by Doug Tanoury
Date Published - Last Updated February 25, 2016


The Utility Pocketknife for Modern Life

The Internet dramatically changed the contact center industry. It facilitated new forms of customer self-service, revitalizing traditional voice with mobile and IP phone communications and new “call me back” services. The Internet empowered customers with new communications channels, like social networking, email, and chat.

But there is another revolution taking shape, one with equally far-reaching implications: the mobile revolution. Trends in mobile telephony and computing are rapidly changing the landscape. The growth of tablet computers and Internet-connected smartphones are already having an impact on both traditional and new customer communication channels. Almost every adult now has a mobile phone, usually a smartphone used for both voice communication and Internet access.

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project report, “Digital Differences” (April 2012), highlights current trends and explores the rapidity with which the new generation of mobile devices has proliferated throughout the US population. Internet access is no longer synonymous with sitting at a desktop computer and going online. The growth in portable computing devices and smartphones has been explosive. Cisco Systems estimates that by the end of this year, the number of mobile computing devices will exceed the world’s population. The percentage of US adults owning mobile phones and computing devices has grown significantly, and two-thirds of US adults access the Internet with one of the wireless-enabled devices illustrated in the graph below.

Smartphones have become the utility pocketknife of modern life, in pockets and purses and within easy reach at all times. Never before has technology been kept in such close and intimate proximity. This physical closeness in itself encourages usage. What we also see happening is that the functionality of these devices is increasing with the use of a wide range of apps.

An App for This and an App for That

This new infrastructure of mobile computing devices is beginning to change customer expectations of service delivery, and as a consequence, customer interactions will be increasingly appdriven. Apps are downloadable programs that perform one or more specific functions, such as comparing and selecting the best level of coverage for auto insurance or comparing cellular plans. They perform a task or function for which customers would otherwise have to contact a customer service representative (CSR). Many apps are disposable, meaning they are used once and deleted, but some apps can be reused to perform the same or other functions.

Apps are the next generation of service automation. Empowering customers with friendly and highly functional apps will improve the customer experience and increase customer satisfaction. And in the world of apps, better functions mean better service.

Apps should be able to reduce contact volume for both routine and complicated tasks, and they should be able to help customers make complicated choices by shielding them from industry or product selection complexities. Many industries present customers with complicated choices, and some industries such as healthcare, insurance, and wireless services almost seem overly complicated by design. However, customers aren’t likely to have at hand the resources or information necessary to make informed decisions.

Today, though, if customers want to compare health insurance plans, they no longer have to sit and page through a tome as thick as a phonebook. All that’s required of customers is that they download an app and answer a few questions. The app does the rest.

The one characteristic that all apps seem to have in common is that they have very simple inputs and produce very elaborate outputs. Customers can’t really be expected to manage all of the complexities of selecting the best health insurance plan and make the best choices, can they? Of course they can, when there is an app cuts through the complexity.

What many industry experts fail to understand is that the best service experiences rarely, if ever, involve CSR-customer interaction. Making the customer an intelligent and integral component in the service delivery model calls for highly functional apps that can be downloaded to and activated on the customer’s mobile device(s). These apps puts key service functions in the hands of customers, functions that not long ago could only be initiated by a customer contact (by calling or emailing a support center) and completed by a CSR.

Automate, Simplify, and Empower

Our industry is plagued by overly complicated service delivery models that are labor intensive, gigantic in scale, highly manual, and prone to failure. Many things our industry subjects customers to are often pretty terrible and are far from isolated occurrences.

  • We send them to diverse and sometimes remote parts of the globe. 
  • We hold them hostage using torturous IVR applications. 
  • We make them wait for long periods in queue listening to monotonous music. 
  • We transfer them one or more times. 
  • We refer them to other phone numbers. 
  • We hang up on them.

I think all of us have directly experienced one or more of the events listed above. And while customers pay the price upfront, the enterprise pays a price in the end. Creating apps that allow customers to perform tasks or functions that they would not be able to perform otherwise has some real advantages. Imagine the experience improvement from a customer’s perspective: no looking up phone numbers, no waiting in queue, no more interfacing with painful IVR applications, no more getting CSRs who don’t know the answers or simply don’t care. The list of benefits could go on and on.

Summary: Common App Service Functions

Customer-interaction app functions are only limited by imagination and creativity. As we’ve already seen, there are two primary classes: 

  1. Service automation apps: Apps that automate service functions that have traditionally been completed by CSRs and self-service applications, such as web applications and IVR systems. 
  2. Decision-enabling and information-gathering apps: Apps that facilitate customers’ decision making choices and gather status information.

Ideally, service apps should allow customers to use laptops, smartphones, and tablets to perform the following functions: 

  • Check statuses 
  • Complete transactions 
  • Obtain information 
  • Compare plans 
  • Select plans 
  • Place orders 
  • Update information 
  • Resolve problems

Again, the key characteristic of these apps is that no CSR-customer interaction is required. This is the ATM-style approach, where the customer is the only human involved in the delivery of the service. CSRs and the human component will not go away, but rather than being a part of the service delivery process, they will more often handle primarily breakdowns and process failures.

Apps that are designed and engineered from a customer perspective will further enrich the experience. They will be simple, fast, highly functional, and easy to use, and meet all of the customer’s expectations. Great apps will give customers a competitive advantage, while apps that are complicated, slow, or difficult to use will be abandoned.

In an industry that provides customers with increased flexibility and choice, we see that they choose the best channels and contact options based on their needs and preferences. Business has always been a war for hearts and minds, but in the years to come, it will increasingly be a war of apps. Customers will reward the most functional and intelligent apps with usage, which will encourage healthy competition for their business. This will likely continue to drive app functionality and innovation.

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In apps, the industry has great opportunity to engineer the customer experience in ways not previously possible. Apps enable a higher and more sophisticated level of automation that will empower and equip customers to be an integral part of the service delivery model. And apps will continue to be time-saving solutions for customers making complicated service and product choices between competing products and across a company’s product and service lines. The future of service automation is not likely to be the IVR or webpage, which have been remarkable drivers of self-service in the past. The future belongs to the app, a tool that has turned the smartphone into the utility pocketknife of modern life. 


Doug Tanoury has more than twenty years of industry experience consulting with contact center clients across North America and Asia. Some of his former clients include General Motors, Ford Motor Company, Sun Microsystems, Cisco Systems, Dow Chemical, Fujitsu, Hong Kong Telecom, Zurich Insurance Group, and the Development Bank of Singapore. Doug has held contact center operations and consulting positions at EDS, AT&T, MCI, Siebel Systems, and eLoyalty, and he is a former president of SOCAP’s Great Lakes chapter. Over the years, his articles and white papers have appeared in a variety of industry publications.

Tag(s): technology, service design, mobility


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