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April 24th, 2020

Untapped Contact Center Technology Opportunities

Consumers’ expectations for their phone interactions with brands continue to rise. They expect ease, efficiency, and security. Experiences that fall short of their expectations reflect poorly on the brand and invite consideration of competitors.

That’s why Contact Center Week (CCW) invited me to join the roundtable discussion “Untapped Contact Center Technology Opportunities.” There, I shared how:

  • Contact centers can meet, and even surpass, consumers’ rising expectations
  • Some legacy technologies have degraded the customer experience
  • New technologies create more engaging, efficient, and secure experiences
  • Three major institutions are leading the way with this transformation

What follows is a write-up of my part of the conversation. I highly recommend watching the full recording of the whole roundtable discussion.

Contact Center Week: How is the role of the call center changing as it relates to delivering a great customer experience?

Lance Hood: Ten years ago, a lot of people were forecasting the demise of the call center. Other channels of communication, such as mobile apps and chat, were coming into play. Call centers were going offshore. In fact, call centers have emerged as more important than ever.

That’s especially important in light of the fact that over two-thirds of the Americans who control 80% of the country’s wealth prefer the phone channel.

Those customers have a tremendous amount of lifetime customer value. You want to serve them as best you can. They're buying more complex products and making more complex investments. They’re motivated to address their issues in conversation because their issues don’t lend themselves to newer communication channels. Better communication happens when callers and agents are in the same country, so there has actually been a shift recently to hiring locally. More and more companies are staffing call centers within the United States.

There’s no question that call centers are here to stay. Now, the industry has to ask itself, “How does the call center fit with the newer channels?” Users are moving across channels as they go through the journey of a service or support interaction. Contact centers have to find the spot where each channel fits best and best supports customers.

Watch: Inbound Contact Centers and the COVID-19 Pandemic with Guest Speaker Art Schoeller from Forrester

Contact Center Week: What are some areas where technology is failing to simplify or even over-complicating the customer experience?

Lance Hood: All customer experiences divide into two phases: identifying who's calling, and then delivering help. A lot of advances have been made to deliver help across channels. Unfortunately, technology has made caller identification more difficult and frustrating.

In the 1990s, call centers had the luxury of trusting that the caller’s phone number was always true. The phone system was closed. Phone carriers had a financial stake in ensuring that phone numbers were correct. That was how they billed each other.

In 2003, the internet connected to the global phone system. That has led to a lot of great things: data apps, higher bandwidth, video conferencing, and other new features.

However, the connection also led to call-spoofing technology. Starting in 2003, a criminal could place a call from their computer to an airline or to a bank and represent their phone number as calling from a customer. They could capitalize in the trust in the phone number to pretend to be the presumed customer calling in.

This was a significant problem. Call centers could no longer trust caller’s numbers, so they started to use personal information to identify callers: knowledge-based authentication (KBA). First it was as simple as, “What's your mother's maiden name?” Later it became more arduous: “What was the amount of the car payment you made five years ago?”

KBA depends on the premise that personal identifying information predicts identity. Unfortunately, technology obliterated this dependency. Data breaches across the private sector and governments have exposed that personal information to criminals. Voluntary disclosure on social media has also exposed lots of personal information.

Call centers have been forced to ask either more questions or more difficult questions. This “identity interrogation” frustrates customers, wastes payroll, and fails to give good security.

Read “Ten Reasons Why Knowledge-Based Authentication Threatens the Modern Contact Center”

Contact Center Week: What technology exists to create more efficient, trustworthy, and engaging frontend experiences?

Lance Hood: We're restoring trust in the phone number as a way to identify callers. We use a physical object—the caller’s phone—as an authentication token. This approach, called ownership-based authentication, is a core pillar of safety and modern convenience. House keys and credit cards are the most familiar examples. Ownership-based authentication is more convenient than remembering sensitive information when the “token” is something we’re already in the habit of keeping with us: our keys, credit cards, and phones. The approach is more secure because owners are highly incentivized to maintain possession of those “tokens.”

