Unexpected Lessons from the 2020 Contact Center


About a year ago, I tried something that we would all agree now was a bit foolish: predict what the 2020 contact center would look like. Before the COVID-19 pandemic sent agents home on a massive scale, before economic disruption reinforced the need for consistent, digitally enabled customer experiences (CX), I outlined several ongoing trends and how they would shape the future of contact centers in the first year of the new decade. Needless to say, those predictions were made under rosier conditions.

With economic uncertainty the new norm and an unclear timeline on the proliferation of a safe, effective vaccine, it would be irresponsible to claim authority on what we can expect following a year of the unexpected. We can, however, extrapolate a few important lessons from the last nine or so months on what worked and what didn’t, as contact center leaders shore up their CX fundamentals and deliver value to customers amid a period of such flux.

The following is a look at where we thought the industry was going this past year, what we actually experienced, and what solid lessons we can carry with us into 2021.

Prediction 1: Digital Offerings Will Determine Success

Last year, I predicted that Gen Z and millennials would drive a spike in the further adoption of a wide range of digital channels in the contact center. Their digital fluency would, in theory, drive contact centers to embrace a digital-first policy to meet these customers where they are. In fact, our own research had pointed to this trend, with the annual NICE inContact CX Transformation Benchmark study finding 40% of companies are very likely to invest in four or more channels to improve the customer service experience in the coming year and 25% were likely to invest in new services that allow channels of communication to work together seamlessly.

Technically, this prediction did come true, but not for the reasons we anticipated. When the world went on lockdown, digital channels became a significant value driver as contact centers increasingly engaged with customers at home. Additional research found that in the first few months of the pandemic, 62% of contact center leaders saw a greater volume of digital interactions. While we cannot say with confidence when the pandemic will end, it’s important to note that the skills and preferences customers have developed during this time will be lasting—especially as they emphasize convenience. Regardless of timeline, the value of digital in the contact center is here to stay.

Prediction 2: The Promise of AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) has been on the contact center wish list for years. As it has developed, some contact centers (largely those with highly targeted approaches) have seen incredible value in driving more personalized conversations and improving interactive voice response (IVR) menus. That said, core business functions and continuity usurped the importance of next-gen solutions as the pandemic hit in full force.

Rather than experimenting with potential use cases, it was all hands on deck for contact centers as they transitioned staff home for the first time, without missing a beat in terms of delivering service. The change in priority was a smart, if necessary, choice on behalf of contact center leadership. In fact, in cases where contact centers were already operating on cloud software, this emphasis ensured a seamless transition to remote, with contact centers fully up and running remotely in as soon as 48 hours. Furthermore, additional investment was made in giving agents the tools they needed to replicate the experience at home, from training and feedback to operational processes like time off.

With the bulk of disruption behind contact center leaders, in the short term, AI acceleration is once again beginning to heat up. Use cases like agent support and other real-time performance adjustments can go a long way in enhancing the current agent experience. The potential for AI to reshape the contact center continues to be a mainstay.

Prediction 3: The Contact Center Will Be Upended

Here’s another example of technically correct, but for different reasons. My thinking at the time posited that given the confluence of multiple trends—from advancing AI and more intelligent chatbots to evolving customer preference—this would be a transformational year for the contact center. As far as 2020 goes, it certainly was transformational.

But the sheer volume of change did provide a critical roadmap that remains relevant today.

How can contact centers maintain digital flexibility to react and respond to challenges and opportunities as they develop in real-time? Contact centers have received their first real taste of how quickly they need to move to avert disaster or achieve new levels of growth. Today’s contact centers are not only battle-hardened, they have laid the foundation for the next generation of success.

Who Knows Where We Go From Here

Predicting the future of contact centers is a luxury we in the industry no longer have. So much of 2021 planning hinges on factors well outside our control—a vaccine, public trust in said vaccine, a recovered economy. Therefore, 2021 planning shouldn’t be rooted in the environmental factors which can change on a dime but advancing the core competencies which have buoyed these organizations thus far. I’d love to be able to provide a “in case of vaccine, break glass” level of advice, but as 2020 has proven, just about anything can happen.