How Amazon Connect helps call centers adapt for the future

Contact center-as-a-service functionality is gaining traction in a business segment dominated by old-school technology.

Amazon Web Services has had its CCaaS (contact center as a service) offering, Amazon Connect, in general availability for a few years, but it doesn't get a lot of visibility. Contact center-as-a-service is a software deployment model that enables companies to purchase only the IT they need for call centers and is operated by a vendor to reduce IT, integration, and support costs.

Despite its time in the market, I still get questions from contact center professionals as to whether Connect is ready for prime time and whether AWS has any kind of competitive edge versus a field filled with traditional vendors. Recently, I moderated a customer panel of three Amazon Connect customers at the Customer Contact Week show highlighting the unique attributes of Connect that helped them navigate their businesses through the pandemic. Below is a summary of each of the case studies.

Hilton Hotels 

There was perhaps no industry that the pandemic hit harder than the travel industry, and that was certainly no exception for Hilton. Becky Ploeger, Global Head of Reservations and Customer Care at Hilton, said that in the hotel chain's 100 years of business, it had never seen anything like what they experienced during the pandemic, adding to the narrative that we were in uncharted territory. To help its customers, Hilton became the first hotel chain to offer free cancellations within 24 hours of check-in time, and this created an initial massive spike in calls because people were canceling reservations due to stay-at-home orders. Then, just as quickly, the call volume went almost to zero for an extended period. 

This created some interesting challenges for Hilton. The first is cost. With a traditional seat-based model--where the business pays per seat, per month, for an extended period of time--Hilton would have been forced to buy for the spike, that is, peak utilization and then significantly overpay during the stay-at-home period. AWS is the only vendor with a utilization-based model in which customers can provision as many users as they like and only pay per call; this saved Hilton a significant amount of money. Ploeger didn't calculate exactly what the savings were, but she did say call volume dropped 90% from peak to the bottom of the valley. 

From her perspective, one of the best aspects of this is that the pricing is fully automated. She did mention that, with the other SaaS vendors Hilton uses, she had to go through lengthy negotiation periods to get them to help with pricing. With AWS, it's fully automated and simple. 

Traeger Pellet Grills 

The challenge for Traeger Pellet Grills was getting better control over customer experience, which meant a change in contact center strategy. Prior to deploying Amazon Connect, Traeger outsourced 100% of contact center operations to a third party. The result was "zero control over customer experience" as described by Bryan Teggart, head of CX Operations and Analytics for Traeger. The company does about a million contacts with customers annually and was looking for a solution that was simple and enabled the organization to scale. Teggart said he didn't have to deal with the "archaic user base licensing" that he had experienced with other vendors. 

After evaluating several solutions, Teggart said that Amazon Connect "ticked all of their boxes." Another requirement was to integrate with the other AWS services the company uses--such as Kenesis, S3 and Redshift--and Connect already had those integrations. The fact that it played nicely with all of the other AWS services made it a "no-brainer" for the company, Teggart said. 

Since deployment, Traeger has started using Amazon Connect Wisdom, a machine learning-powered search capability to provide agents timely info based on call dialogue. 

"The ability for us to surface this knowledge content in real time, without the agents having to worry about what to search for, has been absolutely fantastic," Teggart said. "Also, the AWS team has been nothing short of amazing in helping tune the algorithms from a suggestion perspective. Wisdom is saving our agents a significant amount of time from a call-handling perspective and getting the right answers quickly, which has improved our C-sat (customer satisfaction) scores." 

One of the questions I'm always being asked by businesses is how accurate AI is in the contact center today, so I asked Teggert that question; he said after a short learning and tuning phase, Wisdom is about 90% to 95% accurate. 

State of Maryland 

During the pandemic, the state of Maryland--like most states--was facing the daunting task of slowing the spread of COVID-19, and the best way to do this was through contact tracing. However, none of the states were equipped with a contact center staffed to handle the massive number of inbound and outbound calls involved in contact tracing. This meant that Maryland had to create a virtual call center, staffed with 1,000 or more agents in just a few weeks. 

At the outset of the project, no one knew what peak call volumes would look like, so the ability of Amazon Connect to quickly scale both in number of seats and pricing was important. Lance Schine, Deputy Secretary for IT for the state of Maryland, described how in the first month alone the Amazon Connect-based contact center reached 20,000 people with thousands of them testing positive for COVID-19. The ability to stand up the contact center quickly enabled the state to reach these people faster, which ultimately helped slow the spread and save lives. 

Looking back over the past year, Schine told the audience the state of Maryland made millions of calls, reached more than 1 million people and, in his opinion, "was only doable because Amazon Connect could scale up so quickly." He added that the state relied heavily on automation tools, reducing the need to have humans making every call. 

Another consideration, given the state of the pandemic, was the distributed nature of the call center. Schine said that "Connect allowed is to have a virtual call center where we had more than 1,000 people in over 1,000 different locations--including homes and apartments--scattered all over the country, acting as a single call center."

On a personal note, I can attest to this. One of my children, fresh out of college and with no contact center experience, was hired as a contact tracing agent in the state of Massachusetts, which also used Amazon Connect. With very little training, he was able to ramp up quickly and spent months handling inbound and outbound calls helping people navigate COVID-19.

In summary ...

These are three very different types of call centers, but they do have a few things in common. The first is that, because of the ebbs and flows of contact center interactions, the legacy per user/per month pricing no longer worked. Also, the ability to scale up and down quickly was paramount to success, because no one knew what the landscape would look like month by month. Also, automation now plays a key role in contact center operations as businesses look to reduce call handling times and improve customer experience. 

Amazon Connect certainly isn't a traditional contact center product, but the era of customer service we knew just a couple of years ago is gone and isn't likely to come back any time soon. Because of the non-traditional approach, Hilton Hotels, Traeger Grills, and the state of Maryland are in an excellent position to adapt to the point pandemic future. They now have the capability of adapting to changing situations and to add new AI/ML capabilities to address the growth in digital channels while managing costs.