’t aware of the burgeoning developments with AI and how it will dramatically change call centers and their provision of customer care. They view AI as the topic for sci-fi movies, scientific labs, and a far-off future reality—one that will occur long after they no longer care.

Instead, they focus on the day-to-day urgencies of hiring, training, and scheduling agents. They look at metrics such as first call resolution, speed of answer, and average call length. They consider the number of calls in queue, time in queue, and abandonment rate. And their world focuses on resolving customer complaints. There’s nothing wrong with these worthy pursuits, but it keeps them from considering tomorrow and embracing the future.

Deny It’s a Threat

Others acknowledge the existence of AI, but they don’t see how it could help call centers serve customers better. If anything, they assume AI will make customer service harder and therefore perpetuate the need for live agents. To them, AI is another call-center fad that will receive a lot of hype for a few years and then fade away. Their response is to maintain the status quo and pursue business as usual. 

Fearful Over the Future

Next, are the Luddites, those who oppose technology. Though some call centers embrace technology much more than others, every call center has some degree of tech in its infrastructure and operations. These people have formed a comfortable truce with the tools they use, and they don’t want any more of them. They have enough, and everything works fine, thank you very much. More tools, especially AI-powered solutions, makes them shudder. They fear that self-learning programs will take over the call center space and eliminate their jobs. 

Embrace It with Optimism

The final group looks at AI as an intriguing call-center solution. Yes, it will fundamentally change how call centers operate. And this transformation could happen much sooner than most people suspect. Yet instead of fearing uncertainty over the unknown, these forward-thinking futurists welcome AI as a smart solution to many of the challenges call centers to face.

Yes, in some cases, AI will replace jobs, just as answering machines, voicemail, automated attendants, and IVR have done in the past. In other cases, AI will assist call center agents, helping them work more effectively and efficiently. This will occur just as our existing tools have improved the results produced from our prior toolset. Then, now, and in the future, the customer benefits by realizing enhanced outcomes.

Thanks to AI, in the future you won’t need to hire as many people to staff your call center. And those you do hire will benefit by having AI to guide their work. These employees will find their call center job less dreary and more invigorating. The days of routinely shuffling through repetitive calls will end, replaced with variety in handling challenging calls that AI can’t address. This will provide the opportunity to excel in call-center work as never before.

AI isn’t coming. AI is here. What role will it play in your call center?

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

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Healthcare Call Centers

Voice AI in the Healthcare Call Center


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Should We Embrace Technology in Our Medical Contact Centers or Fear It?

 By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaanThroughout the history of the call center industry we’ve looked for ways to help our agents be more effective. In the pre-computer days this often meant physical solutions and electromechanical devices that allowed staff to answer calls faster, record information easier, and organize data more effectively.

Then came rudimentary computers that provided basic call distribution and CTI (computer telephony integration). Computer databases allowed us to retrieve information and store data. Following this we experienced voicemail, IVR (interactive voice response), and automated attendant. More recently we’ve encountered speech-to-text conversion and text-to-speech applications. Then came the chatbots, computerized automatons that allow for basic text and voice communication between machine and people.

Computers are talking with us. Smart phones, too. Consider Siri, Alexa, and all their friends. Technology marches forward. What will happen next?

I just did an online search for Voice AI. Within .64 seconds I received two million results. I’m still working my way through the list (not really), but the first few matches gave me some eye-opening and thought-provoking content to read and watch.

In considering this information, it’s hard to determine what’s practical application for our near future and what’s theoretical potential that might never happen. However, my conclusion is that with advances in chatbot technology, artificial intelligence (AI), and machine learning, we aren’t far from the time when computer applications will carry on full, convincing conversations with callers, who will think they’re talking with real people.

While many pieces of this puzzle are available today, I submit that we’re not yet to the point where we can have a complete, intelligent dialogue with a computer and not know it. But it will happen. Probably soon. [bctt tweet=” With AI and machine learning, the potential exists for an intelligent interface to provide the conversational bridge between patients and triage protocols.” username=”AnswerStatMag”]

What Does Voice AI Mean for the Medical Call Center?

Voice AI in the Healthcare Call CenterJust like all technological advances since the inception of the earliest call centers, we’ll continue to free agents from basic tasks and allow them to handle more complex issues. Technology will not replace agents, but it will shift their primary responsibilities.

Or maybe not.

With the application of voice AI, might we one day have a call center staffed with computer algorithms instead of telephone agents? I don’t know. Anything I say today will likely seem laughable in the future. Either I will have overstretched technology’s potential or underestimated the speed of its advance.

I think I’m okay talking to a computer program to make an appointment with my doctor. And it wouldn’t bother me to call in the evening and converse with a computer as I leave my message for the doctor, nurse, or office staff. However, what concerns me just a tad would be calling a telephone triage number and having a computer give me medical advice.

