The Time is Now for Digital First

5 minute read

Enterprises can leverage a Digital First strategy to create extraordinary experiences for customers and employees.

Albert Einstein, one of the greats who obviously knew a thing or two about breaking down complex matters into elemental truths, once said: “The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.” While this axiom has many applications, it has distinct resonance in today’s business climate, as companies everywhere continue to search for the smartest way to change and adapt in a post-pandemic landscape.

In fact, this need for change is especially critical right now when it comes to how companies provide quality customer service to retain and capture consumers. Evolving customer expectations, changes in service delivery, and new technologies are collectively driving companies to realize that in order to grow and remain viable, there is only one way forward: Digital First.

Before I explain what Digital First entails, some context on what’s advancing this trend.

Customer Service Needs Digital to Scale

Firstly, customer service operations that were forced to adapt during the pandemic must continue to transform. When pandemic lockdowns hit starting two years ago, businesses had no choice but to shift immediately to all-digital channels as quarantined and locked-down customers ramped up their online banking, shopping and interactions. This shift resulted in a complete elimination of in-person customer service at physical locations for extended periods, meaning all service had to be conducted online or by phone. And that’s where the trouble started.

Call centers and online channels struggled to keep up with the skyrocketing pandemic-fueled demand for service; long hold times and support queues were the norm across different industries. Part of this was because many call centers were severely short-staffed as agents and workers were forced to stay home or (if COVID infected) quarantine themselves. However, the larger issue was that many call center systems, which are heavily people-dependent, were simply not designed to handle these unprecedented levels of calls and inquiries. Even automated call menus, FAQs and IVRs — all of which are designed to handle at least a portion of support volumes through self-service before ever reaching human agents — weren’t enough to relieve the pressure. So call center volumes continued to climb, while customer satisfaction plummeted.

We’re moving into some semblance of post-pandemic normalcy, but customers haven’t forgotten those frustrating times. If anything, customers’ expectations for service and support are higher than ever and, as Accenture notes, their motivations have significantly changed. To win their loyalty and their business, people want to work and interact with companies that feel like they care about them and their needs — and can resolve any issues with lightning speed and no excuses. And for many companies, their current customer service operations are simply incapable of satisfying these requirements.

The Changing Service Delivery Landscape

Secondly, the world of outsourcing and services delivery is set for some major pivots. In the last several decades, ITO and BPO providers moved from internal/onshore delivery to lower-cost offshore centers, taking advantage of automation and other tools to maintain 24/7 service quality. However, much like the changing dynamics in customer service, the coming years will see this practice undergo a 180-degree polar shift.

As opposed to outsourcing services being rendered by lower-cost people utilizing automation technologies, these services will increasingly be delivered by digital technology first, backed by expert human employees. Those issues that cannot be handled by Digital-First technology will be conducted by subject matter experts, but then the technology itself will inductively learn and continually improve its efficacy in both issue containment and service quality.

There’s clearly historical precedence for the Digital First trend. Manufacturing as a whole started as manually intensive, with workers progressively leveraging a few select automation technologies to drive efficiencies over time. Automobiles were hammered together mostly by assembly-line workers with some tools to assist them. At some point in the technological maturity curve, it flipped in both industries. Modern manufacturing simply cannot function without machine intelligence, monitored by humans; cars are now made by digital robotic technologies, with humans acting as points of escalation and supervision. Shouldn’t outsourcing services follow the same historical trend? It seems inevitable that services delivery would make a similar switch from people- to technology-first.

Shifting to Digital First

Digital First represents a critical and fundamental shift in providing service. It’s a strategy where companies put human-like digital agents, armed with Conversational AI and Intelligent Automation, on the front lines of their automated service operations and call centers to resolve virtually all first-touch calls and inquiries, with the same levels of completeness and personalization that would be provided by human agents.

Digital First is not about bolting on a lifeless scripted chatbot to a call center menu, or adding more FAQs to online services. It’s making a vital switch — taking the majority of the responsibility for service off of human agents, and placing it instead with intelligent digital agents that can provide first-touch resolutions. The end result is the creation of extraordinary customer and employee experiences, higher satisfaction rates, and Net Promoter Scores, not to mention a more cost-effective and efficient support operation overall.

This is not to downplay or eliminate the essential role that humans play in customer service or service delivery; in fact, quite the opposite. With intelligent agents as the first line of support, human agents bring all of their unique talents and skills to handle any escalated issues that a digital agent is unable to address. With Digital First, human agents are even better positioned to perform the higher-value support and jobs that builds customer loyalty and retention, and companies move even closer to the optimal digital-human hybrid workforce that I’ve advocated for a decade.

Proof of the value of a Digital First approach lies in the results of companies that have already moved in this direction. For example, Amelia recently hosted a webinar with leaders from Accenture and Everest Group about what technologies, strategies and mindsets are required to create extraordinary experiences. One of the most striking examples cited about Digital First’s effectiveness was from Telefónica Peru, which deployed digital agents starting in 2017 for front-line call center support. Fast forward to this year, and digital agents now handle 100% of all call center volume and, most importantly, those digital agents achieve an NPS score that is on average 16 points higher than the NPS for overall call center operations.

To achieve a Digital First transformation, a piecemeal approach will not cut it. Just as you can’t manufacture half a car, front- or back-office automation do not by themselves complete the Digital First pipeline. You need proficiency in both domains to achieve any level of success. You also need capabilities such as inductive learning for digital technology to continually learn from human experts, so that digital agents can move closer to their human equivalents. Digital-powered service is starting to approach the Turing horizon of becoming indistinguishable from what humans can deliver; in fact, the World Economic Forum predicts that 52% of the workforce is going to be digital by 2025. Businesses must plan and be prepared to invest in this new world, where customer care in the coming decades is not going to be supplied by people using technology, but by digital technology leveraging people.

As more companies adopt a Digital First strategy, the gulf between successful companies and industry laggards will become clear. The former will hold higher NPS scores, superior service models, fiercely loyal customers and growing revenue streams; the latter will toil and struggle to compete and remain relevant. Given all that’s at stake for an enterprise’s future, Digital First is the most intelligent change a company can make — Einstein would undoubtedly approve.

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