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.

Post to Twitter

Bill Gates’ take on frictionless banking with cellphones for all

Bill Gates talks about access to banking for all on Bloomberg Television.
His take: the banking fees from the developed world are just too high for the “rest of the world”.

While pervasive low cost technology like cellphones is the obvious product solution, the business model needs to be different.

It is not as insurmountable as it sounds, because the costs of doing business are also different:

  • marketing can be significantly cheaper: no need to advertise on TV
  • risk is lower: smaller amounts are involved and there is a lot less credit (mostly deposits & payments)
  • regulations can be lighter: see how M-Pesa got local support from the government in Kenya

While this may be too much to ask from large banks from the western world to adapt to, local players can greatly optimize their services and reduce dramatically the number of un-banked in the world.

Post to Twitter

NKYC: when “Not Knowing Your Customer” still generates business

The Apple store in my neighborhood is one of the favorite destinations for people who steal credit cards.

Here is how it works:

  • The thief sits at Starbucks or Peet’s Coffee right across the street from the store and steals a card from a nearby table while patrons are busy getting a refill or going to the restroom.
  • The thief then rushes across the street to the Apple store, buys something for several hundred or several thousand dollars with the stolen credit card.
    Et voila…
  • By the time the victim realizes his/her card is missing, it is too late: the transaction took place within minutes of the card’s disappearance.

This is possible because the Apple store does not bother verifying card ownership systematically, even for large transactions. I am not sure if employees just do not follow instructions, or if the store has a lax policy.

In my own business of running prepaid card payments, we are also witnessing increasing amounts fraud taking place at online venues that would be expected to be exemplary and be the most technology-savvy. The recent slew of offenders include Coinbase, Swipe and PayPal.

It seems that the darlings of the tech world are cutting some corners to get more transactions through the door, at the expense of fighting fraud.

This is arguably a small problem compared to the kind of security breaches that took place at Target. End to end encryption (a.k.a. “tokenization“) will prevent further heists from card databases at large merchants, but will not prevent fraud from unverified card transactions.

It might be a good time to revive efforts around the 3D Secure protocol? Or use “big data” to complement user verification in online stores? Or use smartphones as a second factor authentication?

Post to Twitter

Winners In Consumer Services Need Both (Digital) Technology and (Analog) People

No amount of information technology ever sells itself to consumers. This is why Apple Stores have Genius Bars.

No matter how intuitive and reassuring information technology is becoming, it still needs a hefty complement of talented human beings to truly satisfy customers.

I was reminded of this basic truth this past week-end in a completely different industry sector than my own: healthcare.

TalentAndCloudI am writing this from a medical bed in a surgery center after a skiing accident. I am surrounded by amazing machines which monitor me from more angles than I thought possible, and feed me with different fluids. I am also surrounded by a team of very talented, warm and eloquent people who explain what’s going on and keep adjusting the machines at 3 in the morning without ever losing their smile. They swap some equipment when they seem unhappy with what one of the machines is doing for them.

No hospital would ever advertise by simply stating that they have the best and latest machines to cure you. They must also have the best problem-solving staff.

In my industry of consumer payments, I read last week that Simple was being acquired by bank giant BBVA rather than raising more money from Venture Capital, in some part because VC investors wanted them to cut down on their 40+ customer support staff in Oregon. Simple was focused on providing the best possible user experience for a widespread consumer banking product: deposit accounts (in their case, based on prepaid debit cards). Apparently, Simple’s CEO Josh Reish wanted to preserve the customer support staff and not replace it by machines.

While I can’t comment on Simple’s specific product and strategy, I have to agree with Josh that, even if it is more difficult to scale a support staff in the US than buying more processing power from a cloud computing service, this is the right thing to do as your business grows. Especially when your service can generate a lot of anxiety for your customers if not handled in a very reassuring way. Like healthcare or banking.

For the UPside Visa prepaid card, a service similar to Simple,  we have “onshored” our own customer support service in Sioux Falls, SD, at greater cost than we could have obtained overseas, precisely to complement our website, mobile app and automated voice response server with enough human talent to handle problems that machines will often get wrong. Having a familiar-sounding human recourse is crucial to the ongoing success of any important service, because customer support experiences will be shared over social network, both good and bad.

Other large service sectors will have a hard time ever doing without human beings at retail locations:

  • One is mobile telephony. If you are like me, chances are that you purchased your cellphone service from a store and you spoke to a salesperson. I cetanly needed to understand the various combinations of plans, phones, subsidies and packages.  Most wireless carriers do have good websites where you could in theory sign up for a service and choose a phone, but most consumers browse the sites and then go to buy at retail stores.
  • Another is international remittances, where immigrant workers send money back home to their families. Most recipients of the money need actual cash, not a bank deposit. So the best remittance networks are those with hundreds of thousands of cash-out points manned by local people all around the world. Moving the money across borders is done electronically, and often instantly, while the collection and distribution of cash at each end of the transaction is done at retail stores with trained staff.  So I tend to shrug when I hear of new ventures that want to upend the remittance market by introducing electronic only services with no or few cash in/out retail points.

Many high tech start-ups, including my own previous ones, tend to employ few people while buying more computer cloud services. In some industry sectors, this is inevitable. In several others though, it should not be that way.


Post to Twitter