From OmniChannel to UniChannel — can Virtual Assistants fundamentally change how Customer Service works today

The Smart Speaker install base in the US is growing at 40% .This rate is faster than any other consumer device in the last century — pretty remarkable when you know that these other devices include Radio, TV, Smartphone, PC, and the Internet!

With such rapid adoption comes massive disruption. While your Smart Speaker has already likely replaced your Boombox, Bluetooth speaker, and Desktop/Clock Radio — those disruptions would pale in comparison to what is bound to happen in the Customer Service area.

A whole generation of Americans is getting comfortable talking to a Virtual Assistants like Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant to help with everything — from asking it every morning about whether they’d need a jacket or an umbrella today, to control their smart homes — TV, AC, Lights, Appliances, etc. In this context, it is very unlikely that customers today would pick up the phone to call a 1–800 number to find assistance.

While companies are trying hard to bring in virtual assistants as a separate channel into their OmniChannel customer service strategy, I would suggest that the premise itself is flawed. In the past decade and a half, an OmniChannel approach to customer service has emphasized seamless choice across channels for customers to interact with the seller — growing from a voice/IVR dominant ’90s to website and email-based support, to a new era of chat, messaging, social and bots. However, user frustration with OmniChannel has remained high. Despite several attempts to integrate different channels, implementation left a lot to be desired.

My proposition is that companies need to seriously consider a brand new “UniChannel” approach to customer service — one centered around the customer’s virtual assistant of choice — be it Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, or others — as being the only channel needed to complete the transaction with the customer.

How would the Unichannel approach radically disrupt the current state-of-the-technology Omnichannel approach?

1. A center of interaction — a customer would not need multiple channels of interaction a majority of the time if one channel took care of her needs end to end. So instead of seamless experience, let’s focus on end to end experience. Using a Virtual Assistant on your Smart Speaker, a customer should be able to use voice to state her issue, have the AI-powered Virtual Assistant ask the right set of questions to narrow down the problem, address the issue by providing relevant information, have the customer provide most inputs by voice (use device screen sparingly, where unavoidable), direct the conversation to a human voice or video agent where AI/Automated assistance is not enough to resolve — all of this while only engaging through the Smart Speaker while never asking for a call-back. It is not only possible, but it’s also more intuitive and will fit right into the customer’s lifestyle as the Smart Speaker becomes the center of her universe.

2. Contextual and proactive service — this is particularly true for all the devices and services that you consume through the Smart Speaker — and soon, it would be pretty much any service or device you use at home. Let’s take an example — you’re fiddling around with various voice commands to control your thermostat — your VA detects a pattern and offers a suggestion specific to the make/model of the smart thermostat to resolve your issue. If that doesn’t fix it, it offers to show you a few instructional videos, and eventually connecting you to a video agent who can help you set it up correctly.

3. No asynchronous steps, no “we’ll call you back after you send ___” — let me explain. Often you are on the phone with customer service, and they need some information that you need to look for and send to them for further processing. With a camera and screen enabled Smart Speaker, these steps can be removed from the resolution workflow. Let’s say you are on a smart speaker with a Virtual Assistant for an auto insurance service, looking for a policy for your college going student- to get a good student discount; it needs your transcript. Instead of sending an attachment by email later, you just hold the paper in front of the Smart Speaker camera.

4. The ability to deep diagnose and remotely configure/fix — particularly relevant in terms of all the connected devices you have at home, and pretty soon that will be any device, appliance, etc. With the Smart Speaker connected on the same network as these devices, companies can provide skills that do a deep diagnosis of the current state and configuration of the devices and remotely fix the issue. This has been done very effectively by cable companies for modems and set-top boxes for some time; now we can do it for every connected device in your home.

The above are just the beginning and meant to provoke a dialog with the customer service community. The possibilities are only limited by our imagination once it comes to an always-connected, AI-powered home.

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Sanjay Kalra

Posted by Sanjay Kalra

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