The customer is always right. This saying became part of the business lexicon years ago. The rise of the smartphone and social networking, however, are making that more true than ever, as customers are becoming more powerful every day.
That – and the fact that TMC (News - Alert) this year celebrates 30 years of covering customer interactions – means it couldn’t be a better time to look at where we’ve been with customer service and where we’re going.
In this installment of our CUSTOMER coverage, we talk with Robert Camacho, vice president of contact center operations at Agero. He is responsible for overseeing the operations of Agero’s six driver assistance response centers located in Medford, Mass.; Irving, Tex.; Tucson, Ariz.; Sebring, Fla.; Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Canada; and Clarksville, Tenn. The centers provide assistance across Agero’s three lines of business: roadside assistance, claims management services for auto insurance carriers, and connected vehicle services for automobile manufacturers.
Camacho has nearly 20 years of experience in contact center operations, workforce and financial/performance management experience. He joined Agero in September 2000, after serving eight years with Convergys (News - Alert), a global provider of customer management services.
What have been the most important developments in the past 10-30 years related to your customer interactions?
Without question, the continuing explosion in consumer adoption of mobile devices, the growth of mobile data messaging and location-based services, and the expanding capabilities of smartphones and applications have completely changed the way we do business.
Our contact centers today sit at the convergence of these technologies. They now interact with vehicle owners who are continually connected (inside and outside the vehicle), through multiple interfaces beyond voice calls: Web portals, smartphone and tablet apps, social media, e-mails, direct mail, SMS messaging and interactive voice recognition systems.
Only a decade ago, the focus of our roadside assistance was to quickly dispatch. Today, we have to customize the dispatch. For example, we have to now be prepared to service electric vehicles and enable customers through a variety of wireless devices to monitor the progress of a dispatch, allowing them to keep informed as an estimated time of arrival. A decade ago, connected vehicle centers simply responded to GPS-based alerts to help locate stolen or crashed vehicles. Nowadays, the same centers are expected to download information to vehicle navigation screens, transcribe audio wave files into automated messages, and alert 911 centers when in-vehicle crash sensors indicate a high potential for severe injuries.
What about in the more recent past?
Probably the most dramatic developments to have a major impact on our operations have been the increasing role and quality enhancement of in-vehicle speech/voice technologies and the growing importance of data. As a result, a direct conversation between a call center agent and a customer is no longer a necessity for service. When the calls do require direct agent involvement, that agent enters the dialogue with much more machine-to-machine data about the customer, vehicle and incident. In some instances involving difficult route guidance or text-to-voice requests, call center agents may actually intervene in automated calls seamlessly to the driver and help to transcribe phrases or accents, ensuring an accurate automated response.
In our business of specifically meeting drivers’ needs, we’re also seeing a trend where information- or convenience-oriented requests far exceed those involving the need for emergency assistance – no doubt a reflection of consumers’ always-connected lifestyles being brought into the car. As a result, we now have to meet consumer expectations to have information provided to them anytime and anywhere, while simultaneously providing that information in a manner that doesn’t distract the driver. So, interacting with the customer today is not only about the quality and timing of the response, but also the duration, frequency, interruptability, and importance of the response in relationship to the primary task of driving.
Have you followed the trend toward call center offshoring? Why or why not?
This is an issue we’ve studied and done our due diligence to explore, but we’ve chosen to continue investing in response centers in the U.S. and Canada to better serve motorists in both countries. Our decision reflects an operating philosophy that primarily measures the effectiveness of our contact centers by customer satisfaction levels, not solely on costs.
So many of our calls – whether they involve emergencies or routing assistance – involve a general familiarity of local geography, and that’s difficult to train to overseas agents. We’ve opted instead to locate centers throughout our service area – near Dallas, near Boston, in Tucson, in Sault Ste. Marie in Canada, and in Sebring in central Florida. We have also recently announced we are opening our newest center later this year in Clarksville, Tenn.
Our business isn’t about logging requests over the phone and funneling them to another department for resolution. Rather, we have to provide a user experience that is commensurate with brand expectations – with automotive brands, reliability is paramount. With connected vehicle services, the driver expects the contact to be on the same level as having a co-pilot in the front passenger’s seat.
How do you see CRM changing?
On a micro level, the greatest change is the continual need to give our front-line people the CRM tools they need, so they can deliver a quick and accurate response for a growing array of services that are also becoming more complex. In general, consumer expectations are increasingly demanding quicker connections, quicker responses and more informed responses upon first contact.
On a broader scale, CRM entails multi-modal interfaces and certainly is more data-centric than in the past. CRM no longer solely involves managing mailing and phone lists and ensuring that your contact people are able to answer requests promptly and accurately. Today, Agero contact centers have to help manage the entire vehicle ownership experience (inside and outside the vehicle) as well as customer satisfaction with the interface, and even shaping initial customer perceptions of the service.
Agero’s business may also be unique in that interaction with customers is often conducted as they are interacting with your service inside your automotive client’s vehicle product. So, we get real-time feedback. Another unique aspect to our business is that our automotive clients also expect us to maintain a relationship with their vehicle during the lifetime of the product, which may entail relationships with several owners and several service facilities. We call this vehicle relationship management. For safety, design and marketing objectives, auto manufacturers need to continually monitor the performance of that vehicle – from the time it rolls off the assembly line until it arrives at the salvage yard.
