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Five Things I Learned at ICMI’s Contact Center Expo 2023

It’s funny—and fitting. I asked AI for help with this article. First, I sought overall input based on an outline I provided. Then I hoped for help section by section. As it turns out, I kept a couple of grammatical corrections but discarded most of the output. It all took twice as long as it otherwise would have. The words you are about to read are the real me.

So, fittingly, the theme behind ICMI’s recent conference was, “There’s nothing artificial about ICMI.” It reverberated through every conversation and presentation.

Don’t get me wrong—AI is real, powerful, and becoming more pervasive by the day in contact centers. It’s helping organizations who harness it wisely get ahead of the pack. It was a hot topic at the event. And the conversation around it—though somewhat different than what I expected—is part of my first takeaway. But more on that in a moment.

Emcee Nate Brown and kickoff keynote Brad Cleveland welcome attendees to ICMI Contact Center Expo 2023

Emcee Nate Brown and kickoff keynote Brad Cleveland welcome attendees to ICMI Contact Center Expo 2023 

ICMI’s Contact Center Expo 2023 returned with a flourish. Held at the beautiful Loews Royal Pacific Resort in Orlando, this year’s event experienced a significant surge in attendance, well surpassing the numbers at the 2022 event (which was ICMI’s first foray back into in-person events following the pandemic). Attendees immersed themselves in a comprehensive program that included in-depth workshops, local site tours, inspiring keynotes, interactive solution provider sessions, industry awards, and tailored conference tracks and sessions.

A hallmark of ICMI conferences is objectivity. While you can get briefed on cutting-edge developments in solution-provider sessions, the conference tracks provide vendor-neutral content that is focused on end-users. No hidden agendas—just real-world teams and organizations shaping the next generation of contact centers. The conference was a vibrant celebration of the people behind customer support, and a testament to the enduring value of genuine connections in an ever-evolving industry.

Here are five things I learned:

1. AI Augmentation, Not Replacement

Contact centers are embracing AI with open arms, and they’re optimistic about its potential. Contrary to fears of job displacement, most contact center insiders see AI as a tool to augment and simplify processes, not replace agents. It’s about making human-agent collaboration more efficient and customer interactions more seamless.

Josh Streets, ICMI Senior Business Consultant, led a workshop that did a deep dive on AI in the contact center. Josh said that what many were asking was a variation of, “How do we best deploy AI without disrupting what we’ve built for great CX?” It’s a wise question, one that is grounded in the advice of the late Apple founder Steve Jobs: “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology, not the other way around.”

Melbourne, Australia-based Simon Kriss, author of the book, The AI-Empowered Customer Experience, led the aptly named session “AI in CX: The Realities, the Risks, and the Hype.” He cautions organizations, “Do not let your IT team hijack the AI agenda. Build a cross-disciplinary team.”

2. Omnichannel Remains a Priority

Yep, omnichannel sounds so last decade. But as a profession, many recognize that there’s more work to be done. Enabling customers to use the combinations of channels that most make sense at any given time for any given situation is a service differentiator. Survey after survey points to the one thing customers want above all others when they need service: resolve my issue quickly and easily.

Omnichannel ensures a seamless and consistent experience across diverse channels, digital and physical. As with AI, omnichannel development requires a cross-functional approach; key elements include a unified view of customer interactions, frictionless transitions between channels, and the use of data to personalize experiences.

Attendees at the conference represented virtually every vertical sector and were from organizations ranging from technology startups to those with decades, even centuries, of history—the US Postal Service (which, founded in 1775, predates the country by a year), Dow Jones, the Veterans Administration, and others. It’s inspiring to see how organizations across the board are incorporating contact centers into their service ecosystems—building approaches that enable their customers to reach the right resources through the right channels at the right times.

3. There’s a Gulf Between the Best Contact Centers and Everyone Else

Leslie O’Flahavan, owner of E-WRITE and recipient of this year’s prestigious ICMI Lifetime Achievement award, led the session, “Why Your Contact Center Should Use a Human Plus ChatGPT Approach to Writing Customer Responses.” Leslie makes this prediction: “The most customer-centric companies will use genAI technologies to respond quickly, accurately, and specifically. And, as is true with most new technologies, the least customer-centric companies will just use ChatGPT to save money and cut payroll without regard for the harm they’re doing to customer rapport.”

Yep. And darn if that isn’t true for decisions and the results they create across so many aspects of contact center management. To cite another example, ICMI’s most recent annual report found turnover to be 45% every two years (not annually—every two years—but too high). That just doesn’t jive with the increasingly complex and high-value work that’s left after self-serve and automated tools peel off the simple interactions.

Fortunately, it doesn’t represent the reality in today’s best contact centers. The contact centers represented at the event were a cut above the norm. And many at the event are true standouts: USAA, Uline, Amazon, Amica, to name just a few. Their turnover is far, far lower than the norm. Their approach to agent engagement, technology, strategy, and other aspects of contact center strategy and management is robust, appropriate to their brands, and anything but the norm. My encouragement to any and all: be you. Do what’s best for your customers and your organization.

4. There’s a Hunger for Community

So many attendees I talked to commented on the joy of being together in person with other professionals. Though they came from organizations of every size, shape, and industry, there’s a common bond around the challenges of running contact centers. Building the right team, forecasting and managing the workload, getting budgets and demonstrating value, focusing on the right goals and metrics, shaping technologies—these and related aspects of leading and managing a contact center are the ties that bind. “It’s so, so refreshing to step out of our virtual worlds and connect with others who understand,” said one attendee.

The celebratory atmosphere was especially electric at the ICMI Global Contact Center Awards Ceremony. The awards provided the chance to come together to celebrate greatness. They recognize frontline workers, managers, and teams who deliver excellent customer and employee experience in a fast-paced and dynamic work environment. (Here’s a link to the press release with all the winners: ICMI’s Global Contact Center Awards Announced | Business Wire).

“ICMI events are known for their genuine community feel,” said Cindee Stott, Event Director, ICMI Contact Center Expo. The events are “where contact center leaders connect with peers in a way that enables more sharing of real challenges, more access to real solutions and more opportunity to make long-lasting, authentic connections—while having FUN!” Well put!

5. The Best Days are Ahead

Okay, I’m going to borrow from the strategy of whichever streaming show you're binging at the moment and leave you with a cliffhanger. Yes, I believe the best days are ahead for contact centers. But why? How? And for all, or just those who take the right steps now? That, my friends, I’ll leave for the next article. Until then…

Topics: Best Practices, Culture And Engagement, Employee Experience