If your car's engine goes out, your expensive purchase is now just a useless lump of metal. Maybe you can play the radio, but you can't drive, steer, accelerate, or perform many of the other functions cars are designed to do. A dependable engine is a key part of making your car useful and getting you to your destination. Similarly, contact centers need a strong engine to drive their goal of delivering exceptional customer experiences. That engine is the automatic contact distributor (ACD).
An ACD is essential contact center technology. Without an ACD, the operation would be in disarray, which is why it is indispensable for every contact center. However, ACD capabilities vary widely across vendors, meaning just because a call center uses an ACD doesn't mean they are reaping all the benefits that the best ACDs can provide.
This post will explore the capabilities of industry-leading ACDs and how those capabilities positively impact operations and customer experience (CX).
What is an ACD?
An automatic contact distributor is call center software that organizes incoming contacts, such as phone calls, emails, chats and other digital interactions, queues them and then routes them to the most qualified available agents. An ACD should be configured so that customers don't have to wait long to be matched with an agent that best suits their needs. Matching criteria can include factors such as the contact reason and channel, language preferences, interaction history, agent skill, and more.
ACDs are frequently integrated with interactive voice response systems (IVR) systems or their more advanced counterparts, called Voice Portals (VP), which are different from IVRs in that they use spoken language for interactions for smarter routing and to automate some of the less complex interaction handling. The IVR or VP is also used to collect additional information that allows the ACD to further refine its matching routine in order to optimize work assignments and can help reduce the workload for live agents by automating interactions or parts of interactions
Old school vs today
ACDs were first developed in the 1950s, meaning they're about 900 years old in “digital years”. I jest, but that does make the ACD the “founding father” of contact center technology. It wasn't until the 1970s that high capacity ACDs were developed. Since then, just like all call center systems, the technology has evolved quickly and today provides a range of capabilities that was unimaginable 50 years ago.
While the '70s era ACDs have hopefully long since been retired, some contact centers are still using antiquated ACD systems, thus missing out on some key capabilities of modern ACDs. Here are some examples that provide a comparison between old school and modern ACD software.
- Old school - Routes only inbound phone calls.
- Today - Routes inbound and outbound phone calls, as well as digital interactions like social messaging, text (SMS), email, chat and others.
- Old school - Routes calls to the agent who has been idle the longest.
- Today – Uses intelligent algorithms that consider many more factors, including current contact center KPIs, agent skills and preferences, and customer sentiment and status.
- Old school - Only integrated with the PBX.
- Today - Integrated with the PBX as well as other call center and business systems, such as Customer Relationship Management (CRM), Business Intelligence (BI), e-Commerce, Unified Communications (UC), Ticketing, and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) applications.
- Old school - Hard to configure rule changes, often requiring vendor support and lead time of a couple of weeks.
- Today – Graphical User Interfaces that make it easy and quick for end users to make configuration changes with simple drag-and-drop functionality across supported interaction channels.
- Old school – What is artificial intelligence?
- Today– Artificial intelligence (AI) provides ACDs with the capability to factor behavioral profiles into routing algorithms. Additionally, ACDs can use AI powered virtual assistants and chatbots to automate simple transactions.
Up close and personal with modern ACD capabilities
Today’s characteristics and the capabilities they enable have transformed the contact center and revolutionized customer service. Customers are becoming more demanding, and modern ACDs are fulfilling new demands with capabilities like omnichannel and skills-based digital first routing. At the same time, agent experience is enhanced by features that empower them to deliver their best interactions. Let's take a closer look at some of the most significant ACD capabilities.
1. Omnichannel routing
What it is. Omnichannel customer service enables customers and agents to seamlessly move across digital and voice channels within the same interaction. For example, a customer might start by texting a contact center but then switch to a phone call due to the nature of the issue. Or an interaction may begin as a phone call, but then the agent sends an email or a text as a written confirmation to the person on the phone. If a call center is using an old school ACD, the customer would have to start from scratch when he reached out to customer service. Omnichannel customer service solves this problem by empowering agents to actively switch channels when appropriate and ensure that every agent has access to the complete customer journey regardless of interaction channels involved.
