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Looking Toward The Future

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director, Customer Inter@ction Solutions



During the recent gala event celebrating Customer Interaction Solutions’ 25th Anniversary and awarding the Top 50 Teleservices, MVP Quality and Lifetime Achievement Award winners, one recipient commented, after hearing about the accomplishments of the early teleservices pioneers, “I’ve only been in this industry for 18 years...I guess that makes me a rookie.” Well, if he’s a rookie, I’m still a trainee. But still, after eight years in the call center industry, I’ve seen a lot happen.

It helps that it’s a fast-moving marketplace, as are most computer-based industries. We’re all used to buying the latest and greatest cell phone or video game console, only to have it be obsolete by the time we get it home and out the box. But if you’ll excuse my mere four-fifths of a decade experience, I’d like to share some thoughts about the call center as it moves toward the future. I would have liked to title this column “The Next 25 Years,” but I figured that was pushing it: considering that this is technology we’re talking about, most of us industry writers realize we’ll be lucky to predict the next five years with any confidence.

Twenty-five years into the future, we might be writing about the exciting new media for customer communications: voice-over-mental-telepathy, self-service through thought amplification, cyborg call center workers and data dissemination via wireless brain link to collective consciousness data banks. So I’ll be safe and stick to the next five years.

Standards-based Solutions And Integration
The call center industry is starting to slough off the bad habits exhibited by the wireless industry. The wireless phone industry has not yet realized that competing standards and networks do no one any favors, including themselves. Or maybe the industry does realize this, but it has its fingers in its ears, like a child humming to itself to prevent having to face the news of an impending doctor’s visit or a trip to weird Aunt Gertrude’s house.

When it comes to a choice between a few mega-solutions or numerous bits n’ pieces solutions, I like to sit in the middle. Having only three giant call center companies will not serve the best interests of this industry. Alternatively, I hope we don’t return to the late 1990s, when there were so many small, disparate solutions that, by the time you got your call center fully equipped, it looked like a technological Frankenstein. Your finished product looked like a giraffe or a platypus…two animals so absurd that, as the old adage goes, they must have been designed by committees.

I’m therefore glad to see a rise in the trend of complementary solutions providers integrating their offerings, eliminating the need for armies of IT people to find a way to fit a square peg into a round slot, and I’m confident we’ll see a lot more of that in the near future.

Wider Acceptance Of Natural Language Processing
I am a big fan of advanced speech technologies. The slow adoption of the technology, however, has made me fret that natural language processing is the “Technology Of The Future”...and always will be. Nowadays, when I quiz call centers about their shyness regarding speech, I often hear two reasons: price and complexity. Early (and many current) speech applications were not only out of reach of most companies in terms of cost, they were extremely difficult and cumbersome to administer. (Many companies feared troubleshooting speech solutions would be like being forced to do trigonometry problems in Roman numerals at 1:00 am after three margaritas.)

Many speech providers today are beginning to realize this, and are turning their solutions into more bite-sized pieces rather than nine-course meals. Just as the CRM providers discovered they would not have real commercial success unless they began simplifying and reducing costs for the SMB market, the same is happening with speech, and I’m confident that five years from now, we’ll be starting to see small call centers and even small businesses using natural language self-service and auto-attendants.

Expanding Usage And Applications For IP Business Applications
I am immersed in telecommunications innovation for most of my waking hours, yet periodically I’m still amazed at the kinds of applications that can be tackled via IP. Right now, we like to say, “IP is not just about cheap phone calls.” Five years from now, I think we’ll still be discovering business applications, and making statements such as “IP is not just about cheap phone calls, application access and sharing, virtual and home-based agents, disaster recovery, customer-to-agent video, always-on customer service, solutions hosting, on-demand applications, 100 percent continuity across the business and partner enterprise, global resource sharing, foreign business development, learning and training, video conferencing, longdistance healthcare and immersion entertainment.”

More Efficient Call Center And BPO Staffing And Outsourcing
We’re starting to hear stories like this one: Company A sells pool toys, lawn furniture, sprinklers, shade umbrellas and tiki lanterns. Company B sells sweaters, slippers, decorative tchotchkes, holiday decorations and flannel dog beds. When Company A is operating queues at full-tilt early in the summer season, the agents of Company B are playing their 395th game of computer solitaire. When shortly after Thanksgiving the agents at Company B become too busy to think, the agents at Company A are making record-breaking paperclip chains and attaching binder clips to their fingers and waggling them at one another. Wouldn’t it make sense for these two companies to partner and, in effect, “lease” their agents to one another during times of need? Variations can happen not only during different times of the year, but even daily: many people balance their checkbooks or do their financials during the day, which keeps a financial services call center busy from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, but fairly quiet in the evening. On the flip side, consumers are more likely to surf for shopping purposes in the evening, spiking the call and e-mail volumes for those types of consumer companies after 6:00 pm. IP call center solutions make agent-sharing incredibly easy, and it can help raise the efficiency of call center operations exponentially.

Self-Service That Suits The Customer, Not The Vendor
Let’s face it...in the early days, the term “self-service” applied to a concept that actually meant, “If we throw some information onto a Web page and force our customers into our IVR, maybe a few less of them will call, and maybe they’ll go away, and maybe the fallout in lost customers and revenue won’t start to hit the fan until I’ve quit and taken a new job.”

Self-service IS a wondrous concept, but it needs to be built to work well for the customer, not as a ruse to make customers go away. Many people prefer to be able to answer their questions with no human intervention. But today there are still too many shoddy consumer Web sites, unanswered customer e-mails, FAQ lists last updated in 1997, dated and useless auto-replies to emails and terminally frustrating IVRs. Self-service is truly a “garbage in, garbage out” technology. I look forward to a time when companies begin to compete on both their stellar self-service capabilities AND their live support.

So let’s check back in 2011 and see how we did. Perhaps by then, you’ll be able to see me deliver my June 2011 editorial via video on your personal communication device; though to be honest, I find the potential for a “bad hair day” to interfere with my prognosticating a bit daunting.


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