The Robots Are Coming; The Robots Are Coming

The Google Duplex Assistant making a hair appointment for a client that was shown on YouTube last May continues to stun the more than 2 million viewers who have watched it so far.

It takes little effort to leap to the other side of that clever transaction to envision the hair salon having a similar artificial intelligence contact using similar technology. What happens to the contact center operator of the future if all the routine inbound calls are routed to employees named Alexa, Siri, and Cortana? If the core part of the traditional contact center operator's role can be performed by a robot or artificial intelligence, what is left for a person?

Crystal ball visioning can be a fun pastime. But, while we dream, the customer rapidly changes and tomorrow is quickly today. Today, more than half of the world's population has Internet access. But by 2020, futurists predict it will be 90 percent of the world . How will that impact contact center call volume?

Many routine services can now be performed by a computer-driven device. Think of it as a service vending machine. Computers can now do low-level routine surgery, prepare your will, balance your tires, and issue you a boarding pass. They can style your hair, fill your teeth, or mow your lawn. Robots assembled your vehicle and crafted the material used to construct your house. So, what can be done only by humans; or, by humans much better than technology? The three key roles performed by people in the contact centers of the future will be artisans, carnival attendants, and crises handlers.

Artisans are solvers of complex problems. There will always be services you might be able to get via the Internet. But wouldn't you rather have a live artisan performing your massage, prostate/pap smear check, or real estate closing? Even if a computer could fix your toilet, tutor your son, or hear your confession, wouldn't you prefer a trained human specialist on the receiving end of your need? The contact center version of artisans are the roles requiring intuition, insight, and experience-based cleverness.

Remember the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey"? Bowman defeated the rogue robot Hal with ingenuity, not intelligence. What is the punchline for contact center operations? Start training your contact center employees to be great problem-solvers. Resource them with diagnostic tools that enable them to ingeniously resolve issues that are not achievable through linear thinking.Train them in root cause analysis methods and creative problem-solving techniques.

The second type of contact center employee is the "carnie." We all like carnivals. I can buy groceries on the Internet with NetGrocer or Peapod and have them delivered to my house. Amazon bought Whole Foods to experiment with technology from augmented reality to interactive displays to real-time shelf management. As cool as a gizmo-laden grocery store might become, it sure is fun to walk into a Trader Joe's or Fresh Markets and have a tactile encounter that entertains all your senses. We humans enjoy service with sensory stimulation attached, not just fast but functional; efficient but plain vanilla. Buying bass lures online saves me time; buying them at the big Bass Pro Shops makes me smile.

When a friend watched the Google demonstration of the smart assistant simulating human conversation, her first comment was: "If I told her a funny one-liner, how would she know to laugh?" Her reaction nails the carnival side of the contact center operator. As expertly practical as a robot can be, we still enjoy whimsy, a tease, or a quick compliment. The punchline for contact center operations? Encourage operators to use their personality, imagination, and spunky side. Zappos contact center operators practice their core value: create fun and a little weirdness. Even if you are a call center operator for a chain of funeral homes, there is still opportunity for highly personal interactions rather than highly sterilized scripts.

So, where does the coming of robots leave your service role? If you are not an artisan with a specialized niche, a carnival with a great show, or a crisis handler with superior recovery skills, you might become as relevant as an elevator operator or gas station attendant. The robots are not just coming; they are here. And, their prowess and presence will increase as customers demand super-fast service with flawless accuracy and minimal (if any) effort or wait. Get ready to be a human with the emotional knob turned way up.

Chip R. Bell is a keynote speaker and author of several best-selling books. His newest book is Kaleidoscope:Delivering Innovative Service That Sparkles. He can be reached at

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Posted March 12, 2019