Calling On Contact Center Trends for 2016

From live chat to machine learning, these six trends will revolutionize customer service as we know it throughout the coming year.
Customer Service

Overall, 2015 was a banner year for customer service. From getting contact centers to 'speak Millennial' to leading with data, customer service organizations made breakthroughs last year in advancing the customer experience.

As companies continue to evolve and build on their progress from last year, 2016 is poised to become a more exciting year for contact centers. Here are six contact center trends for the coming year:

1. The cloud positions the contact center for lift-off

Contact centers have always been slower to adopt new technologies, but the cloud has begun to emerge as an essential weapon against the siloed legacy systems of yesteryear. Many brands still struggle under the weight of old investments that no longer support the customer experience. However, as Mayur Anadkat, vice president, product and solution marketing for Five9, indicates, cloud technology allows for greater growth within the contact center, quelling the need for quick, accessible, on-demand customer service. Cloud applications will be the key to better seamless, omnichannel customer experiences, as well.

"It's not so much a trend as it is a fundamental shift, but cloud allows for more growth within contact centers, increasing the level of service that organizations are able to offer," Anadkat adds. "In 2016, IT professionals will more broadly embrace contact center cloud adoption because of the business opportunities it provides."

2. Agents will share the responsibility of CX with the entire company

Customer experience no longer rests upon agents alone, but every member of the organization, as well. All employees must get on board to meet consumer demand and create the level of consistency all customers have come to expect. Anadkat says he sees the customer experience becoming a shared priority across the organization, a shift from the traditional split between departments. "We are seeing marketing and technology departments creating synergy between customer relationship management and the technology behind customer interaction in order to improve a brand's voice through better customer service," he says.

B&H Foto and Electronics, for example, has already begun to make such collaborative changes by replacing its multi-product communications system with an all-in-one business communications software suite that allows employees to provide more consistent service companywide. The single system empowers both contact center agents and business users, allowing every staff member to contribute to the positive customer service experience. Using one single system has also simplified training, streamlined infrastructure, and provided B&H with visibility into customer interactions throughout the organization for more accurate performance insights. By leveraging data to better understand the customer, brands have the opportunity to improve all business areas, enabling them to become healthier and more competitive. But, for many of those still struggling to develop this single view, 2016 will mark a critical turning point, as omnichannel strategies are now essential for continued success and brand differentiation.

3. Connecting the mobile channel to agents will take priority

Mobile is arguably the next customer experience frontier, as the GSMA estimate the number ofactive mobile devices surpassed the number of human beings in 2014 at the 7.19 billion mark. As mobile usage continues to grow, customer experience services, therefore, must be mobile-enabled to satisfy the average customer's increasing tendency to evaluate products, explore deals, and complete purchases in the palm of their hand, says Martin DeGhetto, COO at TeleTech.

"Brands must afford customers frictionless experiences by allowing them to use their communication channel of choice, of which mobile has become the persistent favorite," DeGhetto adds. "All services throughout the customer lifecycle must be mobile-enabled in the future to satisfy the average customer's expectations."

Although many companies offer mobile service options, the ability to connect the mobile channel seamlessly to the contact center remains an ongoing and vexing challenge for customer service organizations. Ian Jacobs, senior analyst at Forrester Research, notes that many brands providemobile applicationswith no practical way for customers to receive customer service. "Click the 'Contact Us' button in most apps, and the customer ends up being taken out of the app and into the phone's dialer application," he says. "All context of who the customer is and what they have been doing is then lost. So, to support customers in a friction-free, but still personalized way, customer service teams should look for ways to embed service directly into customers' experiences, whether those are online, in mobile apps, in games, or in physical branches or stores."

Ryan Nichols, general manager for Zendesk Voice, further emphasizes that engaging with customers across channels will offer companies the opportunity to get to know individuals better than ever so they may transition from reactive to proactive customer service providers. "Engaging with customers across channels gives companies the opportunity to get to know their customers better than ever, and start to anticipate their needs," he explains. "Moving from reactive customer support to proactive customer engagement will result in deep customer loyalty, but will require investment in integrated systems and analytics."

