Turning Up the Heat on the Contact Center: A Fireside Chat with Verint’s Ryan Hollenbeck


When you think of states with the hottest temperatures in the U.S., chances are Arizona will be at the top of your list. Here in Cave Creek, Arizona, home of Saddletree Research Global Headquarters, triple-digit temperatures are common from May through September and our usually mild winters bring in hordes of “snow birds” from the frozen climes of northern states and Canada. In fact, the population of Cave Creek literally doubles during the winter months.

Question: How do you know when fall comes to Arizona?
Answer: The license plates change color.

So, when one thinks of fireside chats, as popularized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1933 to 1944, Arizona probably isn’t a place one would naturally think of as a good place for a fireside chat. But the fact is, here in the high Sonoran Desert, we get quite a few cold days during the winter months and even the occasional dusting of snow. The photo above of the stately grounds of Saddletree Research Global Headquarters was taken following one such recent desert snowfall.

Ryan Hollenbeck

With the onset of winter here in Arizona, the time is perfect for a fireside chat—an informal discussion about the state of the contact center industry as we enter a new decade. I’ve invited longtime business colleague and trusted industry resource, Ryan Hollenbeck, to join me. Ryan is the Senior Vice President of Global Marketing at Verint and someone whose opinions I’ve valued for the past 20 years. So, throw some coal on your own fire, or maybe just fire up the portable heater in your office, and join us for a fireside chat.

STOCKFORD: As you know, Ryan, 2019 was a big year for Saddletree Research as we celebrated our 20th anniversary in business. As you look back at 2019, what industry developments or trends stand out in your mind?

HOLLENBECK: You’ve been covering the industry in expert fashion for quite some time, Paul. Congratulations on 20 years, and we know how many people appreciate your insights and expertise year to year. Thanks.

Three trends from 2019 continuing into 2020 that come to mind are organizations’ efforts to reduce process complexity, modernize their customer engagement technology, and infuse automation just about wherever they can.

Many businesses have complex environments that were assembled over many years, with multiple systems from different vendors deployed in silos across their organizations. To simplify operations, they’re seeking open and flexible systems that can help better manage their evolving business requirements, while also protecting their legacy tech investments. Open platforms can address needs across the contact center as well as back-office and branch operations, e-commerce, customer experience, marketing and IT.

As contact center pros continue modernizing their legacy systems and transitioning key systems like workforce management to the cloud, they are gaining more flexible architectures that aid orchestration of disparate systems for better data sharing across the enterprise.

And within all this activity, most organizations are looking to automate functions by applying machine learning and analytics tools that reduce manual work and increase workforce efficiency. We’re likewise seeing more self-service deployments backed by AI-powered bots and human/bot collaboration to support customer experiences in a faster, more personalized way.

STOCKFORD: Let’s chat a bit more about bots and the human/bot collaboration that you mentioned. How do you see that coming together?

HOLLENBECK: We certainly see a future where humans remain as important as they’ve always been—a future that automates functions, not jobs. Technology is helping businesses provide their employees and agents with tools to handle more complex engagements with customers. For example, handoffs between self-service interactions and agent-assisted ones become smoother with automation and contextual knowledge, and the technology used works in much the same way employees are used to on their personal devices.

Hybrid workforce/bot tools can automate the more mundane functions that contact center agents are asked to frequently handle—address changes, for example, or order status requests. When needed, customers can transition a self-service session to an assisted service interaction on phone, email, chat or social media without losing the context of their self-service session, so an employee can see at a glance the history of what the customer was trying to accomplish. The net is fewer frustrated customers and less stressed employees.

STOCKFORD: Artificial intelligence got, I think, more than its fair share of industry attention last year and the interest in AI is still growing in 2020. How realistic are these AI expectations and what impact do you see AI having on both the customer experience and the employee experience?

HOLLENBECK: AI and machine learning algorithms improve forecasting and empower businesses and managers to make sure they have the right skills on the floor at the right time—no matter how many options for swapping or amending schedules the organization chooses to offer agents. Employees gain flexible shift bidding, flexing and swap options within the context of a company’s full staffing forecasts and scheduling thanks to AI handling the complexities. Customers get the best-skilled agents aligned to their individual requests.

