COVER STORY: From cost control to customer fanatics, AI is transforming the contact centre

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They are often the hardest working, yet most disrespected members of the team. Poorly paid, managed like battery hens, and marked for outsourcing or offshoring. You don't even know their names. Yet they speak to more customers in a typical 60 minutes than most managing directors meet during their entire tenure on Mahogany Row.

For years companies merely suffered the presence of their customer service departments, and they were viewed as costs to be endured. All that changed as digital technologies like smart mobility and social media shifted power into the hands of customers. Customer service became a battleground and contact centre agents were the front line.

As organisations invest in digitalising their contact centres, arming their agents with AI and machine learning tools, both the customer experience and the employee expectations have transformed.

According to Brad Hoyle, operational excellence manager at small business insurance provider BizCover, “The role has changed from being a pure customer service representative to a customer fanatic.”

Hoyle said that processing work and transactional tasks are now considered low value, where AI and machine learning assisted channels are often responsible for fulfilling requests of this kind for customers.

Higher value

When customers need to speak to a contact centre agent now, it is to escalate a more complicated request.

“If our customers talk to us directly, it's for the items that require a personalised experience. That's what they're expecting from a representative that takes the time to understand the unique business circumstances and help the customer get to their desired outcome.”

Treating any work that crosses an agent’s desk as an escalation point, means that the contact centre agent expectations have increased to the point where they are expected to problem-solve for customers and understand their individual needs.

According to Fiona Keough, CEO of Australia’s only not-for-profit that focuses on the contact centre landscape, Auscontact Association, the metrics with which to measure agent success have also shifted as the work has increased in its complexity.

“Their role used to be, you'll speak to a customer and you'll only take 180 seconds. You’ll make sure that there's a greater service, 80 percent of calls answered in 20 seconds. It's no longer about those two things or at least mature organisations no longer think that AHT [average handle time] is what you should be focusing on,” said Keough.

“It's changed the focus to being first contact resolution, measures of customer satisfaction or how easy was it to do business? And more broadly for the organisation, a net promoter score coming to the forefront or have been at the forefront actually for at least five to 10 years.”

New capabilities

As the work becomes more sophisticated, the kinds of people being hired into agent roles is also impacted.

According to Keough, organisations are largely looking to hire degree qualified individuals for the roles.

But it's not just cognitive intellect that businesses are seeking. They are also screening for emotional intelligence, which is critical for any people-facing role.

Keough names analytical skills, negotiation skills, problem-solving skills and emotional intelligence as the key requirements for the job.

According to Luke McCormack, Asia Pacific vice president and managing director at Pegasystems, confidence and empathy are necessary for the role of an agent, and you can’t have one without the other.

“The role of the [customer service representative] CSR has been elevated where typically they are true problem solvers, and they have to interpret the needs of the customer with the demands of the internal systems and make sure that they're providing higher value-add and complex problem resolution for customers,” said McCormack.

“There's a level of confidence that [the technology] is doing the right thing. And also that has to be married with the level of empathy that they need to demonstrate when dealing with customers. And those two things need to go hand in hand. It's not just enough to be empathetic and then not really have the confidence that the technology is going to do the right thing,” he said.

It is the soft skills that McCormack highlights as necessary to success in the role, especially in an environment where customers are largely calling with complaints rather than thanks.

Profound effects

According to Keough, the shift to hybrid and remote working has had a profound effect on contact centre agents' wellbeing, as much of the strain in dealing with dissatisfied customers could be seen by management when working from the office.

“[Customers are] literally ringing up — I mean this in the nicest possible way, and I'm exaggerating of course — to tear shreds. Not off the individual, but tear shreds off the organisation, but you're the human in the middle of it,” she said.

“So when you are all sitting together and you could see somebody else in the contact centre, there was somebody that could immediately empathise or your team leader could walk up to you and say, ‘You know what, take a break. I just overheard that, you really need to take five for yourself’.”

The best-in-class contact centres are providing mental health and wellbeing training for agents and leaders, to equip them with the skills they need to recognise when they are struggling and need to make a change, said Keough.

“Working from home and remotely requires a leader to actually amplify their leadership style, because you can't be there as you would normally be.”

Employee experience

It's not all doom and gloom for agents, though.

According to Michael Fagan, chief transformation officer at Village Roadshow, the investment in tools such as AI and automation in contact centres not only improves customer experiences but also positively impacts the agent’s experience.

“I don't know who had a greater benefit for our contact centre, whether it was the employee experience or the customer experience," he said.

Fagan said as digital tools replace the onerous, repetitive tasks, this is an improvement for agents, as they get to focus on more enjoyable work.

“We've removed about 30 hours of manual work every week, so that's a great employee experience. The people doing that, I'm sure it wasn't their favourite part of their week. Especially if you sound like me in a weird accent.”

BizCover’s Hoyle echoes this sentiment, asserting that agents are engaging in more interesting work.

“It's able to remove a lot of that mundane work and we shift the focus to real high empathy tasks, which are more engaging for agents anyway. They get a lot more out of having a really personal conversation with someone,” said Hoyle.

“You don't get that burnout because you're taking care of the mundane work for them.”

The other implication for the work, according to Hoyle, is that digital adoption in contact centres is creating an augmented agent experience.

“They're actually getting systems telling them the next best action or suggesting knowledge articles for them to help resolve issues before they're even really identified. They're getting feedback and inputs from lead scoring algorithms," said Hoyle. 

"They're getting transfers from things like chatbots and intelligent SMS channels and automated [interactive voice responses] IVRs. They’re now in this world where AI systems are passing work to them and helping them solve that work as best they can.”

It's still the customer, stupid

Looking to the future of contact centres, Canteen’s general manager data and technology, Raul Caceres believes even as technology advances, the key focus of the contact centre agent’s role will always be customer-centric.

“That part has definitely not changed, but we're looking into a little bit more of the easiness to communicate, not only using one channel but slowly moving into using multiple channels as well,” said Caceres.

"The thing that's probably changed is looking for people that feel much more comfortable looking at the role of an agent being much more than just answering the phone or answering an email, but being able to communicate in a sort of an omnichannel way with all of our supporters.”

According to Dobek Bociarski, APAC product lead, unified communications and customer experience at GoTo (formally LogMeIn) consumers expect 24/7 availability to self-help, using tools including online portals and apps. These online tools then act as a trigger for engaging with contact centres, he said.

"Forrester said that this time last year, that there will be a 40 percent increase in digital channel engagement in the contact centre. And that's true, that's what we're seeing. Because we're finding that a lot of our consumers are spending their time on search engines and social platforms," said Bociarski.

The focus for contact centres is to provide fast delivery, engage across multiple platforms, leverage social media and provide extended availability across multiple time zones and geographies — all with the expectation of providing a resolution for the customer.

"You've tried email, you've blogged your disappointment on the site, but now you actually want a resolution. You want to have an outcome. People use this as a final resort to get something done and as a result, agents actually need to be equipped to provide that help, they need to have an ability to make a decision. They need to be able to have access to the right tools, the business tools, not just ticketing tools, that's important. But it's also important to have visibility into the business, and then be able to connect with them," he added.


This article was updated at 11.15am 8/02/2022. 

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