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The Future Is Agents, Not Tech.




In the call center industry, narratives created and perpetuated by pundits and experts are important. They often dictate how call centers approach critical issues with resources and investment.

Ours is an industry often lacking clear answers regarding many of its most important issues. This lack-of-clarity dynamic presents opportunities for pundits and experts to contribute their thoughts and opinions in various forums that seek answers and content.

And this environment offers a perfect chance for pundits to shape the narratives that drive our industry. Two basic camps are doing the shaping.

One is a small group of longtime consultants with lengthy call center backgrounds and vast call center experience to whom the industry has traditionally looked for answers.

The other is tech industry representatives with tech backgrounds and expertise who have approached the call center industry seeking new opportunities.

Consultants do not offer products for sale. Instead, they typically provide knowledge and expertise acquired over time. Consultant culture is guided by a general code of ethics that all consultants know they must follow to help protect the integrity and viability of the consulting industry.

Tech companies, on the other hand, make digital products for sale, there is much pressure to sell products, and success is defined by how much product is sold. It is a sales-oriented culture, whereas consulting is more of an expertise-based culture.

And because there are a limited number of call center consultants, call center forums cannot rely solely on them for content. So, tech has filled this need.

The sheer number of tech companies, their vast financial resources, and their busy sales teams have led to tech dominance of all call center content and forums, from online presence to conference booths.

In the process, tech has sought to reshape many established industry narratives. And it is clear to some consultants that these reshaped narratives often do not align with what they know to be true from their extensive call center background and experience.

Such narratives often take the form of claims presented as facts. Or as a claim presented as applying to all call centers, and while it may apply to some, it does not apply to the vast majority.

For example, tech claims often apply only to large BPOs and massive call centers with several hundred agents. But smaller call centers drive the industry, far outnumbering larger ones, and such claims often do not apply to them. Nor do they often apply to specific industries, such as healthcare call centers.

But these claims are routinely presented with no such clarification, creating sales messaging that conveys they are meant to apply to all call centers as part of an industry-wide trend, which is often untrue.

In its zeal to sell products, tech sales messaging routinely gets over its skis.

I recently came across a tech advertising piece that said call center agents, referred to as voice, are quickly being reduced to an outlying segment of the call center industry as digital channels will soon dominate.

But voice utterly dominates the call center industry. This is a well-known fact, and to suggest otherwise is without merit.

A recent study (by callcentrehelper.com) surveyed 224 professionals with multichannel call centers and concluded that the figures are roughly 70% voice and 30% other channels combined. And these numbers have stayed essentially the same since the survey began in 2014.

This annual survey includes only multichannel call centers, while many call centers are voice-only. The 70% figure is undoubtedly much higher when considering the entire industry.

I have read the tech claim that customers/patients obviously prefer digital options over speaking with a live agent, given a choice.

But this has not been my experience with healthcare call centers, and a recent study (conducted by NewVoiceMedia, a Berkshire Hathaway Company) concluded that 75% of consumers prefer live agent support for customer service.

Claims stemming from functionality only

Many tech claims stem from a digital functionality seeking a commercial purpose rather than explicitly designed based on acquired knowledge.

For example, digital programs can measure time, so tech often claims that silent air and hold times are especially crucial in assessing agent performance quality.

But silent air and hold times have little to do with an agent’s performance quality. Instead, they primarily reflect internal processes the agent is dependent on.

And while agents must know how to handle the occasional hold and silent air time professionally, these are only minor pieces of the agent performance whole.

Software’s significant limitations, exhibited by its primary focus on the simple task of measuring time, have created a counterproductive emphasis industry-wide on time issues only because they are easily measurable.

It produces quantitative stats for meetings while pushing call centers in the wrong direction regarding cost, customer/patient experience quality, and agent morale.

Another digital function I came upon measures how much an agent talks over customers. But practically all talk-over comes from customers talking over agents, which is a top cause of aggravation for agents.

So, this digital functionality searching for a commercial purpose points the finger at agents for something customers routinely exasperate them with, not something they do to customers.

Talk-over happens to be something digital software can identify, so it is marketed as something of consequence. But the only consequence is unfairly judged and unhappy agents.

Claims that seem perplexing

I often read the tech claim that the role of call center agents is rapidly evolving. But their job on the phone is precisely as it has always been.

And there is the claim that calls are becoming more complex and emotional as customer needs evolve. But there has been no change in customer needs or behavior. Customers want precisely the same thing they have always wanted from agents on the phone.

