The (Not So) Scary Future Of Contact Centers

Photo Credit: Andreas Dantz via CC License

Photo Credit: Andreas Dantz via CC License

This post was originally published on the FCR blog on January 22, 2016. Click here to read the original.

I was able to take a little time off over the holidays and the last thing I wanted to do was read another book about customer service. I polled my Facebook friends for suggestions. There were many fantastic books to choose from but I finally settled on Ready Player One by Ernest Cline; suggested by FCR’s own Matthew Achak.

While Matthew’s recommendation didn’t disappoint, I do have one beef about the book. Near the end of Ready Player One, there’s a scene about customer service which was exactly the thing I didn’t want to read about on my vacation! All kidding aside, the book was fantastic.

Cline portrays a world about fifty years from now that’s dark, dreary, and barely inhabitable. Most people spend the bulk of their time in a virtual reality called Oasis which was created by the programming geniuses of today. Oasis is largely maintained and governed by a major corporation.

In the story, Wade, the main character, accrued a huge debt in Oasis and was captured by Corporate Police. They put a tag in his ear and forced him to work as an indentured servant in the contact center at Helpful Helpdesk, Inc. until he paid off his debt. Treated as a prisoner, he didn’t make enough money to ever pay it off and would thus be forced to work there forever.

I love how Wade describes life in the contact center:

Helpful Helpdesk, Inc. took millions of calls a day, from all over the world. Twenty-four seven, three sixty-five. One angry, befuddled cretin after another. There was no downtime between calls, because there were always several hundred morons in the call queue, all of them willing to wait on hold for hours to have a tech rep hold their hand and fix their problem. Why bother looking up the solution online? Why try to figure the problem out on your own when you could have someone else do your thinking for you?

He goes on to talk about customer courtesy software that filters his voice to ensure that it always sounds cheerful. When he loses it and swears at a customer his mic is muted so the customer never hears it, a courtesy violation warning flashes on his screen, and the infraction is logged for his next performance review.

The funny or not so funny thing about this portrayal is that this doesn’t seem all that far fetched for any of us that have either worked in contact centers or interacted with contact centers. Think about some of the key elements in this story:

  • Endless call queue
  • No hope of promotion
  • Stupid customers
  • Unhappy customer service staff
  • Artificial intelligence interfering with interactions
  • Performance reviews to review everything they did wrong.

If Cline’s portrayal of the contact center of the future is accurate, the future is indeed bleak – both for contact center professionals and customers.

The Real Future of Contact Centers

When I reflect on the future of the contact center, I see something quite different. In a previous post, I talked about the correlation between employee engagement and customer satisfaction. Here are three things we focus on at FCR that ensure that the future of the contact center is bright.

1. Culture, not coercion.

There will always be aspects of customer service that are difficult. People are difficult. A dynamite culture that makes people excited to come to work and interact with their colleagues can give contact center professionals the energy to sustain a great attitude through the variety of issues that come their way. One of our goals at FCR is to have fun while doing great work. If you need an example, check out my post onNational Talk Like A Pirate Day. This is everyday life in our contact centers.

2. Employees are developed, not dead-ended.

Opportunities to learn and grow are incredibly motivating. On the other hand, the absence of opportunity feels like a dead end. In a recent post for ICMI, Manager of Colleague and Leadership Development, Sheri Kendall-duPont and I discussed FCR’s strategy for equipping colleagues with the tools and knowledge necessary to be leaders. When leaders learn to take a holistic approach to leading colleagues and coach them with compassion, the future development and growth of colleagues becomes the priority.

3. Technology enhances, it doesn’t eliminate the human connection.

Contact center technology of the future will differ vastly from what it is now. It will enable us to better understand the key roadblocks customers encounter on their journey. These issues can be fixed and self help will improve. Nothing will ever replace the human connection, however. Great customer service professionals will more frequently be put in positions to connect with customers and find solutions rather than being stopgap measures for the shortcomings of a system.

As you can see, my future of the contact center is quite a bit different from Ernest Cline’s. Thanks to an ever growing focus on customer service professionals and the customers they serve, the future is bright— very bright.


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One comment

  • I really enjoyed Ready Player One.

    That scene, and your commentary, show that we are at a crossroads of business thinking.

    In one direction, we’re headed towards something similar to Ready Player One. Businesses will automate, outsource, and standardize as much as possible because it keeps costs down and improves efficiency.

    In another direction, we have companies focused on improving customer experience. These businesses want employees to be real. They understand the importance of personal connections, and empowered employees who can solve problems.

    These two visions aren’t mutually exclusive, but they are often pursued as if they are.

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