COVID-19 Impact: Recalibrating Human & AI Roles in the Contact Center, Part 1


As the global economy gradually reopens under evolving guidance and safety protocols for companies, employees and customers, business leaders are contemplating a vastly altered vision of the future of work from just a few months ago.

For many service and support operations, the sudden impact of COVID-19 exposed critical flaws and vulnerabilities in processes and operating models. Executive discussions are currently focusing on concepts like agility and resiliency, along with the mantra that “we can’t make the same mistakes again.”

What does the transition to the “new normal” entail for contact center operations? How will centers restructure service and support delivery models, agents’ skill sets, automation deployment and work-from-home solutions to emerge with the best possible outcome for future growth and success? For insights to these and other questions, I recently reached out to seven contact center industry thought leaders for their views. Our panel of experts includes Chris Arnold, Vice President of Contact Center Strategy, ASAPP; Tom Goodmanson, President & CEO, Calabrio; Tim Montgomery, Founder & Managing Partner, Alamo Cloud Solutions; Toby Parrish, Chief Operating Officer, Televerde; Jen Snell, Vice President of Product Strategy and Marketing, Verint; Paul Stockford, Chief Analyst, Saddletree Research; and Cameron Weeks, Co-Founder & CEO, Edify.

In Part 1 of this three-post series, our experts discuss the challenges going forward.

Q. What do you see as the top challenge facing contact centers as they transition to a post-pandemic service and support model?

CHRIS ARNOLD: There are two major challenges and opportunities: Digital expansion and work-from-home. In the last month, business, technical and in-house political barriers have fallen away to allow for improvisation and experimentation. Smart CX leaders are using this moment to pivot and expand upon their digital capabilities, which means meeting customers where they already operate—in asynchronous messaging/chat options and on more web and app pages. It’s not about AI or agents—the industry needs both. Augmenting agents with the right AI tools and platform will provide the ability to transform their structure into a digital-first organization. 

COVID-19 changed the landscape of the contact center forever with work-from-home. Many agents will never return to the office environment and that changes how companies operationalize, what technology it deploys. WFH is not a transformation as much as optimization at this point. At leading companies, these opportunities will transform the cost structure of CX from an expensive legacy system to an agile digital environment where agents are augmented with technology that helps them to do their job fast and productively. An environment where agents can hand off basic tasks to automation and tackle the more difficult customer challenges will ultimately provide the best customer experience.

TOM GOODMANSON: One of the top challenges that contact centers will face in the coming months is the decision on how to balance automated options and human agents. There has been discussion among contact center circles that COVID-19 could push contact centers further in the direction of chatbots and automated customer service. While the idea of “cheaper” automated solutions seems like the right answer, studies continue to show that customers prefer to interact with human agents, especially in times of crisis.

To best serve customers, the right balance must be met between AI and human responses. Contact centers need to analyze their interaction mix to gauge where bots prove a realistic replacement and where their implementation would come at the detriment of customer satisfaction and loyalty. In addition, contact centers should shift their thinking to see the use of AI and bots, not as a substitute for human agents, but as a supporting tool to improve customer interactions. Chatbots and AI should be used as a guide to empower agents as well as make them more accessible and knowledgeable for customers in need. Finally, certainly do not forget to do some type of automated quality assurance against the bots to help tune them to what the end customer really wants.

TIM MONTGOMERY: Going back to the way things were done before. Customers proved that they’re ready to communicate in all channels—chat, SMS, email, video, social and intelligent voice. We must avoid falling back into the traditional prolonged approach to implementing new technical solutions and processes, and instead, move to a “fail fast and learn” model. In the “next normal” environment, the question is how quickly can we achieve a fully integrated, cloud-based “omnichannel” strategy? The answer should be measured in weeks, not years.

TOBY PARRISH: How limited is your imagination? Organizations have a golden opportunity to become a better version of themselves. The challenge will be not falling back on what we know or what’s worked in the past. Business has changed—forever. We must accept this and take steps to evolve. If we don’t, all the pains we are going through now and the lessons we learn along the way will have been for naught.

