A New Era of Phone Calls

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smiling girl on phone call using AI technology

Many articles have been written about the demise of the phone call, with Zoom meetings, texts, group chats, and Snaps all predicted to replace them. The pandemic, however, seems to have brought about the return of the phone call, from Clubhouse, which has made audio feel exclusive and sexy again, to the latest research from the University of Las Vegas that claims that the phone call is associated with decreases in stress, loneliness, and relationship difficulties. This is in direct opposition to video chats, which have introduced “Zoom fatigue” into our collective lexicon and are stressful, loneliness-inducing, and cause relationship difficulties.

It’s no surprise that people have also been turning to the phone more during the various lockdowns, with people being stuck and home and business locations being closed. A survey by ContactBabel found that 80.4% of inbound customer service interactions were over the phone. This is why we’ve been so focused in our research on how to improve the quality of phone interactions for all parties, especially since many people have been forced to change the way that they communicate during the pandemic. We wanted to anchor our development firmly in the commercial world, so we chose a traditional company with vast experience in phone communications and one that had been recognized for the quality of its Customer Satisfaction. That company was Earthlink.

Together, we wanted to see how Artificial Intelligence (AI) could improve — not replace — phone-based sales and customer service teams. The first issue we wanted to deal with is the fact that, on average, Americans spend over 900 million hours a year on hold. This frustrating time spent waiting is a major threat to satisfactory call resolution, as you’re putting the customer in a negative mindset from the get-go. Add to that the explosion of virtual interactions, and it becomes clear that delays in responding to customers are verging on the unacceptable. 

By using modern technology to transform one of the oldest methods of communications, we were quickly able to make sales and service representatives more productive, so they could handle more calls. We knew that the stakes were high. Temkin has estimated that a $1 billion company can generate an average $823 million revenue increase in three years with only a moderate enhancement in customer experience. This resonated with what customers were telling us because they’re looking for business outcomes, not more tools.

Our technical challenge became a business challenge: how to develop something that can tailor itself to a customer’s key performance indicators (KPIs), whether they be CSAT, conversion rates, or AHT, then continuously optimize call flows to meet those KPIs.   

The behavior of the very best phone agents was the key. We realized that if we could use AI to analyze and detect patterns in behavior, these learnings could then support other agents. Again, technically, how do you handle a whole phone call with meandering threads and sometimes dislocated meanings? The answer is: “don’t”. Instead, we were able to automatically identify the key moments of a conversation. Supervisors can then immediately review and annotate calls and reinforce key behaviors crucial to successful calls. Internal data has shown that supervisors spend more than 50% of their week reviewing call transcripts. Giving them tailored coaching tools can help them dramatically accelerate quality assurance, resulting in more productive teams. 

So, we set about extracting the same expertise that we’ve successfully been able to use in chat-based customer communications from phone-based traffic. For chat communications, we’ve been able to drive 20%+ improvement in conversion rates, 25% greater average order value, and millions of dollars in additional annual revenue in a matter of months. We had no reason to believe that the same wasn’t possible with phone conversations. 

We’ve just started on this process, our first customer implementations are live, and we’re recording the results. Initial feedback is extremely positive. Even a small improvement, let’s say a 5% increase in customer retention rates, can lead to profit increases anywhere from 25% to 95%, according to Bain & Company. So far, we’re beyond these rates. 

Why does this even matter? Because the phone call’s comeback provides a perfect opportunity to capitalize on changing attitudes. Microsoft has reported that 66% of customers in the 18- to 34-year-old age group have higher expectations for customer service today compared to one year ago. (By the way, that’s my age group and I couldn’t agree more!) This is not only higher than any other age group, but this group also is the most influential. This is why it made sense to me to update the technology of the past, with the technology of today, to influence an audience that will shape the future.

Conversations are good. They make people feel better. And I’m delighted that we could do our bit to make them even better.

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