Knowledge management is another example. AI drives automated, intelligent and efficient methods to connect agents to knowledge. AI powers our KM solution to understand nuances in how people ask questions—what they mean, not what they type. It also anticipates what people want and can even predict what they are about to ask before they do. It constantly learns based on what it hears and sees, helping to dramatically reduce effort for agents and self-service applications so customers are better served.

Today’s KM tools are interactive engines that retrieve focused answers from a range of channels within the organization. They recommend the best next steps agents should take to resolve a customer’s issue. They can also prompt agents to say certain statements to meet regulatory compliance requirements. But the future of KM is more than just prompts to help say the right thing. It’s a future of increased empowerment for agents who want to learn in order to do their jobs better, who appreciate access to the information they need to grow and thrive.

Interactive virtual assistants and automated quality management are yet other examples. Without a doubt, 2020 will surface more ways, both practical and innovative, to leverage AI and improve both customer and employee experience. We’re energized by the momentum.

STOCKFORD: I wonder how these AI developments and deployments will resonate not only in the contact center, but in the enterprise as a whole.

HOLLENBECK: It’s clearly resonating with the market and customers are deploying. One of our own Verint studies surveyed 34,000+ consumers in 18 countries and found that, rather than fearing that robots will replace them, 71% of people are in favor of using technology to replace manual and laborious tasks. That’s a huge shift in attitude over the past several years and good news for companies implementing AI-driven hybrid workforce strategies.

Our vision holds that a hybrid workforce approach across the enterprise, where technology and humans are working collaboratively, is the best way forward for employees. We’ll continue to help the industry define and implement the right mix of automation and human touch to ensure consumer trust and relationships don’t get lost in digitization.

STOCKFORD: Last year, we conducted a survey among members of the National Association of Call Centers and asked them how their contact center was viewed, and subsequently treated, by executive management. I covered this data in my session at Engage 2019, but I want to discuss perhaps how this might evolve in 2020. Ninety-three percent (93%) of respondents stated that the customer experience was important or highly important in their organization. Yet, 46% of those same respondents also stated that their contact center is driven mostly or totally by cost containment and they don’t get the resources they need to optimize the customer experience.

I’ve heard repeatedly that CX is becoming a board-level priority, so how do we rationalize the prioritization of CX with the reality of limited or minimal contact center investment?

HOLLENBECK: Balancing customer experience and operational efficiency will remain a major challenge in 2020. Delivering great customer experience today is harder than ever. With so many expanding channel choices, customers are interacting more frequently and surging contact center volumes. Many companies add headcount in the contact center to cope, but this isn’t a sustainable strategy. Driving operational efficiency by leveraging automation is critical to scaling business without sacrificing customer experience. Yes, it’s a journey, and organizations can essentially “start anywhere” in an area of most need, leveraging that success to validate continued modernizing of their operations.

STOCKFORD: Looking ahead at 2020 and beyond, how do you see the contact center evolving over the next decade?

HOLLENBECK: The contact center will not only have a seat at the executive table in the next decade, it will morph into the enterprise in such a way that it becomes the single most valuable data source to help organizations, their leadership and employees make critical, business-differentiating decisions. Verint manages and analyzes billions of interactions and hundreds of billions of customer signals every year, so we believe we’re in a good position to partner with and assist our customer organizations.

Organizations are finding that they need to listen, analyze and act on the voice of the customer across channels to deliver standout omnichannel journeys and have a more connected view of the customer.

Overall, I have to agree with Ryan’s assessment of the contact center industry in 2020—it’s hot and getting hotter! And for those of you still wondering which of the 50 states is the hottest, it isn’t Arizona. In fact, Arizona’s average annual temperature doesn’t even crack the top 10.

At the top of the list is Texas with an average of 81.3 degrees, followed by Louisiana at 81.1 degrees and Florida at 80.5 degrees. Arizona sits at a disappointing 11th place with an average temperature of 77.3 degrees, which still doesn’t translate to many fireside opportunities during the year. Perhaps my next fireside chat will have to be around the outdoor fire pit.

The National Association of Call Centers

Did you know columnist Paul Stockford is also the editor of In-Queue, the monthly newsletter of the National Association of Call Centers? Get your free subscription and read more of his provocative commentary every month!