The annual ICMI Contact Center Expo, which took place virtually last month, featured an agenda of enlightening presentations on the state of the call center industry.
While nearly every presentation over the two-day event mentioned the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the industry, one presentation in particular took a deep dive into what has changed since the pandemic and what it means for the future.
Senior Advisor and Founding Partner of ICMI, Brad Cleveland, met with Principal Analyst of Customer Engagement of Omdia, Ken Landoline, and Director of Product Marketing with NICE inContact, Brad Mistretta, to talk about “The Contact Center of Tomorrow.”
The Time Doctor team was there to listen and learn from the presentation. Here’s what we discovered.
What’s changed since the pandemic?
When asked what has changed in the call center industry since the global pandemic, both Landoline and Mistretta shared important observations.
For one, the remote or cloud-based contact center model has become both more viable and more prevalent. According to Landoline, the pandemic was a “perfect storm” for the cloud contact center. It forced contact centers to make the switch, whether it was something they would normally consider or not, in a very short period of time, essentially providing a trial run for remote work.
As it turns out, many contact centers found the transition to be less of a hurdle than they’d imagined. “Five years ago, I was doing webinars back then about ‘should I move to the cloud? What about security? What about privacy?’ and all those issues. That didn’t come up this time. People are secure in the cloud contact center so they’re willing to run with it,” said Landoline.
Mistretta also commented on the shift away from a strictly on-premise work model. “Making that tectonic shift of not having all of your agents within a centralized location where you had a supervisor that could walk the floor, that was a huge disruption, but I think what we learned is that there are ways that remote work has improved contact centers,” he said.
With that, he stressed the importance of knowing how to manage remote agents. “Lots of supervisors told me that they were uncomfortable or untrusting of their agents when they couldn’t look over their shoulder,” Mistretta said. [And] they need to learn to handle that going forward.”
New ways of doing business
Along with the move to remote work came a larger scale implementation of digital channels.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to higher call volumes in many contact centers. With many businesses also operating with a reduced number of available call center reps, it’s no wonder that some people were getting wait times of up to 60 to 90 minutes or more.
This strain accelerated the adoption of chatbots, virtual assistants, and other forms of automation, prompting a wave of investment and implementation and making them more feasible for continued adoption in the future. As Landoline puts it, “using a single channel, such as voice alone, to interact with customers [simply] won’t work going forward.”
New customer behaviors
While the pandemic showed that businesses and agencies could adapt, it proved that customers can adapt as well. Just as call centers had to learn how to operate in new, more diverse ways, so did customers.
With long wait times and difficulty getting through to agents via voice channels, customers that might not typically be inclined to use chatbots or virtual assistant features had to make a choice. As Mistretta explained, “even tech holdouts, people who didn’t really want to engage on digital channels had to say ‘well I can either sit on hold for 6 hours or 7 hours, or I can try something else.”
Those new behaviors are likely to stick. The move to cloud contact centers and the implementation of more automation “was done quickly, but after that pivot, all those new behaviors aren’t going to evaporate,” says Mistretta. “We’ve [all] learned some great new things by leveraging technology, by leveraging the cloud contact center as an infrastructure piece or as the nucleus of your contact center.”
What are the opportunities?
The switch to cloud-based, the adoption of more omnichannel operations, and changes in customer behavior have created new opportunities for the contact center of tomorrow.
New technologies and a willingness to implement them will offer an opportunity to evolve the role of the contact center and, ultimately, the contact center agents themselves. By implementing these self-service technologies, the customer journey is streamlined and the contact center will evolve into a more strategic function for any business.
If, for example, a significant majority of contacts are simple, transactional, and repeatable interactions, then adding automation to the mix can greatly reduce the agents’ queue. As Mistretta explained, leveraging automation frees agents to focus on more complex engagements with customers. With more bandwidth and the opportunity to direct more attention to advanced interactions, agents can up their game and offer higher quality in their customer interactions. This may also add new capabilities to the agent skillset.
Where might this take us?
Both Landoline and Mistretta believe that automation will enable skilled agents to take a more meaningful role in the customer journey, turning the contact center into an even more valuable strategic element of the business.
Mistretta anticipates that AI, which is already helping agents perform better through things like in-call coaching, will only continue to advance over the coming years. In time, this will present opportunities for agents to contribute to marketing campaigns, sales intelligence, and the like. It’s likely that these more talented agents with better tools will be able to contribute in many ways across the customer journey.
He views the contact center of tomorrow as the “digital front door of the business,” capable of having downstream impacts that make it more than just a cost center.
Landoline agrees that agents of the near future will be more skilled and more strategic, able to cross-sell, upsell, acquire new customers, and spearhead intelligence-gathering efforts. “Because of the richness of the contact center, the involvement they’ll have across the board, how well they know the products, etc., I think we’re going to get into an era of what I would call ‘the super agent,’ ” Landoline said.
In addition to observations and predictions, Landoline and Mistretta also had some advice for the contact center leaders of tomorrow.
Mistretta recommends getting away from strictly premise-based contact center solutions. In his mind, the rate of change in contact center technology has become much more than a premise-based solution can handle. By contrast, the cloud contact center puts businesses on a trajectory to new features, new channels, and new ways of doing things.
“You’ve got to embrace a cloud contact center to start really taking advantage of some of the things we’re talking about – self-service, AI, chatbots, virtual agents,” Mistretta said. “Certainly, all are possible with premise-based, but it’s going to be a much trickier deployment. [Premise-based] is probably not going to be as clean …as user-intuitive to agents and they’re going to be hopping from platform to platform to do things, and that’s not scalable with customer expectations. You need to be able to do it efficiently and make it easy to do for your agents in order to achieve that CX.”
Landoline also cautioned against depending solely on a premises-based system in the future. As he explained, the cloud-based contact center has proven to be viable, and the benefits of switching far outweigh any of the risks.
Ryan Plank is a content marketer with a degree in Journalism and a background in technology. He lives in Orlando, Florida, and is an avid golfer.