The contact center: from call and contact to customer experience and engagement center

From call center to omnichannel contact centerContact centers are going through a series of changes of which many already are disrupting the status quo. Especially the role of the inbound contact center and that of the contact center in a customer service context is changing.

This has to do with costs, benefits, changing customer expectations, the role of the end-to-end customer experience in digital transformation and the impact of technological evolutions.

We know that consumers have changed. We also know that seeking customer service is not just a matter of the contact center or customer service team anymore. What was once known as the call center (with calls still mattering a lot) and has been becoming the multi-channel contact center, enabling omni-channel interactions center (many still aren’t there yet), is gradually moving to a customer experience or customer engagement center as some call it. An overview of the challenges, solutions and transformations in the contact center today and in the future.

Omni-channel in the contact center

Just as virtually everything in a customer context is becoming omni-channel so are contact center interactions. It’s an evolution that has started over a decade ago and has been strengthened with the advent of ever more channels and, more importantly, a changing customer behavior.

Where do we seek support or answers to support-related questions regarding the services and products we use? Where do we go for answers to urgent issues in regards to these same services and products? Where do we find a fix for a broken product, an unexpected increase in the price of a service, help to do something with a solution we have whereby the good old manual – if used at all – doesn’t provide an immediate explanation?

The answer to all these questions: everywhere. Long gone are the days we used to have a limited number of service channels and even operations/organizations such as the call center.

It’s the multi-channel, cross-channel, omni-channel and increasingly channel-agnostic and device-agnostic evolution we’ve been seeing in so many areas. What matters to us – as consumers – is the answer we get, not where we get it.

The chaos of customer service channels

Where we talk about multi-channel and omni-channel, reality is that from a customer behavior and organizational perspective, customer service has become increasingly chaotic.

Look at your own behavior and try to imagine a few scenarios in which you look for fast answers or service in regards to some of the products, services and solutions you use in your capacity as a “private person” and in your capacity as a “business person”.

Depending on the type of product/service/solution and the company providing it, you’ll see that you look for answers in various ways. The urgency of the question will also play a role and there are more parameters. Furthermore, chance is high that you’ll consult several sources for just one question, sometimes even at the same time.

This behavior is a challenge for organizations and their customer service departments and/or contact centers. In fact, it’s not just a channel-agnostic or, if you prefer, multi-channel and omni-channel behavior we display here. It’s also one that very often is totally chaotic from the organization’s perspective (“I’ll call an agent, submit a support ticket but continue to browse the self-service section on the website, oh no, wait, the online chat just got activated, they’re awake, let me try that too so I’m sure I get an answer fast”).

From integration to transformation

Growing customer expectations and the proliferation of support channels is one challenge among many others. Seeking support and service has become ubiquituous.

At first sight the answer to this totally shattered situation whereby people literally seek support everywhere, seems rather obvious. We typically look at it from perspectives such as:

  • Using the right technologies to offer service where it matters and to connect with all systems needed to streamline the processes, information flows and responses.
  • Integrating everything so you can get a single view on all customer service related interactions.
  • Turning the contact center into a hub that fits in the broader customer service hub that the organization as such increasingly becomes from both the customer service and customer experience viewpoint.
  • Going for single customer (interaction) views, smarter routing of requests, unified communications.

However, as is often the case the remedy to tackle the increasingly difficult customer service question, is not easy at all. In fact, it’s far from only technological and even process-related. It’s also human, organizational and deep-reaching regarding the very role of customer service and contact centers as such.

What we notice de facto is that, lacking a holistic view of the contact center, organizations keep working in siloed ways (that have a negative impact on customer service levels and overall customer experience and come with additional costs and sometimes even more costs.

The transformation of the contact center and customer service department, including the famous people/processes/tools trio, ranks high on the agenda of many organizations. And it’s not just about digital transformation. It’s about transforming everything, from information flows to – again – the role of the contact center but also of the contact center agent as such. Another essential transformation that’s taking place concerns the evolving – and essential – role of and approach regarding contact center analytics.

The contact center as a strategic resource

The overarching theme in the discussions regarding the contact center transformation and the very future of contact centers revolves around the fact that contact centers should be seen as a crucial strategic resource for organizations.

Remember that traditionally contact centers originally started as “a means to cut costs and consolidate aspects of the operation” as Nicola Millard, Customer Experience Futurologist at BT Global Services (and a partner) reminds us. Nicola is one of the people emphasizing the role of the contact center as a strategic resource.

Within that overarching theme, and given the roots and mainly traditional view of the contact center as cost, the rethinking of the role of the contact center looks at it from a customer relationship or customer experience management perspective, depending on whom you talk with. But the central idea is clear: we move from a narrative about the efficiency of contact center operations as such to a narrative about the efficiency of the contact center from the customer (service/experience) perspective.

Truth to be told: the challenges nor the ongoing discussions on all possible levels (multi-channel and omni-channel, integration, rethinking the role of the contact center, moving away from the “contact center as a cost center” perspective, etc.) aren’t new. Yet, over the last decade in reality there have been relatively few changes with the necessary exceptions. Just ask a contact center agent or contact center manager you might know.

Contact center elements such as first contact resolution in the holistic service experience improvement - unified framework by Metrica Systems
Contact center elements such as first contact resolution in the holistic service experience improvement – unified customer experience from Metrica Systems

The nexus of forces affecting the contact center

But things are changing faster than before. And the reason for it is what some would call a “nexus of forces” that create the conditions for rapid change and also digital transformation.

Key forces are:

  • The increasing role of the customer experience as a business value creator and even differentiator (and, along with it the continuing customer experience gaps).
  • Changing customer expectations and behavior (also including digital technologies and driven by customer experiences with the best in class in various industries).
  • The advent of technologies that enable and even force change, increasing competition, commoditization and saturation in many markets.
  • The competitive challenges of customer experience champions (who have deployed some of these technologies, improved their processes and created an entirely different approach).
The position of the contact center in a holistic customer experience approach: research

Research by the Customer Contact Association (CCA), found that customer service divisions and contact centers are not represented well enough in boards as their strategic role is indeed undervalued. 74% of respondents viewed contact centers as cost centers.

UK-based sabio, a provider of contact center and unified communications solutions, commissioned the Customer Contact Association to identify key contact center challenges in 2013. Increasing customer engagement and improving multi-channel service were the two main customer challenges.

The top 5 of process challenges:

  1. Managing reduced budgets.
  2. Acting on insight.
  3. Innovating. Risk and management.
  4. Data analytics / contact center analytics.
  5. Trends insight.

You can find more data in the infographic below (full PDF version here) and download the full report (PDF opens). It’s clear that in order to put the contact center in the heart of the business, there is still some work to do. The good news: by optimizing processes and enhancing efficiency, the goals of better servicing the customer, innovating, acting on insights and simply doing better, cost efficiencies can be realized as well. However, this requires that execs who really want to put the customer first start paying more attention to the contact center and integrate, let alone align, what customer-facing divisions do.[/box]

Contact center challenges research UK by sabio and the CCA - click for full infographic in PDF
Contact center challenges research UK by sabio and the CCAclick for full infographic in PDF

Images purchased under license from Shutterstock