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Contact Center Automation Trends
Transforming CX In 2021

Watch the Demos to Understand Why AI and Automation are So Hot Right Now

You’ve probably seen how software is still eating the world, and how AI is eating software. What is eating the contact center in 2021? It seems automation is everywhere these days, allowing people to accomplish a variety of tasks faster, and the contact center space is no exception. In fact, the need to deliver an effortless customer experience has spurred many of the contact center automation trends.

We have seen a 10x increase in the adoption of digital customer experience during the pandemic. There has been a lot of talk and action about the increased rate of digital transformation in the last 12 months as well. It’s important to understand the longer term trajectory of automation trends in contact centers and the things that are unlikely to change, so that we can be smarter and more helpful to our colleagues and our customers.

I very frequently get the question: 'What's going to change in the next 10 years?' And that is a very interesting question; it's a very common one. I almost never get the question: 'What's not going to change in the next 10 years?' And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two -- because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.

| Jeff Bezos
Innovations are often guilty of showing up at unexpected times when the masses aren’t ready to adopt them. In this post, I’ll touch on the most promising innovations that are being adopted in contact centers, especially those that deliver value today and offer more potential for tomorrow. The theme is around automation and AI completely consuming the contact center. Let’s start with few definitions, so that we don’t trip up.

AI and Automation Fuel Real-time Assistance in Contact Centers

What is Real-time Assistance?

Real-time assistance refers to the use of software to perform a task more effectively and efficiently. In some cases, a real-time assistant leverages artificial intelligence e.g. Google Home, Alexa, Siri and other are virtual agents that understand and converse in natural language. In other scenarios, a real-time assistant is capable of automating simple tasks such as searching through a knowledge base — remember good old Microsoft Office Clippy? They can also take on much more complex and specialized tasks such as helping us navigate unfamiliar cities and back streets better than locals e.g. Waze. While the level of intelligence, automation and the breadth of assistive roles played by a single assistant may vary widely, real-time assistants, as the name suggests, are all about assisting us in real-time.
Real-time assistance is a positive force in the customer experience space that bolsters all four pillars of great customer service, and fosters the transformation of contact centers into assistance centers.
Four Pillars of Great Customer Service

The Modern Contact Center Should Be An Assistance Center

When we think about the phrase “contact center”, it actually sounds a bit weird, especially after the COVID-19 experience as we’ve come to appreciate contactless experiences. The history of the call center evolving into a contact center is rather dull and uninspiring.
An assistance center is what every contact center should be — a virtual space that customers can reach out to when they need assistance, and, hopefully, also a space that will deliver such assistance in real-time effectively and efficiently.
In its long history, the call center has been called many things including contact center, multichannel contact center, omnichannel contact center, multiexperience contact center, cloud contact center, cost center, profit center, center of customer insight and so on.
Contact center leaders have, for long, aspired to deliver assistance through their contact centers. The idea of an assistance center is not new, but it’s all about timing. There have been many challenges around organizational processes and technologies that have prevented this aspiration from becoming a reality. 2020 has offered a pivot point in the journey of that aspiration. So, let’s dig in and understand how contact centers can transform into assistance centers.

Top 11 Contact Center Automation Trends and Tools

#1. Machine Learning Replaces Software Development

Businesses are tapping into their data lakes and building deep learning systems that enable them to grow their customer lifetime value by creating products and services that their customers will love. According to Salesforce, 57% of consumers today are willing to share personal data with companies that send personalized offers and discounts. Look for brands to finally make the push to leverage customer data from their CRMs to create more tailored and automated customer experiences in 2021.
Major tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, IBM, and Microsoft, among others, along with several promising startups, are investing significantly in advancing Natural Language Understanding (NLU) and Natural Language Generation technologies. Every year, it’s becoming easier to automate conversations and make them sound more natural.
By integrating the proprietary deep learning systems that boost customer lifetime value with the general purpose conversational AI systems developed by these tech companies, businesses can truly scale conversational commerce. Both internal IT teams and the tech companies see the call center as the first frontier in which they can validate the value of their innovations. As a result of this contact center automation trend, the forgotten call center is now enjoying the attention and much needed investment to improve customer experience as a whole.

