Call centers look to future as technology forces change

April 29, 2019

Joel Sylvester is a self-described call center nerd.

“I’ve seen it all,” he said of his 22-year career in the industry. “And it’s been interesting to see how it has evolved.”

Two decades ago, call centers were aptly named. It took a phone call to resolve most customer issues, from card balances to determining a model number.

Joel Sylvester, left, and Troy Holt at Five Star Call Centers

“Now, it’s shifting,” said Sylvester, the chief marketing officer for Five Star Call Centers. “Now, about 80 percent of problems you can self-serve in a variety of ways, whether it’s YouTube for tech support or a website for orders.”

Technology, workforce challenges and bottom-line oriented companies have combined to force change on an industry responsible for thousands of jobs in Sioux Falls.

And while industry experts aren’t predicting traditional call centers will go away, their functions are evolving along with the skills workers need to be successful there.

Don’t call them call centers

The biggest change Sylvester sees at Five Star, which has centers in four cities, is that calling it a call center has become a misnomer.

“It truly is a contact center,” he said. “People still call them call centers and probably will forever, but I have clients in the tech space that today are doing 25 percent of their customer service through social media, and they believe by 2020 it will be over half. That’s definitely something that’s coming.”

Younger consumers expect brands of all sizes to be responsive on Facebook, Instagram and other social platforms, he said.

“There’s no question people are already starting to expect service via social, and it’s only going to grow.”

For consumers to actually pick up a phone, complex questions likely are involved, he said.

“The easy questions are taken care of by a website or robo agent, but you still have people needed — those super agents as they’re called in the industry. They’re agents that have to go above and beyond to help you fix complex problems.”

His business, which has 300 agents in Sioux Falls, has seen businesses in a variety of industries tap call centers for more efficient customer service.

“Pizza places, oil change places, beauty salons,” he said. “In the old days, you’d get your haircut and the phone would ring and the person would put the scissors down and make the appointment. You don’t have to be at a hotel or hospital or restaurant to serve that person. With technology, you can be at a fast-food restaurant drive-thru and you might not be talking to someone on site.”

Instead, a customer contact center can be staffed at any hour to service the drive-thru and easily backfill a role if an employee calls in sick, for instance.

“And we’re seeing it’s such a widespread thing, you can work in a call center at 16 or 80, and with a lot of retirees entering the workforce, they don’t want a strenuous job but a call center is perfect.”

Building for the future 

One decade ago, Premier Bankcard had almost 3,000 employees in South Dakota. Today, there are just under 2,000.

The number of accounts hasn’t changed. What has is the company’s leveraging of technology.

“We really looked at automation and a voice response unit,” CEO Miles Beacom said. “Ten years ago, that was answering about 76 percent of our calls, and we analyzed it to see how it can be better performing, and today we’re at 84 percent of calls.”

When you consider the organization receives 3.3 million calls each month, that percentage reduction equates to more than a half-million calls each month handled by automation instead of by an employee.

“We’ve been able to reduce staff in our phone area by more than 200 people,” Beacom said.

Premier also is transitioning customers to e-statements and now mails 3 million to 5 million credit card applications annually instead of 15 million to 18 million as more people complete applications digitally.

“Then we don’t have to do data entry,” Beacom said. “We had a hundred people in data entry for credit, and today we’re down to 24 people doing data entry and additional reviews of credit.”

Like at Five Star, the skills required for the positions that remain are more sophisticated.

“Training is extended, monitoring has increased, because the people just have to know more,” Beacom said. “The easy calls are going to the web or the voice response unit. Handle time has increased, and we’ve looked at what else we need to do for training to give our people tools and what we need in our systems so as things pop up they’re readily available for our customer service reps.”

The company constantly attends conferences “to make sure we’re aware of the hottest items out there in technology, so we can look at them, and they will continue to be very important for our growth into the future.”

Premier is in the early stages of looking at texting and emailing for customer service, he said.

“People are just really mobile, and if we can text them to call us or remind them to make a payment, everyone is getting text and email at their fingertips, so we think that could really streamline our collection process as well.”

