In 1977, singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffet released his seventh studio album, entitled Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes. The album, which featured a song by the same name, was well-received among critics in addition to being transitional for Buffet’s career in many ways. It changed him from being a college radio cult favorite to becoming a top-drawer touring artist and commercial radio star. Changes in Latitudes remains the best-selling studio album of Buffet’s career to this day.
The album also contained Buffet’s biggest single of his career so far—the song “Margaritaville.” “Margaritaville” is, arguably, the song most associated with Buffet and his Key West/Caribbean musical schtick. It is also the song responsible for me giving up the ‘ukulele and dropping out of the ‘ukulele Meetups I attended a dozen years ago.
For the benefit of those living under a rock for the past two decades, Meetup is a service used to organize online groups of people with similar interests, who then meet at in-person events. I started going to ‘ukulele Meetups in 2006, before the soaring popularity of the instrument. I don’t know if this is true of all Meetups, but the ‘ukulele Meetups never seemed to progress. Because of the influx of new players each month, attendees kept wanting to play the same, simple three-or-four chord songs, like “Margaritaville.”
There’s a line in “Margaritaville” that goes, “Strummin’ my six string, on my front porch swing.” Whenever the song was played at the ‘ukulele Meetup, someone would inevitably change “six string” to “four string” and think they were really clever. After about the fiftieth time playing “Margaritaville” and hearing someone change the words, I couldn’t take it anymore. I bid a fond aloha to the ‘ukulele and took up guitar.
The title of the Buffet album implies that a change in location, i.e., latitude, can certainly have an effect on how one perceives one’s circumstances, and how it can also influence one’s attitude toward those circumstances. I think that’s what has happened in the contact center industry as organizations found themselves making major workplace adjustments in order to meet Center for Disease Control (CDC) COVID-19 guidelines, while maintaining their business mission and support of their customers.
Two of my favorite contact center topics to write about since the COVID-19 pandemic changed all of our lives in March are the work-from-home (WFH) workforce and automation in the form of intelligent virtual agents enabled by artificial intelligence (AI). I believe the circumstances the contact center industry found itself in this past March has had a profound effect on how it views AI and its place in the customer experience industry. In order to test this theory, I turned to members of the National Association of Call Centers (NACC) for validation.
The NACC is a not-for-profit industry research and membership organization whose executive director, David Butler, Ph.D., is vice provost for research and Dean, School of Graduate Studies at Middle Tennessee State University. I have worked under contract as research director of the NACC since 2008. Our members are a community of contact center professionals who have an interest in the strategic research and studies that the NACC publishes. For more information on joining the NACC, including our no-cost volunteer membership, visit www.nationalcallcenters.org.
Each year my company, Saddletree Research, works with the NACC to undertake a statistically valid survey of customer service professionals in order to better understand industry trends and technologies, and the industry’s attitudes and intentions toward these issues. For the past few years, we have asked participants to categorize their attitudes toward AI and AI-enabled technologies. Their responses over the past two years are illustrated in Figure 1.
As the data illustrates, the majority of the market in both years weren’t interested or had no plans to implement any AI-enabled solutions at the time of the survey. The 2020 results are from the survey that we wrapped up on January 30th of this year, before the COVID-19 pandemic had any effect on the market. What happened after the pandemic took hold of the market and the economy as a whole can only be described as chaotic as businesses scrambled to get employees home while maintaining their customer service objectives.
Now that the dust is starting to clear a bit, I began wondering how or if attitudes toward emerging contact center technologies, such as AI-enabled solutions, had changed. That was the impetus behind the “quick-and-dirty” survey that I conducted in June among members of the NACC. There is nothing scientific about the results, I just wanted to get a feel for any changes in industry attitude that may have resulted from the changes in industry latitude.
Polling only those who have not yet implemented any form of AI in their contact center, I asked them to pick which of the following statements best described their attitude toward AI-enabled contact center solutions given their experience with maintaining operations during the pandemic:
- My attitude toward AI-enabled solutions, like intelligent virtual agents, hasn’t changed. We were already looking at these solutions for 2020/21.
- I wasn’t that interested in AI-enabled solutions until the pandemic changed everything. Now I think we’ll have to take a look at these solutions in 2020/21.
- I wasn’t that interested in AI-enabled solutions before the pandemic, but they’re now on my radar and something we’ll probably look into at some point. I’m not ruling them out.
- I wasn’t interested in AI-enabled solutions before, and I’m not interested in them today.
The majority of the survey participants, 41.2%, chose question No. 1 as being most descriptive of their attitude toward AI-enabled contact center solutions, such as automation, today. That’s twice the percentage of respondents who stated they were looking into AI pre-pandemic.
The rest of the results were as follows:
I found interesting the number of respondents, 17.6%, who admitted that they weren’t very interested in AI until the pandemic changed everything. These were likely respondents who found AI interesting in our pre-pandemic survey, but didn’t have any plans to implement. Now they are looking to implement in the next 12–18 months. There were also a high number of respondents who said they wouldn’t rule out AI-enabled solutions in the future. Remarkably, the respondents who stated they had no interest in AI in the contact center fell only slightly if you take into account those who thought AI was nothing more than a lot of vendor hype in the 2020 survey.
These changes in attitude bode well for the future of AI-enabled solutions in the contact center. I believe the move to AI implementation will be faster than anyone originally thought. The industry’s hesitant approach to AI before the pandemic is poised to become a much more confident near-term march toward AI deployment. As Jimmy Buffet so correctly pointed out in his song, “These changes in latitudes, changes in attitudes, nothing remains quite the same.”