#2. Low Code Contact Center Automation Replaces Costly IT Programs

Many organizations can plainly see the need to reshape the contact center using the latest technology and solutions. Several obstacles, ranging from budgetary issues to staffing concerns may prevent companies from taking the next step in contact center evolution, though. One of the most pressing challenges that needs to be addressed is integration. The Call Centre Helper report found that 53% of respondents cited technology integration as a major barrier to running a better contact center. Meanwhile, 43.3% stated that broken processes were another roadblock standing in the way of their contact center initiatives.

That may sound daunting, but contact center automation software can help remove these barriers and allow organizations to harmonize silos and elevate the employee experience and the customer experience.

With a low code automation platform, teams of business analysts and citizen developers can make changes quickly, test, and hot-deploy the changes to production and then test their hypotheses in an effort to continuously improve outcomes.

#3. Conversational AI Replaces IVR Phone Menus With Virtual Agents

Almost every third person in the world uses a smartphone.  As users’ adoption continues to grow, regular voice calls will come to be seen as quaint. With the rise of conversational AI, consumers have come to expect even more from interactive voice systems. Their frustration has only grown. More than 50% of survey participants hate repeating themselves. Almost half don’t like waiting to talk to a live agent, according to a recent survey.

When the world went into lock down at once in March of 2020, customers around the globe were enraged by having to wait for even longer. Businesses large and small had to apologize for the wait time. The silver lining from that negative experience has been the renewed focus on improving self-service experiences.
Here is an example of how conversational AI is helping callers with a seamless conversational IVR experience as well as a visual experience so that they can get more done in one multimodal customer experience.

The intelligent virtual agent helps the customer file a claim in an effortless manner, letting them talk, tap, text, and even upload documents -- something a traditional IVR can only talk about -- no pun intended.

#4. Robotic Process Automation Replaces Phone Calls With Chatbots

Yes, conversational AI is essential to automate engaging conversations with your customers. However, without integration to your back-end systems, there’s only so much a chatbot can do. Customers value personalized experiences, and they simply lose confidence in a chatbot that responds with generic information.
Sure, your IT teams have built web services to push and pull data from your back-end systems. These interfaces have helped you automate self-service over your web, mobile and IVR channels. As we step into the next generation of chatbots that engage users in longer conversations, it is very likely that your customers will ask not just about their last month’s bill and want to pay it; they are asking more nuanced questions that require access to insights that are locked deep within your CRM, billing, and policy systems. Even advanced IT organizations have not yet built web services to push and pull information from back-end systems to support such long-tail conversations. That’s why, when you ask your third question to a chatbot, you are being asked to connect with a call center agent.

To deliver a seamless customer experience in the age of conversational commerce, businesses need to match their conversational AI capabilities with their integration capabilities. Enter RPA.

Robotic process automation is already stirring the winds of change in contact centers by automating the various small, repetitive, everyday tasks which have traditionally played such a significant role in its day to day operations, including opening cases, checking order status, record updates and many more. RPA is thus delivering effective, cost-saving solutions to customer service operations and technology challenges.

In fact, a KPMG report claims that labor automation through RPA can reduce an organization’s operational costs by 75 percent! At the same time, RPA brings consistency to the customer experience, has a near-zero percent error rate, and greatly reduces handle times by enabling the customer service agent to integrate data into fields across all associated systems with only one entry, enhancing the overall customer satisfaction.
Check out, how in this example, an intelligent virtual agent leverages conversational AI and robotic process automation to help customers with a highly personalized and effortless self-service experience.We believe that the combined power of conversational AI and RPA can drive a 10x improvement in contact center productivity as well as in boosting NPS through effortless customer experiences. That’s why it made it to our list of top contact center automation trends to watch.

#5. Proactive Digital Customer Service Replaces Case Management

For a long time, case management has been considered a fundamental building block of many customer service tech stacks and organizational practices. In the last few years, we have seen various software solutions providers come forward and talk about the importance of managing a customer conversation or interaction seamlessly rather than treating the customer like a “case” or “ticket”.
Customer interaction patterns clearly indicate that phone is not dead, as they tend to prefer phone for more complex interactions. That said, messaging is certainly on the rise. Though messaging requires an asynchronous support model, organizations are jumping on the opportunity to build an event-driven architecture, which takes an automation-first approach toward serving such customer requests.

