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Awareness. Simplicity. Customers.

Jul 16 2013

Today’s real-time communications tools can be too much of a good thing. Here are 3 trends that will help you and your business regain mastery.
 
For centuries, the speed of information flow has increased. And for all that time, people have complained of information overload. The 17th-century German philosopher Leibniz bemoaned the “horrible mass of books which keeps on growing.” Technology has accelerated matters. One hundred fifty years ago, it was considered a miracle when the Pony Express delivered a letter from New York to San Francisco in a mere 10 days. Today, we have numerous modes of real-time communications at our disposal. But we are still afflicted by information fatigue and lost productivity.
 
Fortunately, there are trends in communications and collaboration solutions on the horizon that may help us regain control over our working hours. Here are three that I personally consider the most important.
 
1. CONTEXTUAL AWARENESS IMPROVES PRODUCTIVITY
 
We crave being up-to-date. Who can resist clicking on the “new mail” icon? This need to know is not new. It’s just never been easier to sate (temporarily). Whether it be stock prices, sports scores, friends’ activities, or inventory levels, there is a good chance the information is ready and waiting.
 
Yet, being hyperconnected is not as satisfying as it might have once been envisioned. The connections can feel shallow, or out of sync with our thoughts or needs. “We live in a technological universe in which we are always communicating. And yet we have sacrificed conversation for mere connection,” wrote futurist Sherry Turkle in the New York Times in April 2012.
 
Being connected without appropriate filters can also be exhausting. Not long ago, our biggest productivity complaint was email overload. To solve the problem, we created other modes of communication. But those have splintered. It’s the rare person who actually has only one email or one social network to keep track of. Between work and personal accounts, it isn’t uncommon for people to check 10–30 accounts in a single day. The problem, rather than getting better, has worsened.
 
It is more than sources and modes, but devices as well. Mobile devices have made text (SMS) messaging ubiquitous. Some applications are desktop-only. Others are tablet-only. And don’t forget the physical mailbox. You can spend all of your time checking and monitoring conversations. Our appetite for information and communication has paralyzed productivity.
 
Too much openness turns out to be its own cage. Urgent messages can arrive from anywhere, requiring diligent surveillance among all of our communication tools since there is no easy way to filter the interruptions. Our tools are not working for us—they put us to work.
 
A temporary degradation in productivity was reasonable. As Internet, VoIP, and other forms of IP communications exploded, each required some experimentation. Now, it’s time to get back to business. The menu of modes and options isn’t going to shrink, but the focus will shift to managing them in a smart way. In other words, business communications must start to emphasize productivity over novelty.
 
Spam filtering saved email from uselessness. But filtering real-time communications is a much harder nut to crack. Simple filters, based on caller ID or keywords, are not sufficient. The next big focus will be real-time filters with contextual awareness.
 
Context separates Paris, France, from Paris, Texas, and Paris Street (in Denver). Our documents, activities, locations, and contacts will provide cues to determine context. Awareness of context will make communications far more effective. Not long ago,
secretaries applied contextual awareness to determine when to route calls or to take a message (though they would’ve likely called it common sense). In this era, new technologies will be contextually aware, and aid us in routing, filtering, and prioritizing.
 
Context hastens productivity just as a map becomes more useful when you know at least roughly where you are. Context filters the relevant information for given situations, allowing us to quickly find the right people and right documents as well as monitor activities across modalities. The technology will evaluate relationships
and contacts, conversations, and information and event streams across devices and locations.
 
2. SIMPLE IS AS SIMPLE DOES
 
Remember the thick manuals that came with pagers? Or the hefty instruction booklets that came with fax machines? These were complex devices as evidenced by their complex manuals. But as our devices become more powerful, the manuals are shrinking and disappearing. Consider the relatively thin pamphlet you probably got with your latest smartphone, tablet, or TV.

Intuitiveness and ease of use now becomes as important—more important—than any individual feature … and not just for end users. Enterprise technology is now following this simplified approach. It is the key theme to many priorities and projects underway and will continue to be so. Today’s organizations are much less tolerant about complexity (and the training it requires).
 
For example, the wave of enterprise virtualization was initially motivated by the cost savings of being able to run fewer servers. But the true value lies in the simplification of operations, even as powerful features such as high availability and disaster recovery are extended across multiple platforms and services. It’s a far cry from yesterday’s dedicated servers and their dedicated cabling. Desktop virtualization (VDI) is also simplifying the management of PCs and mobile devices while supporting freedom of device and operating systems for end users. It’s becoming the antidote to the “bring your own device” (BYOD) trend which has complicated matters regarding data security and protection in the name of employee choice. VDI offers effective, non-obtrusive management, encryption, and control.
 
