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From spreadsheets to AI: A look at the future (and past) of customer service

From spreadsheets to AI: A look at the future (and past) of customer service

Customer experience is a one-to-one conversation, but the DNA of these discussions has changed. The prevalence of self-service capabilities, AI, and digital channels is rewriting how customers tackle everyday issues, and contact centers are evolving to match these expectations.

TTEC’s Mary Nelson sat down with Sharon Jones, the Senior Director of Workforce Optimization Strategy and Planning for Cigna, to discuss the latest innovations and changes in the contact center landscape.

Key takeaways:

  • The contact center landscape relies on one-to-one communication, and technology is helping facilitate that at scale.
  • Great customer experiences begin with great employee experiences, so ensure that employees have the right tools to make it so.
  • It’s essential to utilize data and analytics to understand every facet of the customer-journey in the past, present, and future.


Mary Nelson: Contact centers have come a long way in 20 years, and so is the task of managing the workforce that runs the contact center, including those agents that are often answering our calls, texts, or other means of communication. Strong workforce management is critical in operating a successful contact center, and it is definitely a different beast these days. My guest today is Sharon Jones, she's the Senior Director of Workforce Optimization Strategy and Planning for Cigna. She's been involved in Workforce Management for 20 years. Welcome Sharon.

Sharon Jones: Thank you, Mary. It's a pleasure to be here.

MN: Great. 20 years, wow. So much has changed in the contact center in that time. We hadn't even heard about modern innovations, such as chat bots and robotic desktop automation two decades ago. And I suspect, Sharon, that Workforce Management Professionals were still managing the workforce with spreadsheets when you first started. What changes have you seen over the years?

SJ: That's a great question. I think I want to answer that two ways. One, what we do hasn't really changed, right? It is still that one-to-one communication between our agents and our callers. So, that hasn't changed, but our callers have absolutely changed, and the technology. So, now we have video chat, we have email, we have SMS, we have self-service, we've got online forums, we've got Facebook. And all of our multimedia, social media, virtual hold, on top of inbound calls. So, I say from my perspective, the technology has changed and the customer expectations have changed.

When I started, it was Excel spreadsheets. Today, I have more technology than I can manage, and integrating that technology to ensure that I'm bringing an effective workforce, and a Workforce plan to the businesses that I support has probably been my greatest challenge. But I will step back and say that ultimately our roles really haven't changed. We are still that one-to-one relationship with the caller and the agent solving issues. This, issues have become more complex, thanks to our technology and self-serve, our callers now have the ability to find a lot of their own answers. When they finally get into our call centers, the issues are pretty complex, the expectations are very high, and the desire to have a quick turnaround or solution to those issues is great.

MN: Yeah. You talked about a challenge there, but what are the biggest challenges that people like you, Workforce Management Leaders are facing today?

SJ: I think one is... More than anything, most recently COVID has been a huge challenge. It has really changed the paradigm of the more traditional contact center. Our technologies had to keep up with a large population of work-from-home associates. Our customers have changed expectations and how they wish to reach out to us, the channels that they want to contact us with. So, we've had to marry that expectation with technology that's going to provide security of their information, ensure that where our associates are sitting, if they work-from-home, that their locations are secure.

So, we've had to marry up our technology to provide security across the board, which is a big issue today. And also, thinking about our real estate and all the processes that we've used in the past to help train our agents, monitor our agents, to understand what's happening in the call center. It wasn't unusual to walk out on the call center floor and look around and be able to identify what was happening. The home that we felt in the old contact centers, that's all kind of gone away. So, I think probably one of the greatest challenges is the ability of Workforce Leaders to adapt to our new environment.

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MN: You talked about technology, I'm sure that's one way you're addressing those challenges. But, can you elaborate on that and any other ways you're addressing the challenges?

SJ: Absolutely. I think there are a couple of pieces to that, one, would be the analytics. One of the biggest challenges in call centers 20 years ago and probably 55 years ago is that, we didn't have strong analytics to help us understand what was happening within our ecosystem, within our contact center and also what was happening with our callers. So a simple question, why are callers calling us? What do they need? What within our overall operation is driving those calls? And then the other piece is, what happening once they get into the contact center, right? How optimized are our agents? Are they giving the right answer? Are we driving more volume because we don't have a strong first call resolution? Are we dissatisfying our customers? So what we have seen very recently, is the advent of a lot of technology to help us understand that, right? So the agent analytics to understand how optimized our associates are and ways to measure their productivity.

And then on the other side, to understand how satisfied our customers are. So, those are your NPR scores, your ability to do recall if you're giving a wrong answer, your ability to do a drill down within your quality tool, to understand the nuances of the conversation, to be able to pull out if a customer is unhappy. All of those pieces are available to us now that we didn't have 10 or 15 years ago. So, now that we've got this package of analytics, we can take that information and identify some of our opportunities within our contact center. I think probably one of the greatest challenges as a Workforce Leader is, requests from our operations that we support that are based on feelings, it's not data-driven. So, I would say today in 2021, a lot of our decisions are data-driven and we have the analytics to support that data.

