Call Centers as Social Media Hubs

Contact centers are changing rapidly with the arrival of cloud technology and the ability to interact with customers over new social channels, including Twitter. The transformation has implications for everything from how companies deal with customers to the role agents play and how internal groups are best organized. Network World Editor in Chief John Dix caught up with the CEO of LiveOps, Marty Beard, for his take on where we stand and where we're headed.

Contact centers are changing rapidly with the arrival of cloud technology and the ability to interact with customers over new social channels, including Twitter. The transformation has implications for everything from how companies deal with customers to the role agents play and how internal groups are best organized. Network World Editor in Chief John Dix caught up with the CEO of LiveOps, Marty Beard, for his take on where we stand and where we're headed.

Let's start by getting a sense of where LiveOps fits into the contact center market?

Most of the hardware, software and networking that has enabled the industry to date has been on-premise in these huge contact center environments. And just like almost every other part of the technology stack, now it's going to the cloud. LiveOps is a pure cloud provider. So we come into existing environments and say, "Look, you don't need all this gear, you don't even need the phone sets on the desks of your agents. That's all in the cloud. You connect to our cloud and provide better service to your end users. Your agents become more productive and they can deal with many different channels."

You'll hear me use the word channels a lot. Contact centers used to be 95% voice-only. That's now dropped to about 55% of interactions, with email and web chat and Twitter and Facebook and all kinds of different mobile and social channels making up the rest. So the overall number of interactions have increased, but the traditional market has been disrupted by cloud, mobile and social, and we believe we're leading a lot of that change.

Did you start as cloud-only?

When we started over 10 years ago we built a platform that enabled people working out of their homes to become contact center agents on-demand. If you wanted to give it a 2013 label you would call it labor-in-the-cloud. So the original focus was on the people side. We'd say, "Hey, we have 20,000 Americans that are part of the LiveOps ecosystem and they're ready to help augment your own agents. So, you have the holidays coming up and you wish you had another 200 people manning the phones? We can do that, except they're going to be working virtually."

That was the original idea, and we still offer that. But the emphasis of company -- technology development and marketing and everything -- is really focused on the cloud platform business.

How does that cloud work?

We sell a contact center cloud platform and have about 400 enterprise customers. So when a new agent starts, all they need is a browser. They launch a browser on their computer, connect into the LiveOps cloud and, depending on what they're authorized to see or trained to do, they'll see either one or multiple channels. They could be just authorized to answer the phone, or they could see all of the channels, which means they're authorized to handle customer interactions via mobile, social, voice, etc.

Web chat with an agent, for example, is incredibly popular. And Twitter has become a major way customers are asking for help or complaining about something or even celebrating something. Email is fairly consistent. SMS, somebody texting for help, is really popular, but not as much in North America. And Facebook posts are also pretty big, but nowhere near as active as Twitter. The fastest growing would be web chat and Twitter.A

Voice is never going away, but it really varies based on what somebody is looking for. If you want immediate help and demand to talk to somebody or it's a high-value item, you're going to want to talk to an agent. So almost every agent in a contact center is trained to handle voice as the starting point, and then you have a subset that can also respond on email, respond on Twitter, Facebook, text, etc.

So we provide the stand-in technology for all that in the cloud. LiveOps was way out in front with the cloud, and we were really early on multichannel. And another major difference from the past is we charge per month, compared to the old approach where you had to buy all the gear with huge up-front costs and then hire a bunch of people to install it, etc.

Before we explore multichannel in more depth, explain how the only tool the agent needs is a browser.

That's where voice-over-the-browser comes in using the Web Real-Time Communications (WebRTC) standard. We have what we believe is the largest WebRTC implementation in the world, which is 500 agents handling voice purely through the browser.

So in practice if you're an agent, you go into a facility, put on your Plantronics headset, connect to your desktop, launch your browser, and that's it. There's no phone or additional hardware at all. And the interesting part is you can do more because it's literally just a data channel and you can generate a whole bunch of applications. If, say, a difficult question comes up. I know two experts so I can conference them in immediately. That's just a simple example.

So voice is starting to move into the browser. Google has been a big proponent of this and I personally believe that we will get to the day where there is literally no hardware being used, because the cost savings are so big and the application capability is so high that eventually more and more contact centers are going to move there. It will take time, but I've already seen it, used it, implemented it. It works, it's good. It will just keep moving.

Are there any quality issues?

There are if it's over the open Internet. Then you could have quality issues. But as we all know, that's gotten dramatically better. So it depends on your call center. Let's say you're doing relatively low-value items, primarily consumer. You might conclude that is fine. This level of quality and this level of SLA is fine. But if you want higher quality, then companies like Twilio are coming out with premium-class WebRTC, and that part is kind of a work-in-progress. But in 2014 you will absolutely see it, where the SLA in the quality is just as high.

Does WebRTC enable you to get rid of all the other agent desktop equipment?

A traditional agent is typically sitting in front of several screens, because the company can't handle integrated multichannel. So they have their phone and then if they have to respond to an email or have to initiate a web chat session, they have to launch a different application on a different screen.

