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Digital Engagement Blog

The Evolution of Self-Service: An Interview

The self-service channel will experience more change in the next five years than it has in the past thirty.

And really…it’s not so much a change as it is a transformation.

The classic IVR—you know—the interactive voice response system that drives the self-service voice channel? In a few years…when you look back…it may seem as old as that rotary telephone…as antiquated as the phone booth.

So what will happen? What will this transformation look like?

I sat down for a discussion with Mark Kowal, who leads product development for Verint’s Intelligent Assistant platform. The platform powers IVR and Chatbot channels with natural language processing and other emerging customer engagement technologies.

With more than 20 years spent in customer service and customer engagement technology development—the last decade and a half focused on natural language and speech—Mark has a deep and wide perspective of what’s become an incredibly exciting space.

Customer Service- An Exciting Space

But enough about Mark. And enough about us. What’s truly exciting is where this is all going…


Verint: Good afternoon, Mark! So, let’s jump right in. You are doing some super innovative work focused on the transformation of the self-service channel. Can you share some perspective here?

Kowal: Sure. Right now, we’re all living through the redefinition of what the self-service market really is.

And, it’s not truly the IVR anymore. It’s really about the evolution of the self-service market as a whole. There is a reduction of the amount of people calling in and wanting to be self-served through the phone channel. And, you have a huge number of people trying to move forward with digital channels…anything from web chatting to texting to chat bots, and all that kind of stuff. It’s an exciting time that’s seemingly being redefined all the time.

The question that will be answered is, how do organizations marry what’s considered the traditional IVR with a massive amount of data, speech analytics, and other technologies to address the challenges of engaging with not just today’s customer…but tomorrow’s as well, whoever or whatever that might be.

Massive Data from interactions

Verint: So what would you say is the biggest misperception of the self-service channel among contact center leadership?

Kowal: One major misperception is the thinking that IVR or the voice channel is going away. I don’t think that’s the case.

We still have a large group of people who need it…there’s still a decent percentage of people that when they want to be sure something will be done, they want to talk to a human. And, although we are moving into a mainstream market with apps and such, there are still people that use the voice channel and are just more comfortable speaking with a person.

I don’t think it’s going away….it will be used in different ways than it’s been used in the past, and that’s what we’re up against now.

Verint: Is there a different perception among Customer Experience and Customer Engagement pros?

Kowal: As you’d expect, contact center leaders are focused on successfully running a contact center, with a focus on all the channels and tactics that depends on.

And it’s not so much different as it is broader for those in customer engagement. They’re looking at everything from a broader point of view, like seeing the forest for the trees. It’s more, “How do we engage with our customers and get them to work across the enterprise?” rather than a focus on the contact center explicitly.

You also hear people say, “I am part of the Digital Transformation team.” And, truly, that’s what it will take to reach the customers where they are. Digital transformation. It’s about getting to customers and engaging with them the way they want to engage, whenever and wherever that may be.

The overlap of custom engagement and digital transformation…THAT is the blending that you see in the market today.

Verint:  You’ve coined a phrase that captures what you’ve said is the next evolution of the IVR. The ICR; The Intelligent Communication Response system. Can you explain this term and why you believe it’s where the IVR is headed?

Kowal: The way this came about was people were trying to define IVR and saying, “Well, IVR is different today. It’s omni channel; it’s digital.” They are bringing up all these things to explain the IVR. But, IVR is just that: an interactive voice response system. Call it what you want, but it is an interactive voice response, and truly nothing more.

A New Way To See Engagement

But, these days, it doesn’t matter HOW people, or THINGS,  are communicating, we have to respond. And, so, it’s important to expand on the meaning of what IVR really is becoming. So however anyone is communicating—voice channel, digital…social media…maybe through connecting a device at home that sends out information and communications about that device in real-time. No matter how you’re communicating, there has to be a relevant and timely response.

It really needs to be an Intelligent Communications Response system.

We need to allow for all these different communications devices. We may not want to respond to certain communication in the same way.

Verint: So are you saying that a focus on specific channels is becoming or on the path to becoming antiquated?