Yet in considering the pieces of technology available to us today, this isn’t so far-fetched. Proven triage protocols are already defined and stored in a database. Giving them a computerized voice is possible now. And with AI and machine learning, the potential exists for an intelligent interface to provide the conversational bridge between me and the protocols. And this could be the solution to our growing shortage of medical practitioners.

For those of you actually doing telephone triage, you might be laughing right now. Perhaps you’re already implementing this. Or maybe you’re convinced it will never work.

Yet it’s important that we talk about technology and its application in healthcare call centers. Regardless of what happens, the future will certainly be an interesting place.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

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Healthcare Call Centers

Should We Switch Our Mindset From Calls to Contacts?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

The first issue of AnswerStat magazine rolled off the presses over a dozen years ago. Since then much has changed. Call center technology has advanced, customer expectations have expanded, hiring and training practices have evolved, and new service opportunities have emerged. The Internet exploded into a global phenomenon that altered everything.

What hasn’t changed much is the telephone call. Call centers still answer calls, make calls, and transfer calls; we give and receive information over the phone. The telephone is the ubiquitous communication medium, and it is central to the call center.

During these years of technological transformation, there was also faxing and paging, but both were insignificant compared to the widespread practice of simply picking up the phone and calling someone to have a two-way conversation in real-time. Not too many people fax anymore, and it’s been ages since I’ve seen a pager. Yet the telephone remains.

But now we also have email, text, and social media. Some call centers have fully embraced these technologies and integrated them in to their operations. Others have persisted in focusing on phone calls. Yet the pressure remains for such centers to add these newer forms of communication and connection into their call center mix. As a result the call center becomes the contact center. To embrace this multi-channel paradigm, your call center mind-set must be about contacts, not calls.

Consider these forms of contact:

Calls: Phone calls represent the majority of contacts in almost every contact center. We excel at calls.

Fax: Some healthcare communication still occurs by fax. Though this channel is small, someone needs to oversee it. Why not the contact center?

Pager: Pagers have gone away in most industries, but they still have value in healthcare where reliability, speed, and disaster-adverseness are vital. Contact centers have always done a great job at sending pages, and some even manage pager inventory. There’s no reason to stop now.

Email: Processing secure email is a natural fit for contact centers. They have the network, the Internet connection, the computers, and the staff – and the ability to send, receive, forward, and screen email, just as with calls.

Text: Text is growing in most sectors. This is one more channel for the healthcare contact center to add to their arsenal.

Social Media: A growing preference for people of all ages is to interact online with others through social media. Healthcare organizations require someone to monitor all those comments, tweets, and contacts, responding in a timely manner that is professional and accurate. With the plethora of social media platforms, no organization can utilize them all, yet they must be where their patients are. The task of interacting with these social media-minded customers is ideal for contact centers.

Self-Service: A final consideration is self-service, the preferred option for most people when they have a question or problem. How, you may ask, does self-service become a contact center opportunity? Doesn’t self-service subtract from the contact center? Yes, every interaction handled via self-service is one less interaction handled by the contact center. Yet forward-thinking contact center managers see two opportunities.

The first is that contact centers are in the best position to know what issues self-service should address. Poll a group of agents, and the top ten needs for self-service will quickly emerge. The contact center should serve as the advisor for self-service topics. Better yet, the contact center could take the lead role and actually produce and administer the self-service content.

The second opportunity is providing backup for self-service. Self-service cannot help everyone, every time. The contact center should catch those that self-service drops. As a bonus, these calls, taken in aggregate, then provide fodder for additional self-service content.

Whatever channels your contact center covers, keep in mind that it’s not about the technology, it’s about the contact.

AnswerStat is here to help you maximize every contact, and our annual Buyers Guide is a great place to start.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From AnswerStat December 2015/January 2016]

Categories
Healthcare Call Centers

Vital Signs: The Internet of Things Intersects Healthcare

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

The term “Internet of Things” may be new to you, or it might be something you’ve already grown weary of with eye-rolling boredom. Though a definition for the Internet of Things is still evolving, expect to hear a lot more about it in the future.

Basically, the Internet of Things revolves around the concept of things – instead of people – using the Internet to share information without the need for human interaction. Though a “thing” implies a device, it could mean any object and cover animals or even people. At the most basic level, an active RFID (radio frequency identification) tag qualifies.

A huge area of interest for the Internet of Things is in home automation and convenience. A security system is one obvious item, where sensors in your home report to a computer at the monitoring station what is happening when you’re away. Internet-connected garage doors are a reality today, as well as remotely accessible thermostats, nanny cams, and door locks. Looking into the future, the Internet of Things could report when your kids get home from school, who is with them, and if they leave; of course you will also know if they attended school or skipped. Dreaming a bit more, your kitchen could make your grocery list based on the contents of your cupboards and refrigerator or what you ate last night, even placing an order for you.

