The COVID-19 pandemic has affected contact centers in many different ways. It forced agents to work from home at the time when the crisis also led to a rapid increase in call volumes. The rise of digital communications, bots and automation, and the gig economy are also reshaping contact centers.

The agents of the future are thus to be very different from what we see today. They’ll likely evolve into digital-savvy, knowledge employees that work when and where they want. To better understand what lies ahead, let’s dive into each of the trends that are giving rise to our new agent prototype.

Working from home

As agents are sent to work from home, many benefits and challenges of such arrangement become obvious. Remote work might be a flexible option many people crave for, but it also offers more opportunities to get distracted or to hide when you are slacking off.

This means that for home-based roles you need to hire trustworthy and reliable individuals that can focus on the task at hand, even with all the distractions of home. The requirements for and the cost of your agents just went up a bit.

Digital communication

Another factor impacting contact centers is that even making or receiving a phone call irritates many people. Social media and messaging apps are seen as a more convenient way to talk to friends, family, and even companies. Messaging apps alone, for instance, process over 40 million messages every minute. And why drop everything to call an agent when you can send a message and check the response when you have time?

Many companies have been slow at shifting to a digital-first approach in their customer service operations. But this attitude is changing. Businesses can no longer ignore the fact that millions of customers prefer digital communication channels, and many agents are more comfortable typing than talking.

Bots and automation

I’ve written repeatedly that when the economy turns downward, as it has done now, we’ll likely see the ’Bots from hell’. They’ll function in much the same way as ‘IVR jail’ in the 90s. And companies will use them to save money. The cost of an automated interaction is 25¢ to 50¢ while human interactions typically cost ten times that much. But although there are a lot of great things bots can do, companies that push automation too hard risk frustrating and losing customers.

Bots need to be deployed properly with a clear understanding of what they can do well for customers and when the human touch is required. Machines are good at doing simpler and repetitive tasks. Chatbots can answer up to 80 percent of routine questions, leaving agents to deal with hard questions and delicate interactions.

Not everything can be automated, though. Imagine, for example, receiving a call from an automated system telling you that you have COVID-19 and need to quarantine yourself immediately. I would definitely prefer a human touch in this situation.

The gig economy

And as agents are working from home already, why not let them work only when they can? How about building up a troupe of agents that work just a couple of hours around lunchtime to cover the midday crush and then take off when your volume goes down? Suddenly, the agents you need to hire look a lot more like gig knowledge workers than a standard-issue person with a smile in their voice. And while you need fewer of them, you probably still need several.

Another important consideration is going beyond your local resource pool. If you’re an insurance company in Florida, how many experts on California insurance can you find in your greater cosmopolitan area? Or, if you’re a California-based cruise booking company, how many experts on the Bahamas are available in your backyard?

This is where remote work changes the game. If people work from home, you can hire agents from anywhere. They don’t need to be local at all, and in fact, spreading them around the country helps with scheduling coverage of different time zones.

Agents essentially became real knowledge workers. Their job just happens to be to share their knowledge with customers, which is a different model than the one we’re seeing now. And I really believe that this will be the path to success for many companies in the next few years.

Tech-driven transformation

Of course, technology will underpin this transformation. Platforms that enable agents to collaborate, interact with customers through different channels, and become more productive will be in great demand.

To that end, RingCentral already offers a range of products that make the rise of knowledge workers possible. You can learn more about these products and explore how to use our platform to increase customer satisfaction, improve agent productivity, and ultimately generate higher revenue.