Is the call center era over?

A look ahead as A.I., bots and automation change how we engage

call centers
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The heyday of the big and bustling call center is coming to an end. While customer inquiries, outreach and grievances never go away, the ways in which they are managed are changing quickly. The majority of B2C interactions will soon be person-to-machine rather than person-to-person due to the rapid rise of RPA (robotic process automation) and artificial intelligence (A.I.).

Does that mean mega call centers, which once staffed hundreds and sometimes thousands of people, will now look like data centers, where racks of hardware hum with the work of A.I.-infused software? Will the person-to-person work of call centers become a thing of the past? Clearly big transformations are underway, which makes this the right time to look at what’s ahead and why.

Fewer calls, more bots

One reason call centers are no longer the right means of engaging customers is that “calling” is no longer the preferred way for customers to engage with businesses. Phone calls are becoming antiquated. Born into a digital landscape, millennials engage their worlds through technology; messaging and texting are their communication modes of choice. According to a recent report from Business Insider, messaging apps now have more users than social media. Millennials, and the generations to follow, are far less likely to rely on traditional phone calls to connect with companies, and service providers must adapt accordingly. Emerging generations of customers will be more likely to use chatbots and messaging platforms to make their needs known.

Online ordering is everywhere

You don’t have to be a millennial to prefer digital consumerism. Online shopping continues to grow year over year. Last June, the Wall Street Journal reported that 2016 was the first year in which consumers reported making more of their purchases online than in stores. The more people use the internet to shop and engage brands, the savvier they will become about the automated services and tools websites and apps provide. Whether people are ordering pizza or buying holiday gifts, person-to-person engagement is shrinking across purchasing life cycles, which reduces the demand on call center personnel.

Virtual agents in action

Just a few short years ago, “virtual agents” in call center parlance were customer service agents who worked remotely, either from home or a satellite office. They were not inside the call center, but they worked for it. Today, more often than not, when someone says "virtual agent" they are referring to an A.I., such as IPsoft’s cognitive agent Amelia or IBM’s Watson Virtual Agent. These A.I. agents are quickly closing the skills gap between their software capabilities and the proficiencies of today’s call center professionals. Today, most virtual agents can only manage part of the workload and capabilities of a human agent, but they are fast learners. As artificial intelligence advances, expect to find yourself engaging with more virtual agents and bots than ever before.

Call center countdown

Trends in communication and buying behavior are now giving rise to "contact centers," which are the leaner, digitally-driven offspring of the once ubiquitous call center. Contact centers leverage A.I. (virtual assistants, automation and bots) and a much smaller team of human agents to handle a growing contact volume. They offer a more efficient path forward and are the reason why investments in mega call centers that require staffs of thousands no longer make sense. It’s why I believe the days of the call center are numbered and I predict that contract centers will replace most of them by 2020.

Care will endure

For those who worry about the human contact and care that could be lost with the demise of call centers, I encourage you to look at what occurred with application development outsourcing. While many feared that the low costs of skilled tech labor overseas would send all application development work to offshore providers, that’s not what happened. Intricate, sophisticated software development is still mostly done domestically because close collaboration with business teams is essential. I think contact centers will follow that model, leveraging bots and A.I. for simple, straightforward tasks but leaving the more complicated interactions to human staffers who can empathize with customers’ needs and circumstances.

Teeming call centers may not endure, but great customer care, and the people who make it possible, will play critical roles in the smaller, tech-centric contact centers that businesses are building today.

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