Are voice interactions becoming a smaller part of the customer service picture? That’s a pretty important question for everyone involved in the call center industry. I shared some conflicting data in a blog post a couple of months ago (Is there #VoiceShrinkage in the Contact Center?).
Then, last week, we put that question to a great panel of industry experts in an online discussion (highlights here). We’re no closer to an answer, but I think we have a better handle on why we don’t know.
Why Do We Even Care About This?
The “multi-channel” puzzle is THE defining challenge of customer service right now. That is: Which channels of company-to-consumer communication are important and where should companies invest their time and energy?
I’ll fully put all the cards-on-the-table… I have a keen interest in the trajectory of the voice channel because my company sells a product that is uniquely tied to contact centers (Call-back solutions). So it’s vital to me but important as well to everyone involved in the industry.
The Case for Shrinkage
The argument that voice is shrinking is straightforward: interactions that would have been phone calls are being replaced by alternate channels. Instead of picking up the phone, we tweet, email or chat. So if one imagines a “fixed pie” of all customer service interactions, then the slice of that pie occupied by voice is getting smaller.
Analysts have been painting that picture for a while. As an example, consider this chart from Dimension Data:
It’s a popular chart; we’ve used it on this blog several times and in last week’s panel discussion. You can see clearly how it supports the idea of “voice shrinkage”. The report also includes the statement that 35% of all interactions are now on “digital” channels and the bold prediction that “digital interactions will overtake voice by the end of 2016”.
But consider this: It is possible that the chart and prediction are both correct without voice shrinkage. How? Because the whole pie is growing!
Many analyst reports echo the claim that total interactions are increasing. (The Dimension Data report mentioned above said 74% of call centers surveyed expected such an increase.) There are several factors that may be contributing to “Interaction Inflation”. The next few sections look at them one at a time.
1) More Ecommerce
More online purchasing means more interactions shift from in-store to some form of “remote” interaction: phone calls, emails, or other online channels. This counts for both the purchase itself and the subsequent returns or service. See the graph below from Meeker’s “State of the Internet” report.
2) Newer Interactions are More “Countable”
The fact that companies are paying more attention to new channels, and the fact that those interactions are more “countable” is likely contributing to interaction inflation.
As an example of biased counting, imagine I used a company’s web site to look-up the availability of an item, then did a web chat to see if shipping is free, then went back and completed the order via self-serve. That might be counted as 3 interactions. If I called in and did exactly the same thing, that will probably count as 1 interaction. (Perhaps, an even deeper problem here is that no one has defined what counts as a single “interaction”.)
3) New Types of Interactions
There are new types of interactions that simply didn’t exist before. These are not replacing phone calls or any other kind of channel. They are “net new” to the universe of interactions.
An example: The other day, I got a spam SMS message. My carrier (Rogers) is on Facebook Messenger so I quickly sent them a message about it with the phone number (it took 10 seconds). A few minutes later, I got a message back saying thanks. I only did this because the effort required on my end was minuscule. I would never have called about it; it’s not worth the effort. So, when the effort is so close to zero, it opens up the possibility of new interactions.
Another example is all the complaint-tweets about hold time that you can see on OnHoldwith.com. These are tweets ABOUT an ongoing phone call; they are obviously not replacing a phone call.
The Case for Voice Growth
Even if the pie is growing, that still doesn’t mean conclusively that there are more phone calls to companies. Unfortunately, we don’t have direct data on how many calls are received by call centers. Each company knows how many calls it handled itself, but no one is sharing this information in a central place.
Even if we did have a count of total calls, that may not tell us the whole story. A measure of total minutes spent might be more accurate because there is ample evidence that the voice channel is increasingly used for more complex interactions. (I.e. nobody speaks to an agent anymore to confirm a reservation). One report by ContactBabel claims that service calls take 16% longer than 7 years ago.
In the Voice Shrinkage post, I offered some indirect data by looking at employment stats. (Make sure to read all the caveats at the bottom.) Other indirect data points mentioned in that post: Surveys show that more companies are expecting call volumes to grow rather than shrink over the next year.
ContactBabel put it well in a recent report: “Telephony [is] by far the largest inbound interaction channel. It has ubiquity, is a real-time two-way channel that is able to cover many different topics, and if the queue length is reasonable, has one of the quickest response speeds of any channel, despite popular perceptions. … [It] is in the process of reinventing itself as the channel of choice for lengthy, important or complex interactions.”
Phone Calls Have Been “Dying” for a Long Time
The meme of the disappearing phone call has a long history. Just look at this piece from Wired in 2010: The Phone Call is Dead by Clive Thompson. Granted, he was talking about personal calls rather than person-to-business calls, but he made similar points:
I predict that as this sort of hybrid coordination evolves… we’ll make fewer [calls], as most of our former phone time will migrate to other media. But the calls we do make will be longer, reserved for the sort of deep discussion that the medium does best.
With the data available, we can’t make a strong case for voice either growing or shrinking in absolute terms. Personally, I think we have just as much proof either way. But we do know that the voice channel is keeping its role as the “final escalation” and as the channel where the “make-or-break” moments of customer loyalty happen. Maybe that’s more important anyway.