Is The Future of Customer Service Invested In Our Minds? BT’s Dr Millard Says Yes

All over the retail industry, managers and leaders are looking for new ways to improve their customer experience. But could the solution be found within their own workplace, in the wants and needs of their own people?

Dr Nicola Millard thinks Dr-Nicola-Millard-customer-servicethey can.

As BT‘s resident Futurologist, Dr Nicola has over 24 years of experience in the customer service sector, monitoring and predicting shifts in the marketplace and researching how companies can cater to new demands.

In particular, it is her degree in Psychology, combined with a PhD in computer science, that gives her her unique drive and edge. For Dr Nicola is able to do what many other customer service experts long to do – understand what humans want, and know how technology can play a part in providing this.

“We should design technology to support customers’ psychological needs and goals.”

“I would argue that customer service is all about Psychology, to be honest. It’s a people business,” she says. “I work primarily in the contact center space, and as well as there being a large process component, there’s also an emotional one. Customers are anxious to get to their goal, and you’ve often got customers battling with tech to reach the person they need to speak to, whilst on the other end, agents are battling with tech in order to help their customers.

“We ought to be asking, ‘How do we help customers get to what they need to do?’ We should design technology to support their psychological needs and goals. So for example, we can use big data to offer more personalised service and self-help solutions, before they need to contact the company. The question leaders should be asking is ‘How do we make this more personalised?’ ”

The Contact Center is Changing

One area that Dr Nicola believes is in strict need of a spring clean is the humble contact center. Currently one of the key touch points a customer has with a company, she argues the contact center should be seen as “strategical resource” in gauging and delivering what customers want.

“Customers are calling less, but those average call handle times, which contact centers seem to love are going up, not down.

“We’re getting a shift towards a more autonomous customer – the online customer – that want to do more things themselves,” Millard explains. “This has created a shift in complexity when they do choose to pick up the phone, or initiate a webchat, because their problems are usually more complex. So this has made things more difficult for the people in the contact center, because they’re not getting the lovely easy questions anymore; they’re getting the really complex, emotive stuff that can only come through the human channel.

role-of-contact-center“It puts an awful lot of pressure on contact agents, and the automation model too. The traditional contact center model is not set up very well to process these things – customers are calling less, but when they do call, those average call handle times, (AHT) which contact centers seem to love, those are going up, not down.

“But that’s just the knock-on effect of a self service system working – it’s a good thing! The question then is how do you make sure your front line is equipped to deal with this demand?”

And that’s not all that Millard believes is changing about the contact center. When talking about where the contact center will be in five years’ time, she suggests it will still be a contact center – just not the same contact center as we know today.

“When you’re looking at what’s going right and what’s going wrong, the contact center is the first place to start.”

“It doesn’t have to necessarily be a physical center – it could just be a group of experts,” she muses. “It’s not just a phone anymore – we are becoming more ‘omnichannel’. Web chat for example, is becoming a very good contender, alongside the phone, for customers to communicate with organisations, and you can entertain the notion of multiple chat sessions per advisor. I think my money’s on web chat as a particularly persuasive channel for contact into the future, and its inevitably going to grow.

“And the advisors themselves may not necessarily be the lowest paid people in the organisation. They’re going to be good communicators, with a deep product or service knowledge, and above all they need to be really good problem solvers to solve these more difficult problems.

“I think when you’re looking at what’s going right and what’s going wrong, the contact center is the first place to start.”

The Power of Employee Satisfaction

Employee satisfaction and engagement are major psychological needs that business leaders are regularly overlooking, Dr Nicola says. We know there is a mirror between engaged employees and engaged customers, but businesses are failing to listen to their employees within the contact center.

According to Millard, managers and leaders ought to be encouraging and acknowledging feedback – even it cannot be acted on at that time – in order to avoid disengagement and stress.

“If leaders want to improve employee morale, one very small thing they can do is to simply listen to employees.”

“If you look at psychology and employee engagement, one of the things that’s bound to disengage employees is ignoring their opinion. You might ask for feedback, but failing to do anything with that is going to disengage employees.


“Morale is often linked up with how people perceive that their job directly impacts on the success of the business. People in the contact center often don’t really realise their impact on the business, when in fact they probably have the biggest impact because they’re the ones talking to customers! But it’s often not recognised and they’re often not listened to.

“If leaders want to improve employee morale, one very small thing they can do is to simply listen to employees, and actually acting on those suggestions. Even you can’t do anything, respond and say ‘thank you very much for that feedback’.

“Classic psychology will say if you’re in a job with high demand but low control, you’re going to get stressed. Proactivity can help ease a bit of the demand, but the easier bit of the two is to try and improve the amount of control people have in the job. And remember its the perception of control that can sometimes matter more than the reality.”

Smartphones, Analytics and Self-Service Checkouts

Millard claims that with the growing role of the smartphone; the use of analytics; the internet, and what Millard calls “an explosion of choice”, customers are becoming more empowered and companies will need to work harder to keep up.

“Soon it’ll no longer be about AHTs – it’ll be about measuring customer effort and customer satisfaction.”

“The smartphone has changed the relationship of the customer with the company because we’re engaging through things like apps, for example. So then it’s a case of how do you provide service for those who may be struggling to use the ‘in-app’ service? You might offer a chat session, or the ability to do a one-touch phone session with an advisor. You might personalise that interaction – and personalisation is a very big thing. Whether it’s proactive, such as offering a personalised video using data about the customer, or reactive – simply enabling the advisor to have a better view of the customer and using analytics to help them personalise the interaction.

“And customer satisfaction as weapp-customer-servicell – soon it’ll no longer be about AHTs, thank goodness! It’ll be about measuring customer effort and customer satisfaction, as well as net promoter – customer recommendations and things like that. Personalised, easy, omnichannel…all of those are incredibly relevant to think about as we go into the future.”

One huge challenge that retailers in particular are facing is the divide between younger and older shoppers, Millard says. Younger shoppers are often more satisfied with their shopping experiences due to being more technologically savvy, but older generations still prefer the traditional brick-and-mortar model.

“Retailers are letting technology become a barrier for customers, rather than provide a better, more unique experience.”

“Retailers are tending to let technology become a barrier for customers, rather than provide a better, more unique experience. Many automation systems haven’t been put there to enhance service, but for cost reasons. A classic example of this is self-service checkouts at supermarkets. When they work well, they’re brilliant, but it’s a classic pet hate of many shoppers.

“Overall, we are getting a lot of older consumers who feel that technology is sometimes getting in the way, and they actually rate things like knowledge of people in-store much more highly than younger consumers. So when they do go in-store, they’ll expect knowledgeable people on the floor.

“Technology is working well in many sectors, with many different uses and purposes. But it should all be about empowering employees and bringing customers closer to good service.”



Dr Nicola Millard is the Head of Customer Insight & Futures for BT’s Technology, Service and Operations Global Innovations team.

To learn more about BT’s ongoing research into the evolution of the contact center, read the SuperAgent 2020 report.

To get in touch with Dr Nicola, tweet her @DocNicola.