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Guest Blog: “Zhuzhing Up” Humans in the Contact Center

This week we feature an article by Chris Connolly that discusses how assistive AI blends with human-only qualities to create a new category of “superagents.” Technology replacing humans. That’s what we all fear. Yet bank employees did not disappear with the advent of the ATM. Airline agents are still at check-in counters to guide passengers […]

This week we feature an article by Chris Connolly that discusses how assistive AI blends with human-only qualities to create a new category of “superagents.”

Technology replacing humans. That’s what we all fear. Yet bank employees did not disappear with the advent of the ATM. Airline agents are still at check-in counters to guide passengers after self-service kiosks and to arrange complicated ticketing. Their roles have evolved, with the human performing critical value-added functions and machines handling rote tasks.

While machines are becoming more intelligent, humans aren’t moving out of the picture yet. It’s true that in China, in a case of life imitating art, state-run television is testing the world’s first AI news anchors more than 30 years after the Max Headroom television satire. But a much-ballyhooed automated hotel in Japan recently added more humans and scaled back on its droids due to inefficiency and cost-effectiveness, as did a grocery store which also had to deal with the “creepiness” effect.

In general, technology is augmenting —not replacing — the employee. In its recent jobs report, the World Economic Forum highlighted a curious feature of the revolution in artificial intelligence (AI) already underway in the tech-enabled workplace. Researchers predict that machines will perform more than half of current workplace tasks by 2025, up from 29 percent today. And yet, a net gain in human jobs is also expected. Why? Because of that word “current.” The World Bank finds in its 2019 examination of the workforce that while technology is indeed changing how people work, it’s also creating new opportunities.

As futurist Byron Reese points out, “Technology is really good about creating new good high-paying jobs, and it, in turn, destroys low-paying, lower-skilled jobs … the question to ask is not whether the people whose jobs are replaced by automation can do the new jobs. The question is, can everybody do a job a little bit harder than the one they’re doing now?” With the right training, they can, and the humans will continue to do the jobs that AI isn’t ready to handle.

Fewer phone calls, but more complex conversations

In the contact center industry, for example, there are fewer phone conversations going into customer support centers than in the past. Dimension Data research says that 56 percent of businesses expect transactions via telephone to fall over the next two years. But the phone conversations that are handled by human agents are generally becoming longer and more complicated as simpler inquiries are handled through self-service options.

Gartner estimates that by 2021, 15 percent of all customer service interactions will be completely handled by AI, an increase of 400 percent from 2017. As Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian said in a recent interview with NBC News: “We’re at a turning point now with the technology where automatable jobs are routine work, work that software could do better, cheaper and faster. … It’s going to be imperative that people are investing in skills that are non-routine skills … They are the jobs that AI won’t be able to do.”

In this world of increasing self-service interactions, the moments when a customer connects to a support agent are becoming less frequent. The calls that do go through to the contact center agent are for more critical interactions — involving complexities, emotions or higher values. This gives employees the opportunity to make a greater impact on the resolution to the issue, and on the overall customer experience. It’s, therefore, crucial to get exactly right these rare moments that offer the opportunity to nurture the relationship with the customer.

Faster than … more powerful than … it’s Superagent!

Companies are already augmenting contact center employee capabilities with new AI tools that free them from monotonous tasks and offer more power to resolve issues. These assistive technologies provide employees with hints, prompts, tips and even personalized promotions based on real-time, dynamic interpretation of what the customer needs or would find appealing.

As Bain & Company recently noted, AI-powered predictive technologies that can better match customer queries with employee skills will be able to “reduce costs, increase sales and saves, raise the level of customer advocacy, create more satisfying jobs, and keep talented agents engaged with the tasks where they are most proficient.” The next generation of AI-based tools will enable employees with near super-human capabilities to read customers’ linguistic and emotional cues, analyze interaction behavior, and predict their choices.

Feelings … nothing more than feelings

But these “superagents” of tomorrow will require a different combination of skills than those of today. Even as repetitive and trivial tasks are more frequently handled by bots, the need for empathy, intuition, common sense and problem-solving skills remain. There are times when consumers need to talk to a real person for reassurance, or for interactions requiring instinct, nuance and flexibility as part of the issues resolution process.

The research field called “emotional AI” or “affective computing” is not new, but is picking up steam today as part of a broader shift in expanding Natural Language Processing (NLP) to understand what humans mean to say and the emotion behind their words. But there remains an emotional intelligence divide between robots and humans as there is yet to be an AI able to effectively quantify human feelings and moods into unique data points or profiles. This lack of emotional intelligence is why AI-powered solutions can prove frustrating or even Big Brother-esque to customers at times, and why AI cannot completely replace humans.

New opportunities will continue to emerge where humans must step in to resolve the situations that bots cannot. The superagent of the future contact center will be a strong listener with the ability to understand the psychology of good customer experience. A superagent will be a fast consumer of data and information, making them contextually aware of customer situations — and never needing to rely on a prepackaged script. The superagent can easily shift between channels such as video, voice and text to make each interaction sound authentic and personal.

But a contact center employee won’t become a superagent organically. Employers and technology providers have a responsibility to make the adoption of new systems as easy as possible. The annual Forrester predictions guide points out that savvy companies will make joint investments in training as well as new technology to ensure employees are educated on “how expectations, skill sets and experiences will evolve” as AI makes greater in-roads in the workplace. The World Economic Forum’s 2019 report on job reskilling finds that it will be possible to transition as many as 95 percent of at-risk workers into positions that have similar skills and higher wages, although to achieve that level will be costly and require public-sector involvement.

Not going away

In the 2013 movie Her, the teaming of bots and humans led to an entirely new connotation for the term “work spouse.” In short, tomorrow’s superagent will be able to respond to both functional AND emotional customer needs while seamlessly collaborating with their machine-enabled co-workers.

Accountants today couldn’t imagine performing their job without some form of the calculator. In fact, who would trust an accountant who did not use a machine to supplement their skills? In that same vein, the day will quickly arrive when no contact center agent will be able to deliver an exceptional customer experience without an AI-enabled counterpart. How could Will Robinson have survived the dangers of space without his robot sidekick?

Christopher Connolly is the vice president of solution strategy for Genesys. He is based in the company’s regional offices in the Raleigh-Durham area and can be reached at or on Twitter at @ConnotronNY.

For more articles from Shep Hyken and his guest contributors go to

Read Shep’s latest Forbes article: Five Ways To Motivate Your Customer Service Team

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