The answer is emphatically “no”.
After 10 years of tracking a gradual decline in customer preferences to call, our new global autonomous customer research is showing a radical resurgence of one of the oldest channels of all - voice. The rumours of the phone’s death have been greatly exaggerated (to misquote Mark Twain).
74 per cent of customers surveyed phoned a contact centre last year. 58 percent would rather phone an organisation than use any other channel. The phone remains universally the number one contact channel across the 12 countries involved in the survey. And, unexpectedly, the biggest users of the channel are millennials (25 to 34-year olds).
There are always surprising stats in research like this – but this seems to go against the trends we’ve been seeing over the past few years. The obvious question to ask is: what’s going on?
The data gives us a few clues.
Firstly, digital experiences may be falling short of expectations. Only 21 per cent of customers rate digital channels as “excellent”, despite 73 per cent of customers saying that they like self-service because it puts them in control. It seems that the appetite for new channels is there, but the actual experience is not necessarily delivering.
It is also possible that technologies are moving faster than customers’ capacity to embrace them. They are not as intuitive and easy to use as they need to be. Two thirds of customers say that there is not enough help available on organisations’ websites or apps. 77 per cent want a phone number available on every webpage or app.
The phone is becoming a primary escalation channel when digital channels fail – which is why on hold messages telling us “that you can do this online” are incredibly frustrating. Whereas Facebook or Twitter might have been regarded as escalation points in previous years, only 38 percent believed that it was the best way of getting an urgent customer service issue rectified in this year’s survey (security concerns and the public nature of social media have contributed to its decline).
The phone’s other big advantage is that it is well equipped to tackle the emotiveness and complexity of channels such as chat (broadly stagnant in customer preference this year, after a massive 20 per cent upwards hike in our 2017 research). 59 per cent say that, when they ring, they have a more complex issue.
This, inevitably, puts pressure on the contact centre. Average call handle times tend to go up in the face of complexity and the pressures on contact centre agent skills increase. Since many customers start their journey on digital channels, they can have more up-to-date information, know what’s on the website, or know more about products and services than the agents serving them. Add to that the pressures of having a conversation with a customer whilst navigating a myriad of systems, you can see that the life of the phone agent is not getting any easier anytime soon.
Another factor which may drive usage of the phone channel upwards in the future is the rise of the voice assistant. 31 per cent of customers thought that a voice based chatbot would be an effective way of having a conversation with an organisation. Voice assistants such as Alexa, Siri, or Cortana could fuel an increasing number of voice contacts when they fail. If your customers hit a “I’m sorry I don’t understand” dead end, they are likely to stay on the voice channel and instruct the assistant to “ring the contact centre”. This means that the voice assistant may need to act as a ‘digital IVR’ in order to triage and route people to the appropriate agent without the customer needing to repeat themselves.
For years, analysts and commentators have been forecasting the death of the phone. Its sudden growth spirt may be due to the fact it frequently works better than its digital alternatives and, critically, it is often easier to use. Other channels may be newer and sexier, but the phone channel is still the most powerful collaboration tool that contact centres have in their bag.. But the past lessons from IVR implementations also need to be learned. Enthusiasm for voice technologies can easily hit the trough of disillusionment if they are poorly implemented.