Jonathan Brill on Call Center Struggles, Strategies of 2022

CX Decoded caught up with Jonathan Brill to discuss call center challenges and strategies for success.

View all the CX Decoded podcast episodes.

Want some sobering statistics for your call center? Customer service representatives between ages 20 and 34 stay on the job for an average of just over one year, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Further, the average call center turnover rate is as high as 45% — and that’s at least twice the average turnover in other departments, according to the numbers.

Call centers are going through a revolution, however. Tools like AI and predictive analytics are driving automation and cost reduction. Are these innovations enough to save the call center and improve retention?

Jonathan Brill, HP’s former global futurist and author of “Rogue Wave,” helped us try to crack the retention conundrum while also discussing call center innovations now and what the future looks like.

We caught up with Brill for our latest CX Decoded Podcast.

Episode Transcript

Note: This transcript is edited for length and clarity.

Rich Hein: Hello everyone, it’s great to be here today. I’m joined by my co-host, CMSWire Managing Editor Dom Nicastro.

Hi, Dom, welcome back for another round of CX Decoded.

Dom Nicastro: I am glad to be here again, Rich, how’s it going with you?

Rich: Going great. We’ve got a great guest today, Dom, let’s get right into it.

Dom: What I love about this guest Rich, it’s like a family over here at Simpler Media Group and CMSWire; he was a presenter at our DX Summit earlier this year, our virtual conference series on customer experience. And he’s with us today on CX Decoded. So a little crossover action.

Jonathan Brill, he’s HP’s former global futurist and author of “Rogue Wave.” So he’s here to help us chat about moving the very, very vital call center to more than just a cost center and kind of putting that into profit center territory, and how we get that done and all the in-betweens.

Jonathan, welcome to CX Decoded my friend.

Jonathan Brill: Thanks, Dom. Thanks, Rich. It’s amazing to be here again.

Rich: Yeah, it is great to have you with us, Jonathan, as Dom mentioned, you were at our last DX Summit, I was lucky enough to interview you before your DX summit keynote. And I immediately thought that, you know, you’d have a lot to share with our audience.

I think to get started, we’d love to get some background on you like your current role, how you got there, and what you’re passionate about on the business and personal level.

Jonathan: Sounds awesome. So I spend a lot of time helping companies figure out how to take advantage of the future, how to take advantage of radical change. So I do a lot of strategic planning. I do a lot of work with companies that are trying to re-architect themselves go through some type of transformation and make sure that as they optimize, that they’re preparing themselves for the future, instead of cutting it off.

I spent a number of years as the global futurist, director of long-term planning and strategy at HP, the massive computer company, where we went through a major re-architecture of the whole organization, but particularly we looked at customer support, and we looked at the call center.

In terms of my personal life, and what’s exciting to me, I spend a lot of time helping people helping organizations, helping communities, figure out how to better connect and find more serendipity in their lives. I run a group called the Serendipity Institute that does that kind of thing at conferences around the world.

Dom: Global futurist Jonathan, how do you explain that to the elderly relatives at a holiday party? Yeah, what are you again, Jonathan, you’re a globe, I don’t know why they have a Boston accent, that’s just me, that’s my family. I’ll just do it anyway, what what’s a global what?

What’s a Global Futurist?

Jonathan: At the end of the day, you know, I don’t know really how I got this job title. I was brought in to help this company, HP, figure out what their longer term strategy would be primarily around technology. And I got my business card and said futurist on it. And so that’s kind of how I became a futurist.

But I spent 20 years running contract R&D firms and helping companies figure out how to build their next big thing. In terms of what they do. It’s not really so much about the future is helping companies figure out how to make better decisions today, based on the range of possible futures, based on what they know could happen next, and making sure that every time that we make a strategic decision, when you can’t walk back, that we’re making a decision that increases our optionality and our potential, no matter what happens next.

Dom: I’m more of a global presentist. I like to focus on the present, I get stressed out when they asked me to, you know, plan the editorial calendar six months in advance, I’m like, what do you I don’t know, I don’t know what’s happened in six months. I’ll tell you tomorrow, what’s going on?

Jonathan: I totally get it. And with highly operational people, highly operational teams, one of the things they really like to do is start off by saying, OK, well, let’s take a look at your 18-month, plan your 36-month plan, and ask, instead of what happens in the future, what’s happened in the past.

If you believe that the world moves faster today than it did in 1900. You know, if we’re looking at a three-year plan, I might say, hey, let’s look at five or 10 years of what happened between 1900 and 1905 or 1900 and 1910. Because in that period, for instance, a major growing power took over a Pacific island chain that was the United States. We took over Hawaii, the Philippines, and much of the chain around the South China Sea. Changed the geopolitics of the region, we invented air conditioning, we invented antibiotics, we invented the airplane. This is the scale of change that can happen 100 years ago, in 10 years.

