The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a premium on customer self-service approaches to service installation and maintenance. Some customers want to limit their interactions with technicians (a feeling that might be mutual), which has created a challenge when the customer can’t perform the task at hand without help. Texting or phoning instructions from a safe distance is one method technicians can and have used in such scenarios. But a few cable operators have deployed virtual assist tools that not only enable interaction from a distance, but more efficient service visits.
Once the pandemic passes, what role will such tools play in future service calls? And can some fulfill the promise of enabling customers to self-diagnose technical problems, thus reducing truck rolls?
Here (outside) to help
Cox Communications this past April revealed that it created a new customer service option that leverages a virtual assist tool created in collaboration with Help Lightning, a supplier of remote expertise technology. "On-site with Virtual Assist" supports interaction with the customer’s choice of voice, text, and/or video chat. If a customer prefers video chat, the Cox technician sends the customer a text message with a link to connect. The customer leverages a smartphone with a rear-facing camera to interact with the technicians, enabling the technician to view the home equipment setup if necessary. Cox technicians also can use an augmented reality (AR) capability to guide customers through in-home setups and common issues like tightening the fitting on the back of a cable box.
"On-site Virtual Assist has been a priority of ours for quite some time, but the rapid escalation of COVID-19 accelerated our push to make this available to our customers now," said Len Barlik, Cox executive vice president and chief operating officer. "Knowing we're focused on helping keep our customers and employees safe, our team readied this offering in just 10 days."
BendBroadband has taken a similar approach, although with TechSee as its virtual technology partner. In practice, the BendBroadband technician will contact the customer and ask if they would like to use the smartphone-based tool. Upon a positive response, the technician then sends the customer a text message that contains a link. The tool opens in a web browser, without the need to download an app.
The tool enables the customer to share pictures or live video while the technician remains outside. BendBroadband technicians also can use AR to, for example, draw or circle areas on the images to help guide the customer.
"This tool allows us to make installs and help customers stay connected while taking safe distancing precautions for the sake of our employees and customers alike," said Andrew Buchert, vice president of field services for TDS (which is also using the tool) and BendBroadband when the capability was first announced in the latter part of this past April. "The feedback we received from customers during our trial of this new tool was overwhelmingly positive. It's incredibly easy to use, and customers are getting the assistance they need without having someone in their home or business."
Other cable operators, such as Midco and Shaw Communications (“Our techs have awesome virtual tools at their fingertips to give your family the support you need and make sure that we get you connected quickly,” says Shaw on its website), have adopted virtual assist tools as well. And the trend may only become more popular if pandemic concerns stretch well into next year.
So what’s comes after?
It may not seem so at the moment, but the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will wane at some point. Whether the value of virtual assist tools does the same is an open question.
One could certainly see a centralized customer service organization using such a tool to help customers solve simple home installation problems. While such a practice won’t eliminate installation-related technician visits, the use of virtual assist tools certainly could help reduce them.
Vodafone in Europe is doing this already with help from TechSee. TechSee’s technology, which it calls Remote Visual Assistance, is cloud based and runs on Amazon Web Services. It uses AI capabilities to evaluate images of a home network equipment setup to identify the types of equipment in place and where cables should be plugged in.
Vodafone uses these capabilities to enable remote agents to quickly diagnose problems and direct the customer through simple fixes. The service provider says it has reduced technician dispatch rate by 10% and increased its First Contact Resolution rate by 5 percentage points.
But, theoretically, a customer with an issue and a DIY bent could find a virtual assist link on their service provider’s website and click on it to access remote, virtualized diagnostic assistance that could inform them if they’ve plugged a cable into the wrong port, for example. TechSee is touting the promise of such a capability.
Virtual assist tools won’t remove the need for visits to the customer site; there are some repairs beyond the average customers’ abilities. But as service providers – and their customers -- become accustomed to this new level of augmented self-service, the use of virtual assistance is likely to expand.