Prepare for Agent Skill Shifts for RPA-Enabled Contact Centers

Customer service organizations strive to empower agents with the right technologies to make them productive and to focus them on the most important work. Yet, customer service leaders continue to struggle to deliver a quality of service that keeps customers engaged and loyal to the brand. They can't optimize interactions, process flows and decisions, or perform next-best actions for more successful business outcomes that foster relationships and trust.

Customer service organizations use robotic process automation (RPA) to provide tactical and short-term fixes to digitize common, reproducible agent tasks. RPA easily and quickly extends the life of apps used in the contact center. It's no surprise that Forrester Research reports that 46 percent of contact center decision makers are already using RPA, and another 20 percent are planning to implement the technology in the next 12 months.

There are two forms of RPA. RPA bots working in "attended" mode target the front office. They are invoked by agents in the flow of their work, improving their productivity and quality. In the case of an exception, the bot hands the work back to the agent in real time to resolve. Unattended RPA bots, in contrast, autonomously execute scheduled back-office tasks that are picked from a work queue, like claims processing or generating invoices. Customer service operations use both types of RPA. A task can start with an agent and be supported by attended automation, which can kick-off unattended RPA to complete the process.

The contact center is a great workspace for RPA as the applications that agents use are precisely controlled. As the scope of RPA broadens to handle more tasks within the contact center, agents are increasingly focused on the value-added work, as well as escalations and exceptions. Customer service leaders should be prepared for the following workforce changes in the next five years:

  • RPA will not reduce headcount. It will just make your agents more effective. Consumers are contacting customer service at an increased rate over a greater number of channels than in the past. They are also quickly adopting the channels they use elsewhere, like Facebook Messenger, Instagram, WeChat, and SMS, for customer service interactions. RPA allows organizations to keep up with ballooning interaction volumes by automating basic task work for every agent. This strategy preserves a high quality of service. It will not eliminate large swaths of agents.
  • RPA will focus agents on tasks that impact customer relationships. Companies release new products and services, with more complex features at a higher rate than ever before. Front-line contact center agents take the brunt of the burden of change. RPA allows them to offload repetitive tasks so they can focus on upleveling their skills and nurturing customer relationships. Beware that empathy burnout is a top concern, and contact center managers must plan for longer breaks and more varied work for their agents.
  • RPA will make workplaces more attractive for new superagents. Agents supported via RPA can be trained more quickly, turning them into highly effective, highly knowledgeable superagents. One side benefit is that over time automation reduces the speed at which companies hire for growth. RPA allows teams to be more productive. This means managers oversee smaller teams staffed with better skilled, more effective, and more satisfied agents. Managers focus on nurturing their workforces, ultimately reducing churn and making their workplaces more attractive to new hires.
  • RPA will make you adjust your staffing. Reducing the handle time of interactions will affect workforce planners' ability to forecast and schedule agents. And this will continue as automation improves and queries become more complex and take longer to resolve. However, Forrester finds that only 13 percent of organizations report that their workforce optimization practices have been impacted by RPA, and this is sure to grow as more customer service organizations adopt RPA more broadly.

Don't overestimate the impact of RPA. RPA bots have the most value in automating tasks within processes. They are not the solution for redesigning and automating complete end-to-end business processes that are at the heart of a real transformation. Yet, when used appropriately, RPA has a solid place in delivering tangible outcomes to contact centers.

Kate Leggett is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.