The Times They Are a-Changin’


The Times They Are a-Changin’” is a song written by Minnesota’s own Robert Allen Zimmerman, and was released in 1964 as the title track on an album by the same name. Robert Zimmerman is, of course, the real name of Bob Dylan and “The Times They Are a-Changin’” became his anthem of change for the early 1960s, which was a time of great societal change anyway.

“The Times They Are a-Changin’” also has become something of a catchphrase for anyone who wants to indicate that something is undergoing or is about to undergo a significant change. In 1984, Steve Jobs recited the second verse of the song in his opening of that year’s Apple shareholders’ meeting, where he unveiled the Macintosh computer for the first time. John Mellencamp made a home video recording of himself singing the song and posted it on his website as a statement about the possible changes the 2008 presidential election could bring to the country. The song also has been used in the introductions of many television shows and movies over the past 57 years.

One thing I couldn’t figure out, though, was why Bob used the a- prefix with the word “changing” in the song. I mean, why not just say times are changin’ rather than times are a-changin’? Does anyone really speak that way?

“Where are you a-goin’?”

“I’m a-goin’ to the a-store.”

“Can I a-come, too?”

“Sure, let’s a-go.”

Turns out the a- in the song title actually has a name. It is called an archaic intensifying prefix and was more commonly used in the 18th and 19th centuries. Somehow it missed the 20th century. I wonder if anyone mentioned that to Bob back in 1963.

And speaking of archaic, things are a-changin’ in the contact center world too, and I’m not just referring to the results of the pandemic on the customer experience and the customer service industry. As serious as the COVID-19 pandemic has been and continues to be to life everywhere, you’re probably tired of hearing about it at this point. How many more times and in how many more different ways can we talk about work-from-home (WFH) agents and Zoom calls?

It is undeniable, however, that the changes that have been brought about by the pandemic, combined with technological advances and evolving generational preferences, have the potential to alter forever the customer service profession as we know it. But there’s good news and bad news here. The good news is for vendors in that many of the advanced technologies they’ve been peddling for the past few years will finally be not only accepted, but they will be in demand by the industry for many years to come. The bad news is for many of the executives who control contact center budgets. They will have to face the fact that the contact center is finally a place for investment rather than budget cuts.

Let’s get this out of the way first because I know I have to say something about the WFH workforce of the future. We all know WFH had to happen to keep the workforce safe but as vaccines are rolling out and infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci is telling us that we may be back to normal by the end of the summer, what is the likelihood that the majority of contact centers will continue to support a WFH workforce?

Research conducted last September, at the height of the pandemic, indicates that WFH has been a success and that more than 70% of contact center executives anticipate maintaining all or some of their agent workforce in a WFH environment once the pandemic is behind us. The figure below indicates responses to the question of whether or not a WFH workforce will be maintained once the pandemic is over. 

Despite these results, I believe there may still be some risk of an unexpectedly high percentage of the industry wanting to turn back the clock. There is still the risk that when this mess is all behind us, some of those in the contact center industry will breathe a collective sigh of relief, then try to go back to the way things were in the pre-pandemic world. I think human nature is often responsible for guiding people back to what might be perceived as being safer and/or more comfortable. Once the COVID panic is over and the pandemic-induced ad lib management style is no longer necessary, will we slip back into the comfort of managing the customer service function “the way it’s always been done?”

For tangible evidence of this flaw in human nature, the perfect example is the hit television series “The Biggest Loser.” The show ran for 18 seasons, which kind of boggles my mind since I never watched a single episode of the show. Somehow I missed it and it ended in March 2020.

For the benefit of those of you who, like me, must have been living under a rock for those 18 years, the idea behind “The Biggest Loser” was a competition reality show featuring obese or overweight contestants competing to win a cash prize by losing the most weight, relative to their initial weight, over a given period of time. Contestants worked with fitness trainers and coaches to modify their lifestyles, and their daily exercise and eating habits were radically altered during the contest period. The net result was the collective loss of hundreds if not thousands of pounds by contestants over the show’s 18 seasons.

In 2016, the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH) released the results of a long-term study of “The Biggest Loser” season eight competitors. Season eight aired in 2009. Of the 16 contestants in season eight, all but one had regained most or all of the weight they lost during the contest, with some contestants weighing more than when they entered the contest. While there are medical reasons why some of these contestants regained the lost weight, I would argue that when the motivation, limitations and strict regimen are gone, it’s easy to fall right back into old habits.

There are many documented benefits of maintaining a WFH workforce, just as there are many documented benefits of maintaining a healthy weight and lifestyle. But I wonder if the contact center industry will find it hard to resist returning to its old ways once the challenges and restrictions of the COVID pandemic are over. If it does, it will be a huge step backward for an industry that was able to squeeze a decade of industry evolution into a period of a few weeks.

But human nature can be a powerful motivator, and a quick return to the old, proven, comfortable way of doing things might be very tempting. Still, I hope the industry will collectively acknowledge that the times are a-changing and will continue to move forward. No one wants to see the contact center industry become another biggest loser.

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!