Demolish The Call/Contact Center?

By Brendan B. Read, Senior Contributing Editor  |  April 01, 2011

This article originally appeared in the April 2011 issue of Customer Interaction Solutions

I must confess to never hearing or using the term “call centers”–now multichannel contact centers–when I first started covering them in the mid-1990s. Instead I knew and referred to them by function, i.e. “billing”, “canvassing”, “collections”, “customer service”, “fundraising”, “order entry”, “polling”, “research”, “reservations”, “tech support” and “telemarketing”.

At around that time there had been a massive growth in live agent phone-based interactions. “Mail order” and air carrier and phone company storefronts and mom-and-pop travel agencies became obsolete while regulators clamped down on automated outbound robocalls. Formal call centers, enabled by new high-efficiency ACD and predictive dialing technologies, were set up in smaller high-unemployment low-wage communities and away from corporate headquarters and off employees’ career tracks. These “contact center” tools were expensive though, and required large operations to spread costs. To cut expenses many firms began outsourcing their telemarketing and customer service, sorry, call centers.

At about the same time, and perhaps not coincidentally, customers began noticing that high quality customer service was becoming honored more in the breach. Agents, being graded by cost-focused metrics such as calls per hour, would nudge callers off the lines. Meeting such numbers–which often had no direct relationships with corporate goals–became more important than ensuring excellent customer experiences. If customers had problems with products and services the attitude of too many enterprises became “they can deal with it or toss it into the trash and buy new ones”, which made more profits. Customers too became disposable. Wasn’t there one born every minute? So too were agents–the longer they stayed the more wages and benefits had to be paid–so why encourage them to be loyal?

Yet it is high quality that customers are demanding–and are insisting that they receive from expert, empowered, motivated and committed employees–or else they and those of the people they influence via social media will take their business elsewhere. Disposing of them is no longer an option. While firms that get it have made improvements, with metrics, and coaching and training focusing more on customer satisfaction and retention, customers’ expectations appear to be rising faster than what contact centers have delivered.

The need for contact centers is decreasing. Telemarketing is rapidly dying as customers move to off-limits wireless devices. New social collaboration tools permit them to obtain assistance and support from their peers. Increasingly sophisticated voice, text-based and web self-service tools are taking on more inbound and outbound contacts. As “Watson” dramatically demonstrated on Jeopardy!, advances in artificial intelligence (AI)–and AI is at the core of human-like natural language speech recognition–can provide superior and faster-delivered replies.

Isn’t it time then to demolish the contact center?

To re-integrate service and sales tasks with parent departments and in doing so create more profitable customer experiences while providing career paths for exceptional performers? To connect customers with anyone who has the skills needed to meet their needs whether they are in or out of the office, on the retail floors and behind the counters or front desks with customers, via voice, online and video? To link buyers with subject matter experts that can best handle their issues and opportunities?

And, most importantly to humanize the customer relationships by smashing the anonymity walls by permitting customers to seek out and ask for assistance by name–just as they can in a store–and for employees to treat them as clients?

The tools are there to permit enterprises to function without contact centers. Feature-rich, highly and affordably scalable multichannel routers and dialers can route and connect calls to and from anyone, anywhere, in any department on any device, wired or wireless. Customer-directed routing, such as specific departments or individuals and callbacks, make traditional call distribution obsolete. VoIP-enabled unified communications have expanded the old agent-state to the rest of the business, connecting subject matter experts. CRM, recording, security and workforce management tools are becoming location-agnostic. Servers are becoming virtualized, as are hiring and training.

The question then is not whether but when will organizations push the levers to bulldoze the old contact centers. Will they take the initiative…or be forced to when their competitors delivering equally attractive products and services get it…and create more effective organizations that will provide higher quality service for less?

Brendan B. Read is TMCnet’s Senior Contributing Editor. To read more of Brendan’s articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi