Modern Times: AI and the Future Contact Center Employee

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Artificial intelligence (AI) is maligned at one extreme—a robot apocalypse!— with automation-related boredom at the other. Yet so far the Fourth Industrial Revolution is transforming jobs by providing more creative and productive opportunities rather than creating mass unemployment, according to the World Bank’s 2019 report on world development, The Changing Nature of Work.

Workers undertaking monotonous, codifiable tasks are most at risk for job displacement, with manufacturing and contact centers in the bullseye. But when it comes to contact centers, rather than replacing people, AI offers the potential to enhance both the customer and the employee experience and make it more human-centric. And now we’re in the midst of a customer experience revolution that’s driving a need to create a more engaging workplace for contact center employees.



Contact center workers are always on task; they might spend most of their shift in conversations with customers, either on individual calls or while handling up to five chat-based clients simultaneously. Even when conversations go smoothly, it can be exhausting. And when they don’t — well, support agents usually bear the brunt of customer angst and abuse. Is it any wonder that contact centers are famous for their turnover rates?

Companies have awakened to the fact that a focus on tailored and engaging interactions with customers can positively affect their bottom line, as noted in a 2018 report from MIT Technology Review Insights. They also recognize that this experience can’t be dictated from the top down but must be nurtured in employees who hold the direct lines of communication with customers. It’s thus critical to re-engage employees and ensure they’re motivated, knowledgeable, and share the company vision.

Because of AI, the future of the contact center employee looks brighter—AI-based software will assume responsibilities for dull, repetitive tasks. AI provides the tools to augment employee engagement. Over the next decade, we’ll likely see this contribute to more satisfied, more capable employees—leading to happier customers.

I Have the Tools

In Marcus Buckingham’s book First, Break All The Rules, he discusses 12 questions that lead to high employee engagement and happiness. One of the more important questions to which employees must answer “Yes” is if they believe they have the tools needed do to their jobs well.

In contact centers, employee tools go beyond just a headset, a pen and a pad of paper. The table stakes are software that can present the employee with all the relevant information needed to perform properly, such as the caller’s name, transaction history, and contact history with outcomes of the various touch points. However, AI looks at characteristics of the call and compares them—in real-time—with thousands, or even millions, of similar calls or other incoming customer communications. And this gives agents suggestions and predictions on how to respond next.

Agents can use these insights to inform conversations with customers in ways that are helpful to everyone. For example, if hundreds of customers call the support center with a similar complaint, an AI-based system identifies this pattern and alerts the employee. The agent can then accurately reassure the customer that it’s not an individual issue, and the company is aware and taking steps to fix it.



More Flexibility Leads (Ironically) to More Control

In the near future, agent roles will shift, enabling them to develop creative solutions, rather than following scripts. Top-down policies and scripts are traditionally pushed onto contact center employees to eliminate runaway costs or to prevent customers from developing “make me a deal” bad behaviors. The feeling of many policymakers is that exceptions lead to norms, and therefore policies need to be set in stone. As a result, when conflicts between customers and company policies arise, agents must act as the enforcer. The employee might secretly sympathize with the customer, but is required to take a hard line and defend the company’s position.

With an AI-based adaptive policy, companies can empower employees to operate with more autonomy. An AI-based system can perform real-time monitoring of costs associated with policy adjustments. It alerts management of issues or potentially provides an adaptive policy optimized for customer retention, satisfaction or other metrics. The outcome is that companies can give employees more flexibility to handle customer requests while still controlling costs.

Online retailer Zappos, for example, allows employees to settle customer issues in any way they choose, up to a predefined dollar limit. The result is that employees exercise more creativity to find a solution, feel ownership in their work, and, ultimately, have more control over their success. This leads to less confrontation, happier customers, higher employee motivation and better retention rates — of both employees and customers.

Diffuse Situations Before They Even Happen

Over the next few years, AI services will be able to assess how these customer conversations affect employees by analyzing language sentiment and voice emotions. They’ll then be able to suggest potential remedies to alleviate employee stress or even, to quote Mary Poppins, add an element of fun.

Contact center solution providers like nGUVU are already adding elements like gamification tied to KPIs so employees can compete on calls for prizes. Taking this further, AI-based solutions will eventually diffuse stressful situations by inserting calming animations on the agent’s screen or even modify the agent’s voice to sound less tense to the person on the other end of the phone line.

As contact centers use AI-based tools to better resolve inbound customer solutions, agents might see their focus shift more to preventative outreach. AI will become better at predicting issues, and employees will be tasked with establishing connections with clients and ensuring that potential problems are eliminated before they even occur, Minority Report-like.



Destroyer or Creator?

There’s no denying artificial intelligence is changing the workplace landscape – and nowhere more than in the contact center. But AI doesn’t have to become a destroyer of worlds. It can make it possible for support agents to establish deeper, unique relationships with customers, generating more revenue and goodwill for the company, while also creating a more satisfying employee experience.

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