How customers choose to interact with their favourite brands is forever changing. New channels are emerging, driven by innovation in apps, mobile and the introduction of smart voice assistants to the home. There is no guarantee customers will call you to get what they need, they’re just as likely to WhatsApp you nowadays!

Fortunately, brands haven’t been resting on their laurels. Many organisations are experimenting with AI and automation to try and meet the scale of demand. With NatWest trialling voice banking in the UK, even an industry as conservative as banking appears to be jumping on the trend, offering more ways and channels to communicate.

However, in this fast-moving new age of communication, what role does the call agent have? With the steady decline of call interactions and the emergence of channels that need no human intermediary, are agents in danger of being automated out of existence?

In the white-hot heat of change, companies mustn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Regardless of how the contact centre functions in the near-future, your call agents have much to contribute.

An endangered species?

Automation is a controversial topic within contact centre environments, but it’s only going to become more relevant as the capabilities of AI grow. For now, AI-enabled chatbots aren’t suitable for answering complex customer queries, but the situation could well change in the next five to ten years.

It’s no accident that AI is predicted to automate 800 million jobs by 2030.  However, believing you can replace your call agents gradually with AI solutions would be short-sighted in the extreme.

Organisations are sometimes too focused on cutting costs rather than deepening their customer relationships. The satisfaction of a customer still very much depends on a relationship – whether it’s between the customer and a company, or the customer and an individual agent. Brands forget this at their peril.  

What does the call agent of the future look like?

There’s been immense focus on the jobs that automation will replace. What should be talked about more, however, are the jobs AI will create. The role of the call agent will inevitably change, but it will be a process of evolution rather than reduction.

As chatbots grow in prominence, your agents should become more like advisors and supervisors. This is where they can share the most value, by training your AI systems to be more human.

Even with the most advanced machine learning algorithms, it takes time for machines to get to know individual customers. But your agents will have built this up over years of experience. They can share techniques and individual customer insights that can then be programmed into the solution, making it more relatable and effective over time.

Call agents should also become more active on the review side. Automated decisions can sometimes go wrong, sharing the wrong information with customers or failing to recognise when they’re becoming frustrated. No matter how advanced your system is, you need someone there to actively review its decisions and intervene when the customer relationship is at risk.

For most, these responsibilities will be new and unfamiliar. Organisations should be willing to invest time and money to get agents up to speed. There is a cost, but it’s necessary to ensure their value and insight isn’t lost. This is why a market leader like Amazon recently announced it would be committing $700 million to upskilling a third of its US workforce into more technical roles. 

The more customers change, the more they stay the same. While the channels and methods are increasingly new, fundamentally customers still want to feel valued, understood and have their issues resolved as quickly as possible.

What about the poor old voice call?  When it represents the final port of call for a frustrated customer, it becomes more important than ever.  An agent’s role in this brave new world isn’t that of someone who knows systems and processes inside out, but someone who is able to process lots of visual information very quickly (verified customer data, associated recent history and a sentiment rating) and apply the appropriate tone, rapport and empathy that brings the interaction back from the brink.

AI is helping make this possible, but you can’t do it all with AI and automation alone. The customer will always appreciate that there’s a human on the other side, just in case. Ultimately, customer contact will always need a human touch.

contact centre, personalisation, Customer Experience, Artificial Intelligence, AI, automation, contact centre agent