It is a good news/troubling news story for contact centers. How they and their supplier partners plan and respond will help determine how well the industry succeeds in the post-COVID-19 pandemic “new normal” era.
On the one hand, contact volumes are likely to climb higher in the coming years, pulled upwards by growing mostly consumer demand for—and increasingly online delivered and supported--goods and services, as the economy rebounds. But also by rising service quality expectations from customers.
On the other hand, there is the seemingly permanent shift to working from home (WFH) for many employees, labor shortages and declining labor force participation rates, and digitalization.
The Canadian band Barenaked Ladies, with Michael Bublé, presciently captured the mood of many of today’s workers in the snarky 2004 holiday song “Elf’s Lament” with lyrics such as:
Never in existence has there been such a resistance
To ideas meant to free us
If you could see us, then you’d listen
Both sets of issues are challenging contact center managers who at the same time face reaching or beating seemingly rising productivity bars set by senior management at the urging of shareholders and stakeholders.
To help contact centers Contact Center Pipeline reached out to workforce optimization (WFO) industry leaders for their insights.
Here they are, from Natalia Abad, Product Marketing Management Manager, Genesys; Magnus Geverts, Vice President of Product Marketing, Calabrio; Omri Hayner, General Manager, Portfolio and Workforce Engagement Management, NICE; and David Singer, Vice President, Product Strategy, Verint.
Q. What changes have you seen in the requirements from contact centers for WFO solutions over the past 12 months? And what are their drivers?
Natalia Abad: One of the biggest changes has been the need for employees to adapt and develop deeper soft skills like empathy; this is a waterfall effect. Consumers have always valued personalization and topnotch service.
However, the need to empathize with customer needs has increased significantly in the last year. But, like customers, employees also must feel known and understood to harbor the engagement that moves the needle.
A recent Genesys report on how the pandemic impacted human interactions found that 83% of consumers want customer service employees to listen to them and understand their needs, but only 9% of high-performing agents cited empathy and listening as their greatest strengths.
As I said it is a waterfall effect: as the need for more empathic communications rises for customers the need to foster this skill in employees also rises.
So, at Genesys, we responded to this by developing an interactive, Netflix-style video training program called “BeyondCX.” It is designed to help contact center employees learn how to develop the soft skills that are increasingly becoming table stakes, including how to build trust, show empathy, and build loyalty and better communications inside and outside the companies, ergo better personal connections.
Magnus Geverts: One of the major changes is that the “talk” about employee engagement has turned into action for contact centers with the rapid adoption of more flexible methods for workforce management (WFM).
Calabrio’s recent State of the Contact Center 2021 report highlighted the great resignation as a driving force behind this industry trend. We found that half of contact center agents are considering leaving in the next two or three years.
With that in mind, only 18% of responding agents said higher pay is the reason for departure. That shows there is so much more than money that factors in their decisions.
In other words, contact centers should view WFO solutions not only as a method for optimizing staff but also for providing enhanced support, development, and engagement. Whether that be through analytics to understand their desktop stresses, supporting individual training needs and performance coaching, motivating gamification, or more freedom with self-service scheduling tools.
Interestingly, when comparing the results of the original survey from 2017 answers on “what technologies will be most impactful in next two to three years?”, more agents now believe monitoring tools will be the most impactful technology versus that in 2017 (20% versus 12%). That’s a 66.67% increase.
We’ve also seen a rise in acceptance of monitoring tools with the rise of remote/home/hybrid working as more contact centers understand managers can’t understand or coach from walking the floor.
Omri Hayner: There has been a major shift in consumer behavior. Today, people first search for self-service options online or on an app. They prefer to speak to a human if the issue is time-sensitive or complex.
As a result, we’re seeing agents’ roles shift with a demand for higher levels of knowledge and compassion. This has driven a rise in coaching around soft skills such as empathy, friendliness, active listening building rapport, time management, etc., mixed with more advanced levels of technical understanding.
There are methods and solutions to assist agents. Real-time input on how to steer a conversation or actively listen, for example, helps agents drive better experiences and outcomes during interactions. This also leads to agents getting more personalized coaching on the specific knowledge gap or skill they need help on while they WFH or in a hybrid environment.