Kowal: To be focused on one channel or even a few channels is just not what you want to do. It’s keeping it open for convenience…or for severity. We have multiple ways to communicate with the customer.

Having the flexibility of different channels is required…but just sticking with one or two channels is not the best way to attack that.

Consider the IVR. IVR is one-way between or from customer to business. Whereas ICR is both ways: customer to enterprise; enterprise to customer. It allows for proactive communication, but it’s up to the enterprise to MAKE it proactive. We want to provide the communication channels to enable that communication.

And, the possibilities are inspiring. If you open it up—all this communication--then you can have that open channel of communication across all parties. Where you’re smart enough to know where it’s coming from and how it is appropriate to respond…how to address it and where it goes. Not just by your organization, but others? That’s when this gets really exciting.

Verint: Can you give an example of what you mean?

Kowal. Sure. The first term in ICR is not interactive. It’s intelligent. It’s smart.

Consider that ICR accounts for the Internet of Things. Let’s say you have a smart sump pump, and it collects data and recognizes when it needs “help,” like “time to change my filter.” With Intelligent Communication Response, the device—in this case, the sump pump—can share this information, and the organization can then send a proactive email reminder to alert the customer.

The IoT Sump Pump

But, let’s say that same sump pump recognizes that it is running non-stop and it raises a potential emergency flag—not yet a flood—in the customer’s basement. Now, you’d expect that communication to be more important. The organization using intelligent communications response still uses that information, but now with the right systems in place, the customer can get more aggressive alerts, or even calls, so that they know RIGHT NOW there is a problem…and we—your sump pump service company—are here RIGHT NOW to keep you dry. This is an example of intelligent communications response. It’s smart. And, it’s responding to different information with intelligent and useful communications for the customer.

Verint: That does sound exciting. But how soon is this really happening? Where is ICR in it’s evolution?

Kowal: It is absolutely in the dawning stage. The leaders…the early adopters…they are trying to attack it now. Get their platforms established now.

Cost is a big inhibitor to getting started, because the definition is not yet so clear that companies have built a platform smooth enough to make this all work. And, the reality is that vendors have more development to make it work, too.

So I suppose it depends your definition of soon. Is 2020 too soon? Perhaps. Some may say they can do this now, but, the reality is that digital transformation is top of mind for a reason. You can have the capabilities available, but if your systems cannot handle them, then they aren’t really here just yet. That’s why digital transformation is such a driver for the customer engagement people.

Verint: Do you think that there is a place for standards in this realm? So that vendors and organizations alike begin to build out platforms and systems that can more easily interact?

Kowal: That would certainly help. We saw it with IVR traditionally with Voice XML.

What will be the standard? I don’t know. But we need to look at it from a data point of view. There will be an obscene amount of data being tossed around the world. The more we can make that data connect, the more we can use it for everybody.

And, it is important to have the standards out there to share this kind of stuff.

Verint: This all sounds like a place where artificial intelligence would thrive. Do you agree?

There are HUGE implications for AI here. All of what I am describing requires Artificial Intelligence.

It’s Intelligent Communications Response. It’s up to us to make the intelligence out of this data that is being captured. It will be up to us to use the most significant data to make the biggest impact.  That is where AI really makes a difference in the industry.

Making AI Real

Verint: What happens to those organizations that do not move forward and embrace this new approach?

Well, I don’t think companies that do not embrace this concept will go away. There are going to be those industries that never embrace it. I don’t think they’ll go away, but I think they will be less influential in shaping the industry. They will most likely fill a niche role, but not lead innovation.

Take fax machines. In certain industries, people still use them!

That said, I wouldn’t want to be one of those companies.

Verint: Thanks so much for your time today, Mark. Any final thoughts before we wrap this up?

Kowal: It’s my pleasure. So, yeah. In the 90s and 2000s, you saw a reactive model used in the IVR space.

In the 2010s, we were quicker and somewhat smart.

In the 2020s, THAT is where we’ll start to see Intelligent Communication Response. It becomes a proactive and prescriptive environment that allows companies to improve modeling and improve customer engagement, in general.

It’s the evolution of the IVR.

And, it’s the transformation of self service.

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Topics: Customer Engagement Industry Insights IVR