The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to linger as we approach four months of social distancing and revolving stay-at-home orders. With U.S. unemployment rates reaching all time highs, many of the challenges facing individuals today are financial in nature.
The banking industry has been especially impacted as unforeseen circumstances continue to propel highly emotional responses from consumers who have increasingly looked to the human element within the call center for support. Now more than ever, financial institutions must emphasize satisfying customers’ expectations for a seamless service experience by operating at the crossroads of humanity and efficiency.
Falling Short of the Hype
The use of AI in call center operations has grown increasingly popular in the past year. Even before the pandemic, brands turned towards AI technologies like chatbots and voice assistants to strengthen their fraud defenses and streamline the customer journey. In fact, Salesforce found that 80% of brands planned to use chatbots to serve their customers in 2020.
While these technologies promised efficiency at scale by reducing wait times, as well as less friction for customers by anticipating their needs, they are proving insufficient in the face of COVID-19. The sheer variety and nuance of customer requests is partially to blame. But, the emotionally-charged nature of many interactions with customers has not mixed well with the need for ever-changing brand policies and procedures. The confluence of these factors has suddenly challenged the once-inevitable takeover of AI in the customer experience ecosystem.
A recent study found that 54% of Americans say they are less willing to engage with technology like chatbots and automated systems than they were pre-crisis, signaling that organizations should feel an urgency to shift their focus from avoiding human-to-human conversations towards a customer service experience that is designed to balance high-tech and high-touch interactions.
Technology’s Undeniable Benefits
In the past four months, the peak of increased call volumes resulted in a surge of calls to financial services. For one top U.S. bank, call spikes reached as high as 125% above pre-COVID levels (an additional 6,000 calls every hour). High-risk calls by potentially bad actors (involving things like call spoofing) saw a rise of 50% above pre-COVID levels across all banking clients during the first 5 weeks of COVID stay at home orders in March and April. During these unprecedented circumstances, technologies like Interactive Voice Response (IVR) assisted call center agents in managing the increased volume by automating customer interactions whenever possible.
Moreover, AI and Machine Learning systems offer data-driven insights to help brands stay proactive and predictive, while simultaneously delivering a personalized customer experience. In certain cases, brands can quickly provide relevant information to callers without forcing them to wait on hold or wait for a live agent to resolve their issue.
Simply being able to analyze real-time trends in call volume will help brands prepare for future, rapid influxes in traffic, including hiring more staff to handle the volume (and at more times of the day). Take for example the fact that in early April there was a 200% jump in new mobile banking registrations, and mobile banking traffic rose by 85% according to Fidelity National Information Services (FIS). Banks that were set up with data-driven AI funnels were better suited to handle the anticipated spike of customer service requests, which surely resulted in happier customers and more bandwidth for banks to evaluate potentially fraudulent interactions.
Ahead of the Curve or Flying Blind?
Understanding and anticipating customer needs is the key to an operationally sound customer service experience. Technology-based AI funnels can help automate that process. But if organizations aim to completely, or even partially replace the original service experience with technology-based automation, they must immediately pause to ask: What happens when emotionally charged situations require a level of empathy that only another human can provide?
A chatbot cannot authentically acknowledge the stress within a customer’s request to properly ease their anxiety, which may be more impactful than resolving the issue on its own. An IVR can hardly accommodate the audible frustration in a customer’s voice with its (mono)tone-deaf set of canned responses. As customer requests trend towards the more complex, the solutions set in place should be similarly capable. In today’s environment, high-stress conversations must be dealt with by humans rather than attempting to drive conversations through systems that have yet to show the ability to meet the moment.
Agents with the emotional intelligence (EQ) to deal with these interactions are not easy to find. But brands can support existing agents (and by extension, the customers they serve) by ensuring they are well-prepared and well-supported. Offering specialized training for new work-from-home software, providing professional resources for employees to navigate new personal challenges, and keeping every front line agent apprised of even minor changes in procedures can mitigate problems at the customer level and prevent agents from falling victim to bad actors. As we know, customer retention is easier and cheaper than customer acquisition. Perhaps even more so during a pandemic, patience is at an all time low while expectations continue to rise.
Nearly 50% of Americans say they would abandon a brand after just 2-3 bad interactions, and 80% say that how a brand handles their needs specific to COVID-19 will impact their future loyalty. Blindly forcing customers into AI processes when it’s clear they desire human connection is a sure-fire way to diminish their confidence in the brand. But preparing service agents is essential to ensure that they are a viable alternative. Striking the right balance between automation and human connection will secure consumer trust. Getting it wrong could cement their permanent departure.
High-tech, Meet High-Touch
High performing financial institutions will reap the benefits of allowing technology-based customer service support to coalesce with enhanced and even expanded options for live support, rather than forcing interactions in either direction. Automating away from human-based connection is a recipe for disaster in the midst of an evolving crisis, but so is removing time- and hassle-saving automation.
The bottom line is that the customer should dictate their preferred method of engagement without having to compromise their brand experience. The inherently robotic approach of automation lacks the empathy consumers expect in exchange for their loyalty. But, agents also need help managing unprecedented challenges that compromise their performance. Using a data-driven approach to understand the ways that customers want to connect is step one. It will help us prepare for a future that must lean on AI to create efficiency without ignoring the way that human-to-human interaction can make customers feel valued when they need it most.