Meanwhile, to combat agent burnout and attrition brought on by remote working/WFH, contact centers are finding creative ways to engage employees and recreate the fun office atmosphere.
This includes elements of gamification including quizzes, trivia apps, and other team activities that foster friendly competition, build team cohesion, and motivate employees to meet goals. Companies can also foster competition by offering prizes (such as company swag or extra time-off) for teams reaching sales targets, lowering average handle time (AHT), or other key performance indicators (KPIs).
David Singer: The future of contact center work continues to evolve to meet customer expectations stemming from the growth and shift in the use of digital channels.
Contact centers traditionally add digital channels to offload work. But today, as the number of digital channels grow, the total volume of customer interactions also increases to fill these channels. Organizations must understand and act on this exponential growth in customer data to drive the customer experience.
The reality is that digital channels will continue to expand in the contact center arena, including video, not just voice and text. WFO solutions then need to handle the many different ways customers want to engage, and they need to understand that customers will engage differently in each channel.
Recognizing these differences is key to support accurate forecasting and scheduling and even quality management programs.
For example, when is the right time to assess the quality of the customer/agent interaction in the instance of asynchronous social messaging exchange that may span several days? There is a tremendous opportunity to provide agent coaching between segments of an interaction to improve customer service while the engagement is still underway.
In addition, as companies worldwide adjust to working remotely, embracing new flexible work models is crucial.
Today, micro shifts and shift splits are exploding in popularity, and organizations need flexible scheduling tools to meet staffing requirements and promote employee work/life balance.
People now have the flexibility to design their job profiles that best fits their needs and maximizes their earning potential.
People now have the flexibility to design their job profiles that best fits their needs and maximizes their earning potential. For example, a person can work as a contact center agent during the hours when their home is most quiet: and run DoorDash deliveries and drive for Uber during peak hours all on the same day.
The work-from-anywhere model has changed recruitment strategies as well. Today’s candidates are more selective than in the past, and with employees in the driver’s seat this means employers must work harder to attract, nurture, and retain quality talent and avoid the high cost of turnover.
As a result, new intelligent hiring solutions using advanced artificial intelligence (AI) and analytics tools are becoming fundamental to talent acquisition strategies to engage with candidates earlier in the pre-hiring process. This is to ensure successful employee engagement and provide a richer employee experience from the start, thereby leveraging company culture as a key recruiting tool.
Q. Looking ahead into 2022 what lies ahead for the contact center workforce? And what WFO tools should contact centers consider employing to meet these needs?
Natalia Abad: Contact centers that have relied heavily on traditional WFO and performance metrics to drive employee and operational efficiency often experience increased turnover numbers, drops in performance, and agent disengagement.
Moreover, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the general culture of the contact center workplace has changed. Attrition, turnover, and disengagement numbers have skyrocketed.
Looking ahead, the new normal will incorporate workers from anywhere: employees who value job flexibility, satisfaction, and work-life balance more than ever.
Likewise, more interactions will be handled without an increase in headcount. That means a good number of these will be managed by self-service technologies, thereby leaving more complex queries in the hands of agents.
Therefore, companies will need to ensure the provision of all the interactive tools, systems, and resources necessary to support employees in their roles in order to motivate and help them create their own meaning of work-life balance. Particularly to meet the demands of an industry that is gravitating away from legacy systems as we move into 2022.
We will also continue to see a change in the understanding of the differences between WFO and workforce engagement management or WEM.
We will go from talking about point solutions, such as forecasting, recording, scheduling, quality management, or recording as independent entities, to holistic WEM solutions. Ones that combine different disciplines and which are designed and developed with humans at the center, and not only customers but also employees, understanding that they have different roles, journeys, and experiences.
A great example is Genesys WEM platform, which brings out the full potential of employees through technology that’s designed with their needs in mind, ushering in the future of work based on empathy and trust, where humanity and technology work hand-in-hand.