Communications infrastructure can also benefit from simplification. By centralizing communications equipment and operations, organizations reduce the number of servers, administrators, and other resources needed. This also simplifies the setup and operation of remote offices and remote and mobile workers. And workers benefit because there is no longer a disparity in the features available to individual offices or locations, nor any technical barriers to something as simple as voicemail across locations. Location will (and now should) be completely invisible to customers and colleagues.
 
Simplification is also behind the rise of software. As tech investor Marc Andreessen famously put it, “Software is eating the world.” He points to the industry and segment
leaders that, under the covers, are actually software companies: Amazon.com, Netflix, Apple’s iTunes, Spotify, Pandora (entertainment), Pixar, Google, and LinkedIn. Even Wal-Mart, a real-world retailer, uses software to win a competitive advantage in logistics and distribution.
 
Hardware-based solutions are rigid. Software-based solutions work hard underneath to generate context that makes things appear simple to the end user. You can see this in television sets, which even today feature remotes that resemble oversized candy bars arrayed with buttons. The Apple TV remote, by contrast, is mostly software. It only has a few buttons. But by generating contextual and intuitive on-screen menus, users can easily navigate through a much greater array of content with little need for instruction.
 
Business communications will also become simpler—and more powerful—through software. Software applications will allow us to dynamically and easily shift between text, voice, and video. Desktop phones will become simpler and more contextual. The “power phone” of the future will be less about the number of buttons and more about screen size. Or you can skip the desk phone and use an intuitive application on a desktop or tablet. No more esoteric commands like “flash.”

3. THE RETURN OF CUSTOMER CONVERSATIONS
 
We all know customers are the key to a successful business. But interacting with customers is inherently costly, ranging between about $1.50 per automated IVR (integrated voice response) interaction to more than $4 per voice call, according to 2011 estimates published by callcentres.net. That’s sometimes perceived as too costly. Many organizations have streamlined interactions, trading customer satisfaction and experience for profits. But competing on price is increasingly difficult in a connected world where customers can easily switch to an alternative. Customer satisfaction and loyalty become key, and great service can build and maintain it.
 
Customer satisfaction used to be difficult to measure. Today’s customers are willing to share their opinions and experiences more than ever before. Unfortunately, they are sharing this information publicly via social networks that empower them. The balance of communications power has shifted to the customer.
 
For decades, the contact center was identified with cost and repetition: checking balances, changing passwords, ordering parts, etc. Self-service solutions are changing the nature of contact centers. Many—if not most—customers prefer automated telephone or Web-based technologies for simple tasks. When a customer actually makes the effort to call, it is because the self-service solutions have failed them, and they have a legitimate need for human interaction. This shouldn’t be viewed as a cost or burden, but an opportunity.
 
Whereas customer satisfaction was once just a matter of retention, now it is also a matter of reputation, growth, and brand. Customers now have a global and efficient voice, and the potential exists for their opinions and experiences to cascade virally. Listening to and monitoring social media is not enough, nor is it scalable. Instead, mechanisms need to be in place to monitor services more quickly, before matters get out of hand. Strong customer service backed by agile, proactive organizations will succeed in the social era. Social networks remain important to monitor, not as a means of satisfying a customer—but as a feedback mechanism to satisfy all customers.
 
In response, the contact center needs to evolve. Rather than simply a forum for resolution, today’s contact center needs to be proactive, not reactive. Real-time diagnostics and monitoring tools allow contact center agents to identify satisfaction issues before they become angry tweets or Facebook posts. Social networks allow an organization to get near-real-time feedback on activities such as advertising and promotion.
 
This means that agents need to be well-versed in organizational tools and systems,  and have the ability to easily resolve a broad array of issues. And in cases where they can’t, they need effective and instant means of finding the resources that can. With products, quality is measured against specifications. With services, quality is
measured by customer perception.

Live conversations with customers are a great place to foster relationships and build perceptions. Organizations are rediscovering the value of customer interactions: that they are a privilege, not an obligation. That means the agent of tomorrow will be better trained, more empowered, and backed with more effective and adaptable support systems. These agents will not be not the “order takers” of the past, but key organizational resources.
 
These three megatrends are reshaping organizational communications. They are powerful forces resulting in improved productivity, commerce, and growth. Most organizations can benefit from addressing them in their strategic plans. One thing
that has never changed is that communications continues to offer a means for businesses to gain a competitive advantage.
 
Brett Shockley is Senior Vice President and General Manager for Avaya Applications and Emerging Technologies. He is an industry veteran with more than 25 years of thought leadership in the telecommunications and contact center markets.

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