How is WFM changing?
For Agero, our workforce management focus has become more about optimizing business analytics vs. simply scheduling departments. Our primary responsibility is to our clients’ service levels, not simply minimizing costs. For that reason, when we focus on efficiency, we’re looking at processes or technologies that improve routing, scheduling or first-call resolutions.
How do you see our overall marketing changing?
Whether we’re talking about roadside assistance or connected-vehicle services, our past marketing focused on the level of service we provided and how it translated into customer loyalty for our automotive clients. That evolved into also integrating our contact centers into a series of continuous campaigns designed to touch the vehicle owner at different intervals during the vehicle ownership cycle.
Both of these marketing objectives remain important, but going forward, our marketing will be more integrated with the user experience – how they receive the service. As a result, marketing will become a key part of the interface with customers, as well as part of the social networking that will help shape consumer perceptions about that experience. For example, brand and product promotion have to be subtly incorporated every time vehicle owners access their virtual dashboard to services on their tablet or smartphone. Likewise, we have to quickly comment on experiences with our service when highlighted on social media – positive or negative. Marketing has become a real-time exercise.
How is the rise of cloud computing impacting how businesses target, engage with, and deliver product/service/support to the customer?
Cloud computing helps enable our call centers and our vehicle owner customers to access a wide range of continually updated content in real-time or integrate that content into a customized response. Relying on the cloud enables speech-delivered information about routes, points of interest or traffic to be current, but also enhances the quality of that voice transmission, relying less on the limited audio quality that can be delivered via the cellular networks.
How is the widespread use of social networking technology impacting how businesses target, engage with, and deliver to the customer?
Social networking technology helps accelerate and expand our marketing efforts by providing us with a new channel to help shape customer perception and expand customer knowledge at a very early stage in the customer relationship process. Just a decade ago, those perceptions were often shaped over conversations people had with each other at coffee shops, around the water cooler or over the back fence. Today, our customer contact people have a means to be part of those conversations. And it’s not limited to marketing, but also to job recruiting, retention and employee satisfaction efforts.
How is the increased use and comfort level with video impacting how businesses target, engage with, and deliver to the customer?
For us, video provides one of the most effective means for demonstrating the benefits of a new in-vehicle technology, particularly as we’ve seen a majority of consumers use online resources to research their next new vehicle purchase. Video also fills gaps in the sales process at the dealership. With new vehicles offering so many different features, it’s nearly impossible for the dealership’s sales associates to demonstrate every potential service.
Video, and to a certain extent interactive voice technology, is likely to become the sales brochure and possibly even the owner’s manual going forward. I foresee the day when our contact centers will respond with a downloaded video when called and asked questions such as, “How do I properly install a child safety seat in a new vehicle?” or “How do I access this or that on my navigation screen?”
Video also is likely to be incorporated more into the services we provide. Today, we provide post-crash data to auto insurers and emergency responders to accelerate their knowledge as to crash severity. We just recently introduced a product called Viewpoint, which uses real-time video or photos of the accident scene, to help insurers more quickly and efficiently determine whether the vehicle is a total loss.
How is the mobile boom impacting how businesses target, engage with, and deliver to the customer?
In addition to the mobile boom creating the convergence of wireless communication, location technology, computer processing and real-time data delivery with the vehicle, it has enabled mobile users to have continual, virtual access to what can be described as an electronic briefcase or portfolio that follows them regardless of their mode of transport.
For example, we can download driving instructions to a point of interest to a vehicle navigation system. Then, after drivers have parked and exited the vehicle, we provide them (through a mobile application) walking instructions to the final location. Mobile technology also has enabled the vehicle owner to have remote control of certain vehicle functions through a handset, such as locking or unlocking, ignition start or climate control. Parents can coach their teen drivers into safer driving by receiving speed and geo-fence alerts on how, when and where the vehicle is being used. Better managing and monitoring vehicle performance remotely is becoming critical for electric vehicle ownership, as well as for owners seeking to alter their driving for maximum fuel efficiency or vehicle insurance underwriting.
All of these remote-access applications don’t have to entail direct contact with our centers. That means our contact centers could see their roles evolve into where they provide responses for select audiences that want a personalized contact or intervening on automated calls to ensure accuracy in response.
What other key trends are we seeing as it relates to how businesses target, engage with, and deliver to the customer?
Contact centers are evolving from call centers to data centers to multi-modal interface centers that also serve as content and system integrators (e.g., linking cars and devices with assorted databases and back office functions such as wireless service management, billing, CRM, etc).
You are seeing contact center agents evolve from call takers to sophisticated response integrators. But one of the most important trends overlaying all of this is the increasing knowledge and proficiency that centers will have to maintain regarding data and privacy protection. Managing up-to-date consumer opt-in/opt-out preferences; third-party content; information accuracy; enhanced security regarding sensitive personal and financial information as well as in-vehicle electronics; access to information; and information storage and deletion will increasingly become another key requirement of contact center operations.