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Past predictions for the future of the 2022 contact center: Were they right or wrong?

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It was only a few years ago when it seemed as if technology was about to take over the customer service experience. Headlines abounded with predictions—for example, that customer support would become entirely automated and that human-run call centers would soon be a thing of the past.

Predicting the future is never easy—especially when that future holds a global pandemic. But many of the forecasts about how technology would upend customer support and overtake the role of human agents have not come to fruition.

Today, technology is indeed transforming and enhancing customer service—but at neither the pace nor to the extent predicted a few years ago. And, perhaps most importantly, it is people who remain at the center of the customer service experience.

To better understand the impact of technology on customer service, consider the predictions made late in the last decade and contrast them with where technology is actually taking the industry today.

Still a role for human agents?

Since chatbots entered the scene, many thought it was only a matter of time before conversational bots and other innovations would replace human customer service professionals and phase out call centers.

“Is the Call Center Over?” asked one 2017 headline. Another from 2016 proclaimed that human call centers would be dead by 2019.

While technologies such as AI hold tremendous potential for reshaping how brands understand and support customers, clearly, these predictions did not come true. Human employees remain integral to the customer experience and, in some cases, they are more in demand than ever.

In the U.K., for example, some call center companies have seen demand for call center employees increase up to 37% since the arrival of COVID-19. Key to meeting this demand has been hiring more people.

The focus for many companies today is not on how technology can replace human workers, but rather how it can improve the performance, success, and morale of those workers.

For instance, the Great Resignation has threatened to shake up the customer service industry as it has so many other industries. An agent well-being survey conducted by Calabrio found that one in three contact center agents is considering leaving their job within 1 year. The top stressors workers cited were managing a work-life balance (41%), complex customer issues (36%), and too many calls (34%).

One way companies now use technology to address this challenge is by looking at how intelligent automation can help to self-regulate the contact center, balancing the needs of the business and agents at once. For instance, by using virtual assistants and instantaneous automated workflows that allow agents to move, add and trade their own working time, contact centers enable agents to have more influence over their schedule to achieve that desired work-life balance. This is automation acting to support agents, not succeed them.

Is the phone ringing?

Another prediction that seems as old as the contact center itself was that voice would soon be a non-existent channel. The thought had been that as omnichannel and chatbot-powered self-service options grew (such as mobile apps, text services, social media, and email responses), phone calls into contact centers would fall by the wayside.

One part of that prediction did come true—omnichannel and self-service options are wildly popular in modern customer service. In fact, the agent well-being survey revealed that respondents are seeing an average of 14.4 more omnichannel interactions per day than they were 18 months ago, and the 2021 Contact Center Pipeline Annual Report revealed that one of the top contact center priorities for last year was self-service. However, the other half of the prediction—that voice was on its way out—wasn’t quite as accurate. The well-being survey showed that while there are 14.4 more omnichannel interactions per day, half of that increase is in calls, and the call volume over the last 18 months has increased by 39%. In fact, agents reported that their top challenge of 2021 was “too many calls”—illustrating that voice is far from becoming a non-existent channel.

Contact centers must continue to invest in their agents and in the technology to support and coach them through the high volume of voice interactions. In addition, they should look for ways to take advantage of the insights that can come from the voice channel, such as voice-of-the-customer analytics that can reveal customer sentiment.

Another complication of the voice channel is actually directly related to the rise of self-service. Chatbots and self-service are increasingly used to handle simple customer service requests, leaving agents to deal with more complex, high-stress interactions, especially in calls. Ensuring that agents are voice-ready means investing in coaching to prepare them to handle difficult tasks. Contact center leaders should look for a performance coaching solution that harnesses interaction data to allow better training.

The agent well-being survey showed that the top predictor of agent turnover is stress. These support strategies can keep agent fresh and ready to meet customer needs head-on and can also do wonders to reduce agent turnover in 2022.

Time for a reality check?

The middle of the last decade saw a boom in augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technology. The AR-based mobile game Pokémon GO was a global hit. And the VR race began when companies such as Samsung, HTC, and Oculus released VR headsets in the consumer marketplace.

This led to predictions that AR and VR technology would transform customer service. The expectation was that v-commerce had arrived and that technology such as AR should be companies’ next channel.

Certainly, there have been successful and innovative uses of AR and VR technology in customer support, such as agent training. But the technology has yet to go mainstream.

Instead of trying to meet customers in other realities, companies are focusing their investments on something more: insights. Insights emphasize analyzing and understanding the past and real-time customer interactions to optimize not just contact center operations, but the operations of the wider enterprise as well. Nine in 10 contact managers say they expect higher demand for contact center analytics insights from every department, and about three in four report increased requests for contact center analytics from executives.

Mining support center operations for the wealth of data that is buried within them can help companies improve the customer experience and even anticipate customer challenges. Technologies such as speech analytics can help better identify and proactively solve common customer questions, for example.

The insights uncovered from customer interactions can also be shared across an organization—from sales and marketing to IT, product development, and the C-suite. They can provide all organizational functions a single, consistent, and complete view of the customer experience, and help to provide understanding about how the customer experience impacts the whole business. Imagine, for example, if business leaders could see links between revenue loss and mentions of competitors’ names on customer support calls.

Looking at 2022 and beyond

Contact center professionals do not need predictions for where their operations should go next. They are already getting that direction from their customers. The top three customer expectations that contact center professionals have seen change since the arrival of the pandemic have been the desire for multiple communication channels (70%), emotional empathy (69%) and a need to feel heard (68%).

Empathy and the ability to truly understand what someone is saying are uniquely human capabilities. Bots and other technologies cannot match the genuine and authentic interactions people can provide.

Contact centers that want to deliver an optimal customer experience will need to consider how they can use technology to support and enhance—not replace—their human workforces.

This may require big changes. Companies may still need to expand their technology infrastructure. Or they may need to overhaul their training programs to create more genuine and empathetic interactions with customers—whatever the channel of connection. But for the foreseeable future, the customer experience will continue to involve strong, successful interactions between two people.

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