As technology advances, could contact center agents be replaced by robots?

That’s a question some outsourcers in India and the Philippines are asking themselves as automation continues to have a major impact on the contact center industry.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, robots are already starting to replace agents on some low-end tasks. And as technology improves, more and more of the Philippines’ 1.2 million call center workers are likely to have their outsourcing jobs outsourced to customer service robots.

Though these robots aren’t yet smart enough to replace human contact center agents with advanced tasks like fielding complex customer calls, they can already handle many simpler tasks – and they’re getting “smarter” every day.

What does this increase in automation mean for the future of contact center agents? How can agents stay at the forefront? Will agents ever really be replaced by robots?

The first wave of automation in the contact center – technology like online self- service options and IVRs – has already dramatically reduced call volume. What remains is the most difficult customer calls.

As a result, agents are becoming more skilled at handling these complex customer inquiries and focusing on providing an exceptional customer experience that will differentiate them from the competition.

The second wave of automation will be driven through artificial intelligence in the form of automated chat – or “chat bots,” as they are called – and eventually simulated human voice automation.

The change, however, will likely be gradual.

Take the emergence of online chat in the contact center, for example: Some voice agents have been replaced by agents who can handle online chat. As a result, contact centers have begun to build their internal chat groups and move more volume from voice to chat.

The next phase will be the automation of some of that chat volume so that a smaller group of agents can handle more chats at one time. After that, the next phase will be customers handling more of their inquiries themselves online.

According to a recent Gartner study, by 2020, 85% of customer interactions will be handled by customers themselves.

As a result, employers will begin redirecting agents to be able to handle more skilled work. Rather than reactively helping customers when they have a problem, for example, agents will be able to more proactively manage their relationships with customers.

By becoming more consultative, agents will be able to provide a higher level of customer service, which will ultimately improve the customer experience and overall customer loyalty.

The bottom line is this: automation will increase, but this automation should be viewed as an opportunity for agents – not a threat. There will always be a demand for agents who can add value and handle more varied tasks.

Rather than fear automation, companies should continue to invest in the development of their contact center agents, who are their frontline workforce.

The contact center agent of the future will be more skilled and able to handle more sophisticated and varied tasks. Find time to develop your agents so that you can help your workforce evolve into the workforce you will need five to ten years from now – not just the workforce you need now.

And as this workforce evolves, a workforce management system will also be required to orchestrate and organize the flow of agents across many types of tasks. More varied responsibilities will require a more varied schedule.

The key to success will be managing a smaller, more sophisticated workforce across a wider range of activities without losing the efficiencies that have evolved through managing a larger team.