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Contact center agents' post-pandemic future

The pandemic changed how contact centers operate and the technologies used to provide customer service. In this Q&A, ICMI's Brad Cleveland predicts what's next.

Before the pandemic, many contact centers didn't support work-from-home agents. That changed quickly as offices closed. Along with the jarring change for contact center agents, there was the rapid acceleration of technology implementations to support remote work as well as customer self-service.

Brad Cleveland, co-founder and past president of the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), author and consultant to contact centers, will deliver a keynote at next week's virtual ICMI Contact Center Expo. 

In this Q&A, Cleveland discusses how the pandemic permanently altered contact center life and changed technology needs, and how those needs will evolve further in the near term to accommodate customer service post-pandemic.                                                

How did the pandemic permanently alter the contact center industry?

Brad ClevelandBrad Cleveland

Brad Cleveland: I haven't heard anyone say they're bringing everyone back, so we'll have a hybrid work arrangement going forward. In some organizations there will be more of a focus on bringing people back to the office and in others, there's a strong focus on keeping people at home. I haven't heard anyone say 100% one way or the other.

Hybrid is here to stay forever, and it's probably going to be driven mainly by the skills we need, who's available and what their preference is. The pool of candidates coming in is really empowered to help make those decisions -- where they want to work, where they're going to be most effective.

That's pretty amazing about hybrid work, because some companies were 100% against letting contact center agents work from home, ever, prior to 2020.

Cleveland: Right. I remember talking to an insurance company executive in February of 2020. He was telling me how he was going to have 3% of his employees working from home over the next two years. It was really ambitious, but they really wanted to, and they felt so enlightened.

Okay, make that 100% in two weeks -- that was something we didn't expect. But it's working, that's the thing, it's working. We've ironed out a lot of the kinks. There still the camaraderie issue -- making you feel like you're a part of it -- and those are ongoing challenges, but hybrid, for the most part, or work-from-home has worked really well.

Quality standards and practices are permanently altered for COVID-19. Instead of a focus on what you need to know, focus on how to think, and here's how to find the information that you need as services evolve. That's forever altered. You can provide the knowledge management tools; you can empower contact center agents to make the right decisions within the context of your values and principles. That does work. But trying to train everybody on exactly what they need to know? We'll never go back to that.

What are the biggest challenges contact centers face in this time where we aren't done with the pandemic, but it's definitely better than last year?

Cleveland: Getting the right staff in place at the right time has been a perennial challenge, forever, in contact centers. It's definitely more of a challenge now in just about any sector: healthcare, finance, anything in the travel sector.

Then, what's the role of self-service, what's the role for all of our agents is the next challenge. Omnichannel is still a fundamental necessity, and we're not quite there in a lot of organizations yet. There still are channels that don't work as well together as they could. It's a huge need going forward.

Up to 2020, many contact centers were driven by 1990s performance metrics for volume, hold time, etc. How has that changed in the last year and a half?

Cleveland: Some of the metrics were kind of outdated, anyway, such as how many contacts can someone handle, handling time -- some of those things we've never encouraged from ICMI's perspective. Any organization that was trying to depend on old sort of manufacturing-style metrics for their agents... it just didn't work.

I think that was a healthy lesson -- painful for some -- to establish quality standards and values. That and knowledge management processes that enable people to do what they're there to do: You're hiring people to do what humans do best, using AI and machines to do what they do best. Performance standards and metrics really had to be revisited in an almost an existential crisis for some organizations. The old metrics just weren't aligned with what where they needed to go when COVID hit. So, I think it's all healthy.

Has your skepticism about chatbots changed in the last year and a half, now that the technology has evolved some and the times have necessitated them?

Cleveland: A number of contact center leaders I talked to say they were a lifesaver not because they just handle the work from A to Z, but because they helped enough through the evolving staffing requirements. I think chatbots are growing up, they're getting better, and we're learning where they make sense and when they don't. There's definitely a place for chatbots in many cases, and AI machine learning is real. They're not displacing agents, one for one, and they definitely redistribute the work.

What are ICMI attendees looking for this year?

Cleveland: It's not what someone would raise their hand and say first thing, but they just want camaraderie and community. We have been through a crazy 18 months, and they just want to be around others that get what's going on and have been there. That's what I'm hearing.

This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity. The ICMI Contact Center Expo takes place October 6-7.

Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget.

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