Technology is transforming the way organizations interact with customers—but even the most promising digital tools still work best when paired with skilled humans.
High-tech solutions like blockchain and automation will unquestionably reshape the contact center industry in the coming years. Yet this digital disruption is not expected to replace people entirely. Instead, contact center operators are seeking tech-savvy, customer service-oriented talent to work alongside robots.
This dual focus on talent and digital strategy is fueling momentum in the U.S. contact center sector, where growth is currently outpacing the global industry. Between 2012 and 2016, contact center employment grew in U.S. markets of all sizes, with average hourly wages jumping 5.6 percent, according to JLL’s 2018 Contact Center Outlook.
“U.S. contact centers are thriving in part because our highly skilled workforce is ready to answer the call of digital disruption,” says Tadd Wisinski, Managing Director and Contact Centers Group Co-Lead, JLL. “Contact center operators are shifting their location strategies to support their push to attract skilled employees adept at using technology—and they’re finding the talent they need in multiple cities across the U.S.”
Digital disruption and the human touch
Chat, email and social media continue to be popular communication methods in contact centers, but even newer digital technologies are rapidly adding to the mix. Contact center operators are using automation to lead customers through an initial prescreening and simple Q&A—decreasing the time it would normally take to address basic problems and questions with a human customer services representative.
Artificial intelligence (AI) software offers benefits too, as it can reduce the frustration customers often feel over having to repeat themselves and help service agents pinpoint solutions faster. In particular, AI-fueled chatbots are becoming increasingly adept at managing customer questions and requests—and they’re available to answer customer queries on-demand, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Organizations as diverse as Allstate and Marriott International are adopting chatbots as part of their customer service to support customers who would rather communicate online.
More emerging technologies are on the horizon. Blockchain, which provides a digitized and decentralized record of transactions, offers the potential to further disrupt contact centers, says Wisinski. “Blockchain can provide transparency and save time and effort typically associated with processing transactions, but there remains significant uncertainty about the technology that needs to be overcome.”
Each of these digital game-changers can help a contact center operate more efficiently—but they will also push the industry toward higher-skilled talent.
“Advances in technology allow us to take menial, repetitive tasks off human hands,” says Wisinski. “Now, instead of waiting on hold for a customer service representative to check an account balance or track a shipment, a customer can instead access an automated response or self-serve web portal. But even the best of these emerging solutions break down when the question or issue becomes too complex—and that’s where the high-caliber agent comes in.”
Highly skilled agents will be needed in most any industry, but especially in highly regulated sectors like healthcare, banking and financial services, where employees need strong subject-matter expertise to guide customers through complicated, sensitive issues.
“The skills needed in that customer service chair are changing,” says Wisinski. “Who needs to be sitting there when the automation breaks down? It’s still important to have someone with a customer service mindset, but in addition, this person will also need a much more technical background.”
Recruiting tech-savvy workers
This means hiring and location decisions are changing, too. More contact centers are migrating toward urban centers where it can be easier to access an ongoing supply of tech-savvy workers. Locations that provide an educated workforce at a budget-friendly cost can be especially compelling. For example, the combination of low wages and taxes with a highly skilled labor force is making Texas an industry hotspot.
Meanwhile, contact center facilities are also changing. Across the U.S. companies are finding hidden value in taking over old big-box store space. In Ocoee, Florida, for example Bed Bath and Beyond and Xerox have both taken over old retail space to open contact centers in the same mall.
“Shopping centers are a natural fit for the people-focused environments contact centers are trying to cultivate, says Wisinski. “There they can take advantage of amenities like movie theatres, restaurants and shops that employees can enjoy on their break or after hours—not to mention ample parking, close access to residential neighborhoods, and flexible space options that are nothing like the cubicle farms the industry is trying to leave behind.”
Continued momentum is in the forecast
The global contact center industry is on pace for continued growth in the next few years—and that’s particularly true in the U.S., JLL’s research notes.
Still, some markets will fare better than others. For example, 18 states raised their minimum wages for 2018, which could have an impact on location decisions, considering labor constitutes 80–90 percent of a contact center’s operating costs.
Indeed, for today’s contact centers, evolving technology is a key part of their strategy but people remain at the core of their business model. As Wisinski concludes: “Success in the foreseeable future depends on effective use of both human and digital resources.”