To turn phones into ownership-factor authentication tokens, Neustar Inbound Authentication sits inside the phone network. We are a phone carrier, just like AT&T or Verizon. We just don't place calls. Instead, we audit the phone call to ensure that the phone number presented with the call is actually coming from the phone or device that is registered to that number, whether it’s a cell phone, a residential cable modem (aka landline VoIP), or a traditional landline. In tandem, we confirm that there is a live call between the phone associated with that number and the call center.

Read: “Ownership Based Authentication: The Free, Secure, and Convenient Authentication Token for the Phone Channel”

If we determine that the calling device is physical, unique, authentic, and low risk for fraud, we'll deliver an authentication token back to our customers.

In tandem, we use our role powering 90% of caller ID in the U.S. to find matches between a phone number and a person in the bank’s CRM, even if the customer has never called from that phone number before. That really boost the solution’s ability to identify callers without agent involvement. Once the call center identifies that caller, they can expedite the authentication process and reduce average handle time by 30-90 seconds. This allows call centers to offer trusted callers actions in an IVR deemed too risky due to KBA: larger purchases, money transfers, updating contact information, PIN resets, and so on.

At the same time, we can flag callers who exhibit risk signals. Perhaps they’re spoofing their numbers or using a call virtualization service. That smaller pool of callers can be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny.

Ownership-based authentication unlocks a trifecta of benefits. By minimizing reliance on personal information to identify callers, it improves customer experience, efficiency, and security.

Read: Four Challenges to Phone Channel Authentication – And How To Overcome Them For Good

Contact Center Week: Once we improve the front-end authentication experience, what happens next? How can we further streamline the customer journey while continuing to boost security throughout the entire life cycle?

Lance Hood: Let's say you have implemented technology to simplify the identification and authentication experience. When a call arrives in the call center, before there's any engagement, caller authentication is almost complete. If callers land in the IVR, they're asked for something that's numeric and easy to remember: their zip code, the last four digits of their social security number, or maybe a pin number for a credit card. The experience is so easy that we find a 10% increase in IVR containment for self-service. Agents are not supporting those calls anymore. If the caller wants to go to an agent, the agent can complete authentication by asking something as simple as the caller’s name.

After our customers simplify authentication, they create two flows: one for callers who are highly trusted, and another for everybody else. That can be tremendously valuable. Not only do trusted callers get a simplified authentication experience, but they can do more things for themselves.

Most customers who get used to this approach then start to stratify unvalidated callers into different levels of risk—a moderate-trust caller, an average caller, a low-trust caller—and create flows for each sub-group.

Historically, the customer journey has been governed by the persona: Is it a customer? An employee? A business partner? What action do they want to take? Check an account balance? Perform a transaction? Change some information?

By improving identification and authentication, we’re adding the element of trust. Instead of basing the customer journey on just personas and use cases, we’re adding trust level of each of these groups and tailoring the experience accordingly.

Read: “The Trusted Caller Flow Solution - How Contact Centers Are Reducing Costs While Giving Better Service”

Contact Center Week: Walk us through some of the success stories you have, demonstrating how you've not only elevated the authentication experience, but also have led to a better customer experience in general.

Lance Hood: I’ll describe three. First, Bank of America, which was an early pioneer in envisioning one hundred percent automated authentication, a great north star goal. Our pre-answer, automated authentication approach is the foundation for that aspiration.

Next, UBS achieved great operational savings. Their IVR containment reached 44% of callers processed through our service, a significant boost over their baseline, and an equally substantial reduction in call volume reaching their agents. By simplifying authentication at both points—IVR and agents—UBS reduced average handle time by over one minute.

Finally, USAA’s story highlights the dynamic between fraud fighting and customer experience. They put one person in charge of optimizing both. They use multifactor authentication—voice biometrics and Neustar Inbound Authentication—with the goal of dramatically reducing their reliance on knowledge-based authentication. Caller authentication occurs in the background while protecting those callers’ accounts.


Thanks to Contact Center Week for this opportunity, and to my roundtable colleagues – Yubico’s Guido Appenzeller and Calabrio’s Brad Snedeker – for a great conversation.

Watch the full recording of the whole roundtable discussion.

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