Although it’s sometimes portrayed as a thankless slog, there’s no doubt that the job of a frontline contact centre agent has become more varied, challenging and interesting over the last few decades.
Once decried as the modern-day equivalent of the Industrial Revolution’s ‘dark satanic mills’, contact centres today are the intelligent, data-enabled, technology-driven hubs of some of the world’s most successful businesses.
This means that many more varied and interesting roles are available in contact centres, even in frontline, customer-facing positions. Far from being replaced by technology, contact centre workers will wield increasingly powerful technology to deliver more for customers and their employers.
The transformation of the contact centre agent’s role has accelerated in recent years, mainly due to these factors:
– Current economic conditions, which impact salary expectations and demand for staff,
– The pandemic, which itself has accelerated many transformations in our day-to-day and work lives, including the preference for remote and hybrid working,
– Ongoing changes in customer behaviour driven by digital adoption, an increase in the number of options available to them, higher expectations of CX, and an ongoing shift in attitudes due to generational change,
– The remorseless march of technology, which gradually introduces new methods of purchasing products and interacting with brands and, in some cases, entirely new sectors
Evolution of the Contact Centre Agent Role
The traditional perception of contact centre agents as order takers or complaints handlers is gradually fading. Contact centre agents have transformed into influential brand representatives who sit at the nexus where organisations and customers meet to do business. The agent’s job is to establish emotional connections with customers and offer consultative and proactive service across all the company’s channels. The role has evolved in four critical ways:
1. Contact Centre Agents are Brand Ambassadors
Agents play a crucial role in building trust and embodying their employer’s brand values during every customer interaction.
They go beyond just processing transactions and complaints and can educate and advise customers and act as helpful guides.
This requires deep knowledge about the company’s products, services, policies and overall philosophy. Agents need to fully understand and embody the promises made by the brand.
2. Contact Centre Agents are Omnichannel Orchestrators
In an omnichannel environment, customers engage with businesses through multiple digital and voice channels such as voice, email, chat, social media, video calls and messaging apps.
Agents must skilfully coordinate these complex omnichannel journeys and be able to transition issues between automated self-service options and multiple human-assisted channels seamlessly. This requires them to possess diverse skills that combine digital fluency with effective human engagement and problem-solving abilities.
3. Contact Centre Agents are Customer Advocates
Agents are becoming more responsible for taking ownership of customer issues to ensure satisfactory resolutions instead of just transferring calls or moving on to the next interaction.
They should follow up with customers across different channels when necessary and proactively reduce customer effort by providing personalised service tailored to each customer’s specific context and their challenges and needs. The emphasis is on resolving customer issues effectively and holistically rather than dealing with them in separate siloes. This deeper connection between an individual customer and an individual agent will help pull customers closer to the brand.
4. Contact Centre Agents are Sales Enablers
In addition to their regular duties, agents are now taking on a more proactive approach to sales.
They leverage information on each customer’s history and needs from the CRM and other business intelligence to offer relevant upsell opportunities, suggest cross-selling options and provide personalised promotions at the right moments.
The contact centre is at the forefront of customer interactions and is the primary collector of business intelligence for the whole organisation. While agents are assisted by machine learning and AI-enabled analytics tools, including conversational analytics, to tease out anecdotal insights from customer interactions, it is still up to human staff to create the personal connections that allow these opportunities to be exploited. In this way, contact centres are increasingly becoming significant revenue generators.
Why a Career in Contact Centres Makes Sense Today
Customer service is a huge and integral part of most businesses, and contact centre agents play a crucial role in delivering that service. They are the point of contact for customers and have the power to impact their overall experience positively or negatively and directly affect the company’s profitability.
Aside from the satisfaction of assisting others, contact centre roles offer advantages such as:
– Increasingly competitive salaries and comprehensive benefits packages.
– Opportunities for career advancement and personal growth – a contact centre role is a great place to learn about a company from the ground up.
– Diverse work environments ranging from remote setups to office spaces – contact centre roles offer more flexibility over where and when their staff work than most other careers.
– The chance to interact with and assist a wide range of individuals and for staff to flex their empathetic muscles – skills which will only become more in demand as other roles requiring less personal interaction become automated.
– Valuable insights into customer needs and business operations at the frontline level, which can be leveraged for future career advancement.
With adequate industry support and buy-in from business leaders, contact centre roles are becoming more appealing for long-term career choices rather than entry-level ones.
How the Industry Can Address the Competition for Talent
The contact centre industry faces more competition than ever to attract talented individuals. There are several reasons for this, including increasing demand for customer service staff, an ageing workforce nearing retirement, and a growing number of people opting for different fields, such as the caring professions. To attract and retain individuals with the right abilities, the industry should consider the following strategies:
– Offering more competitive salaries, attractive benefits and additional incentives such as tuition assistance.
– Highlighting the contact centre’s ability to offer genuinely flexible working options, including remote working, working from home, hybrid working, and flexible shift patterns.
