• May 7, 2021
  • By Ian Jacobs, vice president and research director, Forrester Research

Will Uberization Ruin Contact Centers?

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“Welcome to the working week /Oh, I know it don’t thrill you /I hope it don’t kill you” —Elvis Costello (“Welcome to the Working Week”)

ANALYSTS make predictions all the time. One of the perks of the job is that we get paid to make grand pronouncements about the future—and we almost never get called on our accuracy (or lack thereof), because who goes back to check five years later whether we got it right?

Trying to be the better class of analyst, I do occasionally revisit my predictions, but also my research on emerging areas to see just how misguided I was. It seems that when my research reads as highly skeptical, I do better at foreseeing times to come; when I come off as Pollyannaish, it often seems as if I swallowed too many happy pills and my calls were more frequently off the mark.

Recently, I revisited some old research, less to see if I made the right call and more to see how the pandemic world had changed the reality on the ground. About three years ago I published a piece of research focused on the emerging idea of bringing gig-economy-style labor flexibility to the world of customer service. Given the, shall we say, less than salubrious labor practices of some of the gig economy mainstays, maybe I was naïve in believing that such models had a real place in helping customers solve their product or service problems. But there seemed to be some tangible benefits to a gig-driven contact center model, for both consumers and companies.

Whether the actual gig workers get squeezed between those two major forces was unclear at the time. After all, conventional contact centers are not known as bastions of contented workers. So if the gig approach didn’t provide some benefits to the workers, it was likely not much of an improvement.

What were the arguments for a gig model back then? There were several, including the obvious benefit of a flexible labor force helping to handle unexpected peaks in service demand. Importantly, there was also a revenue-generating benefit that was driven by who was doing the gig work. As I wrote at the time:

“Experts have experiential understanding. Brands bring in third-party talent and train them to be contact center agents. These agents were not selected because they use and love a particular product or service. On the other hand, gig economy experts were specifically targeted because they have deep, hands-on experience with brands’ products and services.”

Additionally, these gig workers tended to be older and more educated than the folks working in “normal” contact centers. The theory was the combination of some product affinity and life experience helped consumers trust the gig workers—and their product recommendations—more than the typical recruited-off-the-street, full-time contact center agent.

Fast-forward three years and one pandemic and we find that this community-based approach to gig customer service work is, probably inevitably, being challenged by a more Uber-esque gig model. In the same way that Uber provides taxi-like transportation but owns no cars and employs no drivers, new-breed gig companies run customer service organizations without owning any brick-and-mortar contact centers or employing any agents. This more utilitarian model also provides companies labor flexibility, but it offers at heart a similar value proposition to traditional outsourcing: labor arbitrage and scalability.

So was this a case of my glasses being too rose-colored a few years ago? A great idea inevitably corrupted by rapacious capitalism? A little of both, but in a sense neither. The reality today is that, for companies looking for a way to drive efficiencies while providing a differentiated service experience, the community model can still work, albeit usually for lower volumes. It is basically a high-touch model. However, for companies that need lower costs and more resilient and flexible service operations, the utilitarian model could be a solid approach.  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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