The essence of customer service is timeless, with principles that go back as far as the ancient Greeks and The Old Testament. On the other hand, the method of delivery of the customer service experience needs to be continually updated to match the desires and expectations of an ever-changing customer base.
In mind of that latter reality, I enjoyed speaking recently with Dr. Donald E. (Don) Brown, President and CEO of Interactive Intelligence, a global provider of business communications and customer engagement software and cloud services, used by contact centers and others. Dr. Brown founded Interactive Intelligence in 1994 and has grown it organically and through acquisitions. Its headquarters are in Indianapolis. [Disclosure: Unconnected to and postdating this interview, I have spoken at an Interactive Intelligence event in Australia.]
Dr. Donald E. Brown, President and CEO of Interactive Intelligence: The central idea I want to share with you today is that the world is changing so rapidly and [young customers'] expectations are far different from those of my generation.
For my generation, we got used to calling into a company for service and suffering through some god-awful touch tone menu, and primitive IVR. Then we'd land on some poor clueless agent who didn't know us from Adam, and who started off with "How can I help you today?", if we were lucky. So you go through the whole rigmarole of trying to identify yourself and communicate your problem. We acclimated to that, but young people today are growing up in a time when the potential - given technology - is far greater, and their expectations are way beyond the expectations that my generation had in the past.
Micah Solomon: Give me a quick historical overview of the solutions Interactive Intelligence has brought to customer service communications.
Brown: I started the company about 20 years ago; now we're about 2,300 people with offices around the globe. What we set out to do initially was to build a software-based communication system. It's really that simple. [Historically], when companies wanted to put together a communications solution, they had to go out and buy 10 different things. It's kind of like the old stereo days where you had to go out and buy a turntable and a cartridge and an amplifier and a pre-amp, and all these components, sometimes from different vendors. Companies hated that: having to buy a phone system, a voicemail system, a fax system, a customer service system called an ACD - automatic call distributor - that would give you the irritating "Your call is important to us, but it'll be ordered in the answer received." And then IVR, which is an interactive voice response, which is the press one for sales, two for marketing, all that.
Our value proposition from early on was this: We'll give you a piece of software that you can put on a computer server, and it will do all of that. An all-in-one solution.
From there, we designed the system to do more. To not just queue up phone calls and intelligently route them within an organization, but to also do the same thing for emails or a webchat. We did that as far back as the 1990's; certainly a bit ahead of our customers at that point, who didn't use these capabilities for a decade or more. Within the last three or four years, however, it's been incredible to see how everybody is excited about the potential of communication systems that interface with customers and can cover multiple channels of interaction beyond the telephone.
Solomon: And what about today-and the near future: What has you excited about the current and near-future state?
Brown: I think one of the big emerging trends you see is the use of video. In more organizations now, people want to have some sort of personal connection. A human connection with the person on the other end of the line, especially if you're talking about financial transactions or healthcare.
It generally starts with a text chat: You go to somebody's website, say "I want to chat with somebody," start off your chat, and increasingly now that agent is able to say, "Hey, do you want to elevate this to a video session?" If you agree, then you can have a real-time video link with that person. Sometimes, for some settings, you can see the agent and they can't see you. Sometimes they want to offer you the capability, so you can see each other and have a complete two-way video interaction.
Some companies go beyond that to enable the agent to ask if they can see your screen. For example, the times that you're on their website, you're trying to do something, even simply trying to fill out a form, you use a piece of software or something and you're having problems, and you call in, if you allow them to - this is permission-based - then they can see your screen and even co-browse with you. They can kind of highlight something in some way. Your tax ID needs to go here, or down here is where you have to put the number of exemptions, for example.
Another example is even more futuristic: We've got a customer that uses our stuff in conjunction with Google's new Cardboard, the 3D virtual reality glasses that you can put your phone inside. What our customer does is turn their brochure into something that, via Google Cardboard, allows them to interact via their website, be connected to an agent, and actually have a 3D virtual reality-guided tour of their property before booking.
Solomon: Any other contact-center type innovations you're involved in?
Brown: Something that we introduced a few months ago is a notion that we call customer choice routing. As a customer, I start by filling in a couple choices I'm interested in: Nikon cameras and outdoor photography, for example. What comes up in my view is a set of pictures with names and information about the people at the organization who are qualified to deal with me given those constraints. I'm interested, for example, in outdoor photography using Nikon, and I can click on any of those images and get more information, whatever the organization wants to share with me. In some of the cases we've worked with, the organizations are giving the background. Here's this one guy, he's an avid mountaineer, he takes his Nikon everywhere, he's been doing outdoor photography for 20 years. I can see information about these people. I can also see when they'll be available, and I get to choose. So I choose, yeah that's the dude I want to talk to. He's been to some of the mountains I have, he's familiar with the sorts of questions I might have. As a customer, it puts me in the driver's seat, that I'm choosing who I want to interact with. As a customer, I also choose the mode of that interaction: whether I want that person to call me back or I want to do a text chat or a video call.
I think that's going to become an increasingly common mode of rendering service to young people. Again, they just have this expectation. It feels more like Facebook to them than calling an impersonal 800 number.