Plan Now for the Contact Center Agent of the Future

Forrester Research's clients all seem to agree that the issues flowing into contact centers have become more difficult in the past few years. Customers have access to a wider array of self-service and peer-to-peer service tools, and they are availing themselves of the more friction-free experiences. This means that a good chunk of the simpler queries no longer land on contact center agents' desks.

At the same time, the market has been flooded with companies offering automation through chatbots. Whether the chatbot is powered by natural language understanding and machine learning or is a simpler deterministic, decision tree-powered tool, companies should expect to see even more of their customer service interactions automated. Essentially, we're looking at a snowball rolling downhill. Automation could soon easily handle one-third, or even more, of customers' problems.

But that presents a real challenge for companies. If you have hired your agents to do L0 or L1 work, but now need them to do L2 or L3 tasks, you've got a real problem. You could try to "upskill" those agents, a dubious prospect if you have not specifically recruited people with the ability to quickly learn and improve. Or, more likely, you need to start hiring new folks to man those assisted contact channels, such as phone, chat, SMS, and messaging.

And the skills deficit will only grow. As those chatbots come online, customers will be escalating failed service interactions from the bots to human agents. Those agents will need to be able to jump into the middle of interactions, and will, therefore, need to quickly consume whatever context is provided and start serving the customer with aplomb. Few companies today are hiring agents with those skills in mind.

At heart, this would represent a wholesale change to the definition of the contact center agent role. You might need to recruit from new labor pools, change your compensation models and benefits, craft new training regimens, and manage performance in novel ways. This change won't slam into your workplaces tomorrow, but if the chatbot and artificial intelligence vendors live up to their own extensive hype, we will need to rethink the agent position in the next few years.

Long-term planning has never been a real strength of contact centers. If we are looking a few quarters out, we're in our comfort zone. But trying to plan for changes three to five years out? That's never been our forte.

Because there are some specific technologies that will drive such changes, it would not be unreasonable for companies to expect the technology vendors to help. After all, it is their AI and chatbots bringing about such changes. "You helped create this problem. Now help me fix it" doesn't seem to be a crazy response.

At least for the time being, however, none of the vendors seem to be even considering the longer-term impact of their technology on the employee experience of those toiling in the customer service organizations of the near future. While they might step up eventually, for now, it is incumbent on companies to start tackling these issues themselves.

Start investigating new labor models that could help you attract more talented team members, such as work-at-home models. If you run a large, traditional brick-and-mortar contact center, the work-at-home model requires numerous changes, both in attitude (how do we manage agents in real time when we can't see them?) and in processes (how to we drive a cohesive culture with all of our agents scattered to the four winds?). Start noodling on which skills are actually required for this new type of work and how you would test for those. You've got some time before this tsunami of change hits. Use it to ensure you are prepared when the changes do start to impact your customer service operations.

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research, covering application development and delivery.