What’s Happening with Contact Center Workload?

What’s happening with contact center workload? Is the work handled by agents declining as AI capabilities become more robust and prevalent? Are calls being supplanted by digital channels and self-service? These are important questions—the answers will impact your budgets, hiring, workforce plans, investments, really everything. 

Let’s get right to it.

Workloads are increasing overwhelmed contact center employee

Many industry experts are predicting that self-service and AI-fueled capabilities will reduce the workload requiring human agents. But for now surveys (e.g., from ICMI, McKinsey, and others) reveal that a sizable majority of contact center leaders expect workloads to increase over at least the next couple of years.

Gen Z is calling

Along with questions of overall workload, many managers are wondering if their contact centers will handle calls in the future. The short answer: Yes. In fact, research is finding that Gen Z is in many cases more likely to call than millennials or Gen Xers. Yes, they start with self-service or chat, but they quickly move to phone if need be. A recent McKinsey survey of 3,500 consumers finds that all generations view phone support as among their most preferred ways to get help (source: “Where is Customer Care in 2024?,” March 12, 2024, McKinsey & Company).

In short, Gen Zers are calling. Boomers are using chat. And video is bringing face-to-face interactions back in areas such as healthcare, banking and retail. (Fifty years ago, call centers began moving us away from face to face, now they are bringing us back—an interesting full circle.) All of this highlights the importance of handling any of these channels well and giving customers choices that make things easy for them.

Just one in four contact centers are omnichannel

graphic of the contact center as a hub of communication

Source: Contact Center Management on Fast Forward, 4th edition

According to ICMI research, only about a quarter of contact centers are omnichannel (The State of the Contact Center in 2023, ICMI). Most contact centers are multichannel. Omnichannel, where channels work seamlessly together, is a work in progress. Some are well down this path, but as an industry, we’re not there yet.

I believe omnichannel took a backseat to issues following COVID—work from home, staffing challenges, and now AI dominating the conversation. Omnichannel is next level performance, so ensure it is a priority. And let your customer’s journey and what can make things easy and intuitive for them show the way.

AI is shifting the nature of work

In what may sound like a contradiction to workloads increasing, most industry analysts (including me) predict that AI will reduce existing workload in many contact centers. It already is, and in some cases, dramatically. AI can handle more and more interactions all the time without any involvement of an agent. And it can sit alongside agents to help with conversations, pull in knowledge and so forth.

But there are cross currents at work. Discover Financial, well known for their credit cards, has been running a television commercial with the central message, “We’re always here for you with a real person as you need.” The commercial begins in the middle of a conversation between a customer and an agent in the contact center. 

The agent asks the customer, actor Jennifer Coolidge, “Wait, are you a robot?” 

She’s flustered, and replies, “How would I prove I’m not?” 

So, AI itself is creating a new category of interactions. Most significantly, AI and self-service capabilities in general are freeing human agents to handle higher value interactions. For example, IKEA, the home furnishings company, is refocusing agents from simple questions and orders to helping customers with design. 

Quote "AI itself is creating a new category of interactions"

What to do now?

My overall advice to customer service and customer experience leaders is twofold. First, use your customer access strategy to define work you’re getting, how it’s evolving, and where and how you can harness new capabilities such as AI. (A customer access strategy defines the ten components that shape and guide customer interactions. For a free template, click here.) That will be the blueprint you need for budgeting, hiring, investments, and other decisions.

Second, building the right culture is essential. I notice a standout cultural trait in the most effective contact centers, a different internal “conversation” if you will. The work that contact centers handle continues to change, and many managers can grumble about that (I’ve been guilty of this): “We’re the dumping ground for everything the rest of our organization didn’t figure out!” But the standout contact centers flip the script. “That’s a part of our mission! It’s what we do!” I hear terms like backstop, catch-all, and the A-Team. “Bring it on.” 

In organizations leading the way, the contact center itself has become a powerful change agent. You’ll need yours in the months ahead—more specifically, you’ll need it to be agile, and ready for the work and opportunities that are coming.

This blog post is from Issue #52 of The Edge of Service Newsletter®. Access this issue and past issues here.