I've been covering and working in this industry for over 14 years yet I've always thought the notion of contact centers, especially inbound first level ones kind of strange, as if they were a transitional means until the technologies and practices caught up with consumer and business demands for sales and service.
This is beginning to happen, which will doom traditional contact centers. If I were in the business of making contact center decisions I'd not approve any money to expand existing sites, or buy outsourcing services located in on-premises locations. Instead I would put the money into automated voice and web solutions, home agents and presence.
Telemarketing, including fundraising, accounts receivable/collections and political work, all of which I've done, providing expert help and making appointments for service calls or for doctor's appointments I could see. It takes a lot of skill to persuade others to promise to give money, time and support, provide expert assistance, and to understand and assess the levels of urgency from each caller and decide accordingly.
Yet to call in and talk to someone to make routing reservations, order items or get first level tech support felt and still feels odd. I can feel the scripts, the rote voices. Shouldn't this be done automatically? No offense but much of these interactions do not require the full range of human intelligence, imagination, problem solving and understanding.
The other side of the equation is that this first level contact center work is generally disliked by all too many who handle it. The work is too often too confining, stressful and boring, made worse by incompetent and poorly trained managers and supervisors.
My wife worked for a large in-house contact center in a community that became a contact center hub--we also had a neighbor who worked for another center--and both left their jobs and vowed never to do them again. While contact centers' hours and wages are better than the competing areas of hospitality and retail, those jobs have more status, flexibility and freedom. There is also greater security in a way knowing that the operations are there to serve local markets and as long as they hold up and the products and services are in demand there will be work. Not like contact centers that can disappear to a lower-cost part of the world or be replaced by self-service.
The danger of being an observer is that you can see what's heading down on the tracks but that doesn't mean it will get there when you expect it. Speech technology, whose headlights have been seen for years like looking down a pair of rails in Nebraska or Saskatchewan, is finally getting here. It along with web self-service has become so useful and customer-friendly that for basic and even more sophisticated interactions it makes no sense to have people answering or in the case of notifications making calls. Even DTMF IVR apps are improving as companies finally wise up to the value of voluntarily keeping callers in them, instead of hanging up. And in giving zero-outs.
As a signal that this train is pulling into the platform last month, Nuance released a study it commissioned Forrester to conduct "Driving Consumer Engagement with Automated Telephone Customer Service." It reveals that consumers rated automated service (i.e. DTMF IVR, speech rec) higher than live agents for certain straightforward interactions. In five out of ten posed scenarios, individuals preferred automated systems) over live agent interactions for tasks such as:
* Prescription refills (66 percent rated automation highly, compared with 52 percent for live agent)
* Checking flight status from a cell phone (61 percent versus 49 percent)
* Checking account balances (59 percent versus 36 percent)
* Store information requests (55 percent versus 37 percent)
* Tracking shipments (53 percent versus 47 percent)
Other key findings include:
* Consumers' satisfaction with customer service leaves a lot of room for improvement. Only 49 percent of U.S. online adults report being satisfied, very satisfied or extremely satisfied with companies' customer service in general
* Consumers who frequently contact customer service from a wireless phone are relatively more amenable to automated telephone customer service channels. About one-third (32 percent) of consumers regularly use a cell phone to contact customer service. The data indicates that in nearly all scenarios, mobile customer service users rate using automated telephone customer service systems higher than those consumers who do not regularly contact customer service using a cell phone. This is significant due to Forrester's expectation that the number of wireless-only households will continue to grow, reaching 19 percent of all U.S. households by 2013.
This last one is huge and for good reason. Who has the patience especially if they're driving, on a train, bus or ferry or walking down the street on a hands-free set to be in queue for 10 minutes for an agent who can give little help beyond what the automated menus can provide? The thinking is this: "OK I have to talk to a machine but as long as there is a zero-out I can deal with this."
The first sets of contact centers that are doomed for that reason are offshore. Cultural-driven customer service issues, leading to longer calls and increased escalations and repeat calls are making calls heavily scripted. Yet if that is the case then what is the value proposition of having someone on the phone? At the same time labor and benefit costs are rising along with turnover in other countries. Even in India workers can't wait to get out of contact centers into better paying jobs. One key reason there is the unsociable hours: most offshore agents work graveyard shifts because they match North American daytime peak periods.
In words informally attributed some years ago to TeleTech founder Ken Tuchman: "I don't care where in the world you go, self-service will always be less expensive."
There will be a need for someone to answer the phone or e-mail or text or send them. Yet those individuals have to be knowledgeable and committed to their companies, just like the ones you called prior to the creation of 'call centers' (now contact centers) and empowered to make decisions. In short: second level sales and support.
The 'new contact center' if it can be called that will be a blend of home-based agents, 'informal agents': front-line staff such as in hotels and retail, plus available experts, connected via unified-communications-enabled presence. Both home-based and informal utilize existing assets and connectivity without throwing away cash on separate buildings and infrastructure.
Says Bill Durr, Principal, Global Solutions Consultant, Verint Witness Actionable Solutions: "Once upon a time the contact center was called a call center because that's all it handled. And, it held a separate place in the organization physically, as well as from a work-flow perspective.
"The call center was asked to handle e-mail, and then web chat. At this point, it became a contact center. The skills and knowledge it took to handle the transactions of varying complexity that might come to an agent became so great that specialization deemed necessary.
"The demands on individual agent skills and knowledge continue to increase. Along comes unified communications and particularly the notion of 'presence.' With this, the answer to the growing issues around skill sets facing contact centers emerges: tapping into the presumably much-higher skill and knowledge that exists in the enterprise.
"The best-practice scenario almost always shows an agent having trouble dealing with a customer issue. This agent reaches out electronically to an expert lurking somewhere else within the organization. The expert then comes into the conversation and resolves the problem forthwith.
"The way this vision can work is if the enterprise and contact center no longer have a boundary. Everyone in the enterprise is capable of being recorded, when key applications are in use. And everyone in the enterprise is scheduled, if not as rigorously as contact center agents.
"In 10 years, I expect that there will not be any full-time contact center agents; at least not like we define a full-time agent today. Instead, I see every member of the contact center: agents, casual agents, those hooked-in by presence, etc. as working the transaction only part-time.
"There are no technical problems with this vision. Voice over IP has taken care of that. Even people external to the center/enterprise can be recorded if necessary or desired."