– Providing further opportunities for skills training, career growth and advancement – this can be achieved by selling the contact centre as the best place to learn the ropes before moving into other roles in the company.
– Cultivating a supportive and engaging work environment that fosters employee well-being.
– Developing and promoting some of the many career paths opening within the modern contact centre to showcase various available roles – including ones that focus on data, analytics, and technology, as well as management and customer-facing roles.
– Prioritising empathy, communication skills and a customer-centric mindset when hiring agents, as these traits are the most likely to lead to long-term success.
By implementing these measures, contact centre leaders can ensure contact centre careers stand out as a viable choice in today’s super-competitive job market.
How Emerging Technology Will Impact the Work of Agents
As the use of channels for customer interactions continues to increase, there will be a growing demand and strategic significance for roles such as social media managers, chat agents, community moderators and digital experience coordinators.
The agent role will transform dramatically over the next 3 to 5 years due to the emergence of technologies like AI, automation and new collaboration tools. While some of these technologies do replace human interactions with self-service methods, agents will always need to be needed because the emotional connection to another human being is so valuable for both customers and brands. Rather than completely replace human agents, as some predict, we believe that AI, self-service, and collaboration tools will help agents provide customers with faster and more accurate service.
Here’s how these technologies will shape the future of the agent role:
– AI-powered chatbots will handle routine queries, allowing agents to focus on complex issues that require human insight, empathy and strong communication skills. Agents may also have roles in monitoring bot conversations and in training bots or helping prepare the data used to train them (see the next section).
– Knowledge management systems will provide real-time guidance to help agents solve customer issues more efficiently, reducing research time and enabling personalised solutions at scale.
– Analytics will generate customer insights, evaluate interactions more effectively, and automatically monitor performance to drive coaching opportunities. This agent-assist technology will allow agents to have greater visibility of their performance so they can improve.
– Automation technologies such as RPA (Robotic Process Automation) will handle tasks like appointment scheduling, fulfilment, data entry and payment processing, freeing agents’ time for more consultative discussions with customers. Instead of manually doing these tasks agents will just launch the required robotic process from their workflow.
– New collaboration tools such as video chat and conferencing platforms will enable agents to seamlessly involve remote experts in customer conversations whenever necessary. VR headsets may even allow agents to ‘meet’ customers and assist them in virtual space in ways we haven’t considered.
– Now that generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT, can interact effortlessly with humans by understanding everyday language and responding naturally, they can potentially mimic real customers with different personalities, communication styles, and problems. This technology can replace role-playing and enable agents to train on an infinite range of real-life scenarios.
While technology enables agents to focus on higher-value work, it is important to note that essential human skills like empathy, active listening and creative problem-solving will continue to be central to customer success alongside these advancements.
The Emerging Role of Digital Coordinator
Technology has always created new roles, even as it destroys old ones. One such role which will emerge in the coming years is that of digital coordinator. These agents might not interact with customers over the voice channel at all, but will instead manage social media, chat/messaging, and email interactions. This entails a switch from managing customer interactions synchronously and one at a time to asynchronously and multitasking.
The more significant part of their jobs might involve no live interactions at all. Instead, they will track customer journeys across multiple digital touchpoints and self-service channels, intervening when necessary to add value, clarify, or redirect a customer journey that has gone astray or where the AI might have misunderstood or made a wrong decision.
This role demands communication skills, problem-solving abilities, digital fluency and analytical capabilities to assess channel performance. Moreover, digital coordinators must strategically enhance the customer experience by employing creative multichannel engagement approaches that leverage customer, product and market data.
A new role for today’s contact centre agents will also be to train the future generations of chatbots and self-service options. These technologies rely on ingesting vast amounts of structured and unstructured data, which will be locked up in customer interaction recordings and inside the heads of agents who have been doing the job for several years. Unlike the characters in Vonnegut’s “Player Piano” who become redundant after passing on their skills to automated assembly lines, there will be an ongoing need for this role in the contact centre as it will always require human thought and creativity to interpret data and understand what customers want.
Skills and Qualities the Future Agent Will Need
The contact centre agent’s job is likely to fragment into several specialist roles requiring different skills and attributes. It is doubtful that any single individual will have all these skills, however, they will require some combination of these to thrive in different roles in the future:
– Excellent communication skills: Being able to understand customer cues, establish rapport, explain complex information clearly, actively listen, and effectively convey messages both verbally and nonverbally will be more critical than ever as agents are left to deal with only the more complex interactions.
– Sales proficiency: Including the ability to upsell and cross-sell, identify opportunities, overcome objections and utilise effective closing techniques.
– Digital fluency: Being adept at using various digital channels such as chat platforms, social media, and messaging apps. Additionally, technical troubleshooting skills and the ability to seamlessly orchestrate interactions across multiple channels will be necessary.
– Emotional intelligence: Possessing empathy, patience, understanding diverse perspectives and conflict resolution abilities.
