At least once in our lives (and most probably more than once) we’ve had a reason to make a call for assistance. Whether it’s 411 directory service, customer service for a product we’ve purchased or a service we’ve used, sales inquiry or the dreaded accounts receivable department, we’ve connected with that entity known as the call center. We’ve conversed with that friendly agent on the other end of the phone … well, not always friendly … because we had no other recourse or, perhaps, because we preferred talking to a human being.
The popularity of call centers grew dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. Advancements in automated call distribution ACD) and computer telephony integration (CTI) technologies have allowed call centers to scale and operate more efficiently. The addition of multi-channel communications, blending calls with chats and emails into a universal queue, has also played a role in keeping call centers at the center of customer interactions with an enterprise, although not as widely deployed as many call center vendors would have hoped. Outsourcing (both onshore and offshore) has also helped reduce costs while increasing coverage for the growing number of phone calls being handled. Sophisticated call routing software from vendors such as Genesys, Avaya, Cisco, Aspect and Interactive Intelligence, to name a few, have allowed contact centers to identify and segment its callers, routing them to the best available agent. And while the industry jargon continues to focus on delighting the customer and offering the best customer experience, the realities on the ground are very different. Call centers have always been about efficiency and cost effectiveness, and this has not changed. Any why not? A recent controversial Harvard Business Review blog post argues that spending time and money on exceeding customer expectations may be … a waste of time and money, bringing up the age-old question: when is good good enough.
That is neither here no there, however, when we consider the more fundamental shift taking place in the customer service space. So fundamental, in fact, that it threatens the future of the call center industry altogether. As early as 2012, analyst market reports began to point to a drop in actual net new call center seats sold, indicating that the industry had reached maturation and was close to beginning a decline. This trend should accelerate in the coming years for at least three reasons:
- Younger generations no longer use the telephone as their primary means of communications, and older generations have followed suit
- Technologies such as smart phones and the ubiquity of the Internet have created more convenient and desirable channels of communication
- Social media has provided powerful new avenues for people to communicate with an enterprise as well as empowering customers to influence the company’s reputation
With so many ways to communicate, including text, messaging, email, and a variety of social media outlets, customers are increasingly viewing the voice channel as the last resort for any interaction with an enterprise. This is only compounded by recent studies that indicate that customers are increasingly unsatisfied with call centers. Customers, newly empowered with mobile access to the Internet and on demand access to resources and information, have substantially increased the bar on what they expect, and the call center experience has suddenly become somewhat sub-par. And this isn’t expected to improve.
This is not to say that call centers are going away any time soon. Even though the market is maturing, a large number of call centers are refreshing their software and hardware, and many of them are looking to move to a cloud-based call center solution as they are seeing the cost and operational efficiencies of a cloud solution. But this is limited largely to a technology replacement strategy, with marginal net new call center seats being added. As call volumes gradually decline, enterprises must begin considering alternative solutions to address their customer base.
Moving the bulk of non-revenue generating calls to outsourcers is a good step in this direction. Enterprises can dynamically scale their call center agent staffing to adjust to longer term changes in call volumes. Opting for a cloud solution is another viable way to manage this change. Without the need for hosting and managing the software and hardware in house, enterprises can scale their call center technology demands on a monthly basis, or even quarterly or annually, to respond to changes in demand without any significant capital investment. As customer demands continue to become more sophisticated, leveraging internal resources or a few highly specialized resources to handle their call requests will become important. More importantly, enterprises must continue to invest in Internet technologies to diversify their channels of customer outreach. This includes adopting a comprehensive social media strategy, with an active presence in the leading social networks such as Twitter, Google, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn, to name only a few, along with providing more traditional non-voice channels such as text, SMS and email. Continuous improvement of enterprise web properties, giving customers a variety of self-help options as well as automating everything from shopping to account management will decrease a customer’s dependency on having to make the call (many customers, given the option, would opt for self-help, only using calling as a last resort). Mobile platform applications that provide services offered through the enterprise web site allows customers to more conveniently access enterprise resources from any location with a user experience optimized for their specific device.
Many enterprises have begun offering alternatives to customers who call in in an attempt to proactively deflect traditional calls, from redirecting the call to a chat session to continue their interaction or to a web site with resources that may help answer their question or resolve their issue. With the advent of HTML5, most new web browsers support the WebRTC protocol which provides a more convenient way to weave synchronous audio or video conversations into web and smart device applications. An audio or video discussion between the customer and an enterprise specialist can be initiated instantly from the application, negating the need for any special telephony or call center infrastructure. And because the session is initiated within a web or smart device application, rich context data such as what the customer was browsing prior to the conversation is provided to the specialist.
It is expected that with this transition, the role and skill set of the call center agent will also change. The days of large warehouses full of agents will gradually be replaced by a much smaller number of highly skilled specialists who can handle communications on multiple channels and that can either help customers complete their self-help journey or actively engage with the customer to get them what they are looking for. Because of the ubiquity of web technologies, these specialists can be anywhere, offering enterprises a tremendous amount of flexibility to select from a larger talent pool of available resources that are not limited by geographic location or proximity to a place of work.
The Internet continues to drastically transform industries, and the call center industry is no exception. As the demand for traditional call center services gradually declines and empowered consumers continue to demand instant access to enterprise resources, enterprises must continue to invest in the right set of Internet technologies to accommodate them. This includes embracing web access to enterprise resources, smart device applications that provide customers access to enterprise resources, active social media engagement and providing web-based alternatives such as WebRTC for real-time audio or video conversations. At the same time, the call center itself is transforming along with the roll of the call center agent. Large buildings that house hundreds and potentially thousands of agents will give way to smaller distributed and increasingly remote locations. The decreased demand for the traditional contact center agent will coincide with a heightened demand for skilled specialists.
This trend should be embraced by all parties. Over time, enterprises can expect to reduce costs substantially by doing away with the expensive infrastructure and staffing that are required to operate a call center, while increasing customer reach and improving overall customer satisfaction. Specialists with specific skill sets will become more in demand which will ultimately have a positive impact on their overall compensation. The impending end of the call center is a good thing for everyone.