How a Market Leader Sees the Customer Experience Changing

This syndicated post originally appeared at No Jitter.

From identifying data silo challenges to examining the shifting nature of customer interactions to anticipating how AI changes a contact center agent’s role, the 2023 NICE Analyst Summit encapsulates the changes sweeping the industry.

This year, NICE held its annual Industry Analyst Summit in Peru, near one of the seven new wonders of the world, the Inca citadel Machu Picchu. I thought one of the new wonders of the world was a fitting backdrop for the event as much of it revolved around artificial intelligence (AI), which has become one of the new wonders of the IT world. In fact, since ChatGPT burst on the scene, it’s arguable that AI is the single biggest wonder in the world of IT. The contact center as a service (CCaaS) provider NICE has joined its peers in examining how this new tech wonder will shape its everyday business.

Over the past several years, the contact center has undergone many changes, including shifting from on-premises to the cloud, evolving from voice-only to multi-channel to omnichannel, and businesses had to adapt to agents working from home when the pandemic hit. CCaaS has become an increasingly important investment area for businesses as customer experience (CX) is now the top brand differentiator. One of the supporting data points from my research is that last year, two-thirds of millennials changed loyalties to a brand because of a single bad experience, and many interactions often start in the contact center.

AI is creating another wave of disruption as it promises better automation, analytics, and predictive capabilities, all leading to a better customer experience. As NICE is one of the market leaders, I was looking forward to this event to see how it, its partners, and its customers are thinking about the contact center and the role of AI. Below are my top five takeaways from the event.

  1. NICE is more than a CCaaS provider. The role of the contact center has changed significantly over the past decade. Historically, contact centers answered inbound service and support phone inquiries. This shifted to inbound chat, messaging, e-mail, and other channels to complement voice calls. Businesses now use contact centers for outbound mail campaigns, marketing, field service, and more. As the industry has evolved, so has the breadth of functions that NICE offers. In addition to contact center capabilities, NICE offers quality and workforce management, employee tools, customer journey analytics, process analytics, and much more. This has enabled NICE to roll up the functionality of historically separate tools into one platform.During his keynote portion, Barry Cooper, President of NICE CX, talked about this strategy and noted that when NICE wins a new customer, they displace an average of 5.2-point solutions. He also highlighted that NICE’s CXexchange marketplace billings grew 50%, which shows that the platform approach for NICE is working.
  1. AI will transform contact centers, but challenges exist. NICE CEO Barak Eilam talked extensively about the impact AI will have on contact centers. During his keynote, Eilam mentioned Marc Andreessen’s famous quote that software is eating the world, then added that AI is generating a new one. This has created a situation where customers have “AI FOMO”, as Eilam described it. Organizations are looking at many AI models as no single model can address all things CX, and customers are experimenting with dozens of models if they want to manage it with internal resources. NICE has invested heavily in AI to simplify things for its customer base. Eilam mentioned that NICE has created well over 1,000 AI models integrated into the product. This approach appears to work, as Eilam mentioned that 100% of its enterprise deals include the EnlightenAI offering.While AI has lots of promise, one of the bigger challenges that came up as a theme over and over is the important role change management plays in adopting AI. One of the realities of AI is that the way people work will forever be altered, and change management excellence is required to be successful. At the event, NICE conducted customer, and partner panels, and all of the panelists brought up change management and how difficult change can be within established companies. This has to be an intense focus area for customers, vendors and partners to help companies change with minimal disruption.
  1. The definition of an interaction is changing. Historically, contact centers dealt with “interactions,” such as a phone call, chat, text message or modes of communication. Eilam introduced the concept of the “Experience Continuum,” where customers interact with companies through multiple channels that can change on the fly. For example, one could interact with a company through a chat interface but then escalate the interaction to a voice call to explain detailed information. This could then be shifted to text messages if the person is on the move and then back to chat. The concept of the Experience Continuum enables customers to move fluidly in and out of the channel that best meets their needs but then seamlessly switch without losing any relevant contextual information.Cooper went a level deeper on the importance of the Experience Continuum, showing that 88% of the experience is shaped during customer interactions. If this is true, and that number seems reasonable, the technology in the contact center can quickly turn a good interaction into a bad one or vice versa. This requires more than well-trained agents. We have all experienced a situation where we were forced to enter our name, account number, and other information multiple times, only to have an agent ask it again. When this happens, the business sets the agent up to fail, whereas a good platform sets the agent up to succeed. This becomes harder with the Experience Continuum, which underscores the importance of AI to provide relevant information at the right time.
  1. Data silos hold AI back across the customer journey. The term CX is used by many different vendors that address part of the customer journey. NICE is primarily used for service and support. Other vendors do web analytics, front-end sales, market services, and more, but no single vendor can deliver all services across the end-to-end customer journey. The challenge for businesses is that the data from the disparate systems are in silos. In data sciences, an expression states, “good data leads to good insights.” If one wants to extend that, then silos of data lead to fragmented insights, and that’s what most businesses have today.During a Q&A with some of NICE’s customers, I asked about this challenge, and they all confirmed it is something their organization is actively trying to solve. All the customers indicated that creating a common data set is a top initiative for their organization, but this takes time, money, and the commitment to stick with it. The panelist from an insurance company brought up a good point in that they are trying to store all their data in cloud-based, data as a service company creating a single data repository but that is also a single point of failure, which in turn creates risk but noted it’s currently the only way to achieve the goal of breaking the data silos. Unfortunately, there is no “easy button” for solving the data problem, but the organizations that do will have a significant advantage over those that do not.
  1. Contact center agents are not going away, but their role is changing. One of the implications of AI-powered bots and virtual agents is that machines can now handle more interactions without involving a human. This could lead one to conclude that all human agents could be replaced if the machines get smart enough. That might happen one day in the distant future, but that’s impossible now. AI-powered channels are best set up to handle interactions that are low complexity but high frequency, which is most interactions. This includes things like password resets, checking balances, and delivery status.When cases get complex, people are needed, as customers will get frustrated if the interaction is mishandled. Agents can show empathy, often diffusing negative situations and reinforcing positive ones. This supports the statement that human agents are still needed, but their value goes through the roof as they now handle primarily complicated, higher-value interactions. I believe the overall number of agents will decline, but the remaining ones will be more important than ever.

As an overall event, I would give the NICE Industry Analyst Summit an A+; it was an excellent mix of vision, innovation, product demos, and interactions with executives, customers, and partners. Disruption is nothing new to the contact center industry, but AI will be the biggest disruptive force ever. NICE is in the pole position but has many competitors nipping at their heels. The company laid out its plan for the next year and now must execute it.

Author: Zeus Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. Kerravala provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long term strategic advice.