The contact center industry has had to evolve with seismic shifts over the past year and a half. Businesses everywhere shifted en masse to work-from-home (WFH) environments: and digital acceleration went into overdrive to cope with them.
Consequently, technology and resource investments that were meticulously planned for measured rollouts between 2021 and 2024 suddenly had to deploy in the field “now” to support an overnight remote workforce. One that was simultaneously managing a massive rise in contact center interactions that were often for more complex issues that would take more time to resolve than in the past.
Moreover, the contact center is no longer the primary first point of entry for customer engagement. Now it is often the last point of contact before a customer potentially leaves a supplier relationship.
The definition of “office” has transformed, with a home office as the new home base. Now every agent’s home (or their car), is a contact center.
The WFH shift offers businesses several benefits, including better service. But it also comes with the important challenge of managing a massively distributed workforce while maintaining employee engagement.
Through all these changes, one thing remains the same. Namely the core mission of the contact center to facilitate communications to help customers resolve their issues with positive experiences.
Here are five lessons (and windows into the future) that the contact center can take into the New Year.
Lesson 1: The customer journey is still key; the path has just shifted
For today’s contact center, the customer experience (CX) journey now often starts as a digital contact. Customers are flicking through browsers on their phones, tablets, or laptops rather than browsing through store shelves or contacting a help desk.
The digital-first path adds, however, extra steps between the intersection of contact center agents and customers. And it challenges agents to better understand and resolve customers’ issues more quickly if those interactions do come to their doorsteps.
New cloud-based technologies and artificial intelligence (AI)-powered systems can capture, aggregate, and evaluate large amounts of digital interactions quickly and at scale, often from historically dispersed and siloed systems.
The additional datapoints also shed more visibility into the customers’ journeys to that point. Agents can leverage these insights to quickly ramp up on the customers’ histories and jump into issue resolution rather than making the customers repeat the information and context they had already provided.
Agents with access to these customer touchpoint insights can create more personalized contact experiences that addresses the customers’ needs quickly and seamlessly. The customers take away positive experiences that will then set the expectation bar higher for future interactions.
Lesson 2: New customer paths mean higher customer engagement stakes
In today’s new contact center world, agents are no longer the first touchpoint.
Automated systems and advancements in CX technologies like conversational AI and chatbots provide the new first line of engagement with customers. They take care of common issues and basic inquiries, such as flagging a potential fraud issue, setting up travel advisories with a bank, or checking on an airline ticket upgrade or baggage policies.
If customers can’t resolve their questions through automated chats then it’s up to the agents whether customers will decide to stay and engage or leave the relationships.
The queries that are now coming into the contact center are complex, multi-threaded issues that need people who are empathetic problem solvers. Human agents are often tasked with managing escalating interactions with customers who are coming into the conversations with ongoing negative experiences.
Therefore, the bar for positive CXs is much higher. As a result, contact center average handle times (AHTs) are on the rise. What used to be three-to-four-minute calls centered mainly around lower-level questions or requests are now clocking up to six to eight minutes on complex and sensitive issues.
The combination of super-skilled agents and smart technology support have enabled contact centers to step up and deliver better live experiences over the past year. However, customer expectations are dynamic, and often the last experience is the one they take with them.
Moving ahead, it will be critical for businesses to continue investing in the ongoing training and tools that empower a dynamic, skilled, and mobile workforce.
Lesson 3: Automation is a game changer that empowers, not replaces, super-(human) agents
Automated systems are amazing sidekicks for the modern contact center’s super-agents. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, customers frequently experienced significant delays in customer contact and service, often with hours of wait time in the phone queues before they could reach live agents.
As you can imagine, this created a very negative experience cloud, and customers shared their experiences readily through social media and word-of-mouth. Businesses had to pivot quickly to address customer expectations for shorter wait times and better live agent performance, and they did.
Today, AI-powered chatbots, voicebots, and video engagement take care of initial-level customer queries. This benefits contact centers and customers in several ways.
For one, it supports the philosophy that helping one customer helps every customer. And for every customer that the automated systems can support, that’s one step closer for those who need the helping hands of a live agent or more time that the agent can use to listen to the customer, empathize with them, and help to resolve the issue at hand.
Automated and AI-based systems also help agents take their support games to the next level. For instance, a typical contact center agent can spend upward of 20% of their time searching for information in back-office systems. For another, according to Cisco’s Global Contact Center Survey, 75% of customers expect knowledgeable help within five minutes. Yet there is still the continuous challenge that agents face when juggling multiple applications to service customers.
In response, virtual agents and automated systems can search across databases and preemptively bring human agents the information they need during customer conversations, which can also shorten call times while reaching happy endings with the customers.
Lesson 4: WFH is here to stay
One of the more unexpected lessons from the last 19 months is just how well WFH works for the contact center.
The technologies to support an at-home contact center workforce have been around for many years. However, there was a strong perception that an on-site, in-person workspace was the best environment to keep employees engaged—with each other and with customers—and foster strong workforce loyalty.
When the contact center workforce shifted to WFH during the pandemic, it was a revelation. Contact centers reported stronger employee engagement, increased positive agent experiences, and higher retention, while maintaining happy customers.
The future of the contact center workforce will be WFH. A recent Cisco survey of its leading customers noted that most home agent staffing levels in 2022 will be the same if not higher than they were a year ago, with upwards of 70% of agents working at home. Businesses are emerging from the on-site-to-remote-work pivot with strong digital capabilities and a WFH workforce that’s successful and engaged.
The latest generation of collaboration platforms play a key role in today’s digital-first world. Integrating collaboration platforms like Webex with contact center platforms offers businesses access to comprehensive unified communications and collaboration (UC&C) environments.
For customers, these empower agents to provide a truly integrated and omnichannel approach that allows their customers to get the support they need on the channel that is most convenient for them.
For the contact center workforce, agents can stay connected with their teams and the broader organization, while also branching out to connect more broadly with other subject matter experts within their company to continue building their knowledge base and skills.
Lesson 5: The workforce of the future is highly skilled and adaptive
More direct than word-of-mouth feedback and quicker than customer surveys, contact centers are now the best access point to the most candid, comprehensive, and real-time insights on how customers perceive your business and ultimately whether or not they want to do business with you.
Contact center agents are literally your business ambassadors, representing the brand in both positive and challenging times.
As customer needs become more complex and contact centers introduce new technologies like UC&C to support the workforce, these ambassadors will need to be more informed and have access to upskilling opportunities that maintain and hone their skillsets.
But these ambassadors will also need higher emotional equity moving forward. And be empowered to be less scripted (more human) when engaging with customers, which will help to retain and attract customers: and employees.
Genuine conversations will allow agents to connect with customers on a deeper level, which will help to achieve the goal, namely resolving the customers’ issues with positive experiences.
It is critical to continue investing in the workforce and the technology tools that help these agents take customer care to the next level.
Prior accountabilities include roles in AT&T’s Global Sales Channel, where Zack was a Global Account Manager in the financial services and banking industry and integrated solutions organizations. He was also Avaya’s contact center portfolio general manager, and a founding member of its Global Strategic Solutions team, and a principal for the firm’s Customer Contact Council.