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Is There a Role For People?

Is There a Role For People?

Is There a Role For People?

The future is to focus on what makes us human.

Can we all agree at this point that waiting for the coming revolution of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) has been a bit exhausting?

I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve been reading articles about how AI will replace jobs in the contact center space for years, if not decades. A quick search for “Artificial Intelligence” on Contact Center Pipeline shows articles going back to 2015!

If it’s going to happen, can it hurry up and just be done?

The range of topics that get labeled “AI” makes the discussion muddied and confusing, at best.

I think part of the challenge and confusion surrounding this conversation is the definition of AI.

  • Are we talking about IVRs that allow customers to self-select into specific queues?
  • Or maybe it’s real-time agent assistance, having the system display suggestions to the agents on how to navigate the call based on natural language processing.

The range of topics that get labeled “AI” makes the discussion muddied and confusing, at best.

  • It’s because of this confusion I prefer to simply skip to the end.
  • Will the machines take over our jobs? Yeah, I think so.
  • When will it happen? I don’t know.
  • How will it happen? I don’t know.
  • Why will it happen? I don’t know.

To me, the when, how, or why aren’t as interesting as the “so what.”

Machines take over our jobs, so what do we do?

We could take a Luddite approach and try to strike up a revolution to overthrow technology. But if we’ve learned anything from The Matrix it’s that we cannot win against the machines (I’ve only seen the first three...does anything important happen in the fourth?). The advancement of technology will not stop.

But simply because technology will not stop advancing, and that machines are coming for our jobs, doesn’t mean we are powerless. Contact centers can, and should, start taking steps now to prepare for that future.

Soft Skills and Hard Skills

I believe as machines continue to get smarter, our hard skills will become less and less important.

  • We already see this to some extent with forecasting in WFM becoming more automated and smarter.
  • We see this in quality management as 100% of calls are scored and coaching insights are automatically generated.
  • We see this in chatbots already being able to provide answers to customers with no human interaction.

The value of our ability to find a coaching insight, normalize the volume, or provide answers to customers is already starting to be diminished and will continue to be as the machines get smarter.

This is why our soft skills will be what sets us apart in the future. Soft skills that focus on our humanity like curiosity, asking great questions, and treating others with empathy and kindness.

Good Questions and Good Answers

We’ve seen some amazing advancements in AI’s and ML’s ability to store, consume, and process large amounts of data. The advances in quantum computing make the future look even faster, larger, and easier to find great answers.

However, to find an answer you must have a question to start with, and it’s there that I think we need to focus.

Too many of us have made a career out of being the problem-solvers and the go-to persons for answers.

  • If someone needs to know how to set up a multi-skill routing set, we’re their person.
  • If someone needs to understand why service levels are dropping but Marketing didn’t change anything, they come to us.

In the future, however, problem-solving and answer-giving will be from machines. And this isn’t new, we’ve all gotten used to being able to Google any of our questions and get an answer within seconds.

The change that hasn’t happened yet, that we still need to get our heads around, is that we need to get comfortable with our new primary value-add: not giving answers but asking questions.

Studies keep coming out that show being willing to ask “dumb” questions can be critical for your career advancement. We need to lean into asking more “why” questions versus “how” questions.

We need to focus on understanding our environment better and helping others consider different perspectives when looking at problems. While the machines might be great about giving us answers, we will still be the ones asking the questions, and we must make sure they are good questions.

Empathy and Knowledge

Knowing what button to push, what system to implement, or how to improve a process has gotten many of us very far in our careers. We add skills like project management or process improvement to our careers, believing they will get us to the next point in our careers.

...empathy will be more important in the future than knowledge...

And it works! We get that next role, and we leverage our newfound knowledge of Python or R, and we keep moving along.

Until Now...

For most roles, especially those in contact centers, the knowledge bar to perform our jobs will continue to be lowered.

Which is great for our labor shortages and attrition challenges in contact centers. However, those treating professional skills like Pokémon (“got to catch ‘em all”) will find that their ability to acquire skills and climb the corporate ladder is diminishing, and fast.

I’m not arguing against gaining knowledge and skills, but I do believe that empathy will be more important in the future than knowledge.

It’s through empathy that we are able to connect with others, appreciate difference in perspectives, and take action to help those in need. This skill will continue to be critical as we become more ignorant of how our world works (who actually understands how the internet or blockchain works?).

I come from a WFM environment where people know how to push macro buttons but don’t know how to build them. Or know how to leverage the WFM tool but have never heard of Erlang. And you know what? That knowledge really doesn’t matter!

Empathy will be how we remain connected together, not knowledge.

I don’t know where the following quote came from, but many of us still believe that “nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

We would rather work for an empathetic leader and want those around us to be empathetic to us. This means the importance of empathy will only continue to rise.

But while we believe these things to be true, we still focus on gaining more skills and not honing our ability to connect and empathize with others.

We, particularly those of us in the contact center industry, ignore that is our peril. And not just for our existences as employees versus AI and ML.

Customers care about empathy first and foremost – they want to be heard! —and once they feel you are actually listening to them they want to be served well.

Kindness and Rightness

The speed at which technology changes and advances can leave your head spinning. What we were ignorant of just a few years ago can feel commonplace and known by all now.

It’s because of the rapid pace of change that I believe focusing on being right or correct is a losing battle. I’m not saying that there aren’t right and wrongs or things to stand for, but simply that it’s more important to focus on kindness than rightness.

When what you know to be true is turned upside down because of new knowledge it is disorienting, to say the least. You begin to question a variety of things, and normally people will point out your wrongness at the same level of intensity that you fought for your rightness.

But by focusing on kindness in your discussions, you will stay relevant and engaged, even as you’re proven wrong. Rightness can justify you today, but kindness will keep you in the conversation tomorrow.

The importance of soft skills like curiosity, empathy, and kindness has been growing in popularity for some time.

I believe these skills are critical not just in our current environment but also in the one to come, where so many of our jobs are automated.

It will be uncomfortable as we go through this change, but if we start to prepare now and make the adjustments when the machines finally become our overlords (or simply do most of the heavy lifting for us) we will be ready to continue to add value by focusing on what makes us uniquely human.

Dan  Smitley

Dan Smitley

Dan Smitley is a leading WFM expert who helps organizations think critically about leveraging WFM and their Contact Centers as strategic assets. He is passionate about people-centered approaches to WFM and asking great questions. You can reach Dan at [email protected].

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