WebRTC: a revolution is coming in Customer Service

Providing good customer support is one of the most vexing problems with branch-less banking. The industry currently offers multiple but largely disconnected support channels:

  • Email: not a real-time interaction, with response times varying from a few hours to a few days. It is a good option for customers used to typing text for their jobs, but it can be uncomfortable for people who rarely get to type on a computer keyboard. The quality of the service is a combination of the response speed and the qualification and communication skills of the customer support agent answering the email inquiry.
  • Chat: this is like the real-time version of email. Customers type a question or describe an issue in a dialog box, and a customer service agent answers immediately by typing a response or asking for further clarification. The quality is defined entirely by the technical qualification and communication skills of the agent.

Bad Customer Service

  • Interactive Voice Response (“IVR“) server: an automated real-time service accessed by calling a toll-free number and by punching the numeric keys 0-9 on the keypad of the phone. The quality is a function how well the “call flow” was designed: easy-to-understand navigation, obvious options for rescuing the customer when lost somewhere down the navigation tree, and short voice prompts are all indispensable. IVRs are also unable to deal with complex customer input like serial numbers, dates of purchase or shipping addresses.
  • Call Center manned by customer support agents: this is often the most comfortable interaction for customers needing help, because it is a direct person-to-person interaction with no technology intermediary. Like with chat, the quality is defined entirely by the technical qualification and communication skills of the agent (and the waiting time during peak hours).

Because these systems operate in parallel with each other, frustration can mount rapidly when customers are asked to start over from scratch and repeat the description of their problem when switching from one channel to another.

Now imagine the following interaction:

Alice realizes that her debit card has just expired, but she has not received a new card by mail (or she can’t find that replacement card in the mail anyways). She no longer has a fixed phone line at home, so she calls the toll-free number at the back of her card from her mobile phone. As expected, ordering a missing replacement card after the expiration of the current one is not an option in the IVR call flow.
Fortunately though, the IVR server has detected that she is calling from a cellphone and offers the option to explain “other” problems by escalating to a chat session with an agent: “we can send you a text message with a link to chat with one of our customer support representatives – Press ‘1’ to receive the text message with the chat link and terminate this call”. Alice presses ‘1’ and receives a text message 30 seconds later.
She clicks on the link in the message. This automatically starts her phone browser with a dialog box where she can type her request for a replacement card. The agent responds that Alice needs to provide the last 4 digits of her social security number and zip code for security reasons. Alice is uncomfortable providing this information by typing text in a browser window, so she responds by asking if she can talk to a customer representative instead.
Call Flow with WebRTCThe agent answers by inviting Alice to click on the “Talk to an Agent” button at the bottom of the browser window. Alice finds the button, clicks on it, and answers “Yes” to the popup question that appears on the front of the screen asking her to authorize access to her microphone to enable the call. The customer support representative greets her and asks her to confirm that she is calling to request a replacement card.
As the agent seeks to confirm Alice’s street address, Alice realizes that the bank still has her old address, so she needs to provide her new address to the bank. As she tells the agent that she has moved to a new place 3 months ago, the agent informs Alice that the security policy of the bank requires that she provides a proof of address because the move is less than 6 months ago. Alice starts feeling discouraged by the mounting hassle. The agent tells Alice that she has the option of providing this proof right away by taking a picture of a utility bill with her cellphone now, if she has one handy.
Alice does have her latest power bill from the mail she rummaged through to find her card, so she asks the agent “how do I do this?”. The agent invites Alice to look for the “Send Picture” button on the same browser screen she started the call from. Alice cliks on the button and answers “Yes” to the popup question that appears on the front of the screen asking her to authorize access to the camera on the phone. The browser screen changes temporarily to a frame showing what the camera sees surrounded by buttons to take the picture or cancel.
Alice lays her power bill flat on the table, takes the picture, and clicks the “Use” button that appears at the bottom of the screen as the picture looks OK to her. She tells the agent that she has just taken the picture. The agent asks for a minute of patience on the phone, and then confirms that she has been able to review the picture the bill and store it for future reference. Alice’s new card will be sent by mail tomorrow.


Web RTC diagram
Voice & video communication from within the browser

This scenario if possible thanks to a new upcoming technology called WebRTC or “Web Real Time Communication”. WebRTC is likely to do to voice and video telephony what HTML did to text: deliver the ability to handle voice and picture calls inside the formidable capabilities of the Internet, in a clickable and linkable manner. The distinction between channels of text, chat, voice and video evaporates as everything is handled from within the most ubiquitous of all platforms: the web browser.

From a customer standpoint, WebRTC will provide a rich and smooth interaction with a user-selectable choice of “closeness”, from any PC, tablet or phone, irrespective of the underlying operating system. It will reduce costs for service providers, as a single system will support multiple modes or interaction, and will improve quality and customer trust.

The WebRTC standard is not available yet on all browsers: somewhat tricky technical disagreements still remain between some large players.  Microsoft’s Internet Explorer and Apple’s Safari still lack native support for the WebRTC ingredients, while Chrome, Mozilla and Opera already support large parts of it. Part of the lag may also find its origins in the politics and vested interests in Skype (Mircosoft) and Siri (Apple). WebRTC can already be leveraged by developers of native mobile applications, so it would be possible for a service provider with mobile development resources to implement Alice’s scenario above from within a banking app.

Regardless of the implementation path, WebRTC is poised to generate vast improvements in mobile and online banking and accelerate the move towards branch-less banking.

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Patrice Peyret

I am a repeat entrepreneur based in Silicon Valley since 1995. My first start-up company, Integrity Arts, was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 1997 and became a part of JavaSoft, developing the Java platform for SIM cards and cell phones. My second start-up company, Mobileway, became Mobile365 in 2004 and was acquired by Sybase in 2006, handling billions of SMS interconnect and application messages around the world. Plastyc Inc. is my third start-up company.

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