COVID-19 Impact: Recalibrating Human & AI Roles, Part 3


In this final installment of our three-part series on COVID-19’s impact on contact centers, our panel discusses how the rapid move to adopt or expand automated solutions will effect agent training and development in the new work environment, as well as which AI-powered support tools can add the most value for employees and customers during the recovery process.

Be sure to read Part 1 for insights on top challenges contact centers face in the transition to a post-pandemic service and support model. Part 2 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.

Our panel of industry experts for the series 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.

Q. How will the acceleration of automation adoption or expansion impact agent training and development in the post-COVID work environment?

CHRIS ARNOLD: The proper use of AI overall will result in the simplification of the agent experience, and that has an outsized impact on reducing training time and costs. By augmenting agents with artificial intelligence in a messaging environment that coaches them on what to say, when to say it and what are the next best actions—based on what a center’s best agents have been saying in terms of close rates and solutioning—you can deliver a 40% reduction in agent training and ramp-up times. 

TIM MONTGOMERY: Most of today’s workforce has been exposed to online learning and a “do it at your own pace” approach to training. In the new world, contact centers will realize the ancient teaching with PowerPoint in a classroom needs to be replaced with flexible models that aren’t the traditional “one size fits all” training strategies. With modular training and at-your-own-pace programs, agents will be on the phones faster, and training budgets can be more aligned to meet business needs. This creative, new-world approach allows for near-real-time budgeting to help contact centers retain the agents we cannot afford to lose and to move quickly to make investment decisions that will have an immediate impact on the business.

JEN SNELL: Organizations have now seen first-hand the benefit of bringing AI technologies into their customer support stack. They have witnessed how solutions like Intelligent Virtual Assistants have helped scale customer support and communicate brand values on-command. Many of these organizations also have already leveraged AI for internal purposes, including live-agent support and training. However, I expect that even more organizations will be interested in using AI as a tool to train their workforce post-pandemic.

After all, onboarding and training are some of the most important processes for a company. These are processes that require transferring brand values and institutional knowledge, but in a way that still empowers and makes sense for individual employees. While obviously, you would not want all onboarding to be done through assistants, virtual assistants do provide a resource for employees that allows them to ask all of the questions that they undoubtedly have without interfering with operations that might otherwise be focused on getting pre-COVID procedures back up and running. IVAs can train to the same high standard regardless of whether an employee chooses to remain remote or return to the office post-COVID.

Additionally, virtual assistants allow employees to be more honest with their learning and what they’re still figuring out. Particularly now that many contact center workforces have been pushed to align on and appreciate the value that AI and AI-powered solutions bring to the arena of customer support, employees are more comfortable than ever before turning to AI solutions for help. While there may be some element of embarrassment about constantly going to HR with your questions, it’s guaranteed that a virtual assistant won’t judge you for your questions—no matter how many you ask.

CAMERON WEEKS: Looking forward to a post-COVID work environment, I believe that training will be incredibly different and that will be in part due to machine learning (ML) technology. ML has the power to provide real-time, tailored learning tools, based on the individual needs of the agent. For example, ML can identify areas of growth for an agent based on the data collected and analyzed from that agent’s work on any given day, and quickly and easily offer that agent training to address those specific areas of growth. No longer will agents need to sit and watch PowerPoints, but instead they will benefit from curated, bespoke learning models personalized for each individual agent. This will undoubtedly impact the customer experience for the better.

Q. Which AI-powered support tools will add the most value to the customer and employee experience as contact centers navigate a near- and long-term recovery?

CHRIS ARNOLD: We’re at a point in time in the contact center space where it’s not an either-or situation. It’s not automation or augmentation, and it’s not bot or agent. It’s all of it. 

Agents are crucial to the customer experience industry, and when they are augmented by AI, it provides them a virtual exoskeleton that will amplify and accelerate their capabilities to be more productive and effective. At the same time, an AI platform that ingests vast amounts of data can produce action-oriented processes and results to drive out systemic inefficiencies that have driven the frustration and stress of both customers and agents. The automation element can be good for consumers who want the choice, convenience and control to complete basic transactions at any time and at their convenience without the friction of waiting. However, being able to gracefully transition from human-centered to machine-enabled parts of a conversation is sophisticated and not simple, it requires a lot of smarts from a technology perspective, so it’s critical that an AI strategy is well-planned. 

A number of our customers are using AI as an umbrella technology that stitches together all of these elements and crucially expands across both digital and voice, which isn’t going away. AI is also driving digital engagement and supporting more complex and emotive contexts where agents are essential and can raise CSAT associated with emotive contacts. That omni-experience hasn’t been achieved, but with the proper use of AI, even the largest and most complex CX organizations will get there.

TOM GOODMANSON: One of the main trends we will likely see on our road to recovery is a continuation of the work-from-home model. In a PwC survey from April 2020, about half of responding CFOs said remote work will be a permanent option for some at their companies. I believe contact center agents will be among those that begin to work from home more often. And with that in mind, AI-powered support will become even more important as it will offer contact centers the ability to remain flexible yet in control, even from a distance.

With agents out of the office, predictive AI insights can give contact centers and agents essential visibility into support strategies. Setting up an AI-driven command center for interaction evaluations imbues contact centers with an insightful preparedness no matter where agents are working. Contact centers can use this information to prepare their agents with targeted training and allows management to remain close to agents who may be at home but should not feel like they are on an island. Continuous evaluations through AI and supportive coaching will also pave the way to recovery and growth as they are a vital investment in long-term customer satisfaction, retention and upsell.

Another potential struggle for post-pandemic operations is agent scheduling. Especially during the height of the pandemic, agents often needed to change their schedule at short notice owing to personal circumstances. Even as we return to a sense of normalcy, an increasingly remote workforce will require this same level of flexibility. Rather than just looking to chatbots as a fix-all for the customer experience, contact centers should embrace bots as an agent-facing self-service tool that can offer them the flexibility to adjust their working day as it happens and enable more adaptive service operations.

JEN SNELL: There’s little question that COVID-19 has proven that AI technologies are a vital component in a contact center’s customer service stack. And I don’t think that’s going to change post-pandemic. However, I think that long-term, we’re going to see the value of AI technologies become just as obvious when it comes to augmenting and enhancing employee support and training.

AI technologies like Intelligent Virtual Assistants can be used for just-in-time learning to give employees access to the information they need, when they need it. Given the newfound sense of autonomy that a crisis brings, your workforce no longer wants to have to wait for a response from HR—who themselves may be swamped with post-pandemic tasks—to a simple question. Nor do your employees want to skim through an employee manual, which is likely littered with outdated processes in a post-COVID world. With the right IVA vendor, you can ensure that your employees get the updated information they need, exactly when they need it with no additional hassle or stress. Virtual assistants really empower employees to take learning into their own hands, which is going to be incredibly important as some contact centers remain remote while others readjust to life in the office.

CAMERON WEEKS: AI- and ML-powered technologies are known to benefit the customer. Bots are very common and many customers enjoy the self-service capabilities these tools offer. I believe that the next value-add we will see from AI and ML technologies will focus internally around supporting the agent. 

As people continue to work from home, and as businesses still try to grow, AI and ML will be instrumental in educating, training and information-sharing with employees in an efficient and effective way—regardless of whether they are in the office and in-person with their managers or working remotely.

When agents receive better support from their leaders, they will deliver better service to customers, so as contact centers leverage technology to better train and support their agents, the customer experience will benefit, too. It’s a complete win-win scenario. Agents are the front line of the customer experience and if we’re not empowering them to be successful, it doesn’t matter what we’re doing in regard to the customer experience.