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Looking Back to See the Future

I was asked by ICMI to take a look back in the last decade to forecast where we will end up in 2020 and beyond. I am a forecaster by trade, and my team works on long-term forecasting, so while predicting the future is difficult, it is my job.

It would be entertaining to start the look back by examining the industry at the time when I first joined it. I used floppy disks—and I had a computer, which was a novelty at the time. Thankfully, I wasn’t asked to look back that far.

Around 2010, a wise man I worked for said, “We need to turn agents from answer-givers to problem-solvers.” Mike, now a VP, was a visionary, and most of us are still working to catch up with his forward thinking. In response to his directive, we worked hard to develop communities of customers helping customers and knowledge base (KB) articles.

The past decade threw a couple of curve balls to customer service. The first was social media. I remember when Twitter first started, and everyone had Eggs for avatars. Early on, there was a tweeting event at an convention, and only two of use attended. People said Twitter would never catch on; it has now become a vital point of contact with customers.

The second development of the past decade that is poised for disruption in the coming one is artificial intelligence (AI). When I asked my team their thoughts on the future of the industry, somebody replied, “That depends on how AI develops over the next few years.” I liked that Actually Intelligent answer. The development of AI is important, but so will be the way in which it is strategically implemented.

I asked a few more folks from the floor of where I worked what they thought might be the future of customer care. Here is a sample of what they said: 

  • “Our world will be a world of AI.” - a frontline manager
  • “Agents will be more important than ever.” - a frontline agent
  • “A combination of AI and agents—with very smart agents.” - a call center manager

I then zeroed in the discussion to my peers and my team of forecasters. Here is a sampling of their thoughts:

  • One peer said the power of AI and the quality of agents will carry the future, and that agent skill will be vital.
  • A team member said, “Technology, more back office, and a move toward global presence of consistent CX.”
  • My analyst’s eyes sparkled as he talked about AI; he is a gamer and I could see the equations and new reporting methods forming in his mind.

I liked my leader and friend Nick’s answer the most - “Contact centers will be fun places with all the amenities. Agents will pick and choose schedules - even split shifts and work remote when and if they choose.”

The team had a lively discussion about the future, especially when the discussion turned to a future of hologram agents.

These answers vary, but they do have a common denominator - service! I began this piece talking about the need to turn agents into problem solvers, and I believe that will still be true. I also believe that this same focus needs to apply to the technological solutions and processes we allow customers to use to reach out for help. In short, applying simple process improvement techniques that are at the root of all technology will be the first part of the “answer” of the future.

Technology will be about the old adage of “get rid of the workaround.” What’s our workaround today? This may be hard to believe since we are in love with them, but it is our darn phones. We lose them, they run out of juice, and worst of all we mostly type on them. I predict we will have watches, rings, or even magic amulets with all the tech we need in them. We will speak and these devices will either be deciphered by a “augmented intelligence” faster than human power or answered by the true “problem solving” agents that VP envisioned a decade ago. They will be equipped with the power and enabled with the processes to not just escalate, but deliver the right answer in the right channel. The answers will come back in words, in audible form through earbuds, or some combination of the two. Those answers will be archived for our retrieval at a future time.

Does this sound too far-fetched? My great grandfather told people we’d land on the moon, and people scoffed. Dick Tracy had a smart watch he utilized for his crimefighting that seemed to be like science fiction. And let’s not forget that the concept of on-demand streaming of television seemed outlandish.

One thing for sure, the future won’t be “all AI” or all “self-help”. It will however have an element of increased understanding, which drives engaged customers and agents and fecundity of our endeavors.

Want to see how much tweeting goes on at the ICMI Contact Center Expo in Ft. Lauderdale? The Early Bird deadline to save $300 is February 21, 2020.