Thursday, March 10, 2011

Has video finally arrived for branch and contact centre?

For as long as I have worked in financial services IT (and some time before), video has been trumpeted as the "next big thing" for retail financial services but has not taken off as predicted. Yet I wonder if this solution that Bank of Moscow has rolled out and the news week before of Bank of America is piloting video for wealth management might change that....

The vision presented by technology vendors has been compelling; the idea that an expert in a branch or in a contact centre could cover many other branches by being video conferenced in to that critical customer meeting. At a stroke travel expense could be reduced as there would be no need to have advisors moving around doing one day a week at each branch of their territory. Customer experience could also be improved radically, as no longer would a customer wanting advice on a pension (or other regulated product) be told to "....make an appointment and come back when the advisor is in".

The financial arguments have also seemed compelling. Training staff to sell regulated products is expensive and HNW (High Net Worth) and other attractive target customer groups are not the customers who frequent high street branches. My last blog post ("Where did it go wrong for Barclays branches?") went into this more detail, but there are very limited returns from basing expensive people in branch and relying on passing trade and the business marketing can drive to those branches.

To a certain extent the puzzle is why video has not been used earlier, and I think the problem has been partly technical and partly organizational.

The organizational problems are understandable. Branch managers like to be able to see their staff, and when measured on sales they want to have control over the people doing the selling. Having them physically in the branch is one of the easier ways of meeting that need. Similarly, branch sales advisors have enjoyed the status they have within the branch and moving to a contact centre environment (even a video contact centre) has been seen as a demotion. Given the low barriers to setting up as an IFA if you are already qualified, retention of qualified staff has been an issue for all the major banks. Finally, the customer experience of early video conferencing did not meet the hype, and this has stayed in the minds of many business users and customers.

The poor experience of early video conferencing solutions were largely a result of the technical limitations imposed by making any solution cost effective. Early approaches lacked common standards and, as with much in telecoms and IT, the rise of IP (Internet Protocol) has helped hugely to drive down costs and increase compatibility. IP hasn't solved everything, and there are still 'debates' among vendors (sometimes pursued to the levels of near religious war) about the relative merits of the H323, H264 and SIP protocols but common standards have made a huge difference to costs. Furthermore, IP protocols put video conferencing much more into the world of IT and software and into a world where the user experience matters. I would argue that the problem with many of the initial video conferencing solutions was that they were so focused on the technical challenges that they tended to neglect the user. The poor quality image with a slow refresh rate and of early video conferencing (as well as the difficulty and poor user interfaces for setting up calls) has been largely addressed in the solutions from today's the leading vendors. In fact user experience has been one of the key features of both Cisco Telepresence and HP Halo and may be significant factor why these are succeeding where more specialized predecessors have failed.

I find it especially interesting in the case of Bank of Moscow is that this integration is based on Avaya. Avaya are noted for their strength in contact centre, most notably around the ACD (the system that distributes calls to agents) and video is a relatively new area for them. It is a sign of the impact of protocols that Avaya (who have launched their next generation of contact centre based on SIP as a standard) are able to integrate video into what has historically been a voice environment.

In other words, the historic obstacles to video of user reluctance and technical inhibitors have been largely addressed and video can be deployed. The question, though, is will video deliver?
I believe there is one more hurdle to overcome that many vendors have not yet appreciated. The technical, the business case and the usability by non-IT staff are merely pre-requisites for video to be deployed. For video to succeed in this type of retail financial services it remains to be seen how it affects the psychology of consumers. Will consumers be prepared to take financial advice in a video session? Will the technology prove too distracting or disorientating for some demographics to engage in the integration?

These questions remain unanswered, but it will be interesting to see if video can deliver on its potential.