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Your Future in the Contact Center

In the first article in this three-part series, I summarized five things I learned at ICMI’s Contact Center Expo. I ended with a bold prediction: for contact centers and for those of us who are part of them, the best days are ahead. Let me tell you why…

Contact centers have seen a lot of change. The central promise of contact centers—to give customers the ability to quickly and easily reach the help and expertise they need—is not going away. In the past three decades alone, the Internet (enabled by web-browsers in the 1990s), smartphones (2000s), AI and machine learning (2010s) and the abrupt move to remote work (2020 to now) have brought massive change and development. And there’s far more to come.

The conversations and, yes, real developments around generative AI in particular have reached a fevered pitch. As we look into 2024 and beyond, it’s fair to ask: If you’re building a career in contact centers, what did you get into? Is this a wise place to hang your professional hat? And what do we make of the drumbeat of predictions that AI is going to displace a lot of contact center work—what will that look like?

If you’re building a career in contact centers, what did you get into? Is this a wise place to hang your professional hat?

I had the privilege of serving as CEO of ICMI for many years. Not long after I took the reins in the 1990s, it became clear that advancements in the Internet and communication technologies were dramatically changing how we live and work. One evening, I arrived at a hotel the day before facilitating a seminar for one of our clients. I turned on the TV to catch the day’s news, and they were running interviews from the Davos conference, the World Economic Forum. The reporter was interviewing technology and business leaders, and they all predicted a decline in the need for customer service employees. One put it this way: “If you’re in customer service, run the other way. Find a new career as quickly as possible because the internet will take over customer service as we know it.”

In our work on the ground, I didn’t see that happening. In fact, I was seeing new types of interactions and new service channels emerge. But hearing those predictions, I wondered, “Am I part of an organization and profession that doesn’t have a future? Would customer service simply be subsumed by technology?”

In the economic downdraft of the early 2000s, many customer service operations were forced by their organizations to cut costs by 10%, 20%, or more. The rationale was that technology would handle the work anyway. In reality, customer service operations were getting more work than ever. Service became so bad that one news story after another focused on the sorry state of customer service. (I have a file full of examples.)

Just remember, the experts don’t always get it right. In fact, they’ve been largely wrong every step of the way. The Internet, smartphones, digital transformation, and now, AI were all going to reduce the need for human-assisted service. Yet today, there are more contact centers and more contact center agents than at any point in history. (Some of you reading this are probably thinking, “Yeah, and we could use a few more yet!”)

Why do the predictions always get it so wrong? I think it comes down to the most basic mistake in looking into the future. We take the world as it is today, and project out how a development will impact that world. But the world changes. With each development, we’ve seen new customer needs, new services, new channels, new companies, and new industries.

Consider an example: air taxis. They are ready to go today and are in the final stages of getting airspace and regulatory approval. This past month, both China and the US saw significant advancement in the approval process. Insiders believe 2025 is when we’ll see services roll out.

Wisk, backed by Boeing, is one of the companies leading the way. Their CEO, Gary Gysin, has been conducting interviews to build support. One of the most common questions that comes up is, will passengers feel comfortable riding in an aircraft that has no pilot? Gysin explains, “There’s the screen in each seat—it shows your flight route, how much time you have left in the flight, etc. At any point in time, you can hit a button and talk to somebody on the ground.”

There you go. No onboard pilots, but plenty of employees in the contact center: A snapshot of the future.

Wisk probably doesn’t know just how profound their approach represents what’s happening in so many industries. Thinking out loud here:

  • “Your AI-fueled financial planning tools are awesome. But I need to talk to someone about my unique situation.”
  • “All of my insurance policies show up on one screen. But I have a unique question I need to run by you.”
  • “MyChart shows me a complete health history. Pretty cool, thank you. And here’s where I need some professional guidance.”

The best contact centers have always been on the edge of service. And our profession has always had to be grounded in reality. Whether our budgets go up or down, we have to be there to handle what comes our way. Real customers. More channels. Greater expectations.

