Can Your Contact Center Survive the Next Five Years?

There have been about 15 million contact center agents in the world for the past decade or so. Despite the staggering array of new tools and approaches to increase contact center efficiency, that number has not gone down. When companies add digital channels they enjoy new efficiencies, but they also find new customers who need help. It's good for the business, but you end up with more agents, not fewer. Traditional automation can take care of many customer inquiries, but the hard stuff remains and only gets more complex.

Generative artificial intelligence is a real change. What can be automated practically will be 10 times what it is today. It will take a while to work through the kinks, but real customer-facing generative AI-driven chatbots are only months away—maybe a couple of years if you are in a heavily regulated industry.

I'm pretty sure we will see fewer agents in the world in the next five years. Maybe it drops by 2 million to 3 million, maybe all the way down to 10 million. But maybe not; maybe we find new and more valuable ways to use those 15 million people in the world, and the number of agents will continue to hold.

Regardless of where that goes, if you don't keep up, you won't survive. Cloud-based systems that can support omnichannel interactions and generative AI solutions deliver value that premises-based systems can't. If you don't adapt, your team will not last long in this world.

This isn't abstract for me; I see it in the inquiries I get from companies. Here are some of the questions I get in my inquiries. Questions such as these say a lot about the organization that is asking them:

  • How do we provide the best possible music-on-hold experience.
  • Should we add SMS or chat first? After that, we will add the other channel in two years.
  • How do weo measure average handle time when you increase automation rates?

The contact center managers who are asking these questions are in trouble. Things are happening too fast. The traditional contact center team that sticks to the traditional methods is going to be absorbed by a different team at other companies that have embraced the changes that are coming.

It won't be fair. A new team with a digital charter will come along, free from the handcuffs that shackle the old contact center. That new team will be able to grow and eventually take over all customer interactions, including the phone calls and inquiries that the traditional contact center manages today. The company demands it to survive; you need to demand to be a part of that change if your contact center is going to survive.

Max Ball is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.