Four Top Trends for Contact Centers

It seems there is no shortage of experts and pundits weighing in on what they see as the trends that will impact the Call Center/ Contact Center industry. Though many of the prognosticators may have the timing off, many of these trends will eventually impact on the center, but maybe not today, tomorrow or even in my lifetime, but sometime.
In this post, I want to focus on trends that are already starting to ‘bite’ in Call and Contact Centers.
Artificial Intelligence and the Contact Center
What will be the impact of Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the Contact Center?
I am often asked this question and invariably respond by asking what they think the impact has been so far. AI has been in the Contact Center space for years. Interactive Voice Response systems (IVRs) leveraging algorithms to anticipate why a customer is contacting us have been around for more than 5 years. Self-learning email management platforms to recommend responses based on past responses to a set of keywords is similarly ’long in the tooth’.
More than two decades ago when IVR self-service first became a mainstream solution, we first gained the ability to complete a transaction without human involvement. Telephone banking was one of the first self-serve interactions that most of us experienced. This shift represented the first tentative steps towards the AI enabled Contact Center. It was the first time that technology could automate a task that had previously been completed by an agent in a Call Center.
This trend of automating human or agent activities has continued and as more and more easy, simple straightforward tasks are automated. The complexity of the remaining tasks has consistently increased. AI continues this evolution. Chatbots and messenger applications leverage the knowledge base to serve content and answers to customers’ questions. Business rules tied to applications, and informed by big data and data mining, can drive proactive interactions with or without an agent involved.
So, AI is already here, has been here for a while and will continue to support ever increasingly complex customer interactions. Perhaps the bigger question for Contact Centers is, “How will we  manage the interactions that cannot be handled through AI enabled automation.”’ Those contacts that remain, will be complicated, complex and require a significantly different profile, than the typical customer service or technical support agent that exists in most centers today. We need to rethink the skills and competencies required to deliver excellent service in this brave new AI enable world.
One consequence of the increased skill and competence levels requirement is likely an increase in wages and salary costs in order to attract those people. The overall transaction costs will drop. But the direct salary expense per employee will rise. Their needs and expectations for career and job satisfaction will change and become more important.
Video in the Contact Center has been around for a number of years now but has often been seen as a solution in search of a problem to solve. For most marketers, video agents in a Contact Center represented a visual white glove approach and consequently were leveraged by Jaguar and other luxury automakers and high-end jewelry retailers. In the banking sector, video has begun to gain traction as an alternative and adjunct to ATM’s. These video enabled terminals or kiosks called ITMs (Interactive Teller Machines) allow a customer to interact, live, with an agent in a Contact Center. Where these solutions have been deployed, transaction value has increased while transaction costs have decreased, and at the same time, customer satisfaction (CSAT) has risen. The increase in CSAT is likely, in part, due to an increased level of trust in the interaction and the fact that there is a person who can provide help or answer questions as required.
While other sectors, such as retail, will see the same benefits and we will increasingly see video agents as an option for our interactions, video is unlikely to become omnipresent. There are applications, organizations, and customers where a live agent video is unnecessary, undesirable or unwanted. I may not want to have a video call with the tax man if I am prone to perspiring or if my supercar is in the background. I may not want to interact with a video agent when discussing incontinence products.
Video will be another channel supported by Contact Centers where its value and use makes sense to the customers and the organization.
Omni-channel, having true contextual knowledge of all customer interaction and activities in real time, supports the ability to change communications channels to best suit the nature, interaction and the customer preference. You can start with a chat, shift to a voice call, discuss a marketing email received 60 seconds earlier and follow up with an SMS - all seamlessly, without repeating any information, or being put on hold while the agents ‘looks for’ the email or checks other systems. As the song suggests “Oh what a wonderful world it would be”, and it is.
Omni-channel delivers this capability, and organizations are deploying this today. It is not, however, for the faint of heart or limited of budget. This is a big undertaking, which explains why only a small percent of organizations have deployed true omnichannel date. Much work must often be completed before you can deploy omnichannel. For example, you will need to have all of your customer interaction detailed in one place; buying history, marketing activities, customer interaction history, lifetime value etc. A recent study published by Multi-Channel Merchant found that only 36% of retailers surveyed had this level of visibility into their customers.
The promise of Omni-channel today is similar to that of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) platforms a quarter of a century ago; by centralizing knowledge and customer information, it enables agents in our Contact Center to deliver more satisfying customer experiences, resolve issues more quickly and efficiently and generate more revenue. Of course, it took about 20 years for CRM to become an overnight success. I suspect Omni-Channel will have a similarly long gestation period.
Customer Experience (CX) & Customer Journey Maps (CJMs)
To paraphrase Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, James Carville, it’s the customer experience stupid. In Contact Centers where we exist to serve our customers, nothing else really matters. We need to be able to deliver a superior customer experience. Of course, many organizations are still struggling to define what that customer experience should be. I have sat in meetings and listened to ‘C’ suite executives espouse the importance of the customer experience only to be dumbfounded when I ask them to describe what that customer experience should be.
We need to know and understand what we mean when we speak of a superior customer experience. Superior to what? How are we measuring this superiority?
When asked how to describe or characterize the superior customer experience, senior executives and Contact Center leadership don’t fare much better and this shouldn’t be a surprise as only a small percentage of organizations have actually defined what the desired experience should be. So if you are scratching your head at this point, wondering what your desired experience should be, you are not alone and we can help. We can’t tell you what the experience should be, but we can provide some crumbs that will allow you to hunt it down and define it.
Have you completed customer journey maps for all of your customer interactions? If not, you are quickly falling behind the curve. If you have documented CJM’s, well done - you have step one completed. With your CJMs you now know what the customer and the organization are expecting to take place, when and through what channels etc. Of course, our customers don’t have a copy of the CJMs, they just know what we have told them through our marketing, advertising and by our reputation. We need to acknowledge that our marketing and other initiatives, informs and colors customers’ perspective of the organization and consumer expectations on any interaction. When we design customer experience, we must inform the definition with both the CJMs and with the expectations and perceptions that marketing has created.
Over the next 12 to 18 months CJMs will become as ubiquitous as process maps and will set the standard for all customer facing organizations.
Join the conversation on these 4 Contact Center trends, or feel free to share your own thoughts on additional trends in the industry.

2 thoughts on “Four Top Trends for Contact Centers

  1. Bowen Moody says:

    Hi Colin,

    I love your point about how AI will be used to handle simple requests in call centers but we will always need human intervention for the most complex problems.

    I am trying to build a tool that allows agents to solve these more complex problems which includes video, screen takeover and analytics to help diagnose and prioritise issues.

    I would love to catch-up to get your expert opinion on the idea and would be willing to offer the tool for free to you and your clients as thanks for your time.

    Kind regards,
    Bowen Moody
    [email protected]

    • Sarah Hill-Stapley says:

      I agree that there will always be a requirement for live agents intervention to address complex issues and as more and more simple and straightforward tasks are automated, the percentage of interactions that are complex will continue to increase. The development of new tools and processes will be essential for success for both the organization and the customer. The shift to increasingly complex interactions will also require a change to the hiring and on-boarding process as the complexity of these interactions will require more advanced skills and competencies.

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