Today, if you believe that the world is far more compressed, right, are you ready for that level of shift? And so what I often do is I’ll walk organizations through the world of 1900s, 1910. Or if you don’t believe that’s relevant, what about making 1930 to 1940? Or 1970 to 1980? is like really relevant right now to what we’re seeing.

Related Article: 5 Ways to Keep CX at the Middle of Digital Transformation

Are You Ready for The Scale of Change in Call Centers?

And ask, are you ready for that? Are you ready for that scale of change, whether it’s legal change, when you take a look at all the stuff coming out in Supreme Court right now, and there’s going to be a lot of stuff about privacy rights that comes out of it over the next couple of years in states rights and federal control over trade, that’s going to have a massive impact on call center. In terms of technological change, right? What what is the impact of accelerated computing?

So Rich, and I were talking at DX Summit about quantum computing, and what’s the impact of that, but even even without that, that there’s new types of computers being built, one of them called the good computer, that will radically increase radically accelerate the scale of large foundation AI. So you’re going to see if you haven’t seen it, over the last couple of months, you’re going to see a lot of this new tools like DALL·E, like Midjourney, that are creating synthetic art, or inventing new art for magazine covers that this week’s economist was created by  DALL·E, simply by asking it some questions, and then it created this amazing set of illustrations.

When we think about the call center, right, those types of things are going to move into the call center incredibly quickly as well. It’s not just chatbots that are doing level one and level two call center work, like we’re gonna really rapidly see them doing things that skilled analysts are incapable of doing. And I think that’s going to be a radical change in terms of how we think about customer service, how we think about the call center.

And then the last piece, so we talked about social change, we talked about technological change, the last piece is about economic change. You know, as we start to see inflation, uh, hopefully slow down, but continue for a bit. As we start to see demographic shifts pushing where our call center operators are available around the world, we start to see limitations on access to more skilled labor. Because we don’t have enough college graduates to go around, we’re gonna see massive changes in the labor force in the call center.

And as those three things collide, our social changes, our economic changes, our technological changes, just like they did in 1900, and just like they did in 1970, we’re going to be operating in a different world than we do today. And yet, we plan for the future like it will be in our own personal experience and our professional experience. The problem with that is that when you take a look at the scope of history, and the scope of what can change, our experience is not a statistically relevant set. And so we need to look at history, and we need to look at that bigger picture of what’s possible, so that we know what to plan for, even if we can’t completely comprehend.

Think about COVID, for instance, this is, this is a thing we’ve been through before we’ve been through before in this country, we’ve been through before in the 20th century, and yet no one really understood, very few people really understood, the downstream implications of what would happen next. And when COVID hit, people thought, hey, you know, we’ll get through this, and then we’ll deal with the next thing, guess what COVID is still going on. We’re seeing this inflationary pressure. We’re seeing geopolitical shifts, we’re seeing the rise of China, we’re seeing energy shocks, the future doesn’t wait for one disruption to end for the next one to start.

And that’s what my book Rogue Waves is really about. It’s about how do you plan assuming that multiple individually manageable waves of Change will collide? How do you take advantage of that as a manager, specifically in a field in a business function that’s going through radical social, economic and technological change?

Dom: So Jonathan, is that the answer you give to the elderly relatives? That whole answer just now.

Jonathan: The first thing I hear when I give a presentation is that ops person, that project manager, is you can’t predict the future. And so the the answer to that is, well, do you believe you can predict the past? And are you ready for that?

The Big Picture: Disruptions, Technology and Change in the Call Center

Rich: To your point, there are many cutting edge technologies happening in the call center. I mean, you got conversational AI, you got predictive analytics. And there’s a lot at stake here. And these organizations, at least from their perspective, and I kind of get it, they can’t prepare for every disruption. So they start I think they start focusing on which one should we prepare for, but I don’t think that that’s what your message is, is it?

Related Article: Call Center Technology Trends for 2022

Jonathan: It’s not, the reality is that there are more disruptions than we can imagine or prepare for, right, a meteor could hit the earth tomorrow. But it’s going to have a limited number of impacts on your organization, it’s going to impact one or more of the major buckets of risk that organizations face, financial risk, operational risk, external risk or strategic risk, that demand profile and demand forecasts will be off, for the world will change.

My point is that no matter what you’re looking at, it’s going to impact some combination of those four buckets. And if you look at enough of these different scenarios of what could change. What you’ll discover is that there’s a limited shape of risk for your organization, you’ll consistently have issues with your inputs, right? Or you might consistently have issues with specific markets that you’re in or going into, you might have specific issues with your supply chain, or with the cost of capital, there will be consistent challenges.

