Contact Centers are Becoming Experience Hubs and Driving the Future of Customer Service

The profound disruption experienced by contact centers, and in customer experience more broadly, due to COVID-19 is creating bigger changes across the service industry. Today, businesses that are leading in customer service and the customer and employee experience are doing so because they are accelerating digital transformation, adopting new models for work and the workplace, and reimagining their mix of service channels.

Contact centers specifically can become the human heart of companies' digital operations, ultimately driving positive customer experiences and business value. For leaders looking to understand how to harness this opportunity, here are three key trends driving the future of contact centers and what businesses can do to spark better contact and service operations, provide better customer experiences, and help drive growth.

Embracing Cloud and AI to Foster Human Connection

Disruptions brought on by the pandemic led many contact center leaders to double down on their digital transformation, with cloud and artificial intelligence technologies at the center. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, some companies were slow to embrace cloud due to security concerns, expected costs, and the lack of internal capabilities to deploy and manage cloud solutions. In fact, according to recent research from Deloitte Digital, at the end of 2020, only 32 percent of surveyed organizations were running contact center technologies in the cloud; now, 75 percent expect to make the move within the next two years.

That said, embracing cloud technology is about more than just technology transformation, as cloud can serve as a catalyst for companies to rethink their ways of doing business, managing workforces, and interacting with customers. Leaders should consider using technologies such as natural language processing, speech recognition, process automation and robotics—all of which are cloud-driven—as they are key to helping customer contact center operations drive experiences that are more personal, intuitive, empathetic, faster, more automated, and more scalable.

AI in particular stands to revolutionize contact center operations and customer experiences, which is why 79 percent of contact center leaders plan to invest in AI capabilities in the next two years. To accelerate success, it's important to find specific, targeted applications of AI to drive business value while preparing for better ways of working with the technology. That's why companies have planned investments in process automation, such as robotic process automation, customer resource management workflow optimization, and next-best action to complement and expand what is possible with AI. Adopting AI can help contact center leaders stay ahead or remain on par with the service industry.

Making Work from Home Work for Your Team

In addition to new technologies, contact centers are changing due to workforces becoming more remote than ever before. Today, 77 percent of service organizations are either adopting or accelerating their work-from-home programs, and 80 percent of companies now plan to close their physical customer service centers entirely, a huge jump from the 6 percent of customer service agents who worked from home before the pandemic.

In the past, some contact centers struggled to apply remote work arrangements because the agents' job involves constant training and high workloads punctuated by difficult interactions with customers. These challenges were exacerbated by the pandemic, as one out of four companiesexperienced lower agent performance and longer hiring and onboarding cycles as a result. Despite this, service leaders are realizing that the benefits of remote work are worth the effort, as forward-thinking organizations are working to lay a sustainable foundation for their work-from-home programs because they know they'll get better workers at a lower cost. Businesses can also expand the types of employees who work for them, such as stay-at-home parents who prefer part-time work or individuals that would simply prefer to work at home.

To help make the change to remote work a success, leaders must take short-term actions by increasing investments to support employee and management needs, such as collaboration and teaming tools, remote training resources, dual monitors for agents, and cloud-based telephony. Looking to the future, it is important for companies to build robust training programs with tools and processes to remotely train employees from day one. Importantly, leaders must also make conscious and deliberate efforts to reinforce culture and purpose, starting by recognizing that remote workers require specific and focused attention that is vastly different than in-center workers.

Additionally, variability in agent performance continues to be a challenge for many organizations, with leaders blaming bad actors or poor performance on agent apathy. While certainly this can happen, the reality is more nuanced, and leaders must better distinguish these differences and react accordingly when assessing agent outcomes in a remote environment.

Finally, there is also a need for more employee experience programs, resilient risk and security protections, and other workforce and workplace processes and assets to help employees feel connected. These positive employee experiences will ultimately lead to a stronger customer experience, as agents that are supported, engaged, and driven by new opportunities will bring that through in their interactions with customers.

Shift from Cost-Focused to Value Focused: Keeping it Personal

Contact centers ultimately impact the ways consumers engage with companies, and customers want connected experiences and are willing to abandon those that don't offer them. However, optimizing every possible experience on every channel isn't just difficult. In many cases, it isn't really feasible. That's why many have turned to "right-channeling" to meet customers where they are in the moment and usher them each to the most appropriate channel to most efficiency address their needs.

Right-channeling starts with mapping contact types to the most suitable channel or channels based on the nature of contact, data exchange, ease of use, the likelihood of first-contact channel resolution; and, most importantly, where direct human-to-human contact is the most important, and then deploying appropriate tactics across channels to guide customers to the desired channel. By making this shift, service leaders can create a better customer experience.

With the emerging competitive importance of customer experience, combined with the hastening march toward digital-first business and commerce models, service leaders have been forced to rethink the goals they serve and the roles their organizations perform. Importantly, leaders are finding ways to drive business value by orchestrating valuable service experiences. Along the way, they're opening the door to direct revenue generation within the service operation through personalized offers that fit the context and needs of the customer.

The creation of personalized experiences requires organizations to reinvent how they interact with customers and challenge the current orthodoxies. To do so, leaders must start by assessing and evaluating the reasons for customer contacts. When do they contact the company? Is it an easy process for the customer? Should they even be contacting the company at all? Then, it needs to be considered how the organization is interacting back: Is customers' time being properly valued? Do they have options for how they're contacting the company? And finally, look to make logical connections by using information you already know about a customer. Did we just issue a bill or invoice that's significantly higher or lower than usual? How are we explaining this? Together, these understandings will allow for that stronger experience customers need.

By providing proactive, efficient service that feels personalized and effortless to the customer, companies can foster greater satisfaction, trust, and loyalty—critical ingredients to growing brand value and market share. Companies leading in this space are finding ways to drive business value by orchestrating valuable service experiences. Contact centers play a valuable role in this and leaders looking to stay ahead need to properly invest in new technology, internal programming and value-focused services to ensure their success.

Tim McDougal is managing director of Deloitte Consulting and contact center offering leader at Deloitte Digital.