By Aaron Miller, chief digital technologist, Avaya EMEA

We are consumed by communications. Messages, tweets and status updates devour us pretty much wherever we go. Today, a huge proportion of the people we’re interacting with on a daily basis in our private and working lives – be that friends, colleagues or customers – are digital natives. Their world is instant and collaborative; they can’t live without Google, they arrange their social lives on Facebook, and freely broadcast their dissatisfaction with a product or service via Twitter.

And thanks to their always-connected lifestyle, they expect immediate answers and constant engagement in everything they do. This is having a profound impact on the way businesses interact with their customers.

People’s behaviours and expectations are forcing businesses large and small to rethink communications fundamentals – both within the organisation and also externally. From a customer service perspective, success in today’s world is dependent on being able to easily and cost-effectively reach consumers in an informative but engaging way – in a way that seamlessly fits with their always-on, mobile lifestyles where information is readily available and accessible through multiple communications channels. There’s no denying that contact centre plays a vital role here. But even organisations with the shiniest customer service centres are struggling to juggle meeting these demands for instant answers, and easily reachable and sharable content, in a secure way.

The era of engagement and the rise of the digital enterprise

Our increasingly digitally savvy society expects more and more from companies; customers crave attention, they want to feel like you know and understand them, that you appreciate the experience they’ve had with your company over time, and that you’re on their side. We’ve entered what I like to call the ‘era of engagement’.

This ever-growing need for constant engagement has been putting increasing pressure on organisations to build what we call the ‘digital enterprise’ – a model that enables businesses to unlock their information – to make it available, easy to find and to share – but with rules and policies in place to keep it secure. The idea behind the digital enterprise is that businesses are bound together, and to customers, by engagement practices that help them structure how, when, and with whom information is shared. From a customer service perspective, this helps them to open up to consumers and embrace the needs of digital natives, but in a controlled way so the business also benefits.

Wait a minute…what happened to the ‘era of collaboration’?

Communications technology has done wonders to enable and drive collaboration in the customer service arena. We’ve seen a whole host of companies including Nokia, Volvo and Nike establish online customer forums to glean information to help them develop new products and processes, for example. These companies are maximising the channels and touch points customers use to contact them to improve their services. Increasingly, however, sophisticated customers are ready to go beyond this. The digital enterprise is about adding context to all this technology in order to drive more value for the customer and the business. And that is what engagement is all about.

Why is context important now?

In a customer service environment, what we call contextual communication allows people in customer-facing roles to tap the wisdom of enterprise communities to resolve issues faster, and to up-and cross sell. Contextualized engagement can create active, meaningful connections between people and communities regardless of whether you’re interacting with them over the phone, on email or via video or social media. Context is about having all the information about the customer, past and present, to hand – services they currently use, their history with the company, any previous complaints, their channel preferences and how active they are on social media, for example. Having access to this information up front helps to dissolve the barriers to productivity and it’s here that we’ll see increased loyalty and experience improvements in the lifetime value of the customer. In the digital enterprise, customer engagement offers a means of providing excellent service and at the same time mitigating risk by controlling the flow of information from the enterprise to the consumer.

What should I be looking to in the future?

Well it doesn’t stop there. The digital enterprise is a moving target and the transformation requires an open approach to new technologies. Innovation and the widespread availability of technology continue to push the boundaries of the customer service arena. The wearables technology market, for example, will take collaboration and context in particular to the next level.

Consider that the core function of any multichannel contact centre is the ability to quickly and intelligently route data to the best person or people available to take action; so without the ability to route wearables-produced data somewhere for processing or to an expert to take action, wearables would be nothing more than disconnected toys. In the customer service environment, a headset that takes biometric readings, for example, could alert a contact centre supervisor to listen in on a call when a customer service representative's blood pressure and pulse suddenly increase. A wristband with an RFID chip might automatically log an agent out of a workstation when he or she leaves their desk for lunch, avoiding incoming calls to an agent’s empty desk. In the digital enterprise, the controlled integration of wearables into the communications mix means problematic situations can be more easily identified and quickly resolved. These applications can lead to real savings, greater efficiency and a better experience for the customer.

With this we come back to how rapidly the world of customer service is changing – and the extent to which that is impacting, and will continue to change, the contact centre. As more and more forward thinking companies adapt their customer service strategies to encompass new technologies like wearables, those that don’t will find they suffer at the hands of consumer expectations. The idea of the digital enterprise is something we will all sooner or later have to embrace. I’d urge every business to try to create open but controlled customer service environments; only then can they really get the most from their technology and take advantage of the social tools that customers are using to really connect with them, on their terms, not just as it suits the organisation.