The goal of the call center in its earliest days (besides keeping the HR department in a constant frenzy due to the more than 100 percent annual turnover in early call centers) was automation. Early solutions allowed call center managers and supervisors to do things that were formerly done by hand in the “days of yore.” Auto-dialers, then later predictive dialers, took old-fashioned manual dialing (on rotary dial phones, no less...if you’re under 30, look that term up on Wikipedia) out of the picture and allowed agents to make the best use of their outbound time by ensuring there was always a live call waiting for them. For the sake of example, let’s call dialers a component of Call Center 1.0.
Workforce management was done on graph paper purchased from an office supply store using complex algorithms that were crunched by hand by the only person in the office capable of doing math more complex than balancing his checkbook: the dreaded “Erlang distribution,” or more specifically, Erlang-C, which looked like this:
Does your brain hurt? You’re not alone. It also no longer matters: modern workforce management solved the problems for the call center. No longer did the smart guy with the pencil need to spend all morning immersed in theoretical queuing theory...workforce management accomplished that for him. Workforce management was a component of Call Center 1.0.
Call recording, when it entered the Call Center 1.0 picture, came in as a mandatory functionality rather than a helpful one (at first). The companies that were forced to record because of regulation realized that these recordings were a great source of training material for agents; it was also a good way to keep track of agent performance for review and promotion. The problem was determining what to record when, and how to use the recordings. Call monitoring limited itself in that it required a human to sit and listen to the calls, determining which were useful and which were expendable. That took time, and lots of it.
The automatic call distributor, or ACD, which became widely used in the 1980s, was a very large part of Call Center 1.0. Before the ACD, agents on separate lines took calls from phones ringing off the hook. Customers encountered busy signals regularly, agents could not take breaks without allowing calls to go unanswered. Call centers, work groups and even single agents operated as islands of efficiency (or inefficiency, as the case may be) within the same building.
Of all the technologies of Call Center 1.0, the early IVR holds the most notorious spot. Granted, its launch was an improvement for many call centers, allowing a small amount of skills-based routing or even a smidge of customer self-service (“Press three for our mailing address”). But IVRs were difficult to set up and administer properly, and in the end, companies drove away almost as many customers with their IVR than they helped, and the rest of us got blisters on our fingers from pressing buttons.
But change, as we know, is inevitable (and not always a bad thing). The very concept of Call Center 2.0 is an exciting one. Call Center 1.0 solutions had their place and time: they made a great deal of improvement over the random, chaotic and manual systems that existed before.
So what does Call Center 2.0 mean?
To an enterprise, it means that “the call center” no longer need be a place. It can be 200 agents working from home. It can be five call centers spread over the planet. It can be 25 agents working in an office on Main Street today, but easily relocated to an office on Elm Street tomorrow when Main Street floods from a storm. It can be two or more companies’ support centers linked together into a unified support entity. It can be 10 product experts, all in their cars on roads across the country. Internet telephony, coupled with software that can be delivered as a service via a Web browser, means that any PC with a broadband connection and a headset can instantly become a node in the call center. A call center can literally spring up overnight with very little up-front capital. It can be scaled up to meet a surge in customer contact, and it can shrink back to go into “snooze mode” during downtimes. Via workforce optimization, the call center can literally determine what size it needs to be and when, and it can “fix itself” when it goes wrong. It can be administered and monitored from anywhere: a remote bar on a tropical beach, the boss’ PDA from the airport, or from the space shuttle in orbit (though I imagine those astronauts already have more than enough to do). It can make the best possible use of its resources at all times, lowering its costs and raising its efficiencies.
To the customer, Call Center 2.0 is possibly even more exciting. Those hated push-button IVR systems? Gone. Call abandons from outbound sales agents? A thing of the past. The need to talk to a live agent about nearly any problem? Reduced. Nine-to-five hours for call center help? Finished.
Customers can call anytime, from anywhere, via any medium. They can use their voices to interact with the company’s knowledge bases. They can pay bills, order products or get product help by speaking to an automated system that has all the answers. They can search a knowledge base at their leisure. They can share experiences and ask questions of other customers with similar needs. They can be offered resolutions to problems or issues that have not yet occurred. They can call a company and be confident that they will be known: their previous transactions, their outstanding issues, their current orders...without having to repeat their names and customer numbers. When they do need to speak with live agents, they can be confident they have been quickly routed to the best possible people in the organization to help them, regardless of where both the customer and the agent are physically located.
In 2006 and beyond, the “well-dressed” call center will look as dissimilar from the call centers of the 1980s and 1990s as chalk and cheese (which is a nauseating analogy…how about juniper berries and jet engines? Bears and bath sponges?)
Customer [email protected] Solutions, its sister publication INTERNET TELEPHONY and all of TMC look forward to introducing you to the next generation of call centers. In fact, we can’t wait to dazzle you. See you October 10th to 13th in San Diego. CIS
The author may be contacted at [email protected].