NTT DATA CTO To Enterprises: Calculate Before You Automate

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Automation can help companies more quickly move customers from question to resolution. But solution provider NTT DATA warns businesses to first develop a good plan and don't give up quality for the sake of speed.

Automating basic customer service functions can be tricky and solution providers need to make sure their customers have the right plan in place or the technology they use could do more harm than good. That's the warning from NTT DATA, which this week released a new survey gauging consumer views of automation in customer service.

Solution provider NTT DATA surveyed more than 1,200 consumers (most above the $50,000 a year income range) and 100 businesses via the web recently to find out what businesses should know about automating customer service functions.

[Related: Logicworks Puts Homegrown Cloud Automation Tools In The Hands Of Customers]

"Businesses think speed is it – 'I've got the phones answered and no one's on hold.' But you may not be solving their problems," said NTT DATA CTO Kris Fitzgerald. "Customers are saying that their view of quality is that it's speed plus accuracy. Businesses focus too much on a fast answer."

Some companies use virtual agents and IVR systems and, though they answer calls quickly, they cause more frustration because the technology is misapplied; customers end up back in a longer hold queue aiming to avoid the automated attendant and speak to a live person.

Virtual agents and other forms of automation need to be applied correctly, according to NTT DATA's survey. About 76 percent of the consumers surveyed said they would prefer a live agent with a higher chance of solving the problem, even if it takes 15 minutes.

The good news is that the technology is evolving quickly and customers are becoming more comfortable with varying levels of customer service automation. The NTT DATA survey showed that customers, for example, generally prefer to give a credit card number to a machine instead of a person.

More good news for solution providers: Consumers generally don't mind using virtual agents and automated systems for simple tasks. The bulk of customer service conversations are simple. "In January, you're just calling your insurance provider and finding out if your health care card has been mailed. That's pretty simple." Fitzgerald said.

But to handle that seasonal rush of customer service activity, businesses need to hire, train and find room for temporary staff. Fitzgerald said automation can provide relief, helping companies solve simple customer service tasks automatically while saving more complex issues for a company's permanent employees.

Fitzgerald cautions businesses to think of customer service or sales automation as more than something that helps eliminate headcount. It has to provide an overall better experience for the customer or it won't help the business' bottom line. If you don't mind the gap between being more efficient and delivering a better quality of service, you won't be able to keep customers coming back or scale your business, Fitzgerald said.

NTT DATA's service hinted at more opportunities for solution providers on the horizon. Eighty percent of the businesses surveyed said they "had not executed a customer service automation plan." Why not? Forty-three percent of the businesses surveyed listed the lack of proper "data and intelligence" as a major obstacle in bringing customer service automation to their businesses.

Fitzgerald said that in some businesses, especially health care and insurance, there are dozens and even hundreds of legacy systems that have valuable data that could be used to automate and improve front office customer service. Until solution providers help businesses unshackle that information, most companies won't be able to take full advantage of automation.

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