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Looking at the Dusty Origins of the Call Center Industry

February 24, 2015

By Tracey E. Schelmetic,
TMCnet Contributor

Those of us in the call center industry often have fun remembering (or looking at, in the distant, dusty storage room of a technology provider that has been around for a long time) technologies from an earlier age. Some of the first IVRs, for example, were the size of refrigerators, required a PhD to administer and were about as flexible as bricks.

But it’s worth remembering that the call center – or its early prototype – has deeper roots than a few decades ago. The earliest call centers, which were known as “Private Automated Business Exchanges" (PABX), debuted in the 1960s, though they may have been preceded by rudimentary operations from the 1950s. (DialAmerica ,the nation’s oldest telemarketing company, was founded in 1957 as the circulation department for Life magazine.) The term “call center” was first used in 1983 in the trade publication Data Communications, as follows:

“Each of these ‘call centers’ is staffed with agents who work with Honeywell (News - Alert) intelligent terminals, enabling them to quote rates and compute discounts given to large users,” wrote the publication.

Call center on-demand solutions provider recently prepared a fun slide presentation regarding the early evolution of the contact center. Eventually, the company plans to cover a five-part journey on the history of the industry from its earliest dawn to today. Part one covered the 1840s to the 1960s, a time period that began with the first telegraph message sent by Samuel Morse in 1844, continues with the invention of the telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 and finishes with the invention of the automatic call distributor, or ACD, in the 1960s. It was at about this time that the first call centers, in configurations recognizable to us today, began showing up.

“The introduction of the call center was driven by the need for increased business efficiency,” wrote Five9 (News - Alert) in the presentation, which is profiled in a recent blog post. When the 1-800 number came in 1967, consumers now had the fastest and most cost-efficient way to communicate.”

It’s interesting to note that the first stage of call center development took about 120 years, while subsequent stages can be measured in decades or even just a few years as each generation of technology comes sooner than the last. Five9 plans to cover the next stages of development in part two of the series.

“What’s next for the contact center?” asked Five9’s Mayur Anadkat (News - Alert) in the blog post. “Less complexity, more control. Hello cloud.”

Edited by Stefania Viscusi