So even though labor is still the biggest contact center expense, we've seen studies that show that when you go cloud you get a 65% savings on the cost of the technology. You need to be on cloud for two to three years for the absolute payback, but most companies keep these contact center systems 12 to 15 years. And most of this network gear is totally depreciated so they've already sweat that asset and they're just paying maintenance on it.

The other issue is on-premise gear can't do cloud. I mean, by its very nature it's not Internet-enabled. If they want to make a change, somebody has to come in, make the change, do the update, load the software, etc. If you suddenly said to one of those environments, "Hey, you need to enable your agents to do live web chat or to respond to tweets," it literally can't do it. So you have to go to a different application. That's what has created the complexity.

But there is pretty wide recognition now that the customer is demanding multichannel support and the environment has to catch up. Contact centers are very conservative because they're really focused on quality and are reluctant to make changes. But the pressure is on now because customers are just not happy if they can't interact using a variety of channels.

Let's dig deeper on multichannel. Given Twitter is a posting platform, how does that come into play in customer support?

Let me give you an example. You get onto your account and tweet, "I am so frustrated with United Airlines because of blah, blah, blah." United Airlines used to ignore that. You would just tweet it out to your followers and then maybe somebody else would follow it and maybe it would get bandied about.

What's happening now is United Airlines customer service reps are looking for that and will actually respond to you. Actually that is one of the fastest responses you'll get now, usually within 15 minutes. And what United is going to try to do is pivot you off a social conversation. So they'll say, "Hey, John, thanks for your tweet. Please click on this link or please call this number." So if you click on the link, what's going to happen is you're going to start web chatting with the customer service agent.

Companies also realize that if they do a good job people will actually tweet about it "I just got great service, I'm really happy." So the higher-level point is, if you're not professionally engaging customers on other channels just like you would on voice, your brand is at the mercy of the social sphere, whether it's Facebook or Twitter.

One of our largest customers is Royal Mail in the UK, which is obviously just like the U.S. Post Office, and they use our LiveOps social capability to monitor Twitter. They've been awarded now because their customer service has gone up so much.

Does your technology look at the person's social sphere to try to prioritize the people that have bigger social networks?

That's starting to happen among some of the most forward thinking call centers, which is really interesting. At heart of it this is all about routing interactions to the right people. Simple example: Somebody calls in with a very low bank balance but they have 1,200 Twitter followers and a Klout Score (which is a measure of social influence) of, say, 60 or 65, which would be really high. So the routing will say, "If a customer calling in has bank balance below X, send to the general pool for support, which means you might be put into a queue. If a customer has a low bank balance and a Klout Score above 50, route to the high-value agent team." So this type of stuff is starting to happen. I think in 2014 it will continue to gain momentum.

Do you look at much beyond Twitter and Facebook?

Those are the two main ones. LinkedIn is gaining influence, partly because another theme here is contact centers used to be primarily inbound, which means people need help and they called or they tweeted or they emailed. And increasingly what's happening is there's been a recognition that call centers are actually sales channels. So if you have the right information about the person you can up-sell them. Or if you have down time between handling inbound, you can do outbound marketing, outbound sales. That's where LinkedIn is starting to be used.

Part of the pressure to go to cloud and multichannel is agents are being asked to be more than customer service representatives. They are starting to be asked to do up-selling and marketing while they have somebody engaged. If I got you off Twitter and I've solved your problem and you've calmed down, then I can say, "Hey. How about this?" LiveOps does a lot of this. You'll see some situations where you'll get 25% up-sales.

You mentioned not everyone in a contact center will handle every channel, so how are organizations organizing their people?

They have what they call pools. They'll have a general pool trained on voice and able to handle basic customer questions, and at the other end of the spectrum they'll have super-agents, agents that have been trained to handle all interactions -- voice, mobile interactions like SMS, tweets, etc. And then in between they might have a social pool that can do web chat and email.

But what I've noticed in the last year is more and more cross-training going on, where companies are trying to get their agents to be able to do a lot of different things. It's interesting because, rather than technology making contact center agents less relevant, there's pressure to pay them more and pressure to get more educated and more capable agents. It is recognition that that agent is becoming more important to my business, and I need agents that have more than just rudimentary education if I'm going to make this two-way and multichannel and effective.

How do agents balance their time with all these things competing for their attention?

If you're an agent you log into your browser and see your queue. You'll see you have X number of calls in the voice queue, X number of emails, X number of tweets, and you'll start working through the queue. And what's gotten better is, when you get a voice call you'll have all the information about the person calling. You'll know Marty called twice in the last month and his issue was resolved, he emailed once about a product which doesn't seem to have been resolved, and he tweeted once when he was upset, but that was addressed. All that interaction history will be there.

Does the increasing importance of agents have a bearing on whether companies outsource the function overseas?

Companies started insourcing several years ago and this probably strengthens that trend, because you'll have companies that really want to give the impression to the end user that they're here with them. They're handling their issue.

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