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The Great AI Paradox for Contact Center Agents

Artificial Intelligence is on the rise and yet, believe it or not, tomorrow’s contact center will need more—not fewer—agents as revealed in the latest State of the Contact Center 2023: Activating the Agent of the Future.

contact center
While organizations are embracing automation and analytics to maximize their operations, AI won’t entirely replace agents.

Leading research and consulting firm Gartner predicts that Conversational AI will reduce contact center labor costs by $80billion in 2026 and over the same period, one in 10 agent interactions (10%) will be automated, an increase from an estimated 1.6% of interactions today. Faced with this dramatic rise in AI-driven tech for customer service, you might expect the number of agents to decrease but therein lies an interesting paradox.

When Calabrio set out to explore the role of Artificial Intelligence (AI) recently, the results were astounding. AI is going to impact customer service agents, but not in the way most people probably think. The response from 400 contact center managers around the world is clear and reflects Calabrio’s own conversations with customers. While organizations are embracing automation and analytics to maximize their operations, AI won’t entirely replace agents. In fact, over two-thirds (70%) of respondents predict an increase in the number of agents over the next decade.


The reason for this paradox is when technology removes a large portion of administrative tasks from humans, agents must adapt to embrace increasingly complex customer inquiries, becoming true brand guardians with the power to influence corporate perception, enhance loyalty and boost profits. As a result, agent skillsets are changing too. The majority (63%) of contact center managers believe ‘critical thinking skills like problem-solving and troubleshooting’ and ‘adaptability and continuous learning’ (62%) are the most important proficiencies for agents to be successful in the future.


However, contact centers have a long way to go to create their dream teams because many agents are not yet ready to meet the demands of an AI future. Nearly half of contact center managers (45%) say agents currently do not have the right skillsets. Critical thinking and adaptability are most frequently identified as lacking and perhaps more worryingly, they are the first to fly out of the window when agents are stressed or disengaged. Here are a few quick-win ideas to bridge the gap:

1. Put Employee Engagement Top of the Agenda

When employees are disengaged, they are less productive and more likely to leave. The good news is contact centers from all parts of the world recognize the importance of agent wellbeing in meeting customer demands. The majority (80%) or more rank agent engagement scores as the top measurement metric of the future ahead of traditional customer-centric KPIs such as customer effort (81%) and average handle time (80%).

2. Listen to Your Agents

Contact center managers around the world have different ways to improve agent engagement. For example, in the US and DACH regions, promoting and facilitating internal messaging between employees is a highly effective but relatively simple and cost-efficient way to improve agent engagement whereas in the UK. Contact centers rely on voice of the agent surveys and in the Nordics, hybrid scheduling is the most popular. Combine these methods with Voice of the Employee (VoE) analytics to identify agents who are struggling and need extra support.

3. Agent-Empowering Tech for a Flourishing Frontline

AI is particularly beneficial for supporting the WAH lifestyles and hybrid work schedules of agents today. Modern self-service tools such as self-service scheduling apps help improve engagement, performance, and satisfaction. Contact center managers say the top three ways these tools can help agents are to request training, select breaks and lunches, and request time off or overtime.

4. Comprehensive Training and Development

Training and skills enhancement are primary strategies for attracting and retaining agents. This underscores the importance of utilizing AI to improve agents’ skills, rather than seeking to replace them. Greater emphasis on targeted, proactive training and coaching will ensure agents have all the skills they need for the future. Although most managers felt their environment provided enough (71%) or somewhat enough (26%) opportunities for the appropriate level of training, fewer than half of all managers were pursuing various types of agent training, including work on aptitude skills and emotional intelligence (38%), or determining the best timing for training (37%).

5. Measure the Results

There is no point in developing these wonderful new training programs if you step away thinking the job is done and dusted, a fact not lost on today’s managers. The report showed 33% of contact centers believe ‘measuring the effectiveness of training on productivity’ is an area that definitely needs improvement. Only then can contact centers highlight immediate areas for service improvement, align training with changing customer behaviors while identifying tangible opportunities for career advancement quickly and efficiently.

6. Bring Calm to Chaos

Giving agents the skills to stay calm is critical to success. Empower agents with practical coping mechanisms for dealing with frustrated customers. For example, knowing when to use the word ‘sorry’ sincerely (rather than to pause a difficult interaction) is a simple way to bring calm to chaos. Next, encourage team members to share their own coping strategies. Fostering a sense of belonging and ‘we’re all in it together’ will stop agents feeling overwhelmed.

7. Future-Proof Recruitment

As organizations grapple with economic uncertainty and the continued cost-of-living crisis, it might come as no surprise that ‘increasing wages’ is one of the top strategies for attracting and retaining agents for future success. However, there are other ways to nurture your brightest talent. Follow the lead of our survey respondents and pay extra attention to ‘recognition or rewards’ (36%), ‘training and skills development’ (35%), and ‘scheduling flexibility’ (34%) to attract and retain employees today

The truth is, it doesn’t really matter what skills agents have because if they aren’t engaged, those skills quickly disappear.

Source: Calabrio


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