A glimpse into the contact center of the future: the digitally enabled contact center

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When I set out to do a spinoff Blueprint on the future of contact center services, I thought of this concept that only seemed logical to explain as “digitally-enabled contact center.” Initially, I think this inspired more confusion and uncertainty than it did to define the future of contact center services.  I confused the service providers, who were convinced they had already provided their best digital story, and the buyer references, who had way more examples of traditional call center work than true digital enablement.  I’m admitting this, hoping that we can learn from the lesson that sometimes it takes a lot of battling through confusion/hype/ attempted brainwashing to figure out what’s really going on in the markets we cover.

The most important question this exercise inspired is: how can the contact center break free from legacy butts in seats engagements that force customers into bad conversations they don’t want to be having– and create a customer experience that serves the digital customer, and inspires greater satisfaction and loyalty?

What is a digitally enabled contact center? 

At the most basic level, embracing “digital” channels: social media, web self-service including mobile apps and visual IVR, video kiosks and chat is the start of digitally-enabled contact center.   Also important is seeking to use automation to create efficiencies; and the really smart contact center operators are trying to figure out how to involve increasingly intelligent automation into the mix. 

It’s more than just implementing these channels, though, it’s the design of how each channel fits into the overall customer journey, and the understanding of how talent fits into the equation– talent that not only can handle communication on varied channels that demand different styles (yet consistency!) but can also take contextual information from multiple sources and use that in a way that benefits the customer.  From an analytics perspective, it’s all about using the data to better understand customers, enable personalization and be more predictive. 

A digitally enabled contact center is way more than the technology—humans are actually at the heart of a digitally enabled contact center. 

Ultimately, a digitally enabled contact center is one that supports Intelligent OneOffice. It’s not just about supporting the digital channels themselves, it’s the design and strategy about how digital impacts the way enterprises handle customer service in a “customer first” organization.  Ask anyone who has worked in a call center and they will tell you it’s hard and it can be tedious.  I can attest to this as someone who’s toured dozens, and worked in them myself.  But, there are moments when it can be very rewarding; moments of human connection and real customer satisfaction, and even loyalty—those moments are what we need to focus on in order to understand what’s at the heart of this rapidly changing industry—and requires a digital strategy to support. 

Digital enablement is happening in spurts  

A contact center strategy that addresses all the above capabilities is largely aspirational.   Digitally enabled contact center is happening in pockets – little bits here and there.  Some of the highlights include:

  • Channel Mix: Digital channels have been supported for many years, and service providers continue to implement services well around “newer” channels which are now mainstream, such as chat and social media support. A “self-assist first” strategy is one that’s emerging among the savviest contact center service providers; the idea of guiding customers with self-service first and then incorporating the agent role to intervene when needed.   Voice is still the dominant channel, while others have increased as a percentage of overall interactions; the issue is not so much about voice declining as it is about understanding the shift in channel mix, and the underlying dynamics and preferences driving the shift.
  • Channel deflection/ issue prevention: Intuitive knowledge bases which pre-empt and solve customer inquiries before requiring agent assistance is driving self-service as a solution to decrease customer effort.  Improving self-service is frequently put forward as a cost savings mechanism, but often has the most immediate impact on service quality and consistency. Automation on the front end of customer service in many cases is not developed enough to address these drivers.    
  • Digital Customer Experience: Demand for adoption of true end-to-end customer care offerings is still low compared to actual adoption, but we’ve seen pilots with large clients looking to really connect the underlying back and middle offices to support customer experience. The next year or so will be telling with how and whether these pilots come to fruition. The competitive landscape is about to change.   Some large multinationals and tech-focused service providers have more horsepower to be real “OneOffice Enablers”—connecting the front, middle and back office to support the digital customer experience holistically. Many traditional contact center service providers will end up focused on scale, geographic footprint and labor arbitrage (“DumbOffice” category)—for which there is still a large market but getting more and more difficult to compete and stay profitable in. 

How to thrive and not just survive—Contact center services need to cross the chasm by:

  • Changing the perception (and reality!) of contact center and contact center service provider relationships. I recently spoke with a buyer who said that after implementing a web self-service strategy, his company automated about 50% of their phone calls over the course of only several months.  This caused a re-evaluation of the company’s contact center service provider and whether it was really worth outsourcing the decreasing amount of phone calls.  This begs the question, what can this provider do to keep the relationship alive?  Are there other channels they can help implement to deflect calls?  What analytics can the provider bring to create more value and bring insight to their client? 
  • Sharpening a strong partner ecosystem. Digital trends increase the importance of a strong, smart partner ecosystem. Most contact center services providers aren’t really “tech shops” so don’t do core development, and need to focus on partnerships with established firms and startups.  Considering the technology needed to service customers using channels like video, mobile, and chat, as well as connecting to other systems such CRM, having access to platforms that are agile and connect easily with other systems is critical. Strategic technology partnerships are especially important for the pure play service providers that are not technology providers.
  • Shifting the metrics. Engagements focused on average handle time will fall flat or cease to exist in 5 years.  For example, SLA s for response times involving an email might be 48 hours, whereas response time SLAs for social media are often four hours or less (Amtrak may want to look into implementing some kind of standard there).

Future-proofing the contact center services business   

There’s lots of talk about cannibalization of legacy engagements.  Contact center service providers’ mitigation strategy must be multi fold—they must provide something in conjunction with traditional operations that addresses automation and self-service, built in with exception support (with a great talent strategy) to address the changing contact center model to derive more value out of clients’ investments.

One of the wild cards with the potential biggest impact is artificial intelligence – as we discuss in the Blueprint, many of the traditional contact center service providers are not looking at artificial intelligence in any meaningful way.  Whether they invest in a partnership strategy or at the least develop a team to study its potential impact, action needs to be taken– but most providers are content to bury their heads in the sand.  Eventually artificial intelligence will have a material impact on contact centers, and it won’t be pretty for the providers who are dependent on butts in seats.  Understanding how to blend the best of human and artificial intelligence, and a greater sense of urgency to understand how this will impact the industry is sorely needed right now. 

And I’ve waited this long to get to the dreaded “omnichannel” phrase, but let’s face it:  in the future, anything can be a “channel”—it could be a car, or a watch, or a refrigerator.  What this demands more than anything is an agility that is very rarely found- and often antithetical- to traditional contact center services. 

The Bottom Line:  The entire future of contact center (and OneOffice) hinges on creating different kinds of relationships

This seems to beg for a design thinking first strategy.  One executive quote from a recent analyst event that stood out was: “We’re teaching clients how to work differently, and they’re teaching us. We’re learning together.”  These are the kind of relationships that will ultimately generate a customer experience that keeps contact centers a critical part of the CX strategy.  I’ll be really excited to take another look at this digitally enabled contact center in a year or two.  With so much of the discussion being around pilots and big picture thinking, I’ll be eager to see how some of this stuff comes to fruition. 

For an evaluation of the digitally enabled contact center market themes and service provider analysis, click here.

Posted in : Contact Center and Omni-Channel

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