Amid a drive for automation and efficiency in contact centres, it is heartening to see examples of organisations that value the importance of the human voice when it comes to dealing with customers in distress.

The latest TV ad from insurance company More Than shows a man arriving home to find he has been burgled. A woman stands behind him and the first words she utters are: ‘That’s terrible.” It turns out that she is not his wife, she is in fact only figuratively present as she is a More Than customer service agent, helping sort things out over the phone.

It is a strong corporate message of empathy and support in times of trouble, underlined by a voiceover which says: ‘What’s the first thing you’d do, if someone had just been burgled, you’d help....So we won’t interrogate you or pass you around the building, we’ll just do all we can to help, like any decent person would.”

There are numerous examples of every day situations in which as customers we all need and deserve empathy and understanding - perhaps our cars have broken down on the motorway, we’ve lost our passports, we’re trying to get out-of-hours medical advice, or we need to close a bank account for a relative who has died. At these times, efficiency is only half of the service offering we need and expect, empathy is the critical other half.

There is a tendency to think of call centres as so highly mechanistic and process-driven these days that the quality of human interactions is an after-thought. But the reality is that much of today’s inbound call contact is driven by calls involving issues which are complex, emotional or distressing - often a combination of all three.

Predictions of a near-term sharp decline in voice as an element of customer contact look to be misjudged as recent data from BT showed that 77% of all inbound traffic last year was voice, despite the emergence of a plethora of alternative contact channel choices and significant industry investment in automation and customer self-serve options.

CCA’s own research data points to a seemingly long-running paradox whereby 66% of CCA members said that their business models will adapt to increase self-service and automation yet 50% of consumers say that the improvement they most want is to talk to a live person rather than an automated system. 

However, we should not think of this ostensible stand-off as representing a permanent impasse, rather a reminder of a need to continuously and rigorously review what it is your organisation wants its customer contact operation to be known for. 

Personalisation and automation may seem unlikely bedfellows but they are not mutually exclusive: well-executed and well-thought out automation of simple processes and enquiries gains consumer trust in a brand and reduces the level of ‘avoidable’ contact, freeing capacity to respond to urgent calls from customers with more complex individual needs.

Recruiting for and coaching in empathy skills as well as problem-solving and trouble-shooting are all important if agents are to be properly equipped for a future dominated by complex calls. To quote one of our own previous research pronouncements ‘There are no simple calls left.’

The issue of personalisation and automation in customer service is one in which CCA Special Adviser Dr Carsten Sørensen of London Business School is particularly well-versed. He argues that in future, rather than technology “wrapping itself around human effort”, we will see human effort wrapping itself around machines for support.

His theory is that the more automation that can be achieved, the more agents can be freed to work on higher-level customer interactions requiring empathy and an ability to think independently and harness all resources to solve problems.

I, for one, am not about to predict the death of voice any time soon but I do see a future where its role in a customer contact context will become more tightly-defined and linked more closely to upholding the core values of an organisation and its service proposition. In the case of More Than, its stated values are: modernity, individuality, perspective, purposefulness, clarity and integrity.

In a business world driven by logic, there is still a place for emotion and an individual response. As American poet Maya Angelou said: “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

As a lesson in how to really earn your customers’ abiding loyalty, Angelou’s well-chosen words work for me.