Contact Center Jobs: Have They Evolved as Businesses Adopt Omnichannel CS?

From phone support to chat, AI and more, agents are expected to know it all



Kindra Cooper
11/05/2018

Contact center jobs

As contact centers evolve to offer omnichannel customer service, the typical customer service role has undergone a tectonic shift. So, too, has the practice of hiring, training and managing agents.

While the prevailing debate in pop culture is which jobs will be supplanted by AI and bots, in the world of customer service it’s more a question of how to optimize bots to scale CS efforts for businesses while improving job satisfaction for agents. In fact, state-of-the-art contact centers are experimenting with ways to deliver top-tier CX by assigning human agents to work in tandem with automated processes like interactive voice recognition.

Intriguingly, the rise of automated CS is concurrent with an industry-wide hunger to build more “human-centric” relationships with customers - two movements that seem contradictory at face value but make perfect sense in the context of predictive and proactive customer service.

Contact centers versus relationship centers

“While technology is a critical piece of the customer experience, it’s funny that the disruption today is good old-fashioned relationships,” says John DiJulius, founder of CX consultancy The DiJulius Group. Consequently, today’s contact center jobs are less rote-based than the CS departments of yesteryear, where a surly agent regurgitates a script in a monotone or selects from a library of canned phrases when responding to an email support ticket.

A glance at contact center job openings shows that job ad copy (and hourly wages) hasn’t changed much, but companies - especially those in retail - demand agents that can administer customer support on multiple channels, including phone, email, chat and even social media.

DiJulius sees it as a positive development for agent engagement, and a potential antidote to notoriously high call center turnover rates of 30-45 percent per year. “Probably 70 percent of our clients have people handling different channels and rotating between them so it doesn’t get too monotonous,” says DiJulius, whose past clients have included The Ritz-Carlton, Lexus, Starbucks and Nestle.

Identifying agents with omnichannel potential

With omnichannel being so new, hiring managers are still experimenting through trial-and-error to glean best practices for selecting and hiring agents in line with what the market demands.

The tendency is to favor veteran agents with years or even decades of experience in customer service without digging deeper to assess whether the agent’s work history consists mostly of phone-based support with limited exposure to chatbots, if it was a technical troubleshooting, administrative or sales role, and what metrics or KPIs the agent was rated on.

Steven Lindner, Executive Partner at the Workplace Group, a New Jersey-based recruitment outsourcer specializing in contact center agents, thinks that hiring managers are not only skating over these granularities, but ignoring the fact that communicating with customers on various channels requires differentiated skills in writing and speaking. Chat, for instance, has its own stylistic methods, with companies like Capital One using emojis and colloquialisms to appear friendlier in its mobile app, called Eno.

“Experience has value but you have to judge where the experience has been,” Lindner says. “All of these multi-channels are not a standard that’s been in place for 20 years.” He cites one incident when a major client transitioned its rockstar phone support agents into chat-based roles, and one careless agent wrote in a chat with a customer: “I’m sorry our product ruined your shirt,” but left out the ‘r.’

Agent training and digital transformation

Lindner thinks that better agent training infrastructure is needed before organizations can declare themselves truly omnichannel, and that companies should be “looking to hire people based on the aptitude that they have to develop those skills within a reasonable period rather than solely choosing based on the number of years of experience.”

Organizations emerging fresh from a digital transformation might need to invest in training incumbents as well as new hires. Given the increased sophistication of self-service tools, customers are coming to agents with more complex questions and problems that skew towards troubleshooting over simple FAQs or account inquiries. Analysts predict that while the volume of phone calls will drop, the complexity of the interactions will increase.

Phone-based support is becoming a coveted rarity, with tech giants like Dropbox electing not to offer phone support and JetBlue founder David Neeleman bragging that his fully app-serviced airline launching in 2021 won’t have a customer service helpline. Lindner says it raises the stakes for phone support agents to leverage this touchpoint.

“It’s a luxury in life now to talk to live people, so when you have a live communication with a customer you want it to be positive, you want it to to be meaningful and useful.”

Dijulius agrees that while recruitment and on-the-job training are both important, hiring outcomes are more influenced by top-notch training. His favorite quote from Disney is: “We don’t put people in Disney. We put Disney in people.” “The Ritz Carlton and American Express aren’t paying better than their competition,” he says, “but the training that they give [their employees] blows their competition away. “

The omnichannel agent versus the elite agent

Given the much-publicized fiascos of offshoring call centers in low-wage markets where foreign agents are assigned Westernized names like “John” or “Barbara,” companies have brought their contact centers back home and begun investing in “elite” call center agents.

These better-paid, highly-trained employees have an excellent command of the English language and skills in upselling and cross-selling. Some companies are even hiring “super agents” who can handle all of a customer’s queries without routing them to other departments.

While it’s part of a larger economic trend of US corporations onshoring formerly outsourced operations, it’s also an effort to mitigate the “churn-and-burn” culture at most contact centers. Key to retaining an elite agent is providing a competitive salary and benefits, says Lindner, quite extraordinary for a role once considered “low-skilled” labor. “I think employers have to really prioritize health and retirement first and then all other benefits they can provide second.” He added that flexible, self-determined work schedules are also a key draw for a workforce increasingly attuned to work/life balance. Opportunities to work remotely are also highly prized - and becoming more mainstream.

eBay, for example, recently launched eBay@Home, the company’s first formal work from home program to create 300 remote agent positions across the country. Meanwhile, the airline industry’s customer service job market is a boon to stay-at-home moms looking to make extra cash on the side.

There’s no conclusive data on contact center jobs to indicate whether the majority of them are channel-specific or require agents to be a jack-of-all-trades, but the omnichannel agent is expected not only to be cross-channel literate but have the ability to handle service, tech support, sales and sometimes even winback and retention.

Most ads on job boards like Indeed.com and even industry-specific ones like CallCenterJobs.com that directly reference “omnichannel” in the title or job description tend to be managerial or strategic, further corroborating that omnichannel as a practice is still very new to most organizations.

To learn more about how to recruit, hire and train remote agents, you can access our Special Report: Remote Agents here.