When COVID turned the world upside down in 2020, contact centers had to quickly adapt to navigate both economic uncertainty and a massive influx of call volume. And now, with volatile markets and a recession looming on the horizon, they’re again having to refine their operations to maximize efficiency and lower overhead.
But while contact centers might feel like they’re on a rollercoaster, consumer expectations of customer service and support have never been higher—with an increased demand for speed, personalization, ease-of-use, and preferred support channels.
So how can contact centers both maximize efficiency and provide the top-notch service consumers want, all while wrestling with an economic downturn in 2023?
We’ve spoken with experts from Walmart, OneAmerica, and Voiceflow to see just how contact centers will face these challenges. Here are six contact center trends they expect to see in 2023.
Meet the experts.
This article is based off conversations with three experts. Whether you watch the webinar (above) or read the article, here’s a quick intro to who you’re hearing from.
Tony Marichal is the VP of Enterprise Operations Strategy & Call Center at OneAmerica Financial Partners, a time-tested institution that has served customers for 146 years. Tony previously worked at Anthem as Staff Vice President driving member service strategy, and brings a deep history of contact center knowledge to the table.
Anderson Wilkins is a Director of Product Management at Walmart. With a broad background ranging from operations to marketing, business development, and product management, Anderson is an experienced leader of product, software engineering, and UX design, with a demonstrated history of delivering innovative applications.
Braden Ream is the CEO of Voiceflow, an enterprise collaboration platform to design, prototype and build conversational assistants across any channel. Braden is no stranger to the world of tech startups and is passionate about democratizing the creation of digital assistants.
1. Recession: contact centers will lean on their COVID-learned understanding of how to use technology as a safety net.
“I’m waiting for the call center that tells me that they flourished during the pandemic, you know?” joked Tony Marichal at OneAmerica Financial Partners. “I haven’t talked to anybody who says, ‘Yeah, we were just killing it every day.’”
But as the pandemic caught nearly every contact center (and let’s be honest, the entire planet) flat footed, Tony argues it also provided a valuable lesson for businesses: Having the right tools in your contact center improves resiliency in the face of uncertainty.
For OneAmerica, that looked like implementing a callback solution to handle a difficult 35% increase in call volume and give customers the option of engaging with an agent without having to navigate long hold queues.
“COVID was the main reason we moved in that direction,” continues Tony. “It tested our resiliency and we failed. Now, fast forward to 2022 and we’ve met our service levels every month—largely due to the fact that we understand how to use our tech as a safety net when we’re in way over our heads on any particular day or call volume.”
Many of the same challenges contact centers faced during the pandemic are already bubbling to the surface as a recession looms. Call volume and customer support requests continue to rise while budget constraints could mean painful layoffs and fewer agents answering the phones. Contact centers that aren’t prepared with the sort of tech “safety net” that Tony mentioned—one that helps deliver a superior customer experience while also lightening the burden on the contact center—will struggle to meet service expectations.
“With a recession coming,” says Braden Ream from VoiceFlow, “it’s actually the time to invest deeper into technology. Customers see a layoff, but they’re still going to expect the same level of service and now you have to deliver that same quality of conversation. You need to be able to get more done with less.”
- Assess your tools before the worst comes. Don’t be the one digging out a bunker when the tornado hits your neighbor’s house. Tech is the key to weathering uncertainty, so stress test your solutions (and providers!) before you’re stuck. Read more on recession-proofing.
- Review your COVID response and look for lessons. You’re probably still maintaining a lot of the procedures developed during the pandemic, but it might be worth a once-over. Read more on resiliency.
2. Personalization: contact centers will focus on knowing more about customers to personalize care as much as they personalize marketing.
Personalization and hyper-personalization aren’t new concepts in the marketing space. To a large degree, consumers already expect to receive personalized recommendations based on their likes, dislikes, and previous interactions with a business.
But when it comes to customer care, businesses have struggled to contextualize interactions for customers who move from one mode of support to another—like when a customer calls a physical storefront for information on a product, makes the purchase, then later interacts with the business’s contact center when they need help with it.
Anderson Wilkins at Walmart sees bridging this gap as the next big step for contact centers this year.
