Everyone reading this article has one thing in common – in the not-so-distant future they will phone a call centre. It is unlikely to be a joyous experience, so news from a BBC study with Oxford University and Deloitte that call centre workers will be replaced by robots by 2036 may be received with enthusiasm.

That means no more infuriating hold music, no more option menu mazes, and no more irritable agents telling us ‘the computer says no’.

Soon, we’ll be able to skip the human and get straight to the computer itself.

The idea sounds trivial, but it tells us something about the perception of the contact centre industry. The thinking behind the study is that professions with a perceived low degree of human interaction and empathy are most likely to be replaced by robots. But for the contact centre – an entity that exists to help people – this doesn’t quite add up.

This year, many contact centre professionals have been engaged in conversations about a ‘digital transformation’. Businesses are set to roll out strategies over the next two years to achieve it. For customers, this spells a shift in how we connect with companies in the future.

Digital contact channels have grown rapidly this year. WhatsApp reached 1 billion monthly users in 2016, making it one of the fastest growing social apps. Businesses are beginning to harness the popularity and reach of apps, enticed by the potential to divert traffic away from the phone.


But should businesses lose their voice?

Most UK customers will complain to a company directly after a negative experience (51%). Over a third of us still prefer to call a company when there is an issue (37%), making telephone a more popular means of contact than all the digital channels combined.

But the gap is much narrower among younger, more digitally-inclined consumers. Businesses need to invest in digital channels to keep pace with this group. Compared to over 45s, who are twice as likely to pick up the phone than use a digital channel to contact an organisation, under 35s are more versatile, with digital not far behind telephone as the channel preference.


We think businesses should go about their digital transformation in terms of reducing the hassle, not the human.

Well signposted digital channels will enable customers to self-serve when they want to connect with a company quickly and easily. But this does not mean reducing the capacity of human connections. It means linking digital touchpoints with voice to create a seamless customer experience however the customer chooses to connect.

There is no point in trying to ‘digitally transform’ a business if it is not going to increase engagement or build better relations with customers in the long term.

With simple tasks automated or handled via digital channels, contact centres now have more time and capacity to do the tasks a computer cannot – those that require the human touch.

Rather than focusing on average call handling time or first time resolution, contact centres should be able to focus on delivering a better experience and bringing emotional intelligence and understanding to the operation. Without the robotic tasks, contact centre agents can take the time where it really matters – listening to and reassuring someone who has been a victim of identity fraud; talking through the process of claiming the life insurance policy of a recently deceased loved one; or sensitively resolving an issue with a faulty product.

Empowering the call centre staff to take ownership of a customer’s issue, and to demonstrate empathy when the issue is more complex, utilises their most unique and important asset; their humanness. Something robots cannot offer – for now at least!