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AI is transforming the role of CX agents—see what they expect and when

Learn what 600 CX leaders and agents reckon the future of their industry will look like leaning into AI over the next few years.

By Paulette Chafe, Head of Thought Leadership at Zendesk

Last updated April 27, 2024

Few can deny the transformative power of AI, with customer experience (CX) set to see some of its biggest and most immediate impacts. Yet what that future actually looks like—and how soon we can expect it—is less certain.

There’s always a gap between the development and adoption of new technologies, and AI is no different. How big that gap is depends on numerous factors and perhaps, most importantly, the readiness of teams. According to our research, 84 per cent of CX leaders reckon they must do more to prepare for the impacts of AI, with 82 per cent rethinking their entire approach.

Transitioning to a hybrid model will be crucial. This means embracing the efficiency gains of automation without losing the human element. But how quickly teams reckon they can make these changes is an important question. We surveyed 600 CX leaders and agents to better understand their views on the evolution of their roles, their industry, and what that timeline might look like.

Here’s what they predict CX teams will look like one, three, and five years out:

Grade 1: Agent as troubleshooter, AI as traffic cop

Looking one year out, teams will be focused on upskilling their agents while primarily using AI for ticket routing and deflection. During this period, training will be essential. In fact, 69 percent of respondents say that training on AI has increased or will do so in the next year, with a similar number citing increased training specifically on AI-driven sentiment analysis.

Agents will need to understand where AI fits into their evolving workflows and how tools like generative AI can make them more efficient. They will also start to provide a critical layer of AI oversight—making sure that AI outputs are carefully monitored before being sent out to customers. 70 percent reckon this is happening or will happen in the next 12 months.

In addition to the technical aspects, respondents expect a greater emphasis on soft skills. The human element—empathy, communication, and understanding—will become even more critical to recruiters and teams.

Grade 3: Agent as expert, AI as co-pilot

Three years from now, expect to see a closer partnership between human agents and bots—with each carving out their own unique set of roles and responsibilities. Agents will transition into deeper product and data expertise, all while relying on AI to drive a greater amount of routine customer engagement.

AI is also expected to play a critical role in providing real-time data on key performance metrics like customer sentiment and agent productivity. This will ensure that teams can optimise their operations and deliver the highest quality customer service.

61% of respondents reckon agents will transition into deep product and data experts within the next three years.

As agent skill sets broaden to include harder skills like data interpretation and analysis, recruitment strategies are expected to evolve. 62 percent of CX leaders and agents reckon that in three years, organizations will prioritize candidates with an aptitude for AI and tech.

Year 5: Agent as conductor, AI as driver

Within five years, agents will no longer just be experts. Instead, they will be conducting a harmonious symphony of AI-driven customer service. In this time frame, AI will become more than a tool—it will be driving the majority of customer interactions, preemptively addressing customer needs, and streamlining processes automatically as issues arise.

Even as AI takes on the lion’s share of engagement, agents will remain the human touchpoint by ensuring that every interaction feels genuine, approachable, and personal. Where necessary, they will have the authority and know-how to override AI’s recommendations and create the best possible outcomes for customers.

Teams are expected to seamlessly leverage various innovative tools to improve customer experiences. This may include mixed reality for immersive customer solutions, digital twins to help scale their reach, or something entirely new.

70% of respondents reckon that agents will use mixed reality to help solve complex customer issues in the next five years.

Keeping the heart in customer service

As AI grows in influence and agent roles change, we expect massive changes to the world of customer service. Though the future isn’t certain, one thing is abundantly clear: the need to connect with customers on a genuine, human level should remain the central commitment of any top-notch CX team. And for that, agents will remain indispensable.

Learn more about what CX leaders and agents forecast for the future of customer service.