An ACD that is capable of omnichannel routing is foundational to successfully executing an omnichannel customer service strategy. Today’s ACDs use a universal queue to organize, sort, and prioritize incoming contacts across all supported channels. Then, based on configured rules, the ACD routes the contacts to the best qualified agents. This allows contact centers to, for example, route real-time voice and chat interactions ahead of asynchronous interactions that don't require an immediate response, such as emails or text messages. Additionally, omnichannel routing allows customers to potentially be matched to the same agent when they switch channels. These qualities make omnichannel routing a holistic way to manage and assign work, regardless of interaction channel.
Omnichannel routing also gives contact centers more flexibility with how they deploy their agent resources. An agent skilled in multiple channels could find herself answering a call, then responding to an email, and then handling a chat session. Additionally, an agent can work on several asynchronous digital interactions, like email, at the same time. Agents manage their work in an interface that handles all channels, which streamlines interaction handling, makes agents more productive and helps ensure that interactions are handled within service level agreements.
Why it's important. Today's consumers expect omnichannel customer service. In fact, our latest consumer benchmark study revealed that 93% of participants expect a seamless experience when they switch channels, but 73% think businesses do a poor job delivering on those expectations. To illustrate how common channel switching is: half of all consumers that start a self-service transaction will switch to an agent-assisted method to finish it up.
Omnichannel routing solves the very frustrating customer experience of having to start over. In a contact center that provides a true omnichannel customer experience, people don't have to repeat their issues to every agent who tries to assist them. Additionally, omnichannel routing allows contact centers to make their agents more productive. When phone call volumes go down, agents can work on emails. Or when inbound phone volume is high, agents that would usually handle outbound calls or digital interactions can easily be reskilled to help out.
Example of omnichannel routing. Lamar is chatting online with agent Susan about an issue he's having with his new dishwasher. Midway through the chat session, he decides he wants to switch to a phone call so Susan can hear the strange noise the machine is making. He calls in and to his delight is connected immediately to Susan. But even if Susan hadn't been available, the agent helping Lamar would have access to the chat transcript, allowing for a seamless transition from Susan to another agent.
2. Skills-based routing
What it is. Skills-based routing matches incoming contacts to agents based on agent skill sets, sometimes fine-tuned by proficiency settings. It takes traditional, availability-based routing to another level by considering the nature of the issue (and the customer) and finding a suitably trained and skilled agent to address it. For example, a customer needing help with his bill would be connected to a billing expert. The system determines the nature of the call using several possible methods. For example, the system can look at the number dialed, perform a data lookup in a CRM system based on the caller’s phone number, and/or use the information collected in an upfront IVR or Voice Portal. The ACD then compares that information to the agent skills and proficiencies to make the best match.
Why it's important. Skills-based routing is important for several reasons, most of which fall under the categories of customer experience (CX) and agent experience (AX). It's easy to see how getting helped by the most qualified available agent will make customers more satisfied because it increases the likelihood that the issue will be resolved accurately on the first attempt. In these days when more than 80% of consumers are very likely to switch brands after a bad customer service experience, the better customer experience that skills-based routing helps provide can make customers more loyal and positively impact the bottom line.
And if you've ever been in a work situation where you were assigned a task that was completely out of your wheelhouse, then you know the discomfort of not knowing how to do something. Now imagine experiencing that several times a day, which is what can happen to agents when ACDs don't consider skills in their routing algorithms. Skills-based routing can improve agent confidence by only sending them contacts they're qualified to handle. That will lead to increased agent satisfaction and higher quality interactions.
Example of skills-based routing. Eric, a Kansas resident, has a question about his new auto insurance policy, so he calls customer service. He enters his policy number in the IVR and indicates he has a policy question. The system looks up his record and sees he has a Kansas policy, so he's quickly routed to Katie, who has all skills required (phone, Kansas, and policies) assigned to her skill profile. The ACD uses the skill listing in her agent profile to determine that Katie is the best fit out of all agents that are currently available to handle interactions.
