It’s still the most popular way for customers to interact with brands when they have an issue to resolve; but as new channels emerge and behaviors change, are people about to hang up the phone?

Where will voice fit in the contact center of the future and how will it be impacted by the growing popularity of smart speakers like Amazon’s Alexa? When 5G networks come online could picking up the telephone be replaced by making a video call? These are the questions we posed to five of the industry’s leading analysts during EmpowerCX Americas 2019, Sitel Group’s annual client event.

“We won’t see a complete replacement of voice,” says Melissa O’Brien Vice President, Customer Engagement, Retail and Travel Strategies for HfS Research. “But I do think there are a lot of changes that will happen to those voice interactions.”

New forms of interaction

Technology and customer expectations are changing faster than ever and while picking up the phone is still the most natural reaction for a customer during a moment of truth, for less pressing resolutions, other forms of interaction are already gaining traction.

“I believe that from about 70 percent today, calls will gradually reduce to about 42 percent total market share over the next three years,” says TJ Singh, VP Analyst, lead analyst customer management BPO research for Gartner. “And one of the key reasons is this rapid shift towards digital services such as self-service and chat and video-based services.”

5G will boost quality

Singh believes that the roll out of 5G will have a “significant” impact on customer experience (CX). “The price of connectivity is going to drop significantly. The quality of service will improve,” he explains “So we are going to see more video-based interactions and more AI and automation and speech analytics coming through.”

But while 5G isn’t expected to roll out in any real network sense until the middle of the next decade, voice assistants, in the form of Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Home Assistant, are starting to inform customer interactions with brands now.

The Alexa effect

“They’re already handling routine activities that you would typically call into call centers for, such as what’s the status of my shipment and those kind of things,” begins Shirley Hung Everest Group Vice President, Business Process Services. “There is going to be more personalization, more ways for the assistant to help. You’re going to start getting that next generation of people who are more comfortable talking to machines than humans. It’s going to become a key part of the customer experience toolkit.”

This could lead to voice still being part of the CX but with the nature of the interaction changing.

“We believe that digital channels will complement voice,” says Juan Gonzalez, Research Director for Frost & Sullivan in Latin America. “It will be a different type of voice interaction. Maybe it will be human to human, maybe it will be a human to bot interaction. But we don’t expect people to keep calling to ask about their credit card balance.”

Be on the channels your customers use

Rather than try to predict if one channel is about to be replaced by another, Jan Erik Aase ISG Director believes organizations should focus on being able to predict a customer’s contact preference and make sure they can deliver. “Customers expect to interact in the way they want to,” he says. “Sometimes that could be video chat with a live agent, other times it will be live texting back and forth and other times a phone call. But whatever the channels our customers are used to using, they want an immediate response.”

Strategically aligned organizations that have control of their data are already seeing a reduction in contact center traffic thanks to intelligent use of automation. But even if an automated channel is backed by the latest AI, only a customer service representative has the empathy, authority and emotional intelligence to handle complex or delicate issues or to make a decision based on a customer’s situation.

“A lot of voice interactions are going to be escalations,” says O’Brien. “Voice is going to take on a much more strategic role in the contact center.”

Indeed, some types of interaction need to remain conversational. “In industries such as healthcare or when you need to seek out a financial adviser, voice will still have an important place,” adds Gonzalez.

Is video the future of voice?

But could voice metamorphose into another channel or form of interaction, such as video chat?

“Video chat is certainly viable in certain situations,” agrees O’Brien. “But I think you have to find the right value proposition for it.”

“Definitely there are segments of the market where having live video will actually improve the situation,” adds Aase. “For example, if someone is in an accident, an agent would be able to see and assess the situation. Or a medical emergency. There are many things that video chat could improve but to assume that a regular conversation needs to be supported by video to be effective is not realistic.”

Sitel Group