Relationship hubs and superagents: The contact centre of 2020

9th Apr 2014

2020 is often glorified as a utopian year in the distant future; where the level of carbon emissions we produce will be curbed significantly, and Londoners might fly to work on jet-packs and board tubes that actually run on schedule.

But the reality is that 2020 is fast approaching. How much can really change by then? BT’s customer experience futurologist, Dr Nicola Millard was faced with this question when asked to gaze into her crystal ball and decipher what the contact centre will look like six years from now. Luckily her approach was far more pragmatic than Boris Johnson’s; although it appears there’s still some major changes looming on the horizon.

From contact centre to relationship hub        

So, it’s official: the shift to customer experience-led business strategy is changing everything. That’s already the view shared by many experts and analysts, who see experience as the key to future business survival. But central to this experience, it seems, will be the contact centre. In conjunction with the release of the white paper The Evolution of the Contact CentreDr Nicola Millard, alongside Dr Tanya Alcock, surveyed industry professionals to pull together a comprehensive snapshot of how a contact centre is likely to evolve through to 2020. Starting with the name.

“A lot of businesses are beginning to realise that the contact centre causes discussion as to whether it should be reinvented as the ‘relationship hub’,” says Millard.

“There is an acknowledgement that it’s becoming the beating heart of the organisation. It’s where all that critical communication from customers comes in; and everything that is coming through this hub has content in it that tells a business what customers are thinking about, what they’re feeling, what’s working, what isn’t. Managers and senior executives will certainly be spending the next few years focusing on how they can adapt the role of the contact centre and the importance placed upon it.”

Rise of the superagent

One of the key issues contact centre leaders will have to tackle in the immediate future is the skillsets of their staff. As automation puts more and more transactional responsibility into the hands of the customer, centre agents are increasingly being expected to deal with more complex cases by the time they’re put in front of the customer, and this requires new levels of expertise.   

“When we look at agent skills, the reason we’ve coined the phrase ‘superagent’ is that a lot of the skills that we’re asking agents to have in the near future go far above and beyond what has been traditionally expected,” Millard explains.

“The contact centre is already handling more complex and emotive calls, so now we have to say ‘let’s step back and assess what kind of skills these agents need’. They have to be brilliant communicators firstly, because of the complexity; but also, because products and services appear to be getting more intricate. So you then need an agent who can solve problems analytically. They need to be able to stick the fork into the spaghetti of back-end process in order to sort some of these problems out. They’re almost going to need to be project managers and to understand the finest details of their product, which will require a sharp increase in training and understanding in some call centres.”

Guardians of customer experience

Statistical evidence points to this need for enhanced skillsets: 54% of the contact centre employees BT surveyed in conjunction with the report stated their primary function was now ‘complex problem solving’, while just 8% stated it was the more traditional role of ‘complaint handling’.

This change in primary role, as well as the multiple channels in which contact centre employees now oversee, has led to many of those surveyed also stating they agreed with the idea of their role being as “the guardians of customer experience” by 2020. However, for this to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, the links between back-end and front-end process will need to be improved. When a customer has a genuinely complicated query, for instance, what functions are in place to effortlessly pass them onto someone with the right expertise to deal with the problem?

Contact centres will soon need to address their products, then their processes and what support their frontline agents will need in the background,” Millard states. “Technology, such as knowledge support, for instance – is that a requirement? Do you rely on your agents knowing everything about your product? Do you keep them updated with that knowledge? You have to ask these questions and then put a plan in place for tackling them.

“You then need some level of network expertise instilled in employees. The skillsets, in some circumstances, might lie in the back office. Experts often reside across an organisation, so if the complexity exists (as it does in financial and medical arenas, for instance), you might need to create networks so your back office can help perform front office functions.

“Technology is what’s making this happen – cloud computing effectively means you can turn people into advising experts if they have a browser and a network connection, so you can start to make people permeable, involving expertise from across the organisation. It’s really a bit like speed dating. Complex and emotive customer problems need the best match to deal with their problem in a short space of time. You need a good triage upfront to figure out what the customer needs, and then the speed dating process, regardless of the channel, to put them through to the experts available. Knowing who to speed date the customer through to is a skill in itself and will required better workflow management and CRM systems, which is a focus shift we’re seeing in many contact centres right now.”

Introducing more webchat

One channel that is likely to become more prominently used by 2020 is live webchat. While many contact centres have already introduced live chat into their online presence with front office customer response, the success of Amazon Mayday is now also bringing the possibility of video-based live chat into the mainstream, with both agents and customers liking the platform (40% of contact centre staff believed it would become their core communication channel, according to BT’s research).

With this in mind, Millard believes contact centres may need to spend the immediate future streamlining their webchat processes if they deem them a requirement, and getting to grips with the touch-points online where customers are most likely to need to connect:

“A lot of webchat’s success is about the design of when and where it pops up as an option to a customer online. As you incorporate video, this becomes more critical because you’re starting to look at resource planning; the resources have to be available at all times.

“It's a channel that call centres will only be exploring more. It links back into the network expertise model we expect to become prominent, because video chat could be the ideal link between front and back office support. Agents like the chat element too – it’s less isolating than the phone; you can scream across a room to get help on a customer query without putting them on hold. You can seamlessly pass a chat around. This is an intriguing trend in the contact centre and one that still requires refinement.”

The perils of ignoring evolution

With such a shift in philosophy seemingly vital to future success, many businesses have already looked at the necessity of homesource their contact centres after years of viewing this arm of their organisation as a cost centre. But does this prove that all contact centres now need a to change their viewpoint? What are the concerns if they don’t become customer experience orientated by 2020?   

“A lot of commoditised markets have products that are intangible, and the customer experience is so important in this area because that’s the differentiator in these markets,” says Millard.

“But it’s not necessarily about setting things up to wow the customer; it’s about making things easy for them and delivering an ease-of-use experience, but when it’s appropriate, putting the right layers in place to support. That’s about trying to understand customer journeys, and what customers value, what they want. It doesn't matter where your centre is based if you genuinely believe you're fulfilling this requirement. 

“We’re in an interesting period because all of the research is saying that, because customers are connected, if it’s easier for them to do something themselves they will do it. It’s then really starting to reflect into contact centre frontline strategy, because they’ll only get complex and emotive customer queries.

“It’s the human channels that have to deliver in these instances, so contact centres will have to recognise their importance a whole bunch more in the coming years, from this perspective. That’s why it’s so exciting that contact centres are becoming so central to customer experience, and the strategy behind organisations becoming more customer-connected is what will ultimately lead them into making these changes or not.”

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