We are thrilled to introduce Perspectives, a new and exciting blog series where we delve into customer success through the lens of industry experts and thought leaders. To kick off the series we sat down with our investor and executive advisor Chuck Sykes, former CEO of Sykes Enterprises.

Tell us first a little about you and how you got into your business:
After graduating in 1985 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, I joined Sykes Enterprises, which at the time comprised three divisions: Technical Contract Staffing, Telecommunication Engineering, and Information Development. This era marked the dawn of the information age, with businesses adopting mainframe and personal computers. The breakup of Bell Telephone System by the U.S. Government catalyzed a transformation from electro-mechanical to computer-based communication infrastructures, requiring skilled talent nationwide. Our Technical Contract Staffing excelled in providing this expertise. Concurrently, telephone companies were upgrading to computer-based systems, introducing services like voicemail and call-waiting, with our Telecommunication Engineering division playing a pivotal role in this transition.

The need for technical support surged with these advancements. Our Information Development unit specialized in creating support manuals using SGML, a precursor to modern desktop publishing. A pivotal meeting with IBM in 1992, discussing technical manuals for their PCs, led to a realization of the burgeoning demand for consumer technology support. This insight inspired my father to venture into providing technical support centers. Partnering with Jones Technology, Incorporated, a startup with a vision for community-based support centers, Sykes Enterprises evolved, focusing on customer service in the ever-evolving technology sector, known variably as call centers, customer engagement centers, and more. This marked the beginning of my journey in an industry constantly adapting to technological innovations.

“In the digital age, the customer service industry continues to innovate, blending human expertise with digital infrastructure, embodying the idea that despite constant change, some core principles remain steadfast.”

Can you talk a little about the evolution of call center to multichannel contact center and the types of investments and change management that you underwent over the years?

In 1992, the customer service industry was primarily driven by telephone support. The rise of mobile devices and the internet spurred growth, with a focus on developing customer contact software and efficient call handling systems. As consumer preferences shifted towards convenient phone support, the industry expanded rapidly. This era witnessed the introduction of new digital channels like email and SMS, but the transition to asynchronous communication was gradual.

The industry evolved with technological advancements, adapting to various interface domains including call centers, websites, social media, and mobile apps. Throughout these changes, human capital management remained the industry’s cornerstone. SYKES was a pioneer in globalizing operations, establishing significant offshore centers.

The 2020 pandemic underscored the industry’s resilience and adaptability, with a swift transition to remote operations. In the digital age, the customer service industry continues to innovate, blending human expertise with digital infrastructure, embodying the idea that despite constant change, some core principles remain steadfast.

“Pypestream stands out with its expertise in both AI and automation, and customer engagement. It offers a customizable, light platform that integrates with existing technology, minimizing change management and safeguarding past investments.”

What do you think are some of the most disruptive, customer engagement techniques or strategies in the last five years?Over the past five years, the pandemic has revolutionized our industry with key innovations. First is the shift to work-from-home: pre-2020, only 10% of the 9 million industry workers worldwide were home-based. Now, about 60% work from home, a significant increase from the peak of 90% during the pandemic. This enduring change reflects the ‘New World of Work’ era, where digital infrastructure allows work to come to people, rather than the other way around.

Secondly, mobile applications have become crucial. During the pandemic, businesses turned to apps as a lifeline, leading to the saying “there’s an app for that” – a testament to their ubiquity. As one of the five online interface domains, mobile apps have been particularly transformative, while other domains continue to advance.

Finally, the impact of social media has been immense. It has accelerated the spread of information, transforming how customer experiences, particularly negative ones, are shared worldwide. This shift has elevated the importance of Customer Engagement Centers, which now include Social Media Command Centers to monitor and respond to customer feedback, underscoring the heightened stakes in customer service.

Can you share with us a little about why you decided to invest in Pypestream?  
The customer service sector urgently needs AI and automation due to the overwhelming online customer interactions for shopping, purchasing, and service requests. This need is intensified by labor shortages and changing work dynamics, coupled with consumer demands for faster, more convenient, and accurate service. Many companies, including big tech, are entering the AI and automation market, often as a strategy to sell more products or lock clients into their systems. Caution is advised against committing fully to one provider. The key is identifying specific use cases for AI and automation, requiring a flexible approach. Both AI and automation are essential for customer service innovation, yet many companies specialize in only one. Pypestream stands out with its expertise in both AI and automation, and customer engagement. It offers a customizable, light platform that integrates with existing technology, minimizing change management and safeguarding past investments. This approach ensures companies only buy what they need, and the platform’s adaptability allows for future tech upgrades without replacement.

What do you see as some of the challenges and opportunities as it relates to conversational AI in the next year? And what role will the other traditional channels continue to play? 
Companies need a knowledge management process to quickly spot new issues and update AI algorithms with solutions, ensuring relevance. I believe all current interface domains and channels, like stores, customer engagement centers, IVRs, websites, social media, and apps, along with phone, email, chat, messenger, and text, will stay relevant. The aim is for every channel to handle any interaction. Consumers don’t necessarily want to switch channels; they prefer choosing one and sticking with it to complete their task. Switching channels suggests a problem, causing frustration. If escalation is needed, it’s important not to make consumers restart their journey. Ideally, consumers should be able to choose their preferred channel, at their convenience, on their chosen device, and successfully complete their task.

Looking to get more insights on the customer support industry? Reach out to our team to learn more.