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3 Ways Contact Centers Will Be Different in the Future

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Last July, I wrote “Five Trends Poised to Change the Contact Center,” which called out several emerging trends. It wasn’t particularly controversial as each of the five trends were validated by at least one press release. As with other sectors, innovations will quickly spread across competitors.
 
The contact center is the most advanced slice of enterprise communications. Call center interactions can have big financial impacts, and that’s why it’s quick to apply new technologies. The call center is a remarkable collection of communications technologies that include advanced routing, high availability, sophisticated integrations, rigorous security, telework, and cutting-edge AI, used for activities such as analytics, scheduling, quality monitoring, sentiment, and more.
 
Yet, despite all this, contact centers are reviled by the general public. The customers that contact centers supposedly engage with will generally do everything they can to avoid them. That’s partly attributable to misaligned objectives. Contact centers do what they can to minimize human interactions, and the callers simply want someone to help them.
 
I believe this discrepancy will change. The pendulum favoring cost-cutting and deflection has swung too far, and organizations realize customer service can provide a competitive edge. But answering the phone isn’t as easy as it sounds, nor surprisingly, is it a reasonable goal. The objective is a faster and easier resolution of customer issues, and many of the necessary technical elements already exist.
 
What if the contact center was designed to optimize experience instead of minimizing costs? We are entering a time where this is equation is cost-effective. A new era of contact centers is on the horizon. One that uses technology so differently that they will hardly be recognizable. Soon, contact centers will be missing three big things: hold, operating hours, and the PSTN.
 
It’s Time to Stop Putting Engagement on Hold
Let’s start with the elimination of that rude thing called hold. The only thing worse than being on hold is the incessant and duplicitous reminder about being so important. Virtual hold was a breakthrough, but it only eliminated the physical act of being on hold. I’m talking about eliminating the wait time too. The obvious solution is more agents, but that’s complicated and expensive. Agents need a desk, a phone, training, and they expect to work a full shift. If only there were another way.
 
We put up with “hold” only because we think there’s no alternative. Queues are common in the physical world, we expect to wait for a ride or a cashier, but there’s no reason to wait in a virtual world. Until this year, contact centers were mostly physical, such as a designated bank of cubicles. This year, most of those cubes are empty.
 
Contact center agents are among the most managed/analyzed knowledge workers in the enterprise, and the pandemic accelerated practices for effective management of distributed agents. Current technologies enable things like noise suppression, automated quality assurance, sentiment analytics, and more. There have also been tremendous breakthroughs in distributed training as well as emerging augmented agent technologies that can reduce training time.
 
Now that the contact center is virtual, it’s possible to eliminate other associated barriers such as commutes, shifts, and time zones. This allows us to better address things like traffic spikes. For example, Uber drivers earn more if they drive during peak demand periods, and agents will likely respond in similar ways. The result is we can make agent supply elastic in a cost-effective way.
 
Another way we can eliminate hold is with 24-hour operations. Again, the pandemic taught us about flattening the curve, and a larger service window can spread call volumes. This window also gets facilitated with remote agents, particularly across different time zones. Digital, online businesses don’t close.
 
It’s not solely about the number of agents. To eliminate hold, we also need to get better at reducing routine calls. It’s not particularly intuitive, but self-service is often perceived as a better service. Self-service tech is already on the right path because contact center supervisors and those that call contact centers are aligned here. Most of us prefer a decent self-service option over calling, so it’s a win-win. Contact centers will continue to leverage various advanced self-service technologies such as bots and customer portals.
 
Find a Better Way to Predict Customer Needs
Getting better at predicting the need for service can also reduce (and shorten) calls. Predicting the future isn’t as hard as one might think. Google and Facebook have built empires on their ability to predict a purchase. Predictive analytics is big business, and it’s all around us from insurance to autonomous cars. Contact centers already predict traffic patterns. Now we just need to predict when a specific customer needs service and take proactive action.
 
When a flight gets canceled, some airlines (not enough) proactively call their newly stranded customers. I’m not talking about a text notification, though a text asking if an agent is needed is good too. Proactive outreach has the benefit of improved context. When an agent calls to apologize about my canceled flight and offers to rebook, there’s no need to introduce and authenticate myself or to explain my situation, my location, my destination, my preferred language, etc. Context saves time.
 
The airlines know the flight was canceled and often has accurate contact information, but comparable signals exist in other sectors too. Our world is becoming hyper-connected, and our activities increasingly provide digital clues. A service-light on a dashboard, multiple attempts to stream a show, a lost package are all potential indicators that a customer needs service.
 
Disconnect the Telephone Line
Many contact centers were built around a PSTN, toll-free paradigm, which made sense 50 years ago. The touch-tone voice response unit, a staple in most contact centers, is about 30 years old. Mr. Bell submitted his patent application for the telephone in 1876, and the general concept of sending narrow-band audio from one handset to another is conceptually unchanged.
 
What has changed is the handset. The modern smartphone happens to make calls, but that’s not why they are so popular. Eliminating the PSTN isn’t as blasphemous as it sounds. There’s a handful of companies, such as Amazon, that have largely eliminated inbound calls. The real opportunity is smartphone apps. The smartphone can do all kinds of communications in familiar, intuitive ways.
 
I have a handful of apps with account information on my phone, but most of them are pretty dumb from an engagement perspective. Most only initiate a call over the dialer. Eventually every app will have a customer service feature that provides contextual awareness and richer communications. In the future, every brand will build its mobile apps with contact center SDKs.
 
The smartphone is also capable of many different modalities. Call centers changed their names to contact centers because they expanded from voice to support other channels. Omnichannel generally gives a customer multiple options for communications such as web chat, SMS, email, voice, and social apps. A sophisticated omnichannel solution even ties these different conversations to the same customer. However, counting channels misses the point.
 
Consider how we now tend to use the term “meetings” instead of “video conferencing.” A typical meeting now involves some combination of audio, video, text, and screen sharing over personal or shared devices among two or more people, often in different locations. A meeting encompasses all of this in a single conversation. We need to stop looking at omnichannel as one channel or another, but as concurrent channels.
 
I had a recent purchase that required assistance. Unfortunately, using voice wasn’t cutting it, so we dumped the contact center tech and moved to a meeting. I presented my issue with voice and camera, and a resolution followed. So much for the contact center being the most advanced slice of enterprise communications. Customer engagements need to move to multi-modal communications. We won’t hesitate to share a screen, turn on a camera, or exchange text with agents, just as we do in meetings. Co-browsing offers some of these features, but it's the exception, not the rule.
 
Admittedly, smartphone apps are a bit like an engagement ring in that they represent a committed relationship. Today, installed apps are not as practical for prospects as existing customers, but that will change. Technologies such as 5G will enable richer interactions. Also, smartphones will move beyond apps. Consider Google’s Instant Apps on Android that enables app-like experiences without app installation.
 
All of the pieces are on the board, now we just need to imagine a better way to play. This future is definitely coming. I’ve had very inspirational conversations about the future of engagement with several executives including Omar Tawakol at Cisco Collaboration, Vasili Triant at UJET, and I took some notes from this recent podcast with Cameron Weeks at Edify.
 
Dave Michels is a contributing editor and analyst at TalkingPointz.

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