The conversation gap

Enterprises are willing to pay for efficient and effective interaction with their customers. To achieve this, they need suitable conversational media as customer contact channels. Historically customer contact has been through the post, phone, SMS and email; the Web and now mobile apps have added new mass media for rich customer interaction.

Who will supply the fit-for-purpose interaction media of the future, and what capabilities will they need to win the hearts of users and wallets of enterprises?

Reality falls short of potential

Legacy media with an analogue or pre-internet heritage have limited intelligence and extensibility, and thus have fallen behind the needs of modern commerce. Users are increasingly turning to social media for their personal communications needs. The social CRM trend represents the efforts of enterprises to catch up, and to exploit the conversational opportunities that new social media provide. Technologies like WebRTC will increasingly allow enterprises to create their own real-time customer interaction channels independently of telecoms service providers.

The misalignments of the capabilities of all these conversational media with the needs of commerce are ‘conversation gaps’ that result in inefficiency and ineffectiveness in doing business. Let’s explore what they look like and why they exist.

The ten conversation gaps

  1. The cost gap: The difference in operational cost between human labour and an automated system is several orders of magnitude, and errors introduced by humans cascade into further cost.
  2. The confidentiality gap: Human beings are asked to handle sensitive data, and such data can leak.
  3. The customer experience gap: The customer’s time is wasted on tasks that do not create value. The ‘cost’ of the service to the user is the combination of its price, and the effort to use it; thus poor customer experience is a form of cost shifted on to the customer that reduces demand and willingness to pay.
  4. The capability gap: Our tools of conversation assume a one-size-fits-all and do not provide features reflect the diverse roles people adopt in their daily lives, and the different demands that arise as a result. For instance, a next-generation Caller ID would command different levels of caller information disclosure for each of ‘child’, ‘friend’, ‘customer’, and ‘stranger’.
  5. The co-presence gap. Ideally conversational media would provide parties with an experience as good as ‘being there’ together. If the conversation is locked into a narrow range of media types with weak interactivity, then it falls short of ‘being there’.
  6. The coverage gap: The ‘coverage’ is the range of situations in which the media make the conversation possible at all, despite ‘not being there’ together in the enterprise’s retail outlet. If a customer’s available modality of conversation is Skype, and the enterprise cannot originate or terminate Skype calls, then they cannot converse, and the enterprise loses business.
  7. The capacity gap: Each tool has to be able to scale to meet the needs of enterprise use. This is not just a question of networks scaling to accommodate load, but also of the user experience being able to scale to prioritise, filter and route an ever-rising number of requests for interaction.
  8. The conformance gap: The tools of conversation fail to meet the legal and social norms of each jurisdiction, and thus limit their use in commerce. The current controversy over encrypted BlackBerry messenger use that cannot be intercepted by the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia and India is an example of this.
  9. The culture gap: Each society has different norms and historical associations with communications, such as Americans having a higher propensity to use voice compared to text-centric Europeans. What is acceptable and ordinary use of personal data in the USA is regarded as unethical in Germany, even if it conforms to legal constraints. Tools of conversation need to reflect these differences.
  10. The ‘cool’ gap: The other gaps address functional shortcomings of our tools of conversation. However, an increasing proportion of the value we receive from goods and services is provided by non-functional aesthetic and social value. People want to use communications services that make them feel and look good. If teens are tweeting and texting, then asking them to talk might as well be asking them to telex – it just isn’t going to happen.

Man vs machine

The root cause of each conversation gap is frequently an unhelpful positioning of the boundary between people and machines. All too often, human beings are reduced to doing rote tasks – with attendant risks to accuracy and security – that are better suited to computers. Meanwhile, computers are designated tasks they cannot perform satisfactorily, such as understanding the nuance of a customer’s request for help.

Direct human interaction is then used to compensate for the failure modes of the tools we give customers to search for information and to service their needs.

The list above describes different ways in which interactions are inadequate due to limitations and constraints of the customer contact media. The winning contact channels of the future will be those that address these conversation gaps and offer fit-for-purpose customer contact capabilities.

Big gaps mean big opportunities

Filling these conversation gaps appears to be a significant revenue opportunity for both enterprises and communications service providers. There is an undeclared race on to become the customer interaction channels of the future.

Yet there appears to be a lack of dialogue between enterprises and the producers of customer contact channels and tools. Where are the conferences and workshops for rich, automated customer contact, that bring together enterprises, telcos, systems integrators, business process outsourcers, social media, CRM services and API platforms? They are notable by their absence.

There is also an over-focus on a few narrow business processes. We have invented a million new ways of presenting adverts, but less glamorous (but potentially lucrative) business processes requiring customer interaction get little attention.

I see scant evidence that telcos have either the will or the wit to build the customer contact channels of the future. This is a shame given their heritage with toll-free calling and SMS short codes. Network operator technologies like Joyn and VoLTE could achieve so much more, with a little vision and fresh thinking.

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