He told us, “We have large amounts of call volume going to our physical stores and large volume going to our contact centers, but that volume stays split. How do we coordinate our UCaaS and CCaaS to go between? Our customers aren’t one customer when they’re shopping and another customer when they need help. Contextualization is just as important pre-sale as it is post-sale.”
To stay relevant in the customer experience space, contact centers will need to contextualize a customer’s experience—accounting for how they’ve interacted with the brand before, their communication preferences, their likes and dislikes, and what care specifically means for them. And this doesn’t just strengthen the customer experience, it maximizes efficiency. Giving agents a holistic picture of their customers allows them to provide quicker, context-driven solutions—reducing handle times and cutting overhead costs.
- Pre-call, connect collected data to the agent. The biggest hurdle usually comes with experience drop-off, where a customer hits a dead end and has to start over. Use a connective tool that can hand off information between experiences.
- Post-call, use customer feedback to iterate. Make sure the feedback you collect is timely (i.e. at the conclusion of the call) and is surfaced across teams to improve personalization for the next customer. Watch how to do it at scale.
3. Staffing: while staying focused on answering the phone when it rings, contact centers will partner with other teams to glean efficiencies from digital improvements.
“Expanding our digital presence helps us curb demand so that we’re talking to the people that need us most,” says Tony Marichal at OneAmerica Financial Partners. “When customers call us, we want to make sure we’re sized to handle the volume. And then, if we’re not sized properly at any particular time, we have an experience that works to provide them what they need while they wait.”
Prioritization often carries a negative connotation with it. But at the end of the day—and especially in light of peaking call volume and a volatile workforce— a contact center’s efficiency often depends on how well it can segment the needs of its customers and address the most pressing issues up front.
Tony continues, “If you’re calling in to our contact center and you’re applying for a disbursement from your 401(k), and it’s a hardship situation where you’re about to be evicted, guess what? I want you to move to the front of the line.”
This is where digital improvements come in. While not all contact centers will have the luxury to expand their omnichannel focus in 2023, they should work alongside other CX partners to make the most of digital enhancements that might allow them to accurately segment customers before they even call in.
Since almost half of customers think IVR menus are too long, requiring a customer to segment there is likely to lead to a poor experience. But answering questions online in order to speak to a human (and without having to hold!) is incredibly feasible.
The most innovative contact centers might be poised to focus on the digital experience in order to serve customers better once they reach the phone. But for contact centers that are still struggling to answer calls each day, partnership with digital experience designers will be vital.
- Use intelligent callback to staff better and remove frustrations. The right callback solution will solve a variety of the problems mentioned here. First, as calls are paced based on agent availability, you’ll be able to answer calls more consistently, even with an inconsistent workforce. And on the customer side, since long virtual hold times aren’t perceived negatively, their experience will be salvaged. Read more about the benefits of a callback solution.
- Don’t be afraid to let customers get in queue online. This might be the #1 reason contact centers resist their digital counterparts. Many falsely perceive that listing a phone number (or worse: offering a click-to-call option) leads to higher call volume. But the reality is: these customers are going to call anyway, and burying your phone number will just make them frustrated when it’s time to call. Absolutely build up your self-service options, but making it easier for customers to get in queue will actually smooth out call volume and minimize transfers and handle time. Read more on using click-to-call to deliver a personalized customer experience.
4. Multi-experience: CX teams meet the customer where they want to interact while doing whatever it takes behind the scenes to reduce friction and serve the customer.
The pandemic heightened the need for businesses to adopt more channels, apps, and tech in their contact centers to engage with customers on the channels of their choice. Yet while this rapid adoption often made it easier for customers to contact a brand, it also highlighted a significant problem behind the scenes: data silos between channels, departments, and differing lines of business.
Naturally, these disconnects cause friction throughout the customer experience. We’ve all experienced the frustration of starting our journey in one channel, only to hit a dead end and have to restart in another.
“We have to blur the lines between these different systems,” says Anderson Wilkins at Walmart. “Regardless of whether your call center is one system or eighteen, to your customer it has to seem like one experience in the end.” To accomplish this requires brands to have a “healthy balance between their contact center tech and frontline apps.”
