Do We Need Contact Centers?

| Contact Center/CRM Views and Analysis

Do We Need Contact Centers?

Are contact center agents, which are still known as 'operators' in the answering service world going the way of elevator operators? For every contact center opening and expansion heralded there have been the understandably less trumpeted closures and cutbacks thanks to automation.

The automated trend is logical and seemingly inevitable. It costs less than $1 for a Web or IVR/speech-rec-handle transaction or outbound notification call versus $5 or more for that taken care or made by a live agent. While a home agent strategy can slice a guesstimated 50 to 75 cents or so from that sum and offshoring may chop that to say $4, with repeat and longer calls offsetting labor savings, they still do not effectively outbalance the savings from automatic tools.

The automated trend had been masked during the 'Ponzi boom' when companies added contact center staff and sites as demand and call volume bubbled. Yet these firms have also been slicing the rise with agentless solutions. Hiding the movement too have been downturn-driven call volumes resulting from financial and healthcare insurance worries, prompting these organizations to divert more calls into self-service and notifications.

Not surprisingly even live agent-designed contact center solutions are being aimed at and used to shrink headcount. For example presence/UC tools are being marketed to enable organizations tap idle 'available' counter and front desk staff to take calls, which avoids having separate agents and facilities to handle them.

There are many new self-service tools coming onto the market. One example is avatars which personalize and enable interactions with computers, which self service actually is. At the same time hosted offerings cut product capital costs and install times while permitting greater flexibility.

This trend most recently came to light at the tail end of a Globe and Mail article on Telus (full disclosure, I am a Telus wireless customer), which is one of Canada's largest communications firms on its plans to reduce wireless charges so it can remain competitive. An airwave auction in 2008 is letting more wireless carriers into the Canadian market.

"Two ways Telus plans to support [profit] margins is moving customers to electronic billing and bolstering its online customer support centre so that fewer subscribers need to contact a call centre, he [Joseph Natale, executive vice-president and president of consumer solutions at Telus] said."

Yes, there is no substitute for having individuals handle calls. One can argue that having them take care of customer care and purchases helps organizations stay competitive in today's and tomorrow's no-growth/slow-growth milieu. Yet with reliance on knowledge bases, tight scripting to comply with regulations, and a reluctance to empower and pay for agents who can think and act out of the software box, is there that much difference between live and automated service?

Telus has one of the sharpest contact center operations there is, employing speech rec and home agents. Its staff are well-trained and managed judging from the prompt excellent service I receive from them. If it can't justify keeping the level of live agents presently employed who can?

In today's environment price is equally if not more important as service. As long as the quality is liveable compared to similar offerings, most customers will put up with tolerable if not ideal care--if the sticker amounts match what they think the items are worth and can afford. The airlines, hardware/software firms, retailers, and yes communications including wireless firms have demonstrated proof of that. And if one or more firms can drive more customers to self-service and still maintain if not grow market share and profits others will quickly follow suit.

Does this mean that contact centers and staff will disappear? Not altogether. Only where there is a need for human intelligence, whose contacts can make or break customer relationships with benefits or losses that substantially outweigh the costs, then there will be, and the justification for, people to handle them.

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1 Comment

Valuable thoughts and some excellent points. I read your topic with great interest.

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