– Adaptability: Being capable of smoothly transitioning between different channels, contexts and mindsets as required during customer interactions. This is especially necessary when it comes to identifying vulnerable customers and interacting with them appropriately.
– Problem-solving aptitude: Including skills such as identifying issues and researching solutions effectively, as well as a certain amount of tenacity to own customers’ issues, follow through on resolutions to solve them, and then communicate the result back to the customer.
– Collaboration skills: Includes the ability to coordinate with other teams and colleagues effectively and seek insight from other parties, which could even include bots. A willingness to pool knowledge from multiple sources for better outcomes will also be crucial.
– Data literacy: Agents will need to analyse customer data proficiently. This includes spotting trends and insights within the data and then applying these findings strategically to personalise customer engagements. While today this could require a high level of numeracy or ability with spreadsheets, in the future it may require the ability to effectively prompt an AI so it conducts the appropriate search and analysis.
– Self-motivation: Recognising that learning is an essential aspect of personal growth along with performance improvement, in addition to actively pursuing career development opportunities.
The Work Experience of Agents in 3 to 5 Years
As contact centres become more omnichannel-oriented while incorporating more automation advancements and digital capabilities, we anticipate an agent’s day-to-day work experience could look quite different from today:
-Increased flexibility through work-from-home or flexible shift options.
– More consultative interactions focused on building relationships, understanding what customers want, and developing personalised solutions for individuals.
– Instead of writing responses to customer emails and chat messages, agents could prompt generative AI tools like ChatGPT to craft customer responses in seconds which is a different skill entirely to writing a response oneself.
– Some agents might replace their audio headset with a VR headset (or whatever technology replaces them) to assist customers in virtual worlds or engage in immersive team collaboration.
– Customer data lenses will be integrated into agent desktops and knowledge bases, providing agents with insights at the point of contact – these cues could be visual or audio.
– Proactive outreach to customers based on their purchase history, past support issues, and output from predictive analytics systems will prompt agents to assist customers before they ask.
– Gamified performance management, encompassing real-time feedback and rewards, leaderboards and progression pathways to drive competition and collaboration among agents.
– Integrating AI-powered self-development recommendations that provide learning content tailored to each agent’s needs and skills gap, including simulated interactions with generative AIs.
Further in the future, agents may become the overseers and mediators of interactions that otherwise take place entirely between bots as customers deploy their own AIs to negotiate with the company’s AI on their behalf. But we might be getting ahead of ourselves there!
Leadership Support for the Agents of the Future
To best support their workforce in the future, industry leaders and contact centre managers will need to adapt their working practices in at least some of the following ways:
– Prioritise empowerment by fostering trust, offering flexibility, and providing agents with the appropriate tools and insights to do their jobs, all while ensuring there is a cultural alignment between staff and the brand.
– Virtual coaching to take advantage of video and AI platforms, digital learning systems, and AI-supported feedback mechanisms that are customised for each individual’s way of learning and the pace they are comfortable with.
– Put in place a data-driven approach to identify skill gaps, nurture employee strengths and provide career development guidance.
– Make employee wellness a top priority by offering flexible working options, self-help resources, community support systems, and mental health assistance specifically designed for remote workers.
– Actively champion diversity and inclusion through your hiring and staff development practices, and in your day-to-day operating culture.
– Foster your organisation’s culture using enterprise social networks, messaging, and new collaboration formats to unite your teams – especially if you have remote workers.
– Gather and curate institutional knowledge using searchable databases that offer easy access for new hires while facilitating cross-training initiatives and inter-departmental knowledge sharing.
– Focus on leveraging AI tools and other innovations that empower agents rather than prioritising efficiency above all else – that will come anyway if the agent experience is good.
– While the work environment is going to get more complex – with new channels and agents focusing on the more complex interactions – try to simplify it as much as possible for your agents with desktop and workflow tools that enable them to do what they need to do without switching between multiple applications and windows.
Leaders who can adapt their mindsets, management practices and technology investments towards optimising the experience of agents will be able to attract and retain the best talent to meet the evolving needs and expectations of customers.
While there is a lot to take in, even in this brief look at what may happen over the next few years, we’re sure you’ll agree that it’s an exciting future, which offers any number of interesting and challenging career paths to potential employees. As always, companies that embrace the possibilities that are opening up before us will likely be the winners – along with their employees.
Ventrica is a leading European award-winning, outsourced customer management business that delivers omnichannel and multilingual customer service for blue-chip brands. Significant investment in people, automation and digital contact centre technologies allows Ventrica to enhance customer experiences designed to keep their clients ahead of the technology curve and their competition.
The company is headquartered in Southend, where it operates from spacious, hi-tech and modern offices, placing significant emphasis on its staff’s comfort and well-being. Ventrica shares the same passion for its customers’ business as it does for its own and continually strives for quality and service delivery consistency.
For additional information on Ventrica view their Company Profile