Building the Call Center of the Future

Someday soon, people will look back and wonder how traditional call centers were ever a thing. With agents reading off scripts that often don't provide clear guidance, call centers tend to be the most frustrating point of contact between companies and their customers. But they were once seen as the best way to provide customer service at scale. Now, new mobile and digital channels, driven by artificial intelligence, have changed that. AI-powered service interactions bear two distinct advantages: the possibility for one-to-one engagement and the ability to collect data on how customers really feel.

Look at the financial-software company Intuit. Once, you had to buy its TurboTax DVDs at places like Best Buy and Staples. But within just a few years, a move to the cloud and a great app, Intuit has streamlined the tax-prep process. Last year more than 1 million Americans filed taxes on the TurboTax mobile app. Not just 1040EZs, either, but the really complicated ones. With customer service embedded right into the TurboTax app, filing your taxes became easier than ever. Now, with the simple push of a button, up comes a video call with an agent who can see exactly where the customer is, calm nerves, and deal with the problem — no shuffling around, no ID questions.

Intuit demonstrates how much smarter service can be. But it’s not just about introducing new technology; better service in the digital age will require a transformation of the business culture itself.

Reaching Customers Where They Are

The proliferation of social and mobile has meant that companies have to figure out where their customers are, how to create a voice that's true to the brand, and how best to deliver the right customer experience. Everybody gets this. More than 50 percent of service teams deliver customer service on at least five different channels, and 83 percent of U.S. consumers prefer dealing with customer service issues over those digital channels. With the rise of Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and WhatsApp, messaging is exploding, and companies have to develop a strategy that works on these platforms, too.

So what does that mean for the call center? A total revolution. AI will break service into two parts that look like this:

  1. Bots take care of the easy stuff. Companies will develop chatbots to handle the basic queries ("what's your mailing address?"). If the customer's need is too complex for the bot, the system automatically brings in an agent, which leads me to the second part.
  2. Intelligence will empower agents. Assuming you've got a system in place that can handle the majority of basic problems (see the bot above), this means that service agents are now handling tougher issues, requiring a major shift in call centers. Intelligence will empower agents, helping them find the right answer faster and letting them spend their time on the more complicated mechanics of solving the problem vs. searching for information.

AI is Listening

For decades, agents have been writing reminders to themselves on Post-It notes (reminders on complex questions or who to reach out to on certain topics). While it works, we now have AI to bring us out of the Post-It note era and into the digital era.

By tapping into AI to read our email and chats, listen to our calls, and apply deep learning to analyze sentiment and customer need, we will soon be able to use AI to navigate tricky customer situations. Imagine a world where suggested next steps will pop up on our (Post-It-free) screens reminding us where to find the answer to an infrequent, complex question or where to find someone with specialized insight.

The measure of agent performance used to be handle time: the more calls processed, the better, because then the agent can take more calls. Now that agents are handling more complex issues, handle time is no longer the key metric. Companies will have to focus on qualities that seem downright holistic: Did I increase the Net Promoter Score or customer satisfaction? Did I get the issue resolved or did the customer have to call back? Did I upsell them something else?

On this last point, just as analytics will present the best outcomes and most probable courses of action, AI-driven service will suggest many new opportunities for sales. For example, AI-driven service will be able to recommend when to upsell a customer on a new service or when they're due for a new product. AI-driven service can notify an agent that because the customer recently experienced credit card fraud, she should also upsell  the latest security software. Additionally, AI-driven service can notify a field agent that the customer whose dishwasher he's fixing actually needs to replace the refrigerator too.

The goal for service will shift, finally, from hard-and-fast handle times to overall business outcomes. Call centers will become more strategic to companies. They won't just be the outliers required for when something goes wrong, but an integrated and seamless part of the sales process and the customer relationship as a whole. Service will do more, will see more, than ever.

Sarah Patterson is senior vice president of product marketing for Service Cloud at