Typically, a virtual agent attempts to engage in triage and handle simple requests and engages a human agent as and when needed with complete context. Further, digital first customer service solutions aim to automate relevant back-end tasks in real-time by leveraging available web services, as well as by availing RPA bots that now automate tasks that previously required the back office team. Rather than waiting for hours or days, customers get real-time support, which also translates to proactive customer service in many cases, further boosting customer loyalty.

In summary, we’re not saying that case management is dead, but it appears to be taking the minimal space that it should in an automation-first customer operation that aims to deliver effortless customer service.
Check out this demo that shows how a customer can easily get help during a challenging situation. They receive a push notification which kicks off a virtual agent that guides them through next best actions and options.

Event-driven proactive customer engagement reduces the need for your customers to contact customer service. They can engage wherever they are and whenever it's convenient for them with automated customer service that is available asynchronously.

That said, the customer can also get in touch with a customer care agent over messaging or voice channels depending on staff availability and customer preferences. Beyond the efficiency gain, timely and effortless self-service is proven to boost customer loyalty as well. That’s why digital customer service and intelligent virtual agents top the list of this year’s contact center automation trends.

#6. Visual IVR Replaces Hold Music With Self-Service Interactions

Customers are getting more and more used to a Visual IVR experience, especially after the mass lockdown that affected call center wait times in March of 2020. Visual IVR greets callers, understands their needs and guides callers to the best digital assets that address the callers’ needs more efficiently and effectively.
This type of self-service help allows the caller to explore the next best actions. And an immediate response is exactly what customers need right now. They want and need clear guidance and understanding when anxiety is running high.
Visual IVR will also help deflect calls when call volume is high, leaving agents available for when a call escalates. With a more accurate understanding of what the customer needs, Visual IVR routes the call to the right agent when the customer chooses to move to a live agent. This also reduces the number of ‘zero-outs’ out of frustration with an outmoded IVR tree.
The demo shows how a customer is able to share their location details with a multimodal visual IVR and get the help they need in less than half the time it would have taken them to speak to an agent. Now you can deliver an automated and personalized and digital self-service experience to your voice callers, all at the same time.
While the concept of a Visual IVR has been out there for a while, business leaders have been cautious of introducing a new way of engaging with their customers. During the pandemic though, businesses large and small have pushed the envelope on engaging with customers in a digital-first manner. Customers have also shown a high degree of openness to new digital means of engagement. That’s why, we believe that Visual IVR is here to stay as one of the major contact center automation trends in 2021 and beyond.

#7. Agent Assist Replaces Classroom Training With Agile Learning

Companies are increasingly looking for ways to support agents by providing them with timely insights that can help deliver quicker call resolutions and better customer experiences. According to the same survey, 71.2% of contact centers have integrated knowledge-base systems into their tech stack. In addition, more than half (54%) have embraced digital call scripts to guide representatives during difficult calls and find a satisfying resolution to every scenario.

Multi-skilling efforts have steadily dropped off over the last five years, seeming to indicate that contact centers now find more value in specialized agents with deep understanding of particular subjects rather than attempt to train every employee to have encyclopedic knowledge of every possible topic they might encounter. That said, the irony is that multi-skilling was still the most popular contact center initiative in 2020, further underscoring the bigger challenge that lurks beneath the surface.
Given how complex contact center jobs have become, it should come as no surprise that contact centers are trying their best to equip agents with knowledge, empathy and empowerment. As the pandemic has thrown massive curve balls, leaders have adapted and have both doubled down on knowledge management and availed AI to augment their knowledge and learning initiatives.
It’s encouraging to see AI being used to simplify knowledge search. The increase in demand for real-time conversational analytics and process automation in the contact center are early signs of a change in mindset.

However, the current model of learning management, knowledge management, workforce optimization, performance management and quality management is failing the contact center. It appears to be a linear approach aimed at solving a problem that is getting exponentially more complicated year over year -- 4 Ways Knowledge Management Is Failing Your Call Center Today.

To be an effective knowledge workforce, the contact center needs to enable agents to learn 70% on the job.
Effective agile learning blends microlearning courseware, coaching and on-the-job experience; the latter accounting for as much as 70% of the learning.

| Gartner
The average contact center agent is far from that goal state. He or she goes through a 4-6 week classroom training program, and spends several months ramping up to speed on the job. While on the job, the agent serves as human middleware trying to make sense of knowledge articles, customer narratives and disparate systems to help the customer who is hoping to connect with a knowledgeable, empathetic problem solver who can get the job done for them.
This is not only ineffective and inefficient, the stress of the knowledge work without the right real-time assistance is hurting both the agent experience and the customer experience. The number of organizations measuring customer emotion during live interactions with agents is on the rise. Customers consider the agent’s helpful attitude one of the top factors contributing to a favorable interaction with the brand.