My point is, when you start looking at that bigger picture of what could change, you start drilling down into what I call the four FOES, finances, operations external and strategic change, what you discover is that there are really that limited number of risks that you’ll face. And that allows you to focus where the highest value innovation is likely to occur. Because what happens in mature companies or mature industries, is that you fight, typically, back and forth for you know, a couple of percentage points with your competitors, when things are good. But when things are bad, something very different happens. On average, companies that plan for the longer term plan for disruption, they tend to do about 39% better, they come out of the troughs of financial downturns about 39% faster, and they capture that growth during the downturn. And then they sustain it over time afterward. And that’s why when you look over a 15-year period across sectors, you see about 82% higher economic profits over time of these companies that plan for the long-term that think, like I’m suggesting that you should think, because I believe that we’re gonna see more disruption over the next decade than we did in the last one.

All of the indicators are there, whether it’s climate, whether it’s geopolitics, whether it’s monetary, fiscal policy, whether it’s illegal shifts and legal doctrine in the United States, we’re gonna see a lot more disruption than we have in the past. At the same time, we’re seeing that demographics are flipping around the world, that the population is getting older. And that means it’s going to be harder to drive new consumer growth is that the need for consumption, the need for jeans, education, first houses, all of those things decreases, it gets really hard for economies to grow. And so we’re gonna see slowing structural growth, unless there’s a major technology shift over the next decade that changes everything.

Dom: Yeah, and those, the call centers. So we’re here in summer 2022, and this all kind of went down early 2020. As we know, Jonathan, what would you describe are the major changes, transformations that the call center went through? Like, you know, what are some of the challenges now, say, are some of the success stories now, if you will, you know, versus pre-COVID?

Jonathan: So I think a lot of things have happened in the call center, obviously, the move away from onsite to offsite, the spreading of geographies in which you can hire call center operators is a result.

We’ve seen the massive growth of artificial intelligence and automation digital systems, in call centers. The companies that were ready for this, many companies were planning for these kinds of things, they just thought it would happen in five years instead of, you know, on Tuesday.

But fortunately, so many of us were ready to be there and to take advantage of, of this moment. But after two years of this, what we’re discovering is that there are massive cultural issues as well. If you have a call center with really high employee churn, if people aren’t together, camaraderie, morale is incredibly difficult. And so you may have more retention issues than you did before.

And so we have to find new value propositions for employees. And we need to find new ways of bringing people together so that there’s a joy in being in your organization. And some of what’s happened, some of what’s possible is what companies like JetBlue figured out 20, 25 years ago, which is you can find people who wouldn’t be able to work otherwise, for whom working for you is a huge benefit. So they went after the Mormon community in Utah, a community that’s incredibly friendly, incredibly educated, and women were able to work from home. And so they have this massive base of call center operators who are incredibly loyal.

And so I think my point is that the smart organizations will figure out how to build communities that wouldn’t be able to have the same amount of joy the same amount of pleasure or economic opportunity otherwise, by simply shifting and looking in new places for the type of skills that they want, that they need in their call centers.

Call Center Retention and Culture

Rich: So I just wanted to go back to something you said just a moment ago, you were talking about retention issues as a remote call center employee having to work remotely as opposed to being in a room with a team. Is that something that you’re actually seeing in organizations, is that anecdotal or, just curious to know if that’s something that’s actually going on? Because I had not heard that, but it makes sense to me, obviously.

Related Article: 6 Strategies for an Effective Call Center Culture

Jonathan: I can’t say specifically about call center. What we’re seeing across industry, is that there’s a desire to move into new roles to move into new companies, all the way up and down the organizational stack. And that’s not specific to this function, or to a specific industry, it’s a result of, it’s a result of COVID, it’s a result of being separated, it’s a result of the time we spend at the watercooler going away. You know, the same friendships, the same community doesn’t happen on Zoom.

Rich: So I totally get that. But just from my perspective, I’ve worked remotely for 25 years. So it’s like second nature to me, but I totally get it if I was in an office and then all sudden, I didn’t have those people that I talked to every day, that would totally impact my life.

Dom: Yeah, Rich, you don’t even talk to me when I see you in person. You’re just a homebody?

Rich: No, I don’t.

Jonathan: What we’re just discovering is Rich is totally antisocial, right?

Dom: That’s the takeaway from the podcast. Yep.

Rich: That is that is the takeaway, yes.

Dom: But Jonathan, you know, I went to the Forrester CX North America event that was in June in Nashville, and they were so as my first conference in like, 942 days, it was wonderful to be out. These VP of customer experience, people these calls, they are so focused on the call center.

And all my conversations went back to the call center, and how what’s on their mind is not only customer data, analytics, customer experiences, loyalty, obviously, important, check, check, check. But what’s really important to them is keeping those agents happy. That’s the conversations I was having out there. It was across the board. I’m not even kidding.

Jonathan: There are two things we need to be thinking about in the call center right now. One, is that right? How do we maintain retention? How do we keep people happy.

The second is, we’re going through a massive digital transformation over the next couple of years in the call center, it will only accelerate. And so as call center managers, we’re gonna see a lot of pressure to cost reduce, we’re gonna see a lot of pressure to offload staff.

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