But there are digital products whose commercial viability benefits from a perception of more complexity, needs, demands, evolution, and unpredictability. Still, in more than 70% of the call center landscape, nothing is changing.

A more apt description of the call center industry would be boringly predictable and steady, but for the 30% space where various digital channels jockey for position under the ongoing 70% voice dominance.

I recently read another claim stating that call centers now rout most customer inquiries to digital channels, leaving only the most complex interactions to any remaining agents. But this is simply untrue, as voice is the predominant channel.

I also read a tech article saying that AI is becoming a necessity, not a choice. But I currently work with numerous call centers that have recently experimented with AI digital channels, and the experiments failed each time.

AI is not only unnecessary but unworkable for many call centers.

I recently read a claim stating that any call center that does not move to a cloud has “no chance” of delivering a quality customer experience.

But I currently work with several call centers that have not transferred to a cloud, and their customer experience quality is outstanding. I also work with several call centers that have moved to a cloud, and not once did it affect customer experience quality.

And then, there is the narrative that any call center that does not invest in AI will be left behind and could ultimately fail. I read an article where the tech author smugly ended the paper by saying call centers have no choice but to invest in AI, concluding with the words “or else.”

It goes on and on like this: You will fail if you do not invest in AI. If you do not embrace AI, you risk becoming outdated professionally. The industry is now digital-first, and agents are becoming afterthoughts.

Meanwhile, all digital channels combined comprise less than 30% of call center volume, which has not changed in nearly a decade, and consumers overwhelmingly prefer talking to a live agent.

I have watched for years the relentless tech mantra that the future of call centers is tech and that agents will soon become secondary to digital channels.

Yet every morning I wake up, the present, which is the previous day’s future, is an industry dominated by agents talking on the phone. As of this morning, it was 70% voice and 30% other channels combined.

Claims can have negative consequences

I understand the pressure to sell products. But tech claims are routinely expressions of their hopes for the future unabashedly presented as facts of the present.

I recently read a claim stating that the typical agent today manages several channels at once. But the typical call center agent today handles only the phone, and to state otherwise is without merit.

If these claims are submitted in public forums, they are surely introduced in sales presentations. And they can negatively affect veteran call center executive careers. I have witnessed a version of the following scenario play out more than once:

A successful and dedicated healthcare call center director of 20-plus years is presented with a massive new digital transformation initiative to address her organization’s 200-agent customer service issues. She suggests a different solution she has proven works, but it is not considered because it is not digital.

She reviews the proposed digital solution and concludes it will not work. She is branded old-fashioned, isolated, and forced to leave the company after 20-plus years, replaced by a new executive with the word digital in her title.

The 57-year-old director has lost her job and healthcare benefits and must start over. And within weeks of its implementation, the digital transformation proved to be a complete failure for the exact reasons she predicted.

As tech often refers to call centers as cost centers, this is an example of digital costware in both human and monetary terms. And costware is a rapidly growing concern in the call center industry, especially in healthcare.

The origin of claims

When considering many tech industry claims, it is essential to understand that tech’s most significant barrier is call center agents. Their stubborn 70% standing lies in the way of digital product expansion.

Therefore, tech sales messaging tends to marginalize the value of call center agents and does not acknowledge the dominance of agents talking on the phone as the defining feature of the call center industry.

The word “legacy” is commonly used to blithely suggest agents are being superseded by digital channels when this is entirely untrue.

Tech promotes the concept of rapid evolution, dizzying change, and massive transformation because it conveys a sales-driven narrative that everything must be updated and replaced with investment in new digital products.

But more than 70% of the call center landscape is not evolving. It is precisely as it has been for decades. It is not changing, and it is not going to change.

And labor shortages, agent burnout, attrition, turnover, etc., are always highlighted to stress how agents are the pesky obstacle, despite agents being the essential element to the success and survival of the call center industry.

This continues with sentiment scoring, speech analytics, and measuring 100% of calls, each a software functionality seeking a commercial purpose rather than practical applications to the challenges they profess to solve.

Today, agents talking on the phone is the dominant call center channel. The call center industry is agent-first and digital somewhere else long after that. The new normal is the old normal, and while it may not be sexy, it is an inarguable fact.

While technological innovation will always be relevant (automated callbacks, for example, are excellent), the future of the call center industry will be most defined by call center agents, as it has been since tech began suggesting decades ago that it soon would not.



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