But the end goal isn’t just stronger resolution and service metrics. As Anderson considers the future of Walmart’s contact centers as a people-led organization, his goal is make contact centers a streamlined, last-line-of defense to protect a leading customer experience.
“As contact center technologists,” he continues, “we should be in the business of minimizing our dependency on a contact center, not the other way around. If we can take all the small and simple things off our agents’ plates…if we invest in ways customers can self-serve their way out of a problem, then we better serve the customer, and our agents focus on handling complex issues and help relieve staffing pressures.”
The end result? The best of both worlds: effective self-service tools to handle a majority of customer inquiries, and “cream of the crop” agents who can effectively take care of the most impacted customers.
- A seamless experience for customers isn’t a pipe dream—but it takes a “whatever it takes” mentality. Take strategic and small steps toward making this a reality, and prioritize customer comfort over internal processes or formalities. Read more on creating seamless experiences.
5. Self-service: the AI assistant race will steady as contact centers shift their focus to answering the most common questions with large language models.
ChatGPT took the world by storm when it went public late 2022—generating both excitement and concern over the impact large language models (LLMs) could have on automating nearly every area of business.
But should we expect 2023 to be the proverbial “beginning of the end” for contact centers?
Braden Ream at Voiceflow doesn’t think so. Instead, he views current LLM’s as content creation tools that can help accelerate and supplement customer support teams.
“We really see LLMs in two different areas right now: first, being able to increase the speed of creation for your automation layer, which sits on top of your contact center and helps triage; and second, full runtime, which means brands give the LLM full control to take the user’s question and provide an answer.”
It’s that first area where he expects enterprises to camp as the technology improves. Under a brand’s supervision, LLMs can draw on pre-approved bodies of knowledge to answer commonly asked customer questions. Then, rather than continuously running the LLM (which is significantly more expensive), he suggests, “Once you’ve seen a customer ask the same thing 100 times…cache the response, turn that into an intent on your natural language understanding (NLU), and now you’re running through a predetermined response.”
Implementing LLMs in a limited way will drastically reduce the burden on contact centers—particularly as they expand self-service options to quickly segment out those customers with more complex questions that need to be addressed directly by an agent.
- Take a walk, crawl, run approach to adopting AI. For some, AI has been a wasted investment in hopes it could do all that it’s projected to. But holding back on adoption could put your brand behind the curve. Instead, make small investments, like automating an FAQ, rather than an entirely autonomous agent.
- Make it easier for those customers that still need to talk to a human. Automation won’t fix every problem—and keeping your customers away from agents in those moments will tank your service experience. Instead, make it easier to hand off the conversation to a human. Read more about creating a connected experience.
6. AI: intuitive and intelligent agent assistants will become table stakes for utterance and response generation.
Even the best agents need help when resolving complex issues and queries for their customers. And as enterprise brands tighten their budgets, agent assist tools will become critical for reducing handle times and helping agents accurately serve their customers.
Spinning off of the previous trend, both Anderson and Braden believe LLMs and NLU are poised to stand in the gap as THE tools contact centers will turn to.
“There’s so much information our associates are trained on,” says Anderson, “and we’ve got droves of content they can pour through—and they need to do it quickly—to serve the customer. We can leverage LLMs so that I, as an associate, can ask it a question, have it formulate an answer from all of our content, and then I can use my training and intelligence to confirm the response and serve the customer.”
Brands can then use this model to supplement their training by quickly generating brand-approved scripts and suggested prompts that reduce the need for investment- and time-intensive training—which is especially important in the face of a volatile economy and workforce.
And with a little hand-holding, Braden believes that we’ll see LLMs and NLUs completely change the face of contact centers in the future. “If you can layer on a human-in-the-loop model where your agents are approving responses and tuning your own data set in real time, you’re getting closer and closer to full automation.”
- First, give agents as much context as possible. Give agents details from browsing data, chat transcripts, purchase history, and any other pertinent detail when they answer the call. The more they can find out, the more delighted the customer will be.
- Look to automate the solution process. De-prioritize AI as an end-all-be-all, and refocus that effort on automation for agent knowledge. There are plenty of solutions out there—vet them by how focused they are on agent empowerment.