Another area for the Internet of Things is fitness. Devices – whether a stand-alone gadget or a smartphone app – can track how many steps we take in a day. With an Internet connection, this data can be sent to another computer for analysis, storage, or action. Imagine receiving a text message encouraging you to go for an evening walk because you haven’t hit your target number of steps for the day. These fitness devices can also monitor basic body functions such as heart rate, moving the Internet of Things into the area of healthcare.

Healthcare is rife with applications, both present and future, for the Internet of Things. Monitoring patients’ vital signs is common in the hospital environment, but the concept can be extended to home-based convalescence or hospice. Telehealth taps into the Internet of Things and can greatly expand because of it. Locating dementia patients who may have wandered off is feasible with the Internet of Things. Even remotely administering medications is a possibility. The list of potential healthcare applications is limited only by our ability to imagine grand solutions.

While the basic premise is that the Internet of Things moves data without human interaction, at a certain point some of this data will require human involvement. This may be to evaluate options when a preset threshold is met, initiate a response, or escalate action. The Internet of Things becomes a serious tool to keep us healthy and safe; lives are at stake.

At the intersection of healthcare and the Internet of Things can stand the modern healthcare contact center. After all, the medically minded call center already has the staffing and technological infrastructure largely in place to handle such tasks. Some call centers are already doing some of these things – though they haven’t likely considered them in the context of tapping into the Internet of Things – to serve patients and assist healthcare providers. Opportunities abound.

To be ready to make the most of these opportunities, look at the healthcare-related Internet of Things around you. Then investigate what your contact center needs in order to handle the required human aspect on the backend. It may be a bit of specific training or perhaps some server software to provide the needed interface. Be ready so that when someone comes to you with a problem stemming from the flood of data from the Internet of Things (IoT), you can nod and smile when you tell them, “Yes, we are IoT-enabled and ready to help.”

Categories
Call Center Articles

What’s Your Technology Strategy?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

With the situation in Iraq again looming large in the news, I recall Operation Desert Storm, which occurred two-and-a-half decades ago. At the time, most foreign reporters relied on dial-up telephone lines to report the news. This approach was inexpensive, allowed for mobility, and provided flexibility. An alternate method was to install a dedicated line. Although providing higher audio quality and a more stable connection, it was more costly, required advanced planning, and limited reporting to one fixed location. With the exception of CNN, all other news organizations relied on dial-up for their Iraqi-based reporters. CNN defied conventional wisdom and pushed for a dedicated connection.

When the aerial assault began, in order to hamper local communication, early targets were the phone company’s central offices. Unable to process switched calls, the reporters could no longer get their stories out. However, CNN’s dedicated phone line didn’t require switching equipment and remained working, despite the devastated central offices. This resulted in CNN being the only news organization reporting live on the war. People switched channels to hear the latest news – and some never switched back. This catapulted CNN into an esteemed major news network overnight. A strategic technology decision made twenty-five years ago forever changed the status of one company.

While it’s wrong to make direct comparisons, a comparable strategic technology decision exists today for call centers: on-site equipment or cloud-based solutions.

On-site equipment allows for greater control. But with control comes responsibility: maintenance, database backups, software updates, spare parts inventory, disaster recovery, backup power, and IT staff. Financially, on-site software and equipment represents a tangible asset, which are a capitalized purchase and a depreciated line item on the balance sheet. While there are usually some ongoing costs, they are minor in comparison. On-site equipment doesn’t require Internet access to operate – but with the increased prevalence of VoIP and many forms of contact occurring over the Internet, this advantage is diminishing. Although vendor stability is a concern for both options, with on-site installations, there is at least the potential for the call center to continue operating if the vendor fails; this is not so with the alternative.

Cloud-based solutions represent the new way of provisioning a call center. With it, the responsibility to install and maintain equipment is removed, but along with it goes the associated control. There is no capital purchase or depreciation, with the only costs being a predictable, ongoing monthly expense, which is proportionate to actual usage. Cloud-based solutions also offer the flexibility to ramp up and ramp down as needed. Operations may be quickly deployed anywhere there is reliable Internet access, and they can easily accommodate remote agents. However, there are two chief concerns with cloud-based solutions. One is the requirement of a stable Internet connection for the call center or remote agents. Without Internet access, the call center is effectively down. The other concern is with the vendor. Do they provide always-on, fully redundant, carrier-grade stability, with 24/7 tech support and IT staff? Are they financially viable to offer cloud-based service for the long-term? If they stumble or fall, the call center immediately suffers the same fate.

For much of the call center industry’s history, on-site equipment was the only option. Some centers continue to pursue this approach, not because they’ve examined the alternative, but because that’s how it’s always been; they see no point in changing. Equally unacceptable are those call centers that race headlong into cloud solutions, wanting merely to follow the current trend. They dismiss the alternative without consideration simply because it’s the old way of doing things. An unexamined strategy is really no strategy at all.

Neither approach is universally right. Both have merits; both have disadvantages. I recommend a careful look at the pros and cons of each approach. Then you can make a strategic decision on which one is the best for you and your call center. Your future may be at stake.

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2014]