Electricals and white goods e-tailer AO.com prides itself on the customer service it offers shoppers across the UK and Europe.

Essential Retail caught up with the company's director of customer experience (CX), David Atherton, to find out about AO's relationship with contact centre tech solutions provider Interactive Intelligence and how he believes further advancements in technology will transform CX in the future.

What have you been working on with Interactive Intelligence? When did you start work with them and why did you choose the company?

At AO, we believe that to be the best, we need to deliver exceptional customer service at every stage of our customers’ journey. The flexibility of Interactive Intelligence's technology has enabled us to do that.

We started working with Interactive Intelligence back in 2011, because their technology included strong interactive voice recognition capabilities, which are crucial for our business. It also integrated well with our existing CRM system and was easy to customise.

When a customer calls into our contact centre we're able to identify the reason for their call without having to put them through to a contact centre agent as we automatically receive insights about the caller through their customer journey. This automated self-service gives callers all available updates on their order, which satisfies 50% of all enquiries, with the option to speak to an agent who can address any further enquiries.

Call traffic can lead to extended wait times for everyone. By decreasing the number of calls that are put through to our agents, we save time for customers.

Provide some stats about your contact centres...

The most common queries we receive on a daily basis are in relation to order deliveries and product details. To efficiently handle customer questions, we’ve developed a strong multichannel strategy that enables us to keep in touch with our customers across several different interaction types. As a result, a day in our contact centre could be extremely dynamic with thousands of incoming calls, in parallel with up to hundreds of live web chats, and email queries being handled simultaneously. Our agents also follow up with customers, which could generate up to several thousand outbound calls.

Are contact centres still important/relevant? Have you seen a reduction in calls as customers turn to mobile/email?

Contact centres are an extremely important part of any successful retail business. Indeed, we've seen a shift in customers' preferences about the specific channels of communication they use to reach out to us. The availability of various communications channels has been key for customers' migration to web chat and instant messaging for example. However, regardless of the increasing appetite for self-service, contact centres are still of crucial importance for our business.  

How do you try and relieve the burden on your contact centres?

At AO.com, we believe the best service is no service and our communications strategy is built with that belief in mind.

The lens that we put on our customer journey is one where 'things should just work'.  We make every possible effort to 'be brilliant at the basics'.

Our customers can get support across multiple channels without even speaking to an agent as they can easily track their order, and get a response to their questions simply by using our dynamic self-service option. Furthermore, we reduce inbound traffic to our contact centre by providing relevant, timely and clear updates to our customers, which removes the need for contact unless there's an issue they're unable to resolve on their own.

Are you at a point where contact centre staff can recognise an incoming call from the phone number and bring up the customer's online order history before they have answered the call? Is this the nirvana of contact centre technology?

Customer recognition has been around long enough for customers to expect organisations to easily look up their profile and shopping history.

To deliver exceptional customer service, we always aim to develop strong relationships with our customers. The Interactive Intelligence solution deployed in our contact centres allows us to do just that by enabling quick customer recognition. When an inbound call comes in, our agents receive instant information about who the customer is, what their query could be about, along with details about the customer's past purchases.

These insights are of critical importance for the quality of customer service as they enable agents to more quickly resolve an issue, which is highly valued and expected, particularly from returning customers.

Social media is important to AO.com. Can the contact centre technology see what your customers have been saying on Twitter/Facebook?

Social media is of course yet another channel we use to keep in touch with our customers. We have a dedicated team that tackles enquiries regardless of the channel used, including social media. While the technology we're currently using doesn't allow us to directly tap into our customers' social media accounts, we're always making sure that people who prefer to get in touch via social media receive timely and effective support.

What are the future customer help-points? What are your thoughts on Facebook Messenger in retail?

We've seen an interesting shift in the range of communications channels our customers prefer when they need help with their online purchases. The dynamic digital media landscape is continuously changing, which has consequently impacted not only the way people want to talk to businesses, but also the way they shop.

According to ONS research about shopping habits of Britons, the number of men purchasing online has increased from 57% in 2008 to 77% in 2015, while the percentage of women purchasing online increased from 49% in 2008 to 75% in 2015. Therefore, it's hard to predict what the retail sector could be like in ten or even five years from now, however, to be able to attend to customers' needs, retailers need to remain wary of these changes as they are likely to impact their businesses on multiple levels.

Will artificial intelligence (AI)/robotics soon takeover?

Without a doubt, robotics, driven by advancements in AI, will transform the contact centre industry in the next decade. Smart automation will reshape and enhance the role of agents as mundane and repetitive tasks are likely to be handled by robots.

Where I see AI in the contact centre ecosystem is in big data management and analytics. This will benefit businesses as it will enable a much more efficient and personalised customer experience. Yet, there are further benefits such as identifying peak hours for inbound customer calls that would ultimately take planning and resourcing to a whole new level. As we thrive to deliver exceptional customer service, AI will be particularly beneficial for call escalation when support is needed from a supervisor.

In short, businesses need to think about robots and smart automation as a complement to, not a replacement of live customer service.

What keeps you up at night?

Losing the fantastic customer-centric culture we've established company-wide. As we grow, our focus will be to preserve this culture and to continue giving our customers quality customer service using the best technology available.

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