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July 06, 2012

Pleasant Analyzes the Evolution of the Customer

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC

TMC this year celebrates 30 years of covering customer interaction, which means it couldn’t be a better time to look at where we’ve been with customer service and where we’re going. We’re also rebranding and retooling our customer experience effort. In this installment of our CUSTOMER coverage, we talk with Blair Pleasant (News - Alert), president and principal analyst at COMMfusion LLC, which provides consulting services and market research analysis to the end user and vendor community. Pleasant previously worked as an analyst with The Yankee Group (News - Alert) and the Pelorus Group.

We’re celebrating the 30-year anniversary the TMC magazine now known as Customer Interaction Solutions magazine. What has been the most important development in the past 30 years related to customer interactions?

Pleasant: The interactive voice response system – allowing for customer self service. This changed the industry for  good and bad. It allowed for 24x7 service, but it also took away much of the personalization. It made our lives easier, but more frustrating in many respects.

In the past decade?

Pleasant: I wish I could say computer telephony integration and the ability for agents to access information about the caller via screen pop before the agent answers the call. Unfortunately, too few companies are using CTI (News - Alert), and customers are still asked to repeat their account information even after they’ve entered it in. The same is true for the multichannel contact center – it has great potential, but not enough companies have implemented and deployed it.

In the recent past?

Pleasant: For contact centers and agents, the use of remote agents, allowing agents to work from anywhere, and enabling contact centers to hire agents regardless of their locations.

When and why did the trend toward call center offshoring take off?

Pleasant: Fifteen to 20 years ago? Not sure of the exact time. Offshoring took off in an attempt for companies to save money on labor, which is the most costly part of a call center operation. Workers outside of the U.S. receive lower wages, and it’s more economical to use IP technology and send calls oversea where labor costs are much lower.

Is the tide turning on call center offshoring?

Pleasant: Yes, customers got fed up with speaking with CSRs in other countries with strong accents and little understanding of the local markets. In many cases the length of calls with outsourced agents is much longer than with local agents because of the language barrier. Instead of outsourcing, many companies are now turning to the use of remote agents who can work from anywhere. This allows companies to hire veterans, at-home moms, and others who can work full or part time from any location.

What evidence is there of this?

Pleasant: Dell (News - Alert) and many other companies have gone back to using U.S.-based agents, especially for high-value customers.

How has the rise of IP-based networks impacted the call center and customer interactions at large?

Pleasant: It allowed for the rise of the multichannel contact center, where customers can interact with agents over the web. It also allowed for the use of remote agents.

How is the widespread use of social networking technology impacting how businesses target, engage with, and deliver to the customer?

Pleasant: This will be the biggest change we see in the contact center for the coming years. Companies realize that customers are talking about them and their products via social media, and they have to be aware of what’s being said and be part of the conversation. Companies need to listen to what’s being said over social media, and be able to engage with customers through this channel. Many companies are developing social media customer care strategies, trying to figure out how they’ll move forward in this area. For now, social media is under the marketing department, but we’ll start seeing more customer service organizations becoming involved in this.

How is the increased use and comfort level with video impacting how businesses target, engage with, and deliver to the customer?

Pleasant: Video is still not really used for customer interactions – in most cases there’s no need for customers and agents to see each other, and it requires agents to be properly groomed and dressed, which can be challenging in many cases. Except for technical service issues where agents can show a customer how to fix or troubleshoot something, there’s really no need or use for video today.

How is the mobile boom impacting how businesses target, engage with, and deliver to the customer?

Pleasant: Companies now realize that they have to support users when they’re mobile and when they’re using mobile apps on their devices. This means making it easy to connect to agents from these devices and apps, any time. Most contact center vendors are still trying to figure out how they’ll accommodate this, and we’ve starting seeing some preliminary announcements, with more to follow in the coming months. Vendors need to determine how they’ll enable customers to interact and reach the contact center from their mobile apps, and how to integrate this with the rest of their contact center infrastructure and capabilities, such as skills-based routing, WFO, etc.

What other key trends are you seeing as it relates to how businesses target, engage with, and deliver to the customer?

Pleasant: The biggest thing I see right now is the integration with social media. There’s also some integration with unified communications and collaboration – enabling agents to find subject matter experts outside of the contact center. Using UC presence capabilities, and tools like IM and conferencing, CSRs can get answers to questions and information they need from subject matter experts throughout the organization, while the customer is still on the call and without having to call them back.

Want to learn more about the latest in communications and technology? Then be sure to attend ITEXPO West 2012, taking place Oct. 2-5, in Austin, TX. ITEXPO (News - Alert) offers an educational program to help corporate decision makers select the right IP-based voice, video, fax and unified communications solutions to improve their operations. It's also where service providers learn how to profitably roll out the services their subscribers are clamoring for – and where resellers can learn about new growth opportunities. For more information on registering for ITEXPO click here.

Stay in touch with everything happening at ITEXPO. Follow us on Twitter.

Edited by Brooke Neuman
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