Rethinking the Contact Center

Rethinking Communications

Rethinking the Contact Center

By Jon Arnold, Principal  |  December 10, 2012

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2012 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY

If there was ever an area that needs rethinking in the communications space, few things come to mind faster than the contact center. This could easily take a few columns to explore, and I’ll just keep things at a high level for now. Of course, if readers indicate a specific direction, I’m happy to do that, so your comments and suggestions are most welcome.

To understand the rethink premise, consider the semantic shift in language a few years back when the call center became the contact center. This change is subtle, but quite profound in terms of technology and how the dynamics of customer service are changing. The call center frame of reference falls squarely into the bucket of legacy telecom; both are rooted in a world where telephony is the hub of communications, around which workers or agents are tethered to a fixed line phone system.

Hopefully, you’re rolling your eyes wondering why anyone would work this way anymore. Well, the business world still has a long way to go in migrating to IP, and as long as legacy systems keep working, they will continue to remain in use. Like anything else, however, the laws of diminishing returns take effect if the status quo stays for too long. If that describes your current situation, hopefully this article will get you on the right path.

The first thing to do is understand the changing dynamics cited earlier. Back in the day, when customers needed service, they had three options – make an in-person visit to the store/company, send a letter in the mail, or phone the call center. Each approach can be effective, but as lifestyles became busier and our attention spans shorter, using the call center was the most convenient. Of course, the price for this convenience was a hit-or-miss experience, and for every problem solved many call centers drove a customer or two away.

Telephony-based call center technologies have certainly evolved, but we are quickly moving into a world where multi-modal, multi-channel interactions are becoming the norm. Not only are customers comfortable using a variety of modes other than voice to engage with agents, but many like to use multiple modes concurrently. This is very different from the conventional method of providing customer service, and for that reason, the term contact center is more appropriate.

While the technologies have advanced – as have customer expectations – voice remains central to providing good service, and this presents a dual set of challenges for how businesses invest in their contact centers. On one level, they must provide a quality telephony experience, and with the right tools, VoIP can deliver this. A basic IP telephony deployment can do the job, not to mention reduce costs compared to TDM service.

The benefits are even greater when VoIP is coupled with SIP trunking, and that merits a separate article to explore. In short, the contact center can save even more by cutting back on toll-free numbers, as VoIP enables click-to-call, which customers can initiate from their PCs or smartphones. Also, with domestic calling being free, VoIP provides another option for agents to make outbound calls to customers, allowing them to be more responsive or even proactive. In terms of enhancing the customer experience, SIP trunking also enables HD audio, which can be a real differentiator for your company.

Thinking on the business level, these technology considerations are important, but even more critical is how they enable the contact center to meet today’s customer expectations. In a telecom-centric model of service, problem resolution could easily be measured in hours or even days. That is clearly not acceptable now, as always-on consumers expect their problems to be addressed in minutes, or even seconds. Contact centers need a lot of agility to do that, not just to keep customers happy, but to keep them, period. Competition is relentless in a global economy, and with so much information just a click or two away, consumers have little loyalty and will buy elsewhere even if a routine inquiry comes up short.

This puts great pressure on the contact center, not just to keep those customers, but to protect the company’s brand. Consumers have many tools at their disposal – especially social media – to share their experiences, and as you know, bad news travels faster than good news. This seems like an unfair burden to place on the contact center, but it also presents new opportunities to strengthen customer bonds. Any agent will tell you their best moments come when they turn an unhappy customer into a happy customer, and by using the same tools the customers can use against you, the contact center can turn things around when happy customers become brand advocates. That may not be the norm, but the potential is very real, and cannot effectively be leveraged in a legacy-based environment.

The contact center is rich in possibilities, starting with VoIP and then SIP trunking, but even more so with unified communications. Consider this article a primer for what’s shaping the contact center, and I’ll continue the thread in my next article.

Jon Arnold (News - Alert) is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan (News - Alert).

Jon Arnold is principal of J Arnold & Associates, an independent telecom analyst and marketing consultancy with a focus on IP communications, and writes the Analyst 2.0 blog. Previously, he was the VoIP program leader at Frost & Sullivan.

Edited by Brooke Neuman