Real-time assistance in the form of an Agent Assist is one way in which organizations can sustainably help their agents develop the knowledge and empathy required to create WOW moments for customers through frictionless first contact resolutions, one interaction at a time. According to Forrester, customers are 10 times more likely to recommend a brand after connecting with an employee who has answered all their questions at once. Given it’s potential to create a 10x change, there is no doubt that agent assist is one of the more transformational contact center automation trends.

#8. Real-time Conversational Analytics Replaces Post-call Analytics

Companies are actually using dedicated customer feedback platforms less than they did just a year ago. The industry’s usage rate for this type of technology fell to 57.3% in 2020. Likewise, the Global Customer Experience Benchmarking done by NTT in 2020 indicates that use of agent analytics has fallen from 53.8% in 2017 to 38.5% in 2019 and is now at 29.8%.
This trend could indicate that organizations are looking to more advanced and sophisticated methods to assess customer feedback and agent performance. For instance, the Call Centre Helper survey also revealed that 21.4% of contact centers now use speech analytics to collect real-time insights into the customer experience, gleaned entirely from conversation with agents.
Speech analytics platforms are also helpful in highlighting broken processes that might otherwise derail or impede contact center operations. In fact, survey respondents ranked “finding broken processes” ahead of any other speech analytics capability in terms of its usefulness, with 60.7% rating it a five on a scale of one to five. While the report talks specifically about speech analytics, the benefit can be derived from using conversational analytics across customer and contact center touch points

#9. Real-time Guidance Replaces Call Center Coaching

In the NTT benchmark, only 26.4% of contact center practitioners said that their workforce optimization (including resource planning, e-learning, knowledge management, attended virtual agents) tools met expectations. This presents further evidence to the perspective that the traditional way of managing, engaging and empowering the workforce is not working. Gartner recognized earlier in the year the need for real-time agent assistance tools to become an essential dimension of workforce engagement management specifically for this reason.
2020 also saw the rise of several start-ups in the real-time coaching space to detect emotion and offer tips to agents on how to speak to the customer to drive better outcomes. Certainly, real-time guidance goes way beyond emotion detection and coaching, delving into the domain of recommending next best actions and teeing up workflows and scripts for the agent. Some guidance tools go so far as to automate tasks and processes for agents.

#10. Robotic Desktop Automation Replaces Swivel Chairs In Contact Centers

Today, it’s critical that your customer experience design and customer service capabilities are prepared to meet the expectations of today’s customers, however, too often agents struggle to cope with the behavior and complexity of so many applications, which are simply not designed with the goal to deliver the optimal customer experience. Look for more and more companies to be adopting desktop automation, which blends the array of existing applications into new customer-friendly workflows and tasks that empower agents to focus on the customer instead of wasting time dealing with time-consuming system navigation and data entry. In addition, as a byproduct of fully optimizing the way customer service agents interact with their desktop, regardless of channel, they will have more positive energy to personally engage customers, resulting in happy and loyal customers and agents.

#11. Digital Collaboration Replaces Follow-up Interactions

In 2020, customers have gotten comfortable with engaging digitally. They have been buying homes and cars online, leave alone ordering groceries online, and seeing their doctors remotely. Savvy businesses are taking advantage of the growth in e-commerce and digital adoption by offering easier ways to engage digitally.
Here is just one example of an insurer who is insurer goes to market through their retail partners and their resellers. As a result, they are a couple of steps removed from their end-customer, the policyholder. In 2021, customer intimacy is king. The demo shows how the insurer closed the loop using digital customer service and onboarded 7% more customers than they would have otherwise, proving that this is one of those contact center automation trends that’s here to stay.

Adopting the right technology solutions will help companies build for the future and continue evolving to meet customer needs. The entire report from Call Centre Helper sheds light on many other trends impacting the industry today and down the road. Read more about Virtual Customer Assistants, Speech Analytics, Contact Center as a Service and other major topics by downloading the full survey here. We also recommend that you analyze NTT’s Global Customer Experience Benchmark here.

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