In an age of automation, don’t write off people just yet

Technology will enhance, rather than displace, contact centre workers, argues David Rowlands, Contact Centre Sales Director UK and EMEA at 8×8… If you believe the hype, then the UK’s 376,000 contact centre and customer service workers will soon be out of a job.

According to the BBC, occupations in the contact centre industry are among those most at risk of being taken over by robot workers in the future – placing them 109 in a ranking of 366 jobs in the UK. The rise of automation will undoubtedly play a huge role in the industry, taking on simple, repetitive tasks and answering basic queries. The benefits are obvious – robots can work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and only take a few seconds to be ‘trained’ on a new topic.

But this doesn’t mean humans are on the way out. I believe people in the contact centre industry have a bright future and to write them off entirely would be to ignore the strategic importance of human interaction to a brand.

The contact centre is increasingly becoming the only place that customers interact directly with a brand, more specifically with the people on the front line that represent the brand. This is particularly true for e-commerce companies that don’t have the presence of a physical store. In an era where brands are defined by the service they provide, not just the products they sell, the actions of the contact centre team are fundamental – they are the customer experience that makes a brand what it is.

Contact centres are full of highly-trained, knowledgeable people with problem solving and negotiation skills that are very difficult to replicate with automation. Then there are the ‘softer’ skills – like showing empathy and charm – which are virtually impossible for robots.

This is even more vital when you consider that customers will often get in touch with a contact centre when something has gone wrong and are looking for help.

We’re all too familiar with the ‘computer says no’ approach. It’s when human call centre agents start showing ‘robotic’ traits and refuse to deviate from a script that customers are likely to become frustrated by an interaction on the phone. Building a relationship and creating a dialogue is key to getting to the bottom of a problem and making sure it’s dealt with properly. Unless you consider fictional films like Weird Science or Her, no one has ever built relationship with a computer.

Yet, ironically, under-investment in technology is probably the biggest threat to humans continuing to take the leading role in contact centres.

With more and more being demanded of contact centre workers as the front line of a brand’s customer experience, technology is vital to ensure agents have the tools they need to provide stellar service.

The right technology can make sure customers are connected to the right agent with the right expertise first time. Technology can match a customer to any agent in the world who is able to answer their query to cut down on waiting times. Agents can have the full history of a customer’s interactions with a company at their fingertips, so the customer doesn’t have to repeat their query again and again.

By selectively using technology in the contact centre environment, we can help agents to not only let their unique human skills shine, but become superhuman. Solutions like 8×8’s Virtual Contact Centre and EasyContactNow are built to enhance the great customer experience contact centre agents are able to offer by making sure customers are always sent to the right agent, with the right expertise, at the right time. By taking care of the basics, agents are freed up to focus on solving a customer’s problem, not wasting time asking functional information.

Automation is undoubtedly here to stay. It’s now a common feature in many parts of our lives, from helping us pay for our supermarket shopping, giving us directions through a smartphone, to allowing us to check ourselves in at the airport. Contact centres will no doubt be affected but it’s important they are part of this automation movement, rather than ignoring it.

The successful contact centre of the future will be able to harness the best of both the human and automated worlds, to give customers the service and experience they want.