This platform is highly interactive, and it provides various opportunities for employees to grow and learn. Some of its tools include:
- A personalized development hub, so that employees have one-click access to everything they need to understand and improve their performance and develop their careers
- Gamified performance dashboards that contain consolidated insights and actionable recommendations to improve performance with a more engaging and motivating experience
- Embedded development modules that are tailored around the employee development journey
- Quality and coaching, where managers can identify opportunities to reinforce knowledge, and easily schedule training sessions without affecting the schedule
- Quality assurance with speech and text analytics in order to closely monitor interactions and maintain quality while obtaining valuable insights on which to act to improve and develop soft skills
Magnus Geverts: The rise in business intelligence and voice of the customer analytics, catalyzed by stay-in-place mandates arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and purchase and service interaction changes, positions contact centers at the center of enterprise intelligence about the customer. WFO solutions can allow contact centers to connect to the wider enterprise and identify relevant information that can help them be more customer-centric, as well as employee-centric and data-driven.
The WFO suites that will truly enable today’s connected enterprise need to have out-of-the-box tools in place to share contact center insights more broadly and easily, as well as in a targeted, function-specific manner.
Calabrio’s 2021 report also showed that while 65% of agents are remote/home or hybrid working, “more flexibility” is the second highest thing that agents want from their employers: which shows that flexibility is not as much about the location as it is about time.
Contact centers need to tap into WFM solutions that give agents better self-service experiences, increased autonomy over their schedules, and enhanced training opportunities.
In fact, agents ranked their top priorities for training going forward in the following order: #1—more frequent, #2—more personalized, and #3—more flexible.
So WFO solutions also need to support analytics-driven training programs that identify individual skills gaps and help contact centers deliver more targeted training and team development.
Omri Hayner: We are expecting a number of trends to develop or continue to grow:
- Expanded self-service options while human agents help with complex issues needing empathy.
According to a NICE survey, eight in 10 consumers are more willing to do business with companies that offer self-service options. Yet only 61% agree that companies are offering easy, convenient self-service resolution options, highlighting the desire for improved self-service efficiencies and better customer engagement.
As a result of the increase in customers using self-service outlets, companies will make more of these options available. Human agents’ interactions with customers will be around resolving more complex or sensitive issues: the ones the bots can’t resolve
- Innovative AI and automation-based capabilities to address the needs of omni-session handling and growing interaction complexity.
From customer profile and history to product and service information, AI-powered analytics and automation capabilities eliminate the need for agents to search for answers.
By analyzing customer needs in real-time and providing agents with the answers they are seeking with incredible speed and precision, AI-powered knowledge bases allow agents to form stronger connections with customers, deliver answers in seconds, and build lasting customer relationships.
AI also provides contact center managers the ability to fine-tune trainings at the organizational level, thereby ensuring employees are being coached on topics they need and in the method they learn best, thus setting them up for success
- With digital and AI use cases growing, WFO and NPM (NICE Performance Management) apps will need to continue to adapt to meet the needs of the hybrid workforce.
This includes leveraging a full suite of WFM and employee engagement management (EEM) applications to manage the ever-growing need for flexible scheduling, to leveraging NPM solutions. They bring together all the data about the agents’ performance and then working with agents to improve it
- Contact centers will continue to find new ways to keep employees engaged and motivated. With the hybrid workforce here to stay, companies will use gamification, peer-to-peer engagement, and new onboarding processes to help teams stay connected to each other and working towards common goals
David Singer: In 2022 we will see intra-engagement improvements, driven by the significant rise in asynchronous messaging channels.
Asynchronous messaging in texting and sending messaging through social channels such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp will leapfrog traditional ways of contacting customer service such as phones, emails, and live chats.
Consumers and contact center agents alike are familiar and skilled with asynchronous messaging platforms as most of them have these channels already installed on their mobile devices.
As organizations optimize the contact center around digital-first engagement, we’ll see widespread adoption of sentiment analysis tools in WFO to help organizations understand and better engage with customers on an empathic level versus a transactional level.
In 2022, we will also see the intersection of workforce engagement and employee wellness. With virtual/WFH contact centers here to stay, raising employee engagement levels has many organizations reaching further into their WFO technology toolbox to achieve this for their remote workforces.
For example, automated quality management (AQM) solutions help to ensure new agents get the coaching, training, and support needed to avoid struggling, or worse, quitting. This process is critical to providing a supportive work environment, especially in the virtual world. It also ensures good work is never missed, further promoting employee engagement and wellness.
Also, in 2022 we will see the expansion of the “everyone serves” mantra within the organization as the edges of the contact center blur thanks to advanced functionality in WFO solutions, such as knowledge management, real-time agent assist (RTAA), and intelligent virtual assistants.
