How Generative AI Will Transform Contact Centers and Shape Your Career

The following are excerpts from the transcript of Brad’s recent keynote address to Contact Center Expo, hosted by ICMI, the International Customer Management Institute, May 16 and 17, 2023.

Hi everyone. Thanks so much for joining us.

Generative AI is taking the world by storm. And I want to make some observations and offer some recommendations. But first let me share some context.

Did you know that this year marks the 50th anniversary of contact centers? Yep, half a century ago, two developments gave birth to the call center (contact center) industry as we know it today.

In 1967, AT&T introduced 800 numbers, and then, in 1973, the company Rockwell Collins developed the automatic call distributor (ACD). This system allowed calls from customers to be automatically routed to a pool of agents, enabling quick and effective handling of customer interactions. 

Now, 50 years may sound like a long time, but our profession is relatively young when you look at other developments.

  • The first electronic digital computer was unveiled in 1946.
  • The Internet has been around since 1969.
  • Of course, telephone, television, and communication satellites, all pre-date contact centers by many years.

Person engaging with the digital worldThe central promise of contact centers—to give customers the ability to quickly and easily get the help and expertise they need—is not going away.

But clearly, we have seen a lot of change. And there’s far more to come. The conversations and predictions around AI and, specifically, generative AI have reached a fevered pitch. What do we make of all the buzz? And is there anything we can learn from other advances we’ve seen?

I’ll offer 3 predictions and suggest 4 recommendations. But first, here’s a personal experience I remember like it was yesterday.

I had the privilege of serving as CEO of ICMI for many years. Not long after I took the reins, it became clear that web browsers and advancements around the Internet were dramatically changing how we live and work. This was the era, and we were helping organizations bring these capabilities into their services—new channels for customers, robust self-service, and a vast new set of capabilities to assist agents. Contact centers were changing rapidly. It was all very exciting.

One evening, I arrived at a hotel, the day before a workshop with an ICMI client. I turned on the TV to catch some of the day’s news. And they were running interviews from the Davos conference, the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Business @ the Speed of ThoughtThis was 1999, and attendees included Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Nelson Mandela, and others. Bill Gates’s book, Business at the Speed of Thought, had just come out, and a reporter was running sound bite predictions from several of the technology and business leaders at Davos. They all predicted a decline in the need for customer service representatives. One put it this way: “If you’re in customer service, run the other way. Find a new career as quickly as possible because the internet will take over customer service as we know it.”

In our work on the ground, I didn’t see that happening. In fact, I was seeing new types of interactions and new channels emerge. But as I watched these interviews, one after another, I became anxious. “Am I running an organization that doesn’t have a future?” I thought of our employees, who were friends and colleagues. I thought of our trainers, consultants, and business partners. And our clients. We had awesome clients—including some organizations that are with us this week.

Was the gig about up? Would all of these services be subsumed by a wave of new technology?

In the economic downdraft that followed the bust, many contact centers were forced by their executive leadership to cut costs across the board by 10%, 20%, or more. The rationale: we’ve got to cut back, and emerging capabilities will take the load anyway, so let’s get there now.

In reality, contact centers were getting more work than ever. It was more complex and through more channels. I have a file drawer of media stories on our industry over the years. Service became so bad that one major publication after another was running front-page stories on the sorry state of customer service. Sit on a plane in those days, and you wouldn’t want to admit to your seatmate that you were in customer service. You’d hear about it.

Customer service magazine covers

Now, I’m not here to take shots at Davos or bad predictions. I’d take mulligans on a few of my own. (One being that work-from-home agents would become common by the end of the 1990s. It would take 25 years and a global pandemic to see that one happen.) So, no finger-pointing here. But as leaders, we have to be clear-eyed about where things are going and how to position our organizations for success.

There have since been significant technology disruptions that have each created groundswell of predictions: Smartphones, Big data, AI, and machine learning. And now generative AI. Many remind us of industries and businesses that have come and gone. “Look at what happened to Kodak, taxi service, DVD players, and bookstores.”

I’d submit that the changes at a fundamental level have gone far beyond many of the predictions. Now, here’s a definition of generative AI, and I’m getting this directly from ChatGPT:

“Generative AI is a subset of artificial intelligence (AI) that focuses on creating new data or content. These systems are designed to generate outputs such as images, text, music, and other types of data based on inputs they receive or patterns they learn from existing datasets. The models can write coherent sentences, create realistic images,  compose music, and even simulate realistic behavior in video games or virtual environments.”

That all seems a bit flat until you use generative AI. It’s kind of crazy what it can do.

ChatGPT logoThe enormously popular ChatGPT chatbot is just one app. Grammarly, Expedia, Snapchat and a bunch of others you may be familiar with are all jumping in and using GPT technology.

I think part of the concern with generative AI is the breathtaking rate of uptake. If you were to just drop the internet on the world, how would we react? Many had never heard about ChatGPT until earlier this year, when, astoundingly, it surpassed 100m users in two months. I’m one of them and like others have been pretty blown away.

