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Contact centers struggle to improve employee experience

AI, better workforce management tools and conversation intelligence are key technologies to help customer service teams get through the current rough patch.

For contact centers, customer wait times are at 20-year highs. Solving that issue -- and by extension, improving customer experience -- will take a combination of technology, people and employee experience enhancements.

Experts speaking at the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) Contact Center Expo virtual conference said, across the board, that the pandemic created staffing and technology challenges from which many organizations still haven't recovered.

Matching supply of agents with demand has been the biggest contact center challenge, said Brad Cleveland, ICMI co-founder and special advisor, who is also a consultant. Eight out of 10 contact centers plan to expand their workforces this year, according to ICMI research. One of the main drivers in several verticals is ongoing supply chain disruptions, which have increased customer issues that contact centers must solve.

"This heartbreaking geopolitical crisis we're seeing is not helping," Cleveland said, referencing Russia's invasion of Ukraine. "Supply chain problems are impacting all of us in various kinds of ways. ... At the same time, contact centers haven't been immune to what what's being called the Great Resignation."

Brad Cleveland, co-founder of the International Customer Management Institute
International Customer Management Institute co-founder and senior advisor Brad Cleveland makes a point on current customer service challenges in his ICMI Contact Center Expo keynote.

Some contact centers remain removed from CX planning

Amid the difficulties of the last two years, contact centers also were continuing another transition -- from cost centers that solve customer problems to frontline deliverers of customer experience, and by extension, value to an organization. Becky Roemen, customer experience and contact center consulting practice lead at Avtex Solutions, first saw this begin around 2017.

But many companies have yet to give customer service leadership a seat at the CX table, calling it a "great divide" between many companies' customer experience and service teams. Experience teams think digital-first and receive investments in headcount, technology and general enthusiasm from senior leadership, Roemen said, as they "story-tell their way into customer experience."

"We don't see a lot of customer experience programs being asked to cut costs," Roemen said. "We see [CX] getting these capital investments, and [other] investments beyond just dollars."

Contact centers, in contrast, start with a cost-reduction, "details-first, strategy later" mindset. Part of that stems from typical business practices that have evolved over decades. But contact center leaders drive it, too, as they view their roles as more operational -- and less creative.

This can leave a contact center short of tools and technologies to execute its company's CX vision on the front lines, even though agents are the people who engage directly with customers. It can drive a wedge between the customer experience and service teams, leaving the service side disenfranchised from CX strategy decisions.

"They don't feel enabled," Roemen said. "They don't feel that they are equipped to provide the white-glove component of the customer experience promises and with the right tools in place with the right technology stack."

A few companies have begun to elevate the contact center higher in the CX food chain, Roemen said. Those that take the progressive view of the contact center as a shared CX service for the organization -- a control hub of experience -- can gain a more holistic view of their customers, as well as richer data on the customer lifecycle.

When that happens, the contact center can help maintain CX quality and proactively plan for events that will lead to shifts in contact volume that otherwise might negatively affect CX. In this way, contact centers can not only help improve CX but also anticipate bumps in the road that external issues such as supply chain disruptions may cause.

Technology key to contact center improvement

Despite the myriad external and organizational challenges contact centers face, technology can help both streamline operations and help improve CX, said David Myron, an analyst at Omdia.

Contact centers are looking to AI and workforce management technologies to improve their performance -- and those that haven't yet migrated to the cloud will need to, soon. Those that have will further utilize cloud services to work more efficiently.

The pandemic accelerated many five- to eight-year contact center digital transformation plans into a few weeks -- or in some cases, days, according to Omdia research. While 75% of agents were forced to work at home in the early days of the pandemic, 50% still are two years later. The technical difficulties surrounding this sudden shift were unevenly distributed among different contact centers: Those that hadn't invested in customer self-service technologies or hadn't yet implemented technologies to manage workers remotely were hit the hardest.

Looking forward, the new normal will require an omnichannel approach, Myron said, as well as new digital and self-service options for customers; location-independent agent workforces; and new technologies and tools that optimize those work-from-home scenarios and expand the availability of data to handle interactions.

But it takes careful planning and rollout to make technology investments pay off. AI initiatives for social listening and quality analytics, for example, can fail because they aren't led by people experienced with data -- which can lead to data compliance issues, lack of access to data and inadequate training of agents.

Unfortunately, many organizations look at the customer support departments as complaint departments.
David MyronAnalyst, Omdia

Echoing Roemen, Myron added that re-imagining the purpose of technology investments to include employee experience can show agents how they enrich customer experience.

"Unfortunately, many organizations look at the customer support departments as complaint departments," Myron said. "If your organization makes this same mistake on social media and only looks for looks for response to negative comments, it can miss some really valuable information. For example, knowing and sharing what customers love about your brand can improve employee morale, product development and sales, marketing and support resource allocation."

Don Fluckinger covers enterprise content management, CRM, marketing automation, e-commerce, customer service and enabling technologies for TechTarget.

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