Marketing or product development teams forecast response rates...we handle them.

IT designs for user experience...we live those systems every day.

Academics predict the future…we see it unfold every day.

Contact centers aren’t a technology. We’re not a narrowly defined industry, like old-style taxi service. We’re a dynamic, service ecosystem that’s the nexus of interaction between customers and organizations. We’re the connection, the hazmat crew, the customer advocates in a world that continually evolves. If AI takes over the world, we’ll be among the last ones standing.

Contact centers aren’t a technology. We’re not a narrowly defined industry…we’re a dynamic, service ecosystem.

Let me make four recommendations that will position you and your organization for success.

First, relentlessly focus on the fundamentals. I’m working on some updates to the book, Contact Center Management on Fast Forward, to come out in late 2024. It’s currently in the 4th edition, the most recent version. The first edition came out in 1997. With each, we do a thorough review of what needs to change. And I’m always shocked to rediscover: the fundamentals don’t change. The organizations, teams, technologies, and case studies change. But the underlying fundamentals are rock solid.

My encouragement is to focus on three areas: Service level, quality, and value. They are not in order of importance so much as a chronological sequence:

  • Can customers get through when and as they need?
  • Are we meeting those needs? Are we anticipating them and building robust services around them?
  • Are we creating value? Are our customers more loyal and are we using the insight from interactions to innovate across the organization?

The potential of AI to help us with deeper and more complex processes is all the more reason to get the fundamentals right. AI is powerful—but will learn from our processes and habits, good or bad.

Second, build and protect a culture of innovation. The next best idea can come from anyone. The best contact center leaders develop processes to bring ideas to light, to protect them, to shepherd them through a process where, yes, some are funded and implemented. Your goal is for 100% participation across your employee base—that everyone feels part, they have their antennas up and know how to contribute.

A manager with an organization I did some consulting work for was concerned with the productivity of one of her agents. “She’s experienced, she’s capable, she’s just not producing as much and has a lower first contact resolution (FCR) than others.” Come to find out, that agent was the one handling the toughest customer issues—which her peers were happy to transfer to her. Yes, they took some time and FCR wasn’t as high. But she was the one who, once and for all, got them resolved and then documented their knowledge base so that they didn’t have to solve the problem over and over.

Whatever your role—whether as a director, a supervisor, or in a support role—recognizing and supporting innovation and true productivity will be an essential leadership attribute. You’ll need the wisdom to recognize policies and processes that are holding you back.

You’ll need the wisdom to recognize policies and processes that are holding you back.

Third, instill purpose. The Dell Institute for the Future created some alarming headlines in 2017 when it predicted that 85% of the jobs that will exist in 2030 have not been invented yet. Almost seven years down the road, that doesn’t seem so outlandish. We’re seeing it in our contact centers. For example, in the past your contact center had a workforce planner. Today, if yours is a large contact center, you have specialized roles around forecasting, staffing, scheduling, real-time management, analytics, and several others. If you’re a small center, you may wear a number of those hats, but they are more specialized hats.

As job roles become more specialized, it will be more important than ever to help each person on your team see how they make a difference for colleagues and customers. Contact centers are a team sport. To thrive in the days ahead, we’ll need everyone to understand the importance of their work and to feel a deep sense of engagement and purpose. Yes, that’s always been true—but given the change and opportunities ahead, it will be more important than ever.

Finally, be an active part of this community. Clearly, we’re entering a new frontier, and we’ll need wisdom. No one knows where things are going exactly. We didn’t with the changes that came before. But we forged a trail together.

If you feel unqualified, well, that’s probably a healthy perspective. You don’t have to make this journey alone. We’ll need each other for insight and to share experiences on the bumps and successes along the way. There are many others who are eager to travel the road ahead with you.

If we’re clear-eyed and intentional, if we lead and not just react, I am convinced that the most exciting days are ahead!

In the next and final article in this three-part series, I’m going to go out on a limb and make some predictions: what’s in store for contact centers in 2024 and beyond?