  • I’ve used it to draft content in seconds that would have taken hours.
  • I’ve experienced interactive education tools, which hold a lot of promise.
  • Last week, I had a routine chest scan get sent across the country, analyzed by AI, approved by a radiologist who wrote a description in seconds using a generative AI tool, and returned to my doctor, all in a matter of minutes.

In contact centers, AI is being integrated into customer support systems at a rapid pace. Here are some examples, and I’m thinking of both AI generally and generative AI:

  • AI models can be trained to analyze customer interactions, including text, chat, voice, and social media, to gauge customer sentiment. The insight is pretty awesome. And it’s easy to get.
  • You can draft well-written email, chat, and social media messages in seconds.
  • Real-time insight can help guide voice or chat conversations on the fly.
  • Language tools can enable two people who speak different languages to have a fluid, real-time conversation.
  • Authentication tools using voice prints can identify the customer and pull up relevant information and options in seconds. No long strings of digits and your mother’s birthday.
  • And tools that bring clarity to a multiscreen, multichannel environment can make handling an agonizingly difficult interaction a lot easier and a lot more fun.

What’s amazing to me is how easy it is to bring AI into contact centers and in many cases incorporate it into the environment and systems you already have. I could go on and on. But here’s my overall message. We have an incredible new set of opportunities available to us—and we have to be intentional as leaders. AI is not going to take over contact centers. In fact, AI will grow new industries and new kinds of work even as it assists with or offloads some or much of what we’re doing today.

“We have an incredible new set of opportunities available to us—and we have to be intentional as leaders.”

I was watching a business news show the other evening. A segment on how AI was going to eliminate millions of jobs was followed by a story on how organizations are still struggling to get the employees they need. Do the editors of these programs think about how silly those stories look side by side, with no link and no context?

The best contact centers have always been on the edge of service. And I welcome how these capabilities can support us if we apply and use them wisely. It’s stressful to juggle systems and screens and make good decisions in a real-time environment without the right support. Contact centers aren’t a technology, like DVDs. We’re not a narrowly defined industry like old-style taxi service. We’re a dynamic service ecosystem that’s the nexus of interaction between customers and organizations. We’re the connection, the hazmat crew, the customer advocates in a world that continually evolves. If AI takes over the world, we’ll be among the last ones standing.

“We’re the connection, the hazmat crew, the customer advocates in a world that continually evolves. If AI takes over the world, we’ll be among the last ones standing.”

That’s the thing, our profession has always had to be grounded in reality. Whether our budgets go up or down, we have to be there to handle what comes our way. Real customers. More channels. Greater expectations.

Marketing or product development teams forecast response rates… we handle them.

IT designs for user experience… we live those systems every day.

Here are three predictions you can count on:

  1. Our work will evolve and become more complex. Artificial intelligence is not artificial wisdom. We’ll need a capable team representing our organizations and brands.
  2. There will be good actors and bad actors. AI, like the Internet and social media, will reflect the human condition. Whatever our views on AI and society, this ship has sailed, and we need to be involved. We’ll need policies on how it’s used, and how to protect our customers our employees, and our organizations. These discussions will be academic in universities, boardrooms, and the media. In our contact centers, they will be our day-to-day realities.
  3. As always, we’ll be on the leading edge of the changes AI will bring. We’ll have a seat at the strategy table in our organizations if we earn it. There’s no other part of the organization that will have better visibility than we do on how AI impacts customers and employees.

Now, let me offer four recommendations on steps to take now.

  1. Become a user. Seeing how these capabilities work firsthand will enable you to make better recommendations for your contact center.
  2. Use your customer access strategy to guide decisions. If you’re not familiar with a customer access strategy, we’ve written much about it on ICMI’s website, there’s a chapter dedicated to it in Contact Center Management on Fast Forward. There’s also a worksheet in the resource section of my website. There are ten components. Who are your customers? What will they need? What channels will work best for different kinds of interactions? What agent skills and technology support will be required? Step by step. Put a cross-functional team together, and at least once a quarter, go through every component in light of developments. Get together every two weeks if you must until the froth and hype moderate a bit.
  3. Be the voice of reason. Venture capitalists and investors are gambling on winners and losers. Media stories are focusing on the sensational and clickbait. Some suppliers are doing their best to be alarmists as they race to get an edge in marketshare. Our executive teams are trying to make sense of it all. Show them your contact center’s workload, how it’s evolving and why we need to be there for our customers in channels that make sense.

Before I mention the fourth and final recommendation, let me just say I’m cautiously optimistic about the future of AI. Clearly, we’re entering a new frontier and we’ll need wisdom. If you feel unqualified, well, that’s probably a healthy perspective. Trust your instincts and ask the basic questions: How is this going to improve things for our customers? How could this help our team?

No one knows where things are going exactly. We didn’t with the capabilities that come before. But we forged a trail together. And that’s my final recommendation.

4. Be an active part of this community. ICMI is about making contact centers better, but at the heart of ICMI are friends and fellow travelers. You don’t have to make this journey alone. Reach out, and you’ll find others who are eager to travel the road ahead with you.

We’ll need each other for insight and to share experiences on the bumps and successes along the way. If we’re clear-eyed and intentional, and if we lead, not just react, I believe the most exciting days are ahead.