Companies that want to fully recover (which is all of us) can’t shy away from adopting new, emerging technologies. Before COVID-19, some companies found it hard to give up their legacy infrastructure in favor of new tech. This was a sacrifice made to reduce operational costs. It’s an antiquated corporate mindset that isn’t suited for our digital economy.

I’d strongly suggest that all leaders engage their employees in building this 2.0 version of themselves. Get their feedback on what’s working and what’s not. Learn what they need to succeed, their biggest challenges, how they prefer to work, and training they are lacking. Then commit to deliver on what you’ve discovered.

Focus on reducing operational costs where it makes sense then reinvest that money in areas that drive growth.

This out-of-the-box thinking will set up your company, your engagement centers and your employees for our post-pandemic future of work.

JEN SNELL: COVID-19 has exposed consumers to the realities of the supply chain and the back-end of businesses in a way that they never were before. Whereas before, your customer base probably took for granted what it takes to run a call center or what their requests actually entail, they have now come face-to-face with infinite wait times, juggling staff and changing work environments, as well as an unprecedented amount of delayed orders. All of which is to say that suddenly your average customer has more doubts about the fulfillment of their orders or responsive support than ever before.

Regardless of whether you’re an organization that has run into these problems first-hand, or you’re a business that has been able to effectively get ahead of each of these problems as they’ve emerged, both your customers and your live agents are going to have scar tissue from this period. Looking at a post-pandemic world, it’s incredibly important for organizations to concentrate on technology that will work in tandem with a fully distributed workforce. The contact center of the future is decidedly adaptive.

If your organization hasn’t already invested in AI-powered solutions to help support customers and live agents alike, I would stress that now is the time. AI solutions like Intelligent Virtual Assistants (IVAs) and natural language voice bots can help contact centers scale their support and allow live agents to focus their attention on where they’re most needed. IVAs can also help a company ensure consistent brand representation across their customer support channels, allowing enterprises to seamlessly roll out any updates to the brand voice that they want to implement or test post-pandemic.

PAUL STOCKFORD: Modernization. Most contact centers were forced to scramble in order to comply with recommendations of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in one way or another. For the 52% of North American contact centers that are already in the cloud, half the battle was won. They were able to transition to a work-from-home (WFH) model fairly quickly in terms of technology. For many cloud contact centers, the challenge then became scheduling, quality management and training for a WFH workforce.

The results of our 2020 survey of contact centers show that workforce management (WFM) is at the top of the list of solutions that will be upgraded or replaced in 2020 with 18% of the market actively evaluating new scheduling software this year. Looking at it from another angle, there are still plenty of scheduling software solutions out there that are in need of replacing even if they didn’t report that they would be replacing it in 2020. I still hear people referring to their “Blue Pumpkin” WFM software. I expect that the reported 18% of WFM software to be replaced will likely be closer to 50% actually being replaced by the end of the year.

While our data indicates that 50% of North American contact centers had some part of their agent workforce working from home before the pandemic, it turns out that the vast majority of these contact centers actually have a very small percentage, less than 25%, of their workforce working from home. Even if those agents sent to work from home during the pandemic are called back to the contact center to work, contact centers need to be prepared for whatever may come next, including the possibility that customer service will be directly impacted again by another crisis.

CAMERON WEEKS: Historically, those working in contact centers have worked from the office. And then the pandemic happened, forcing us to work from home. Now people know they can work from home and management’s previous response that “it isn’t possible” just doesn’t hold up anymore. This will undoubtedly be a topic that contact center leaders will need to address, as there will be an increasing interest to continue to work from home post-pandemic. The good news is that it is possible to run a highly regulated contact center in a remote environment where agents deliver exceptional customer experiences.

Working from home has the potential to tackle a long-standing issue that has impacted contact centers for years—attrition. If people have the ability to work from home, their job satisfaction will potentially increase. Additionally, contact centers no longer need to hire based on location and can employ people from anywhere in the world.

Part 2 of this series examines how to address potential gaps and weaknesses between digital and human service delivery, and opportunities to leverage AI technology to adapt quickly to changing circumstances.