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Telecommunications customer service

Is Zero-Touch the Answer for Telcos?

Customer Service Relying Completely on AI and Automation Offers Benefits, but Questions Remain

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It is no secret that telecommunications operators are in the middle of massive changes, from the growth of online streaming services to the launch and expansion of 5G services. While these new product and service types can present new opportunities for operators, they have also ushered in new constraints, largely around providing timely and cost-effective customer experiences.

Today’s telecommunications customers are presented with a wide range of product and service options, and increasingly, they are choosing their providers based on which organization provides the best experience, from the initial marketing and sales cycle, all the way through to the renewal process. The timeliness, responsiveness, and quality of service they receive throughout their customer journey is paramount to whether they choose to renew with their current provider, or if they leave for greener pastures.

A key consideration for telecommunications providers is how to deliver excellent experiences all the time, across the entire customer base, without running into resource or financial constraints. In April 2021, consulting firm McKinsey & Co. published an article entitled “A blueprint for telecom’s critical reinvention.” This article suggested that forward-thinking telecommunications companies should focus on creating no-touch, distinctive digital experiences and interactions that would be robust enough to replace all human agent-based interactions. McKinsey noted that “a Southeast Asian operator boosted its Net Promoter Score (NPS) by 40 points, increased unsupported interactions by more than 70 percent, and reduced cost to activate and cost to serve by 30 to 50 percent.”

McKinsey also highlighted the use of zero-touch service models, where operators would use simplified product and service-agreement portfolios, which would be supported by artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled, fully automated cloud-based processes. This approach of using a fully automated support model would replace the use of offshoring and outsourcing, and McKinsey noted that “operators such as BT and MASMOVIL have embraced a radical, future-back redesign of their service operations, enabling them and others to drive down costs (up to 35 percent in one case) while improving cycle times, improving accuracy, reducing call volume (up to 50 percent in another case), and increasing NPS by 20 points.”

For this approach to work, significant back-end work is necessary to ensure that relevant customer journey information is properly captured and accessible, along with relevant product information. AI models that can be used to predict the next-best-action or offer need to be properly deployed to capture any available upsell or cross-sell revenue, without appearing overly “sales-y” or intrusive.

Moreover, it is unclear as to whether efficiency of interactions will, in fact, overcome the true hurdles that often plague telecommunications operators. While customers certainly crave being able to address everyday issues quickly and efficiently (and often prefer) not speaking with humans if they can solve their problem with minimal time and effort, it remains to be seen whether customers will feel comfortable interacting with automated AI-driven bots that don’t make it easy to feel like the customer has gotten a “win.”

Consider the scenario: A customer goes online to check his or her services bundle, and wants to reduce the amount paid each month for TV, internet, and wireless services. While the bot can guide the customer along, providing the available options, there may not be an opportunity to bargain for any off-menu options or customized packages, nor is there an opportunity to ask for a specific discount.

At this point, some customers may simply choose to abandon this process, and possible seek out other provider options. While some customers may “zero-out,” and hope that they are connected with a “friendly” agent who can let them bargain for more amenable product or pricing terms, other customers may feel that the inability to let them express their issues and negotiate a better deal demonstrates that their operator does not truly value them as a customer.

While countless surveys say that price and features are not the primary determinants of churn, it is often the feeling that the company does not value the customer enough to provide flexibility that serves as a catalyst for leaving. Customers may not really care that they saved $10 off their monthly bill, or had a free premium channel thrown into a deal after speaking with an agent, but they do care (and remember) that the agent (and, by extension, the operator) valued them enough to offer them an incentive.

Many of the positive aspects of using a zero-touch or low-touch services model to handle first-interaction resolution is that they are solely focused on operator efficiency metrics, rather than the ability of the system to offer benefits to the customer. And while it is unreasonable to expect that live agents should be used as the absolute first point of contact, zero-touch systems should be set up and tested to handle these “edge cases,” even going as far as to take into account each customers’ lifetime value, historical usage and payment history, and likelihood to churn data, so that the AI algorithm can properly accommodate customer requests to alter services or prices, without requiring human intervention.

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