What it is. When a customer interaction is personalized, the agent or system uses customer data to do things like immediately call the customer by name, ask them about their last purchase, make relevant product recommendations, and thank for them for being a long time customer. This is made possible when the ACD is integrated with a CRM software or other system of record. An integrated agent desktop is populated with the information passed to it from an IVR and / or queried in the routing flow. It can also contain additional customer information, such as interaction and order history gathered from other systems. This enables agents to deliver meaningful, relationship-enhancing experiences.
Personalization has received a significant boost recently with the development of predictive behavioral routing. This AI-enabled technology takes personalization to the next level by matching customer personality to agent personality. Behavioral routing factors in things like a customer's personality, communication style, and experience preferences and matches those to agent profiles related to those characteristics. If multiple qualified agents are available when a customer initiates a contact, the customer will be routed to the agent with the best track record for handling the customer's personality type.
Why it's important. Personalization creates an emotional connection with customers, who typically appreciate being recognized by organizations they do business with. It improves the customer experience as well as brand perception by taking what could be an impersonal transaction and making it more engaging. Not surprisingly, Salesforce found that 84% of consumers think that being treated like a person rather than a number is important for winning their business. Personalization helps address this.
And personalization is very good for business. Research by Epsilon revealed that "80% of consumers are more likely to make a purchase when brands offer personalized experiences." Additionally, Salesforce found that, "59% of customers say tailored engagement based on past interactions is very important to winning their business." The research proves the importance of personalization and the ACD is the engine that can help deliver it.
Example of personalization. Maria is shopping online with her favorite shoe company when she has a question about a pair of boots. She opens a chat session with a bot that collects her shoe club number and the nature of her inquiry and then elevates the chat session to agent Shonda. Shonda gets a screen pop of Maria's information, enabling her to greet her by name, let her know the company now sells purses that match the suede pumps she ordered the previous month, and tell Maria she is just one purchase away from receiving a $25 shoe club reward. Shonda weaves all this in while answering Maria's question about the boots, which she purchases along with the purse Shonda recommended.
4. Customer self-service
What it is. A solid ACD comes with built-in IVR capabilities. This can include features like presenting a menu to incoming callers so they can specify the reason for their call, basic speech recognition to understand and respond to simple speech commands, and offering self-service for uncomplicated questions and transactions. Additionally, AI-powered voice bots that are integrated into an ACD flow can make self-service an intuitive, Siri-like experience. And if callers decide they need agent assistance midway through the self-service attempt, the information collected by the system will be passed to the agent for a seamless transition.
Why it's important. Self-service provides customers with another convenient support option. For quick transactions, like checking a bank balance, many people would rather quickly DIY at any time of the day (or night) convenient for them than talk to an agent. Our consumer benchmark research revealed that 90% of consumers say they are more willing to do business with a company that provides more ways to communicate. Additionally, the adoption of chatbots is increasing, meaning the future continues to look bright for ACD-enabled self-service that offers easy integration with, for example, the AI solution a company standardizes on.
Contact centers also have a very powerful financial incentive for offering and promoting self-service. It's much cheaper than agent-assisted options. Some estimate that a self-service transaction is ten times less expensive than an agent-assisted interaction. This combination of customer demand and cost savings is likely why 60% of businesses already offer some form of self-service and another 22% plan to add self-service options in the near future.
Example of self-service. Michael's power goes out one evening during a thunderstorm. He checks the power company’s website and starts a chat interaction with a bot that helps him report the outage. The bot then informs him that a large section of his neighborhood is also experiencing an outage and provides an estimate of when the power will be back on. The bot even offers him the option to leave his cell phone number so that they can update him on the progress they make to resolve the issue.
If you were able to select your dream car, would you choose one that has an old school, unreliable engine? Or would you pick one with a finely tuned engine that will get you to your destination? Contact centers using outdated ACDs are doing themselves, their customers, and their agents a disservice. World-class ACDs enable organizations to achieve optimal results and cross the finish line well ahead of competitors.
NICE CXone Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) is a skills-based omnichannel routing engine that intelligently connects customers to the best resource. To learn more about our industry-leading ACD, download our data sheet. And watch the video Omnichannel Routing - NICE CXone to see an enlightening comparison of old school versus modern routing.