Feature Story

Five Call Center Technologies No One Foresaw 30 Years Ago

By Tracey E. Schelmetic, TMCnet Contributor  |  August 03, 2012

When Customer Interaction Solutions was first launched by TMC (News - Alert) in 1982, the term call center was pretty narrow. For starters, as its name implied, all it handled was telephone calls. Large and awkward call distribution systems built rudimentary and hard-to-manage call queues, and uncomfortable agents in a boiler room setting spent their days making and taking calls, relying on little but lists, index cards and graph paper for customer information that would help “warm” the calls. They read paper scripts; used a one-size-fits-all approach to callers; and wore bulky, uncomfortable headsets (if they were lucky!). Outbound dialing was not a technology term, but something you did with your fingers.

When I first joined Customer Interaction Solutions in 1998, the industry had advanced quite a bit. Computer-telephony integration was the cutting-edge technology, and TMC had launched a magazine by that name not long before. While CTI (News - Alert) is still relevant (is there any element of call center business now that doesn’t involve integration between telephony and computers?), the term has long since fallen by the wayside. Soon after I joined TMC came the launch of INTERNET TELEPHONY magazine, a bold move that seemed by some to be far ahead of its time. I recall a friend employed in the IT industry asking me, “They're going to base a whole magazine on that?

Fast forward a decade and a half, and “that” is a multi-trillion dollar global industry, and the call center of today bears about as much resemblance to those early facilities as a Commodore 64 computer does to an iPhone (News - Alert).

In the spirit of this magazine's noteworthy anniversary, here are five call center technologies either widely in use today or on the cusp of commercial viability that would have seemed like science fiction to us back in 1982.

IP-based call center platforms

 If you'd told a call center manager in 1982 that one day a call would come into his or her call center over telecommunications networks at the speed of light, already attached to the calling party's entire customer history (since the smart system already knows who is calling), with a prediction of why the customer is calling (based on advanced prediction analysis) and a recommendation to which agent the call should be given (based on intelligent skills-based routing), it's unlikely he or she would have believed you. Elaborate that, should that call center not be equipped to handle the customer's call, he or she could forward the call – attached to its relevant data and insight – to a call center on the other side of the world without the customer even noticing, that call center manager of 1982 would probably suggest you take a nice restful vacation. Yet this type of scenario is precisely what IP-enabled call center solutions have brought us, in addition to allowing call centers to cease to be physical places at all, but a tightly networked group of agents and professionals located in separate sites all over the world.

Virtual agents

While once upon a time it may have seemed like something from an Isaac Asimov book about robots, today's virtual agent is an ordinary part of the call center workforce. Virtual agents – a combination of search engine, speech recognition and text-to-speech technologies added to artificial intelligence solutions – are far smarter than their first-generation iterations such as Ask Jeeves, first launched in 1996. Virtual agents today can be text-based only to serve online channels, voice-based to serve telephone channels, and even visual, based on holographic technology, to serve customers in person. (The New York/New Jersey Port Authority recently introduced Ava, a holographic customer service representative, in all three New York City-area international airports.)


Real-time translation solutions for multichannel call centers

Online chat support is effective, fast, real-time and popular with customers, who like it because they can get instant answers to their complex questions. If you're a large organization with a global sales network, however, you're likely to have chats initiated from all over the world, occasionally in languages your contact center agents don't speak. (Only 27 percent of Internet users speak English.) This is less of a problem than you'd think, thanks to the high quality of today's real-time machine translation engines that can literally translate an incoming chat on-the-fly, allowing the agent to type a response in his or her native language, and re-translate it back to the customer, all in a matter of seconds and with no perceptible delay. But that's not where it ends: Several companies (Google (News - Alert) among them) have introduced real-time spoken language translation solutions that will ultimately allow an agent and a customer speaking different languages on the telephone to communicate in real time, as well.

A brand new channel: customers helping each other via social media

While it's probable that few people foresaw the rise of social media 30 years ago, it's even more probable that no one foresaw how social media would revolutionize the contact center concept. While the call center has slowly added channels over the past three decades – phone, postal mail and fax to e-mail and the web, to chat and SMS, to the mobile Internet – the addition of social media has been possibly the greatest jump of them all. Today, companies can build customer service infrastructures that allow customers who are fans or super users to become brand advocates for a company, influencing hundreds and even thousands of others in their buying decisions. Customers regularly help one another on online boards, outlining solutions for fixes and add-ons, answering one another's questions, and collaborating to share new ideas for using a product or service. Agents in contact centers can use these social media channels to enhance the quality of service they provide to customers, turning the customer service process from a one-to-one operation to a one-to-many venture.

Speech recognition and voice biometrics

The touch-tone interactive voice response dates back to the 1970s when customers first began to use touch-tone telephones. (Those of us who admit to being old enough to remember first encountering the phrase “press one for the billing department” will remember how startling it was.) So while IVR was old news by 1982, the direction it has taken since then has been a revelation. The increasing accuracy and penetration of speech recognition solutions have transformed the humble IVR into a complex but easy to manage and use voice-interactive self-service channel. But speech technology has taken us far beyond even call routing and self-service. Today it's used in conjunction with voice biometrics, taking voice prints from customers for security purposes. (Voices are unique to individuals, depending on a number of factors including the shape of the mouth, the anatomy of the throat, nose and teeth, and the length, tension and thickness of the vocal cords.) Voice biometric classification can also help us understand more about the demographics of our customers: gender, age, ethnicity and even health. While voice biometric solutions are still a very high-priced item and are generally found only in government and high finance (and James Bond movies), look for them in the near future to be used by call centers in place of social security numbers, account numbers and mother's maiden names for caller authentication.

While technology and networking have brought no end of wonders to the call center, these things have also brought challenges: data security breaches, increasingly high service expectations from consumers, and customer relationships that are so multichannel and complex we (or the providers of our hosted solutions, at least), require the computing power of NASA to meet them.

For those of us who find contact center technology exciting, however, there's no doubt that the next few decades will bring even more wonders and more challenges. We can look forward to learning about all of them.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi