Last year was the year of Big Data. Everyone was talking about it: where to get it, what to do with it once they had it, and how important it was to understand. What will 2014 come to be known as the year of? Which new technology will prove to be a game changer for customer service? So far, conversations have largely surrounded predictive analytics and WebRTC. These are both hot topics, and there is still much to be explored in each area. However, there is one emerging technology that LiveOps predicts will steal the limelight this year – real-time contextual routing.

The Past

Big Data – a.k.a. the huge repositories of detailed historical information about customer activities – is still important, and the majority of companies are still trying to adequately gather, organize and harness this expanding pool of information so that businesses can grow and benefit from the insights drawn. One of the most valuable aspects of Big Data is the opportunity to develop a greater understanding of customers, their preferences and buying habits. All too often companies are drowning in their own data and are unable to draw any substantial conclusions from the chaos Big Data creates. It takes more than simple cooperation and sharing between departments in order to inject this holistic view into a customer’s journey with a brand. Companies need to approach their available data with a plan and strategy in order to ensure they are extracting the information needed to meet and exceed the expectations of customers and would-be customers.

Valuable customer insights can easily be unearthed using a holistic and analytical approach to the data. In order to maximize the value of the data a company is able to collect about customers, businesses must assemble a consistent view across multiple departments. This means Human Resources, Finance, Marketing, Sales and Customer Service must join forces to compile a more complete image of customers, employees, partners and the market as a whole. It is through this holistic view that companies can begin correlating data to make more accurate predictions and assessments of the industry.

However, while examining historical data is important, it is not sufficient when hoping to forecast trends or develop an understanding of customers as individuals. Data must be analyzed in real-time in order to help reduce churn and attrition, allowing companies to correct an issue before a customer is lost, or provide a better view into what is currently happening in any given market. If companies are solely basing decisions upon past behavior, it is likely that they are missing something critical that is happening right before their eyes on multiple channels. The next generation of customer experience management will demand the combination of the knowledge gained from analysis of the past (Big Data) with actionable, real-time customer information. Companies need to look beyond the simple implementation of predictive routing and analytics, which only provides snapshots of things past. They need to instead combine it with the “here and now” of a customer’s journey using real-time contextual routing solutions.

The Present

While Big Data and predictive analytics were once the end goal and are still incredibly important pieces of the puzzle, they are now the mere starting point for mapping a customer’s journey. Big Data is most often defined by the three Vs: volume, variety and velocity. This emerging technology comes in at the velocity stage and makes Big Data more actionable in a customer service situation, turning the mountains of information stored in back-office repositories into part of the solution to a real-time problem. Companies need to be able to see a customer from the beginning of his or her journey up until today. In order to map a true customer journey, companies need the ability to observe and lace together conversations and comments that are taking place across multiple channels – voice, email, chat, SMS, social, web and ecommerce – with relevant enterprise applications, such as CRM, ERP, and supply chain systems, to identify patterns of behavior in real-time.

Once a pattern is identified, Big Data can be applied and the historical data becomes more actionable in a real-time customer service situation. From there, the user (i.e. a sales representative, customer service manager or contact center agent) is notified and supplied with recommendations as to what response the situation requires or how a customer should be handled. This gives companies the ability to serve customers proactively, at the exact moment they need help. This includes the detection of patterns indicative of a positive or negative customer experience via ultrafast in-memory processing, which can significantly reduce Customer Effort and increase First Contact Resolution, two key measures for improving customer experience and increasing customer loyalty and lifetime value. Essentially, contextual routing allows for the intelligence uncovered from Big Data to be applied to events as they unfold, and paves the way for the creation of a visual map of a customer’s journey from start to finish, which will assist companies in fully understanding their customers.

Through contextual routing, a brand will be able to expedite customer calls because it already has tremendous context related to the request; it knows why the customer is calling based on website activity, web chat origination, or recent social media activity, and can change routes or queue priorities in response.  Another example is when a brand has intelligence across all touch points and can sense a customer’s frustration based on online interactions; an agent can then offer a customer live help before an issue ever has the chance to escalate. A final example that illustrates the value of contextual routing is the ability to identify a potential sales opportunity based on a customer’s online activity, both browsing habits and inquiries. Should a company spot this type of pattern early on, it could instruct an agent to reach out to the customer and offer assistance or a coupon in hopes of giving him or her that final nudge to make the purchase.

Brands and companies can no longer rely solely upon products, services or price as their competitive differentiation. The market, every market, is far too saturated for that kind of hopeful simplicity – customer service is the new competitive differentiator, and contextual routing is at the forefront of this trend. The ability to route interactions using historical and real-time context provides the tools a company needs to plan for the customer journey. It enables the faster creation of a comprehensive customer journey — from beginning to end — that can be more effectively applied and improved upon in real-time, invariably leading to better service. Today’s contact center needs to be completely event-driven in order to remain competitive in a world inundated with the latest and greatest on a minute-to-minute cadence.

The Future

Real-time contextual routing is going to change the definition of the customer journey industry-wide, and this ability will serve as the foundation for a generational shift in customer experience management. It is the next step toward a cloud contact center that is guided by Artificial Intelligence (AI). At present, humans still ultimately decide which action to take, but an AI-powered contact center is no longer just fun, futuristic talk. A customer service platform that is able to make decisions without human input is on the horizon; customer service technology will not only be able to provide options to customers, but will automatically recognize the best course of action, and will be empowered to take that action without human intervention.

For example, an AI-enabled contact center will be able to identify peaks and valleys in customer service needs and will automatically adjust the number of agents available to take calls, answer emails or engage with customers via chat and social channels. It will also be able to determine how many agents will be needed to interact with customers on any given channel to ensure that not only the appropriate number of agents are staffed at any given time, but that those agents have the right skills and are trained on the right channels in order to meet the fluctuating demands of that specific contact center. The ultimate goal is for the platform to automatically react to changes within the customer service environment.

The benefits of this type of technology are not limited to the contact center; use cases will expand when business intelligence is interjected into the scenario. Experiences and lessons learned within the customer service environment will educate and support professional services engagements. Long-term planning will ultimately be informed by what was once deemed a sleepy department, a department that was thought to be so insignificant that companies often outsourced the work overseas and hired lower-quality agents. The tide, however, is quickly changing and companies are bringing customer service jobs back to North America. Being a customer service agent is now becoming a truly challenging and fulfilling career path.

Companies are once again making customer service a priority and investing in their agents, both by training them and by recognizing their important role in the business as a whole. These agents are not just people wearing headsets, answering phones and transferring calls; today’s agent must be highly skilled in multi-channel communications and sales in order to perform at the level that will soon be required. Companies have only just begun to tap into this massive resource, and as the technology running behind the scenes in the contact center continues to become more and more sophisticated through Big Data, predictive routing and now real-time contextual routing, so will the agents, making the contact center the new hub and heart of a business.