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by Mark Hillary

What is the future of the contact centre? This is difficult question because the Covid-19 pandemic is still with us and our future path remains unclear. Vaccines are being rolled out, but they are not being delivered fast enough for any return to business normality in the near term and some commentators are warning that the virus may continue mutating faster than we can vaccinate.

The end result may be that we learn how to live alongside new viruses, such as Covid-19, rather than trying to eliminate them entirely. This chimes with those who noted all along that over 500,000 per year die of the regular flu. If this is where we end up then there will never be a return to normal, because everyday life will require far more hygiene awareness and protection than we were ever used to in 2019 – for example, masks will become as normal as socks.

But whether we finally conquer Covid-19, or just learn to live with it, companies will continue to require customer service processes and contact centres. The importance of this was highlighted as the pandemic began. Airlines were making worried passengers wait hours for flight information and the recently unemployed could no longer access government advice lines. If you think that contact centres are not important to modern society then 2020 showed just how much we rely on them.

The immediate impact of the pandemic on contact centres was to force everyone home. All those agents were sent home with a laptop and asked to carry on from whatever space they had available. All the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) companies I have talked to have some incredible stories of this initial phase, but Teleperformance probably has the most impressive in terms of sheer numbers – almost a quarter of a million agents transitioned to work from home in weeks.

But we are now a year into the pandemic, this is no longer an emergency phase. What will be the key trends or changes to the industry that shape the future of the modern contact centre? I certainly don’t believe that we will ever see a return to how things looked in 2019 and here are a few of the reasons why:

  • Resilience: no airline or government agency will ever want to be unavailable again. Resilience will now be a focus for all executives and this will mean greater geographic dispersion of contact centres – using nearshoring where local centres were used before. Using smaller sites in different cities, rather than clustering all services in one location. This removes any economy of scale, but builds in resilience if one centre cannot function. And in addition, the use of work-from-home (WFH) to ensure that agents can work from home when needed.
  • Acceptance of WFH: WFH has moved from a strategy that helped companies cope in a crisis to one that offers a new way of working. Many agents prefer the flexibility and agents can be hired from anywhere, rather than within commuting distance – this raises the bar on who can join the team. There needs to be an acceptance of this as a solution, rather than a continued belief that everyone will eventually return to the contact centre soon. How does this affect your requirement for property as well as your hiring, onboarding, training, and management processes? You need to blend WFH with your contact centre and accept it as a normal part of the future.
  • Security: as corporate processes change and embrace WFH, even as a hybrid delivery solution, many aspects of how people work in the contact centre – or at home – needs to change because the workplace is now distributed. This requires a rethink on security. You can no longer consider the contact centre a secure zone and everywhere else insecure, because your workforce is distributed. What does this mean for work, communication, and socialising for your team? In particular there are questions like, should you supply a work laptop to every member of the team?
  • Physical Infrastructure: do you need to let leases lapse because your existing contact centres cannot be upgraded to be Covid-secure? Should you be looking for new locations and maybe increasing the number of centres, but ensuring they are smaller? Look at how itelbpo in Jamaica is already constructing new Covid-secure buildings and upgrading their existing contact centres.
  • GigCX: the use of gig workers to augment contact centres has been contentious. Many have viewed it as the replacement of contact centre workers, but I think the truth is that paying people at home each time they help a customer creates a way to boost and support the core team in the contact centre. You can use a GigCX approach to find real fans of the brands you are supporting and bring them into the support team – go on Instagram and find the influencers and ask if they can help customers for a few hours a week. It’s entirely WFH focused so you don’t need more space in the contact centre and this approach is also perfect for ending all those seasonal crunch periods – Black Friday and other sales.
  • Agents are becoming experts: as Jim Farnsworth of SYKES recently said on my own CX Files podcast, “agents are now becoming brand ambassadors.” This is because when a customer today has an issue they will usually ask Google or Alexa for help. They might interact with a bot on their phone. They might check some online guides or videos. By the time they reach a human agent they might be on the third or fourth interaction with a brand – even though this is the first human they have engaged with. This means that agents need to be on the top of their game – experts in your products because the customer has already tried all the guides on YouTube. Going back to step one will create a very poor experience.

All of these changes will be important for the future of contact centres in 2021 and beyond. The changing nature of the physical infrastructure, the ability to blend gig workers with regular contact centre employees, the changing nature of security for a completely distributed workplace. All these factors are going to change how we view contact centres in the coming years, but I think this final point is more existential – redefining the role of the agent is a dramatic change.

When Dexter Fletcher’s musical ‘Sunshine on Leith’ hit the cinema in 2013 it depicted the story of two soldiers coping with life in Scotland after leaving the army. Working in a contact centre was a fate worse than suffering oncoming fire and Improvised Explosive Devices. This has long been the common perception of contact centres – minimum wage jobs that are only ever seen as a stepping stone to something else.

But now the agents are no longer going to be on the front line. Alexa, Google, and smart help systems with AI-enabled chatbots will handle all those simple questions. The agents will only ever get the really tough questions. Apple gets this right. Their customer service advisors working on the Genius Bar are called “experts” and everyone working in Apple stores wants to be an expert. Customer service is aspirational because they love the products just as much as the customers.

This is the real future of the contact centre. High value jobs for people who enjoy helping others and supported by an array of modern technology, including bots and AI. The contact centre is transforming and those of us who manage them, design them, or analyse how they function, need to embrace this new reality.

Click here to participate in the Engage – Future of the Contact Centre virtual conference on February 10 and 11, 2021.

Please let me know what you think about the views I expressed here. Leave a comment here or get in touch with me via my LinkedIn profile.

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