Is robotics going to silence the offshore call centre?

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After years of working with offshore customer call centres, organisations - with customer experience squarely in mind - have been moving towards localised and instant chat support for handling ICT related matters. Telemarketer stigma and mechanical offshore call centre processes are an impediment for customers seeing ICT support interactions as positive experiences. Localising support improves this, as interactions feel more aligned to customers' cultural expectations.

Customer communication touchpoints with offshore customer support are cross-platform and include conversations over the phone, messenger services and email. Each touchpoint is a reflection of assumptions, values and beliefs, conveyed through organisational behaviours, attitudes, customs and practices. Cultural differences can become apparent through these touchpoints factors and can impact business-customer experiences. For example, Telstra offshoring services has “generated mixed reactions with Australian consumers increasingly becoming sick of receiving phone calls from people who obviously aren’t in Australia”[1]. Offshore organisations provide staff training to the designated country, highlighting language features, colloquialisms and key holiday customs to minimise cultural differences. Despite the assimilation efforts, natural cultural differences remain present.

Onshoring services remains favoured by domestic markets. Customer research provided by Contact Centre Central[2] has shown that 86% of customers are prepared to pay up to 25% more for a better customer experience, and even shareholders are prepared to accept a lower profit to support keeping jobs. Maintaining onshore services requires innovation and the emergence of instant chat based support, signals its occurrence.

Consider the millions of people using WhatsApp, iMessage, WeChat, Facebook Messenger – and it’s obvious to see why a support approach mimicking these apps is quickly becoming popular. The messaging platform fits with generational behaviour and is  modern, discreet, minimises long operator wait times, easily records conversations and removes perceptions about offshoring. While not necessarily more time efficient, people can do other things during chats and therefore remaining productive.

Robotics or “Bots” represent the next level of customer experience innovation. The technology has immense potential and will exacerbate industry trend away from offshoring. Early disruptive signs have been seen through[3] - Royal Bank of Scotland (AI chatbots and virtual assistant Luvo), Unilever and BMW (Q&A bot), Domino’s Pizza (Amazon AI) and Toshiba (humanoid robot). Key benefit areas from the use Bots include providing context and data to human employees, their suitability to high-volume competitive tasks, their operational costs, easily scalable services, the localisation of services and their ability to be customerised to cultural touchpoints as Bots are emotionally and personality agnostic.

 
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A lot remains unknown about the human-like customer experience Bots model. A central factor is whether robot service expectations and what interacting human customers find appropriate. Carnegie Mellon PhD candidate Heather Knight[4] describes that

“Part of the discomfort in people’s response to robots with very humanlike designs is that their behaviours are not yet fully humanlike, and we are extremely familiar with what humanlike behaviour should look like. Thus, the more humanlike a robot is, the higher a bar its behaviours must meet before we find its actions appropriate.” 

Overcoming perceived cultural differences of offshoring customer experiences with Bots are still a number of development steps away. As it stands for now, Bots have only niche roles.  

[1] https://www.trinityp3.com/2013/09/call-centres-pricing-model/

[2] https://contactcentrecentral.com/industry-news/more-australian-call-centre-jobs-heading-offshore/

[3] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/04/15/robots-will-replace-customer-service-agents--thank-god-for-that/    

[4] https://www.mycustomer.com/community/blogs/trianam/cultures-role-in-using-robotics-to-advance-customer-service