4. Machine learning powers agents' decision-making

The increased level of context means an increased amount of data for the contact center to sift through. This has spawned another growing trend-artificial intelligence and machine learning technology. Artificial intelligence and machine learning can help companies sift through thousands of comments to determine critical information, which may ultimately improve both the productivity and the effectiveness of their agents. Not only will these technologies help customer service professionals solve problems, but they'll also anticipate and proactively address customer needs and desires.Having this knowledge will help establish consumer success-oriented activities that lead directly to enhanced prospect conversion, higher retention rates, and improved customer satisfaction, adds Jeff Erhardt, CEO at If implemented properly, self-learning systems that augment human decision making will simplify agents' lives and enable them to focus on the essence of their purpose-to deeply understand the brand's products and lend an empathetic and knowledgeable ear to the company's customers.

"The trend of pervasive intelligence is now beginning to reach the contact center," Erhardt says. "Consumers have come to expect intuitive, anticipatory experiences from the products they use in their daily lives-from their phones to their cars to their thermostats, great companies have realized that this modern version of customer experience done right is about more than just the hard product; it's about every single interaction a customer has with the company."

5. Self-service solves the complexity issue

In Forrester's 2015 North American Consumer Technographics Customer Life Cycle Survey, 84 percent of the respondents reported using a self-service mobile phone application or FAQ on a company's website during the past 12 months.

While contact center agents should be available to solve complex issues, modern consumers also seek the ability to self-serve across channels. This growing trend means live chat and social customer service will likely expand in 2016, as such channels complement consumers' affinity for quick resolutions without having to wait in long phone queues just to speak to an agent. Companies that implement self-service functionality can also track customers' movements across channels and then apply this data to any subsequent conversations. This process eliminates the need for customers to repeat the nature of their inquiries when transferred and allows them to get quicker resolution.

Alan Berkson, director of community outreach for Freshdesk, adds that the biggest challenge no one's talking about is the increased average level of complexity of contact center interactions. "With consumer habits driven by search, it'll more often be the case that the easier issues can be solved through customer self-service or community engagement," he says. "This means contact center associates will need two things: They will need to be more knowledgeable about how to handle the more complex issues, and they will need to be empowered by their employers to think 'outside the box' to solve customer issues."

6. Leaders will flip their agent training practices

Employee engagement and training will play the most pivotal role in contact center development throughout 2016. Nichols notes that companies will need to become more nimble in order to properly serve customers at each given contact channel. Leaders must cross-train agents from day one to ensure representatives have the flexibility to adapt to rapidly changing customer expectations and engage with customers wherever they want to engage. Gone are the days of channel specialists. Instead, it's critical that all service staff members receive training that allows them to mirror the omnichannel nature of consumers themselves.

Anna Convery, CMO and executive vice president strategy at OpenSpan, adds that modern contact centers have the opportunity to adopt "Universal Agent" models, where associates can deliver a broad range of services instead of acting as niche specialists. "Having customer intelligence at their fingertips, associates must be empowered to use this data to deliver more profitable outcomes and provide end-to-end service," she explains. "Of course, giving associates access to this data is only part of the equation. Companies must effectively train their associates to use data and integrate it into their onboarding programs to ensure success. However, for 2016, it's important for organizations to make training an ongoing part of the fabric of running the contact center, rather than just see it as an onboarding initiative alone."

Convery suggests that leaders "flip" their training practices by reconfiguring the traditional classroom experience. Companies should empower current agents to become instructors by identifying employees who've mastered a particular approach to using the company's technology that has resulted in outstanding performance. Companies should also encourage agents to attend seminars and workshops outside the organization so they can bring new information and concepts back to their peers to inspire additional learning. By cross training agents and making employees subject matter experts, organizations will be able to cover more ground and make the training process more fun and interactive.

Ultimately, customer service success will depend upon how contact center leaders choose to invest internally with regard to both technology and talent. While the tools will help agent performance, building a greater sense of community and showing employees that there's value to their job beyond the contact center will form the level of engagement necessary to preserve and promote customer satisfaction and loyalty.