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Can I Just Dial Zero to Speak to a Representative Now?

Customer service should be easy, right? The customer has a question or issue, the customer service representative knows or can quickly find the answer, and everyone ends up satisfied. It seems simple, but this scenario is the “rose-colored glasses” version of customer service. More likely, a customer contacts a brand and is greeted with an interactive voice response (IVR) system. Sometimes the customer can easily navigate and find the answer they need…other times, the customer becomes frustrated because the system can’t understand them or doesn’t have the desired information. IVR systems have become the norm rather than the exception for a few reasons: they are less costly than live agents, can handle high call volumes and are available 24/7. While that can benefit both brands and customers, it poses a critical question. Will self-service ever replace the live agent?

I say, emphatically, no. As long as customers are contacting brands, whether by phone, email or social media, there will be a need for real people to interact with and help those customers.

Why, you may ask? My recent experience returning clothing to a well-known retailer is a good example. I had ordered some new clothes for my daughter from a major brand and one of the items just wasn’t right. So I called, in the middle of a typically busy day, and was hoping for the best—a quick response and resolution so I could move on to other things. When I was greeted by an IVR system I rolled my eyes, but I listened to the menu options. I work with customer service organizations, after all, so I wanted to hear the options and to understand what this particular system was set up to allow customers to do. I followed two quick prompts and was connected with a friendly person who apologized for my inconvenience, emailed me return shipping details and sent me a replacement item with free shipping. I was off the phone in less than five minutes, with a smile on my face. I must have told five people in my office about this experience.

My experience shows that positive brand interactions go a long way to secure customer loyalty. However, it also proved to me that I prefer dealing with people over computer systems. I’m sure “the system” could have handled the same issue and resolution, but I’m also sure it would not have been handled as quickly and painlessly. And, I probably wouldn’t have told all those people about my positive experience because there wouldn’t have been a personal connection.

That personal connection is one of the reasons I believe live agents will not be replaced by self-service options, whether it’s an IVR system, an online menu or another option of the future. Computer-generated interactions can lead you to the desired end result, but you can’t always get what you need from “the system.” Remember the website that listed the phone menu shortcuts for different brands to help callers escape IVRs and reach a live person? There’s a reason that list existed (and is still being updated). People generally want to talk to a live person when we have an issue, not a computer.

Live agents provide things that automated systems just can’t. Intangible things like empathy and connection that help build relationships and strengthen brand loyalty. We all know it’s easier and more cost-effective to keep a customer than gain a new one. Self-service tools are helpful and have a place in a contact center, but self-service tools are limited.

Live agents will never be as limited as automated systems. Even if an agent is restricted in the tools they have available, that agent will try to find a way—unlike an automated system, which may hang up on a caller if it cannot fit the issue or question into its pre-set parameters. And when an agent has the best tools available, allowing them to interact with and respond to customers on a variety of channels, the sky is the limit. The agent’s job is easier because they can find what is needed and keep customers happy. The customer will be happy because they had a good experience with a fast resolution. And, the brands in turn will benefit from all that happiness and satisfaction.

Self-service has its place, but in my opinion nothing can replace old-fashioned human connection. That is why I firmly believe the live agent will remain the gold standard of customer care for the long haul.

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