Automation, robotics, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning – the list of exciting new technologies seems endless. As a business leader trying to keep the company competitive, you may decide you do not love seemingly endless advances in technology because they complicate things like employee training systems, but you cannot leave technology behind. It is embedded in the lives of customers and business operations. The impact of technology on most jobs has been significant, and customer call centers or contact centers are included among the operations most affected.
Are YOUR employees brand ambassadors? This article will help you hire for customer satisfaction.
Trying to be Human
For call center or contact center employees, technology is rapidly changing their job responsibilities. In a nutshell, technology automates basic duties, leaving employees to manage the complex customer issues. Employees need higher level skills to address higher level, more complex customer problems needing human assistance for resolution. Call centers are good examples of how technology does not necessarily replace workers but rather changes job requirements and the skills needed for quality job performance.
Customers today can take care of most simple transactions without needing to talk to a company representative by visiting the company's website or using a mobile app – change information on an account profile, request a credit balance increase, check on an order status, order products or services, request a refund, and more. Even when a customer chooses to use a chat option, many companies first have an AI and machine learning-driven chatbot attempt to help the customer. The chatbot – a conversation held via customer voice command or text - is given a name so it seems human, answers questions with the utmost politeness and smoothly hands the customer over to a call center representative when unable to help the customer or the customer demands to talk to a human.
Always a Need for Humans in Call Centers
Not so long ago, call center employees handled all of the customer inquiries and sales calls that came to the center, but that is no longer true in many companies. What are the implications for call center job responsibilities?
First, there will always be a need for call center or contact center positions. Topping the list of reasons is the fact some tasks can only be handled by humans. It could be as simple as the fact there are still plenty of consumers who are uncomfortable interacting with chatbots and insist on talking to a "real person," or as complex as a customer who has a problem with a product and needs options for resolution. In fact, a Forrester survey found that 83 percent of consumers prefer to talk to human agents because they can better understand the customer's need.
However, even if all adults used the internet and mobile apps for communication with company agents, it still does not change the need for call center representatives.
IBM predicted that chatbots and self-service technologies will eventually handle up to 85 percent of customer interactions, but there will always be the minimum 15 percent that requires agent interventions. Some customer problems cannot be solved by technology. Low skill job responsibilities are already being automated, so call center employees are increasingly asked to solve the higher level customer issues. To manage higher levels of work, employees need a skills shift and higher level cognitive skills.
Wanted: New Skills
IBM took a close look at the impact of AI on jobs, comparing employee skill needs in 2018 to projected needs in 2022. Already in 2018, research found employees need skills in critical thinking, complex problem solving abilities, reasoning, social influence, time management, and attention to details. In 2022, similar skills are needed as AI continues to automate many tasks, but the order of priority changes. For example, active learning and learning abilities move to second place.
Deloitte's 2018 Global Human Capital Trends found that 72 percent of business leaders embrace AI, robots and automation for increased productivity and performance. Only 31 percent believed their organizations were prepared to redesign jobs and leverage skills like cognitive abilities, problem solving and social skills. Contact center employees must contribute to the social enterprise in which the ability to build successful relationships is crucial. In the social enterprise, businesses are evaluated on much more than traditional metrics, like number of calls handled and sales. They are evaluated on their impact on society at large, and the frontline workforce that has direct contact with customers is a key influencer of success.
Computer programs, no matter how sophisticated, do not have empathy and social intelligence. It is only people who can ensure customers have a satisfying experience, explaining why some customers who do use the internet and mobile apps still insist on talking to a customer service representative. In fact, McKinsey & Co. predicted that there will be a need for more employees who have "finely tuned social and emotional skills." These are higher level cognitive skills.
Compare a person who can change an address or track an order status to one who can make a customer feel valued and satisfied. The Forrester survey mentioned in a previous section found that the top three problems reported by consumers with bots were, 1) bots are unable to deal with complex requests, 2) bots cannot deliver personalized offers as well as humans can, and 3) bots cannot understand human emotions.
Closing a Skills Mismatch
What does all of this mean in the reality of the contact centers and employee hiring and training? Businesses are undergoing a transformation that has a long way to go. However, it is already clear that call center representatives will increasingly be called upon to solve more complex problems as technologies automate routine tasks. The employees need ever higher levels of cognitive processing abilities and social intelligence. Call center employers must be good collaborators, self-managers and effective situation analyzers.
In the same study mentioned earlier, McKinsey & Co found that the employees who will have the greatest skills mismatch over the next three years will be those who work in areas that are the most automated. In terms of skills mismatch, the customer service function is fourth from the top and sales and marketing operations are third, both behind R&D and product and service design. Employees must be able to, 1) learn and relearn new technologies, and 2) be able to supplement them through the personal services delivered.
Giving Superior Customer SErvice
There are two approaches to addressing the need to upskill the call center function. One is to hire employees who already have a pre-determined level of desired skills. Another approach is to provide learning and development opportunities to existing employees to help them adapt to the new reality of required job performance. It should be pointed out that successful employee hiring and training depends on the business having a deep understanding of what technology, like AI, should and should not do. Some customer interactions should not be managed by anyone but a human, i.e. angry customers or complaints about product defects.
AI and machine learning can be instrumental in collecting and analyzing data that guides business leaders in developing the best training tools. AI can also contribute to reducing call hold times by identifying and contacting the appropriate customer service representatives. However, it still comes down to this: AI cannot fully replace a human. Ironically, it is technology and predictive analytics that can help businesses hire the best job candidates.
In both approaches (hiring and training), employee assessments play a critical role. They can be based on re-aligned job qualifications and responsibilities to ensure the hiring and training of employees is done with a strategic goal or outcome in mind – reaching a symbiotic state of technology and human performance. Pre-hire employee assessments and job simulations can help the organization hire people who have a minimum skill set and demonstrate through scores that they have the ability and desire to learn and progress. Skills assessments and job simulations administered to current employees are great training tools in that they demonstrate performance expectations and changing work requirements, while giving managers guidance as to the type of reskilling needed.
The times they are a-changin' (sang Bob Dylan and later the Rolling Stones and Tracy Chapman), and contact centers need to keep up.