At NCB Management Services, which has been in the city for 10 years, the business has diversified to include traditional collections work under its own business name as well as accounts receivable management for fintech companies and a division that purchases and services distressed debt.

“It is a customer contact center, which is a play on words, but it is a little more descriptive of what we actually do,” said Brad Berens, executive vice president of operations.

“Primarily in Sioux Falls, we’re a call-to-collect or a call-to-contact entity, but we are realizing as our clients are that (going forward) there’s a lot more focus on email, on text messaging and things like that, including social media. How people get their information has changed drastically in the last 10 years.”

The company at 2517 E. 54th St. N. has 140 employees and recently took over 11,000 square feet in a building shared with Cigna.

“For experienced people, we’ve hired up to 20 in a given month,” Berens said. “We have the space and the work. Our biggest challenge, hands down, has been recruiting and retaining talent.”

The company also is an ESOP and offers nine health plan options plus a college tuition reimbursement rider on its dental plan. It has started posting in Facebook groups to try to attract potential workers.

While much of the work is still done over the phone, “we’re emailing pretty heavily on the business we own, and we do see positive results with that,” he said. “I think at the end of the day it’s going to come down to our ability to identify the person who will respond better to an email or text than they would with a phone call. There’s also a population of people who would rather do business over the phone, and we’re here to service those people.”

Projections

At the DiJulius Group in Cleveland, there’s plenty of talk about the future of the call center industry. The consulting firm works with business clients in the field to help them optimize their operations.

“There’s a lot of talk about automation and chatting and AI, and I think all those things are very, very important to the future,” customer experience consultant Dave Murray said. “People do want the option for self-service. They do want to be able to go somewhere and find their own answers.”

That does not mean the human element is leaving the call center, though, he said. But it does mean the people who remain will find their roles have changed.

“A lot of what we talk about with our client base is how can you have your teams be less transactional and more interactional,” he said. “A lot of that is focused on them having empathy and being there to help the customer. It’s focusing on things like listening and building relationships. That’s where our industry is headed right now.”

Companies are so focused on the experience customers have once they do pick up a phone and call, that they are beginning to bring overseas jobs back to the U.S. “because they want to control the experience,” Murray said. “Regardless of what happens with technology, being able to control your experience, I think, is going to be really important to the future of call centers.”

Call center staff also are beginning to blend sales with service, he added.

“Maybe you’re not a traditional salesperson, but we’re all selling the organization, and on the service side it’s … communicating resources and options to the customer. Sometimes that’s going to lead to an upsell or sale and sometimes it’s not, but I see that happening more.”

On the nonhuman side, most major organizations are using, experimenting with or considering some form of automated customer service.

Often, it takes the form of “chatbots,” a computerized responder designed to mimic conversation with a human online.

“There’s been an overwhelming amount of hype in the chatbot AI ecosystem,” said Chad Oda, a chatbot and voice strategist with Engage Youth Co., a California-based full-service insight and marketing agency with a focus on teens and young adults.

“People were expecting chatbots and AI as the same thing. They were expecting to talk to KITT from ‘Knight Rider’ or the computer from ‘Star Trek.’ But do we get mad when our washing machine can’t walk the dog and do our taxes? No, it’s useful, but it’s a specific use, and that’s the same with chatbots today. It can’t have conversations on the weather or computational physics, but it can look up an ID card or get information from a prospective customer, and those things are very successful today and working quite well.”

Chatbots are being used to augment customer service that’s already being offered especially for routine issues, as well as in marketing and on platforms such as Facebook Messenger where they’re used to answer basic questions before escalating them to humans when needed.

“We’re not seeing call centers disappear,” Oda said. “If you talk to anyone in the space, that’s their sentiment as well. Humans are still going to be in the loop for the foreseeable future.”

Call centers look to future as technology forces change

From AI to chatbots, onshoring to hiring, we look at the future of call centers: an industry responsible for thousands of jobs in Sioux Falls.

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