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On-Demand Customer Service - part 2


Presented By: CrmXchange

Does it mean the end of the contact center as we know it or will it prove to be the catalyst to a new level of evolution?

Part 2

Will Contact Centers Become Obsolete or Evolve to a New Level?

 (In our previous column, we examined the effects of the on-demand economy on customer service. This follow-up takes a closer look at what the impact of technology might have on the contact center environment, specifically staffing)

Over the past several years, it’s become a trend for solution providers to engage in morbid editorial speculation on the fate of the contact center. “It looks like the call center’s days are numbered,” is the opening sentence of one recent study by Xerox. Another white paper from IntelliResponse (now [24/7]) is boldly headlined “Death of the Contact Center”, accompanied by a mournfully illustrated tombstone. “The call center and contact center as we know them today are finished” is the stated premise of a blog from Creative Virtual.

Let’s not build a false level of suspense. When you read through any of the above-cited articles, these predictions are the opening gambits in discussions on how to update contact center priorities to meet evolving customer needs. Common threads include the need to dramatically improve self-service and augment the efforts of live reps with intelligent virtual agents by implementing superior automated systems. The ultimate vision is an era where bots and informed agents can deliver consistently excellent customer experiences.

One element that is seldom discussed is how successful technology implementation will affect the employment of agents. What will happen to those who now work both on-staff in onsite contact centers and as contractors in either offshore or home-based offices? Other questions might include: How will companies transition between providing virtual and live support? How will the roles of agents be changing? What will the ramifications be in scheduling today’s evolving workforce?

First, let’s talk about numbers. An Oxford University/Deloitte study shows customer service reps have a 91% likelihood of becoming automated and call center workers a likelihood of 75%, making them among the top 50 jobs most likely to be lost. Fortune magazine pegs it even higher for those they term as “telemarketers”.

The specter of automation taking jobs from live agents is already becoming a reality in one of the world’s hottest outsourcing destinations. The Wall Street Journal  reported an increasing number of the Philippines’ 1.2 million call-center workers are in danger of having their jobs outsourced to customer service robots. Bots are starting to displace some humans from low-end tasks such as monitoring the performance of digital networks, according to the IT and Business Process Association of the Philippines. An association executive, Benedict Hernandez, stated, “To survive, the industry needs to upgrade its skills—and fast”.

The challenge will be to develop education programs that can produce skilled workers for a more sophisticated range of tasks, such as managing content on websites or handling customer relations via online chat. “Just one tenth of our 5,000 employees are answering phones, said Brian Maddock, CEO of TaskUs, a U.S.-based outsourcing company that operates in the Philippines. This reflects an industrywide trend. A decade ago, nearly all Philippine outsourcing work was phone-based. Now, it is just 60%, a figure that is likely to keep declining.

Chicago-based law firm Baker & McKenzie, which employs 900 people in Manila performing tasks from billing to marketing, sees automation as an opportunity, not a threat. “It drives outsourcing upmarket and allows workers to advance their careers and demand higher salaries, said Gabriel Pardo, the firm’s executive director of outsourcing operations. “As automation frees employees from low-end tasks, we’re entrusting them with more challenging work, such as managing clients’ intellectual-property portfolios.”    

The move to automation is gathering steam in the US as well. According to a report in CIO magazine, companies are implementing technology solutions capable of handling an infinite number of incoming customer questions such as artificial intelligence chatbots, computer programs designed to simulate conversation with human users—to respond to customer queries. Nearshore America reported earlier this year that Sprint Corp eliminated as many as 2,500 call center jobs, as the fourth largest U.S. telecom carrier deployed more self-help apps to answer customer queries. Call centers were closed in Texas, Virginia, and Tennessee and downsized in Colorado and Sprint’s home city of Overland Park, KS.   

Seamless, personalized smart assistants will increasingly automate everything the current contact center offers,” wrote Chris Ezekiel, CEO of Creative Virtual. “There will be a transition to more automation, and combining virtual and real support with a central knowledge management and workflow platform will give companies the best path to manage that transition. Right now, the combination of natural language virtual agents with live chat or web chat can give customers the effortless interactions they want.”  

With automated systems becoming increasingly proficient in interpreting tone, language, and quicker response, machines will be able to take on an expanding range of customer concerns. “Machine learning is the enabler,” said Jeff Beelman, senior director for contact center solutions at General Dynamics Information Technology in a recent post in the company’s GovTech Works newsletter. “Today, the machine can hear the nuance in how a person asks a question. It can interpret the slang. It can hear the same question asked in a number of different ways and still be able to understand it.”

When the level of technology that significantly reduces call volume becomes widely available, how will that affect the responsibilities of live agents? Xerox foresees that the next generation of reps will be both technologically empowered to find answers more quickly, and able to focus on adding value at every turn. Mike Bourke SVP and GM for Workforce Optimization for Aspect expressed a similar perspective in a recent blog. “Since 81% of customers prefer self-service to agent-assisted service, the simpler work will go to automated self-service, and the more complex tasks will go to agents.”

Helping agents make the transition from gatekeepers to providers of high-touch, high-value service will require companies to change the way they look at the role. Businesses will need to commit to more selective hiring processes, revamped training procedures, and putting greater emphasis on development. Agents will need to be ready to tackle the most challenging issues and positioned to pinpoint what went wrong. It's therefore not surprising that in the next ten years, the average customer service agent will not only need to have a much wider range of skills but will have to adapt to changes in technology, from becoming experts in apps and social networks to utilizing the increasing range of data on their CRM system. As the number of available positions continues to diminish, many observers believe that pay rates will increase for the higher level performers.

Even as the ranks of front line personnel become leaner, most companies will still need to address the ongoing issue of agent scheduling.  Although self-service applications are rapidly gaining traction, firms are still in the positon of having to ensure they have adequate capacity to serve demand while controlling costs. However, in certain call center environments, there is a power shift. Instead of ordering staff or independent contractors to be available at appointed times, some organizations are allowing agents to create their schedules, choosing whether and when to work based on personal preferences.

Contact center operations have the option of implementing intelligent agent interfaces capable of determining and displaying all available options to each agent based upon their unique profile. Such solutions incorporate the latest forecast and schedule changes. Companies that have leveraged intelligent schedule change, empowerment technology, such as Workflex Solutions, have reported dramatic improvements in agent satisfaction and intraday staffing performance as well as a reduction in administrative overhead. Self-scheduling is yet another step in the ongoing process of creating true on-demand contact centers.

In an industry where predictions about the future are made on an almost daily basis, it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint whose crystal ball is the clearest. But there are some undeniable truths:

The on-demand economy has made an immediate impact on customer service that has long-term repercussions.

Consumers now expect answers to their inquiries that are faster and more accurate than ever before.

Organizations are struggling to find the right combination of technology and human capital to keep up with the constantly changing needs of their customers while keeping costs in check.

The merging of intelligent software with the knowledge of human agents is well already under way.

Automated systems, driven by machine learning, artificial intelligence and natural language powered virtual assistants, will grow exponentially over the next few years.