Contact centers, with their growing number of capabilities and communication channels, have become an integral part of our daily life. From making a change to a travel reservation to getting technical help for a mobile device, we’ve all come to rely on the services that they provide.
Yet, we rarely stop to consider that only a few decades ago, the concept of the contact center as we know it today was only an innovative idea in the minds of business and technology visionaries. The evolution of the contact center has been an incredibly fast-paced development that has changed how we engage with brands, and continues to challenge companies to adapt and improve their service capabilities as an Omnichannel Engagement Center.
The Pioneers of Contact Centers
We can trace back the first call centers all the way to the mid-1960s, when private automated business exchanges (PABX) were first used to handle incoming customer calls. Some of the earliest adopters of this technology were airlines and mail-order retailers.
The introduction of the Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) was another early advancement in the development of contact centers. ACD systems enabled calls to be filtered and assigned to agents available at the time. This technology replaced human switchboard operators with a far more automated, flexible system of managing call flow, which suddenly made it possible to handle significantly larger call volumes.
British Gas was an early adopter of ACD technology back in 1972 with a system that had the capacity of handling up to 20,000 calls a week. When you consider that it’s not uncommon for a contact center today to receive more than 20,000 calls an hour, you can begin to understand just how the technology has advanced.
Improvements and Innovations
In the 1980s, contact centers began to take on the characteristics that we’re familiar with today, with rows of agents helping customers on computer terminals. As ACD technology improved, calls were routed more efficiently to specialized teams of agents. This reduced call waiting times enabled call centers to substantially increase call volumes. Other advancements that fueled the growth of contact centers during this time included the introduction of toll-free numbers and the earliest versions of CRM software, which offered insightful, predictive, and actionable data that could be used to improve operations.
The Rise of the Internet Age
The popularity of contact centers continued to grow in the 1990s, fueled largely by the introduction of the internet. With the launch of websites, companies began to offer new communication and self-help capabilities like online ordering, email, and FAQ. No longer was service something that was provided solely by phone during business hours. Customers began to expect around-the-clock service, and the 24/7 contact center was born.
Internet telephony was also a pivotal advancement during this decade. Many contact centers began to shift to VoIP phones because of their cost-savings and flexibility. This led to the development of distributed workforces and the availability of low-price, offshore contact center solutions.
The Challenge of Multi-Channels
By the early 2000s, call centers truly became multi-channel contact centers. Customers had a choice in how to interact with companies, including voice, email, web chat, and SMS. With these new available channels, customers expected faster, more personalized service from multiple touchpoints.
Social networking became the next challenge for contact centers. Because of its broad adoption, companies had to pay attention to it to sustain their customer base. On one hand, channels like Facebook and Twitter delivered new ways to engage with customers. On the other, negative comments from a single customer could go viral quickly and cause serious damage to a brand.
With multiple self-service and assisted-service channels deployed, it was becoming increasingly difficult to manage the customer’s experience across them. Customers became frustrated when their transition from one channel to another meant having to start over and repeat their needs. This led to longer resolution times, as well as agent frustration at the lack of access to information and context to effectively deliver low effort experiences. The result was a fragmented customer experience, missed sales opportunities, and reduced operational efficiency.
The Future is Omnichannel
The goal for contact centers now is to deliver seamless, consistent, and personalized customer interactions across the growing number of channels throughout the full lifecycle of every customer journey. This requires omnichannel customer engagement that combines multimodality, orchestration, and journey management to deliver better customer experiences.
So, what does this look like in real life? In an omnichannel world, a customer may first inquire about a product via a mobile app. To get more information, he or she may take the next step of calling into the company’s contact center. With information obtained via the app, the company can now deliver a more personalized experience by connecting the customer with a skilled agent who has full context of the customer’s preferences, recent digital channel interactions, and any previous engagement history. This can be even more personalized by adding joint voice and digital sessions to deliver a truly impactful, multimodal experience.
As the evolution of the contact center continues, one goal will remain constant: to provide the most seamless, satisfying customer experience possible. By combining data-rich mobile and web experiences with personalized service, both on the phone and face-to-face, a contact center can enable this to happen.
To learn more about building an omnichannel contact center, download the ebook Best Practices for a Seamless Omnichannel Customer Experience.