The contact center and customer service department as key value creators in a changing economy.

The role of contact centers (for service) and customer service departments is shifting towards the center of the organization and value creation. Customer engagement, the customer experience, frictionless interactions and case handling, customer service quality overall and the changing expectations of customers have created an unprecedented momentum for change.

Digital technologies, the need to differentiate, urgent cost efficiencies and customer behavior have added to this momentum in which the customer experience is becoming increasingly important.

The key role and changing face of customer service – and thus of customer service departments and contact centers – isn’t new. However, in recent years there have been many changes and evolutions leading to current transformations.

Contact center and customer service excellence

In 2010, Joseph Jaffe published his famous customer service manifesto, emphasizing how customer service has become the new marketing and is not just about service in the traditional sense anymore. In 2008, Pete Blackshaw published “Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000: Running a Business in Today’s Consumer-Driven World”, emphasizing what had become clear in previous years: in this consumer-driven and connected world things were changing. And many years before that and before the advent of social, the crucial role of the customer experience, and along with it, customer service (which is not the same) for the future growth of businesses was emphasized by several experts.

The increasing role of connected and channel-agnostic customer service

One of the many signs showing that organizations start having another look at the role of customer service and the role of the (inbound) contact center is the increasing attention for social customer service, mobile and digital channels in an omnichannel approach for a channel-agnostic customer.

While in the early days of social – and, unfortunately often still today – the increasingly public and connected voice of the customer was feared by many organizations, social is now increasingly taken into account. It took us quite some time to get there and truth is we’re not there at all, even if already in 2009 a poll by Corizon showed the growing role of social customer service, including IM.

In fact, customer service has been moving online and to digital channels since the early days of – the commercial – Internet.

Still, many customer service and inbound contact center requests stull happen via traditional channels, including telephone, paper and email (the first digital channel to be broadly adopted). But things are changing as they have been changing gradually since more than 15 years.

The contact center and customer service department – a differentiating role

The reason why omnichannel customer service has become so important is not mainly because of a sudden spike in specific digital channels. It’s a mix of the realization that customer service and the customer experience are key business drivers, changing behavior, the commoditization of products and services in many markets, cost concerns and the simple fact that business start seeing that a single customer view is not just about having that view but also about acting upon it. Customer service and, along with it, the customer experience, have become key areas where organizations can still make a genuine difference.

And the business challenge increasingly is how to make that difference amidst a more global, commoditized, connected and highly competitive market reality. With everyone battling for providing excellent or “wow” customer service and experiences for ever more demanding and channel-agnostic customers, the question arises whether it’s really an area where the difference can be made in this competitive market that also has to tackle the challenges of new business models and offerings from companies we tend to call “disruptive” in this age of digital transformation sometimes (or who are simply better at listening to the customer and acting upon it, putting customer questions and pain points in the center in several business functions and marketing tactics).

The answer to that question is a clear yes. The heart and mind of the customer is where the “battles” can be won. Sure, customer service and the end-to-end customer experience are not the sole ways to stand out. Innovation and being close to the customer in other ways are other differentiators.

But the simple truth is that most organizations still have a very long way to go to put customer service and the customer service departments and/or contact center in the heart of the business and the customer-facing value creation process. And the time to start doing that is now.

The evolutions of the contact center

Gone are the days we were talking about call centers. And, then again, the name was never really accurate. Whatever the nature of customer requests, letters have always been used to seek service or answers to customer questions (and yes, they still are).

From call center to contact center

We started talking about contact centers somewhere in the middle of the previous decade. It’s also around that same time that Dimension Data changed the name of its well-known annual report from “The Global Call Center Report” to “The Global Contact Center Report”, which we covered each year for a magazine we ran back then.So, today we have contact centers. With the increasing focus on the customer experience and customer satisfaction, some today even don’t talk about contact centers but about customer engagement centers now.

Technology and the rise of the multi-channel contact center

Soon after we started talking about contact centers instead of call centers, the concept of the multichannel contact center became adopted as digital technologies became more widespread. In fact, the name change went hand in hand with an increasingly multi-channel customer behavior and the proliferation of channels. It started with email, text messaging and later with web-based tools, ranging from simple Q&A forums, online self-service and instant messaging to chat boxes, terms we don’t even use today anymore. Many of these technologies, such as email (hence the importance of email management software), web chat and self-service are either still very important or keep growing in importance.

Technology wasn’t only claiming its place in the ways customers interacted with contact centers. It also became widespread in the systems contact centers used, several years before that. Remember the first networks, the integration between telephony and networks, PBX technology with among others IVR (Interactive Voice Response), routing based on skills and ACD (Automatic Call Distribution). Today we can add, among many others, unified communications and collaboration (UCC), videoconferencing (all the things our partner BT Global Services specializes in, of course also with cloud contact centres), self-learning platforms driven by artificial intelligence and there is still a lot coming our way.

From a customer perspective we increasingly talk about an omnichannel contact center as the lines continue to blur and people really become and will continue to become channel-agnostic. As mobile becomes ever more pervasive and we get used to what once were emerging channels, it’s just a matter of time before customers don’t distinguish between channels anymore and just want to be served regardless of the how, when and where.

As we moved from traditional technologies to virtual call centers and later the cloud, there were ever more integrations with several back-office systems and of course the rise of CRM in the nineties played a key role.

Digital transformation and human business

Today, the landscape is changing again. The single customer view and fast response, using several technologies and serving customers through multiple channels, aren’t enough anymore. The promise of CRM and of social don’t cut it and the focus shifts to the role of the agent, the place of the contact.

The key role of the contact center and customer service department

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