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ICMI co-founder on contact center technology trends

Contact center technology stacks now include pervasive AI and CX-oriented tools, enabling agents to do a better job more efficiently, said ICMI co-founder Brad Cleveland.

An author and consultant, as well as a co-founder and past president of ICMI, Brad Cleveland knows contact center technology. In advance of this year's ICMI Contact Center Expo in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., from May 13 to 16, we sat down to discuss how the customer experience revolution, AI and other trends affect contact center platforms and their rollouts to agents.

Everyone's pivoting to customer experience (CX). Is this wave yet affecting contact center technology and rewiring processes? We see contact centers contemplating renaming themselves 'customer experience centers.' Is that commonplace, or an outlier?

Brad Cleveland: It's huge, isn't it? I've never seen a term catch on so fast and be adopted so quickly. I think it's healthy, overall, because it's really about exactly what it says: The customer experience brings so many pieces together [marketing, sales and R&D, for example].

There might be a little reluctance in that they don't want to sound presumptuous. They don't want to sound off-putting, because customer experience does include all these other areas. That's something that contact centers have struggled with in the past -- we need support from marketing, we need to partner with research and development, [and] we need to have ongoing support with IT. So, we don't want to call ourselves [CX]. We're all a part of it.

We've discussed in the past how contact centers need agents who are 'writers' for social media, chat and email, as well as 'talkers' for the phones, and many companies were still figuring out how to blend those sometimes separate skills. Is that still going on?

Brad Cleveland, founding partner, ICMIBrad Cleveland

Cleveland: One of the terms that may turn out to be a flash in the pan is 'omnichannel,' which is one step beyond multichannel. We don't have just a bunch of channels; we're really managing them and integrating them at a deep level. What's clearly happening is more than one channel comes into play in a lot of [customer] interactions. A customer may start out in search with a service need of some sort, and they migrate to a website or maybe try self-service through an app or something like that, and then reach out to an agent through chat or text or phone or any combination.

So, we're really seeing agents have to become proficient in multiple channels. There's this school of thought where they can write or speak, or they have distinct skills in one channel. I don't see that as workable long term. You've got to do all of the above.

What are the hot contact center technology trends going into this year's ICMI Contact Center Expo?

Cleveland: Customer experience and, more to a supporting extent, omnichannel are the big ones. We're not directly involved in marketing or some aspects of sales or preproduct promotion or other aspects of customer experience. But what the best contact centers are recognizing is that there's no more powerful insight than when we are handling [customer] interactions, where we really learn their expectations doing business with our organization -- what was their experience through marketing, sales and post-sales support. There's so much potential for the contact center to be a strategic asset.

Last year, AI in contact centers drew skepticism from some ICMI attendees. Are we still worried that a bot will take contact center jobs, especially with Google, Amazon and IBM AI bots and other CX tools making their way onto platforms like Genesys'?

Cleveland: I've not seen AI displace jobs -- I'm not seeing it take over core roles of what an agent does. We've seen it become an important part of the process, helping in a lot of ways. [It's] helping customers get to the right channels, bringing the right information to the [agent's] desktop, and self-service apps. This work is already escalated in many contact centers, and AI is not going to just come along and displace it.

Definitely one of the contact center technology trends we're seeing right now is suites of services from survey technologies to cloud to quality management to workforce optimization increasingly becoming available as a suite.

On Google and Amazon and IBM specifically, we're really seeing three drivers. One, the cost appeal of self-service; where can we automate or prevent work from happening in the first place? Two, there's a fear of falling behind; there's a lot of news about AI and machine learning and all the things that are going on. And, three, scalability. There's a lot of tire-kicking that's going to translate into IT investment, and we'll see how the market mix changes.

This Q&A has been edited for conciseness and clarity.

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