These tools ensure that anyone within the organization is empowered with the knowledge and support to engage with customers. We have the technology today to route customer interactions to any department in the organization.
Are Hosted WFO Solutions Still “Castles in the Cloud?”
It wasn’t that long ago when the notion of workforce optimization (WFO) solutions being hosted by their suppliers or third-party vendors and accessed over networks, as opposed to being installed on-premises, was an unrealistic dream. Yes, a castle in the cloud.
But is it that way today and going forward? So we asked our industry leaders whether they are seeing more contact centers accessing their WFO applications from the cloud. And if so, why?
Natalia Abad, Genesys: We’re seeing more gravitation towards cloud-hosted solutions across various industries. For many years contact centers were tied to legacy technology solutions with numerous tools and processes, lengthy upgrades, location constraints, and highly focused on operational optimization and productivity.
But the market evolves, and so do WFO solutions. The cloud has transformed the way customers consume Workforce Engagement Management (WEM) applications, bringing simplicity to what used to be a complex practice.
Cloud WEM grants companies rapid access to new functions that facilitate processes, adapt and scale quickly depending on business/market fluctuations, and optimize their investments with automation and artificial intelligence (AI) allowing access to the necessary tools when and where they need it.
There are other reasons that are driving cloud WEM applications. They include the need to accelerate digital transformation to facilitate adaptation to new management styles and customers. Also, to enable greater flexibility to accommodate new hybrid on-premises and remote work environments, with a mix of traditional and technology-native workforces.
Cloud solutions allow businesses to answer customers’ requirements through the preferred contact channels and promote more strategic work, supported by technologies. As a result, companies can begin their digital transformation and transition from their WFO tools to WEM solutions at their own pace.
Magnus Geverts, Calabrio: We’ve definitely seen an incredible acceleration in the cloud with new business, especially in terms of prospects wanting to move from other legacy, on-premises vendors to the Calabrio cloud WEM suite.
The scalability of the cloud is far more supportive of companies that face rapid growth, or peak-and-trough periods.
The adoption of AI and other technology with the cloud also involves easier installation and powerful computer processing to make digital transformation a more achievable reality for contact centers.
According to Calabrio’s 2021 report, full-cloud contact centers are nearly twice as likely to have implemented social channels, chatbots and business intelligence platforms. In contrast, two out of three on-premises contact centers feel limited by their current solutions.
Cloud customers move with the latest updates in cutting-edge technology without having to go through software upgrade processes or new hardware investments.
The cloud allows customers to see their technology landscape moving with them and the times as advanced software-as-a-service (SaaS) companies deliver weekly updates to software. They can then basically focus on their business instead of worrying about IT.
As an example, Calabrio pushed out tools for better management of remote workers within the first few weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic so cloud customers could immediately start to use them. But many on-premises customers have still not accessed those tools since their IT departments have had other priorities.
Omri Hayner, NICE: In recent years we have been experiencing a massive increase in demand for WFO cloud solutions. The work-from-anywhere approach has created a major shift to the cloud as WFO cloud-based apps can better provide the employees with the required flexibility, such as mobile scheduling, for long-term remote working/WFH at scale.
We are seeing some customers that are nearly a complete cloud operation while others are taking a more phased approach, step-by-step migrating their capabilities to the cloud. Each of them with their own unique needs.
The cloud offers contact centers the ability to improve their operations, to adapt and offer the latest AI-driven innovations and reduce operational costs, all with flexible options.
For example, new AI and machine learning applications are entirely cloud-based, and as these platforms scale it will be through the cloud. Traditional on-premises WFO applications consequently require a major update. Moving to the cloud addresses that issue and it is fully aligned with the WFO vendors’ investment paths.
David Singer, Verint: Cloud and advanced contact center solutions, such as WFO, are inseparable. Leading contact centers are rapidly replacing their legacy on-premises solutions and adopting cloud technologies to help scale their operations, but cloud is now more paramount to support speed of innovation.
Leading technology providers take a cloud-first approach to releasing new features to their customers more quickly and frequently. In the past, organizations questioned if cloud solutions would be as feature-rich and complete as those installed on-premises. Today, the question becomes: “what are you missing out on if your company stays on-premises?”