Tethr Blog

Are real-time analytics essential for AI-based speech analytics solutions?

At the recent Customer Contact Week event in Las Vegas, nearly every potential customer we spoke to seemed to be very focused on a handful of features—but, when pressed, had a hard time explaining why those features were necessary to deliver business value.

The clearest example of this is “real-time analytics.” What this means is that an AI-based speech analytics solution is capable of analyzing conversations in real-time—as a rep is talking to a customer. But really, the most common use case that requires this level of analytics speed: screen pops. A screen pop is when a system flashes a recommendation in front of a representative while he or she is speaking to a customer. Sometimes these prompts contain suggested scripting (“Be sure to thank the customer for her loyalty”), sometimes suggested actions (“Offer the prepaid service option”) and sometimes simple graphical prompts (e.g., a smiley face or a coffee cup) to remind reps to sound upbeat, energetic and positive.

Regardless of the type of screen pop used, the goal is the same: to actively steer customer conversations toward better outcomes (whether that’s lower CES, higher NPS or sales conversion).

But while the tech analyst community has taught the market to ask for it, is this “must-have” functionality in an AI-based speech analytics platform? What business problem does it really solve and does it do so effectively?

On the face of it, screen pops would seem to solve a variety of problems related to service, sales and compliance effectiveness. Companies are often challenged by the fact that reps just go through the motions when it comes to customer interactions—failing to pick up on customer cues that would enable them to reposition different options and improve the overall quality of the experience. Similarly, a shockingly high percentage of reps—even when they’re incentivized to do so—fail to “ask for the sale” or make cross-sell and upsell offers when the opportunity arises. And reps often neglect to read company-mandated disclosure statements following certain transactions. Providing screen pops based on real-time analytics would seem like an effective means of addressing these challenges.

But do they work? While there are certainly a small handful of examples of companies claiming success with this approach, the track record for this technology is remarkably spotty given how long it’s been in the market. The reality is that most contact centers are staffed with lower-wage and, in many cases, part-time staff, who churn at a remarkably high rate. So, it should come as little surprise that flashing things in front of reps is not a sustainable way to drive behavior change. The truth is that screen pops can be a distraction more than an assistance to reps and, over time, are tuned out and viewed by reps as little more than “white noise.” In other words, the technology ends up not being the replacement for a strong supervisor-lead coaching program as many companies hope it will be.

From a purely practical perspective, it’s worth asking the question of what’s more impactful to the business: alerting a rep in the moment to recover a customer who is already aggravated…or using AI to instead determine the root causes of customer aggravation and eliminating those at their source, through more effective and targeted training and coaching?

But the real problem with using real-time analytics to deliver screen pops isn’t the strategy’s questionable success rate or the dubious business logic underpinning the approach.

The real problem is that they arguably make things worse.

To understand why, we need to take a step back and think about the changing customer experience landscape and the evolution of the service organization. About a decade ago, we reached a tipping point in the customer journey as it related to service: more than half of customers, at the time, reported first attempting to self-serve on their issues before picking up the phone to reach a live representative. Today, that number is north of 80%.

The implications of this shift to self-service for the contact center—and, specifically, the work of front-line representatives—has been nothing short of dramatic. With the “easy,” transactional issues (e.g., address changes, balance checks, simple orders, etc.) going to self-service, what ends up making it through to the live rep are the more complex, varied and one-off issues.

This has necessitated a wholesale shift in how contact centers manage their people. The old “factory floor” model of agent scripting, handle time metrics and checklist-driven quality assurance has given way to a new model much more akin to a knowledge work environment in which reps are encouraged to use their judgment, harness the knowledge of their peers and collaborate to come up with solutions to complex customer issues.

The research is very clear on this point: transactional models only work in simple, predictable work environments, and the mechanisms used to manage transactional work actually have a negative impact on performance when applied in a complex work environment.

CEB, now a part of Gartner, found that the single highest driver of frontline service rep performance is something they called “Control Quotient” or CQ, for short (see The Effortless Experience, a book I helped to co-author, for a more detailed discussion). CQ is an environmental factor in which reps feel a higher level of resiliency because they are more in control of their work and more empowered to use their own judgment to solve customer problems.

CQ was more than 2X more powerful a driver of rep performance than any other factor studied. It has more impact than hiring reps with higher IQ or EQ. Moving from the 25th percentile to the 75th percentile on CQ drives an 11% improvement in rep performance. Hiring reps with higher IQ or EQ, by comparison, only drives a 4% and 5% improvement in performance, respectively.

CQ is an incredibly powerful driver of rep performance, but it turns out, most service organizations actively inhibit it. The single biggest inhibitor? When companies send reps the message that they don’t trust them to use their own judgment. And how do companies demonstrate this lack of trust? By managing rep performance in a factory floor way. By holding a handle time clock over their heads, asking them to “stick to the script” and auditing their performance using a rigid QA checklist. And, yes, by using real-time analytics to flash screen pops in front of them.

Simply put, screen pops are little more than a modern-day script designed to wrest control from reps and supplant the judgment of a rep with the judgment of the company. When we talk to reps about this technology, they are emphatic on this point—screen pops feel like a cattle prod… a signal that the company doesn’t actually trust them to engage customers in the way they see fit.

In a follow up article that I co-authored in Harvard Business Review, titled “Kick-Ass Customer Service,” my team at CEB found that the top performing reps were a profile we called “controllers.” These are take-charge individuals who pride themselves on their authority and expertise. Controllers are dramatically more effective than empathizers, the profile that most service leaders say is the one they would look for in their next hire. What this tells us is that today’s customer doesn’t want an apology as much as they want to engage with a rep who is smarter than them regarding the issues they’re calling about. Why? Because today’s customer has almost certainly already spent significant time trying to resolve their own issues via self-service before picking up the phone to call. The customer isn’t calling because they want to, they’re calling because they have no other choice. And, in those moments, they’re looking to engage with a rep who can take control.

Not surprisingly, controllers thrive in a high-CQ environment. Nothing could be more unappealing to them than scripts, checklists or screen pops telling them what to do, when to do it, what to say and how to say it.

Think about it: when was the last time you went to the finance, IT, marketing, legal, HR or R&D department and saw staff in those departments getting screen pops telling them what to do, what to say and how to say it? The answer is never—because these are knowledge work environments where staff take on complex activities. And, as the easy issues go away, contact center work is starting to feel much more like knowledge work than transactional, factory floor work. Screen pops send reps the message that they are factory floor drones, not knowledge workers.

It’s worth acknowledging this does not mean ALL real-time analytics are bad. Particularly in compliance settings, real-time analytics around fraud detection could be very valuable. Similarly, when managers are able to quickly spot problems regarding critical business issues they can pivot in meaningful and timely ways. But most managers we work with tell us in those cases, within a few hours is plenty fast enough. So, it’s less about the speed (in the moment delivery) and more about how and by whom it is used.

As appealing as real-time analytics and screen pops seem to be, they are little more than a modern twist on an outdated management philosophy. Our strong advice is that leaders spend their time and resources on technologies that enable knowledge work, not technologies that reinforce transactional work.