Yesterday’s gone: reflections on the state of the contact center technology industry
What have we learned from the last 3 months?
There is nothing I enjoy more than a challenge.
However, these last few months have certainly challenged my thinking from time to time. Like many organizations, we had to shift quickly to help our partners and clients find their way through this, with the pressures of getting communications back up and running often leaving little time for due diligence.
As we evaluated the situation, we made the prediction that the industry would face 3 phases in 2020:
- Phase 1 – The triage/scramble to get agents back up and running as brick and mortar centers were legally obligated to close their doors.
- Phase 2 – Securing the agent process and maintaining compliance in newly-formed remote environments.
- Phase 3 – Efficiency improvement and cost reduction strategies as companies faced devastating revenue drops and economic uncertainty.
Our assumptions for Phase 1 were mostly spot-on, but what we never anticipated was how many companies were only interested in a temporary “band-aid” solution, and were reluctant to fully embrace cloud contact center technology. In retrospect, this shouldn’t have surprised me after 26 years of seeing this industry fight change at every turn, but I guess I thought this situation might finally be the catalyst. Certainly, it seems that a record number of companies implemented cloud-based technology solutions, they just simply did everything they could to avoid a full transition. Either way, as the analysts come out with their 2020 reports, you can rest assured the annual growth numbers will blow 2019 away.
Our Phase 2 predictions were fairly accurate, but once again we honestly didn’t anticipate how many organizations seemed hesitant to bite the bullet and implement the tools necessary to attain full compliance when the agents were no longer confined to a physical office, maintaining a “this is only temporary, so why make too much of it?” mindset. As an industry, we have relied so long on the control of the physical network and “desk” or office that we never had to consider the basic controls lost following a transition to WFH. If you think that starring out numbers and scrubbing recordings is an adequate strategy for PCI compliance for your at-home agents, then we really need to talk because you’re a sitting duck for a serious security breach.
The forward-thinking organizations that quickly accepted the harsh reality of the situation and embraced systemic change have been able to completely shift their focus to Phase 3, and are well on their way to identifying and implementing the tools that will help them better manage the new model in an undeniably unpredictable future. Those companies that committed to a remote contact center – whether in a full or hybrid model – are currently at a clear advantage.
What used to be luxury items for us are now almost a requirement. Contact center technology platforms like collaboration tools, learning management systems, and gamification have always been nice to have, but organizations are now starting to view them as essentials. If you have ever tried to facilitate a training session over a crowded Zoom meeting then you already know how tough it is to manage this in a scalable manner.
Bright spots in an otherwise dreary narrative
Other observations were very pleasant. Our industry was able to provide jobs to people that would have never had access to them otherwise. Working from home really does open up recruitment options for many organizations. Opportunities within state and local areas were created to help with some of the job losses, and I believe will continue to be a bright spot in hiring for the future. Employees really engaged with the companies who were transparent in their effort to get them back to work and we saw reductions in attrition and increases in employee happiness.
However, it’s worth mentioning that recently we are seeing things normalize following the initial disruption and are starting to hear about some negative impacts. Not just for the agents, but for many mid-level managers and even senior-level leadership who are feeling the effects of inadequate tools for the at-home model. Admittedly, these reports are purely anecdotal at the moment, but I’d be surprised to discover that they are not representative of larger trends given the current state of the industry and the world.
Where do we see the industry heading?
I may not have a crystal ball, but I am lucky to have the opportunity to speak with BPO partners, technology partners, and customers of all shapes and sizes every day. The one thing that is very rarely argued is that the work from home model is here to stay. Once organizations have accepted this, the focus seems to naturally turn to equipping the company for the future.
As stated earlier, we are still seeing reluctant adapters being forced to circle back to Phase 1, correcting short-sighted decisions surrounding their original transition to remote work. And, we’re seeing many organizations still trying to emerge from Phase 2 as they continue to struggle with finding long term solutions for security and compliance processes.
While the slow response of many organizations has been momentarily discouraging, the future is undeniably exciting for a cloud technology evangelist like myself.
Reality is setting in. There is a new normal. Customers are returning, with higher expectations for service and communication. We are entering a new era in the world of contact center software. It’s a redesign and improvement phase where we’ll enthusiastically try new things and evaluate what works and what doesn’t, fundamentally reshaping our organizations for the future.
The coming year will usher in the normalization of tools that had previously been viewed as perks or bonuses. LMS, WFM, voice analytics, and knowledge bases will make leaps forward out of necessity, not luxury. While I’ll always be a little annoyed that it took a global catastrophe to finally move the needle, I’m ecstatic that the industry may finally embrace these technologies.
Other technological advances will be spurred by an undeniably somber fact: companies and individuals alike are experiencing financial uncertainty in a best-case scenario, and devastation in a worst-case one. Job losses and business closures are rampant, from charming Main Street establishments to global corporations. Every business in the world is looking for ways to cut costs, and using technology to improve efficiency is one of the best ways to do so. Tools that can impact costs with greater ROI will come to the forefront and technology to better manage agents, wherever they are located, will become more important than ever.
And, of course, many organizations will be looking to move many communications currently being handled internally to outsource providers – often exploring the BPO model for the first time. Outsourcing will be a regular part of most conversations which again gives our industry an opportunity to improve how we operated before the pandemic.
While I’m optimistic about the direction I see the industry heading, I hate how we got here. In 26 years of experience, this was never a scenario I’d ever imagined; it’s certainly not one that I’d ever planned for. Every conversation I have about selecting and implementing new technology has a certain level of melancholy, and I don’t see that feeling retreating for several months…maybe years.
But we have no choice but to look forward, to embrace the positives that arise from change and innovation instead of continuing to dwell on what prompted it. Our industry is sitting at the dawn of a new era, and I’m grateful to have a front-row seat.
Fred Stacey has been in the contact center industry for over 20 years. He started first as an agent on the phones and moved on to the operations side, starting and recovering failing call centers. During that time, he worked in leadership capacities surrounding technology acquisitions and center build-outs, including ongoing call center management and selection of future leadership. Prior to joining Corey Kotlarz to start Cloud Call Center Search, Fred worked over the past 16 years in executive-level roles in contact center telephony and debt collections software companies. He has managed every aspect of a software company from running operations in Europe, the Middle East and Asia-Pacific to cofounding and participating as the COO in startups. Fred specializes in contact center and debt collections software, selection, business operations and strategy.