So, we don't need to spend hours pulling together views for leaderships to identify problems within the contact center. Now, we've got great integrated analytics that help us to take agent data, caller data, phone data, marry it together, and give a complete picture as to what's happening within our ecosystem. Additionally, became married that information with our NPS score. So, after an interaction with an associate, how did the caller feel about it? Did they answer the question correctly? So, now we know about our first-call resolution. We understand if we're going to be referenceable.

If that caller is pleased based on all of that data, we can start to drill down on, how to present a better face to the customer? How to help our associates be more productive? Because, now we can give them very targeted feedback around their interactions. So, better analytics and in speed with those analytics so that we essentially could coach after every call, if we chose to do so. That's probably a little bit more than what you were asking for, but it's a really exciting topic because things are truly changing in contact centers, right?

MN: Yeah, they really are. In fact, that leads me to my next question. What is to come? What are Leaders like you planning for in the future?

SJ: Oh, I guess probably the most exciting is AI. We, everyone is terribly excited about our artificial intelligence and predictive tools. So, ideally you really want to be able to anticipate when that occur and what it's going to be about. So, there's a couple of really exciting things that are occurring with AI. One is to, in large corporations, you have lots of customer interactions. Ideally, what we would want is every single interaction that our client, or customer, or caller has had with us to be pulled together so that when they contact us that agent has visibility into everything that's occurred. So, now we can solve from end-to-end, right? You, want to know, how many times you've called about a particular issue? How we said we were going to resolve it? What the actual resolution was, right? Has that issue popped up again? And how do we leverage that information?

AI allows us to do that. It will also allow us to take a look at all of that information and start to give suggestions back to the associate on what the caller may be calling about or ways to address the caller based on seeing all of this information. Think about in healthcare, if you have all of these different bits of information around. And callers interaction with say their doctor, with claims potentially maybe, with services that your agent would now be able to start to make suggestions to that caller leveraging all of that information that could help them from a health standpoint. So, are you aware that we have nurse assistants that can contact you and help you make appointments. Because, we may see that it's a chronic issue for that caller, this is a service that we can provide to them, the caller may not be aware of. And that an agent who doesn't have access to all of their history and having that AI pull all that data together might not suggest. So, that's one.

The other exciting thing with AI is the ability to predict volumes. So, forecasting it, we call it, it's like Wizard of Oz. We go behind the curtain, we create a beautiful volume forecast, chat forecast, email forecast, and we present it to the operation, and then, often it doesn't exactly come down to what we expect. So, we're trying to anticipate at the interval level and for call centers, that could be within 30 minutes, how many calls we're going to receive and what those calls are going to be about? With AI, we will be able to get better at forecasting that need. And the next piece is, is to ensure with AI, that that call gets to the agent, most competent to answer that call. So, that's pretty fantastic.

So now we figured-out, who's coming into the call center, we're going to deliver the call to the exact agent, and we're going to bring everything to the agent desktop to help them answer that call. That's the next thing that's coming. So, I think what we will see as Workforce Leaders of the future is how to leverage that technology, understand it, and then actually do the implementation. And help the business to understand all of the benefits of this type of technology.

MN: Yeah. You've got 20 years experience under your belt, before we leave, what advice do you have for other Workforce Management Experts, or Professionals?

SJ: I think probably, advice that would have given myself 20 years ago, be open to innovation, be willing to educate your operators, the call center operation. Realize that Workforce has the ability to... We often say the Workforce team is changing the tires on the bus, as it's flying down the highway. I have a lovely analogy. So, I believe that the workforce team is the lighthouse within that call center ecosystem. We provide safe harbor, so what we... Our responsibility is, is to help the operation understand, where they're going to see those rough shoals and rocks, and where there's a safe harbor. So, we provide the path that's going to get them to safe harbor. But I think that I didn't understand 20 years ago, is from a financial perspective, I can have a much greater impact on the success of contact centers by providing them data, to help them be more productive and optimizing their staff.

So, in the past, we would always say, "if every agent could take every call type, you'd save X number of dollars." But the reality of it is, that the real analysis is, if the correct agent takes that call type. You match their competency with the caller, you will save a lot of money and you reduce your call back, and improve your customer satisfaction. So, I think being open to innovation, understanding the analytics, understanding the impact that we can have on the bottom line and giving that information to our partners in the operation, in a consumable manner, is key to be in a successful Workforce professional.

MN: That's great advice, really great advice. And, I want to thank you so much for joining us today. It was a great conversation about the changes in Workforce Management, as well as what's ahead. And, I just want to thank you for your time. I know you're super busy, so thank you Sharon.

SJ: Oh, I appreciate it Mary. It was fun.

LG: Thanks for listening. Look for more CX insights by subscribing to, The CX Pod, where you get your podcasts, or visit us at or Thanks, see you next time.