Twenty years ago, when I began consulting in the contact center
industry, building a call center was a hard, resource-consuming task.
Just to begin handling calls required purchasing lots of proprietary
equipment, such as PBXs and automatic call distributors (ACDs), as well
as software for computer/telephony integration (CTI) and business
applications such as case management and CRM – and then spending a lot
of time and effort integrating them. Lots of tasks were managed using
spreadsheets, and if you wanted anything more than the basic reports
available from your PBX/ACD supplier, you would have to budget a great
deal more money. Right from those early days, call center managers
focused on efficiency and relied on basic metrics such as queue
lengths, average call-handling time, hold times and call transfers.
Not far into the evolution of call centers, consultants – including
me – told companies to deploy interactive voice response (IVR) because
it would support more advanced call routing. We also advised companies
to deploy Web-based self-service applications because letting customers
perform tasks themselves would be cheaper than paying agents to handle
calls, and consumers would demand such capabilities.
To help drive efficiency, vendors developed workforce optimization
systems to record calls (hardly any of which were actually listened
to), products to help increase agent utilization and systems to let
companies monitor agent performance more rigorously. The name of the
game was still efficiency, and although people started talking about
first-call resolution, the focus remained on average hold time (AHT).
According to my research, two decades later, things have not changed much. My latest research into contact center analytics shows AHT is still the number-one performance metric. My research into the use of technology in contact centers
shows that routing to the next available agent is still the most
popular use of call routing. The success of IVR is questionable, with
more than 70% of visitors to IVR choosing the option to speak with an
agent, and the same is true of Web-based self-service, where again more
than 70% of people opt to call an agent.
The same research does shows two significant changes. More than 60%
of companies have transitioned to voice over IP (VoIP), and companies
have been hectically implementing additional channels of communication.
My latest research into the state of contact centers
shows companies now support an average of four communication channels.
However, the focus on efficiency hasn’t changed – the transition to
VoIP was made not to use all its new features but to save on
communication costs and equipment, and the deployment of additional
channels was done largely to divert calls from the contact center.
At this point I believe that contact centers can’t continue in this fashion, for three fundamental reasons:
- Consumers have grown used to using social media. If a company
doesn’t support it, some consumers will not do business with it, and
poor-quality products or service are likely to produce adverse comments
on social media, with potentially major business implications.
- Customers have become more demanding. The purpose of having
multiple channels of communication should no longer be cost savings or
diverting calls from agents; it is about embracing consumers who want
to work with you through the channel of their choice. However,
consumers demand consistency across channels; if the information on
self-service channels doesn’t match their expectations, consumers will
be unhappy and will drive up your costs as they try other channels,
especially the phone, until they get what they expect – or stop doing
business with you.
- The business market has changed, and retaining existing customers
or winning new ones has gotten harder. This means companies need more
cooperation across business unit boundaries, especially when it
involves social media. Interaction-handling processes have to be
improved – for example, companies need better IVR menus, need to avoid
asking callers to repeat information and must not promise to call back
and then not do it. Finally, companies need better information to drive
strategy, to give to customers and to measure performance against key
The good news is that vendors in this space “get it,” probably more
than the majority of end-user companies. Vendors have developed more
and better products: while I used to cover about 20 products seven
years ago, now the number is close to 100. More products are developed
based on standards, making them easier to integrate. Vendors have put
together more integrated suites or have developed close partnerships
that deliver preintegrated products, and more and more are providing
access to these products via the cloud. Leading vendors such as Contactual, inContact, Interactive Intelligence, LiveOps and SAP BCM
have developed suites of products that support the majority of contact
center requirements – and have made these suites available as
Why are cloud services important? Yes, they save capital
expenditures; yes, using a service provider means having to depend less
on skilled in-house resources; yes, such services are accessible from
anywhere. More importantly, however, the products have rich
functionality. They put business users in control through features such
as configuration and parameter-driven functionality. The vendors make
them secure to access and use. They are scalable to meet most user
demands. And vendors take care of housekeeping activities such as
operations, product upgrades, backup and recovery. In summary,
cloud-based services afford companies the opportunity to innovate in
the way they handle customer interactions at affordable costs.
Our Ventana Research Maturity Index shows around 10% of companies
have improved their processes, information and technology and reached
the highest Innovative level of contact center maturity. Others would
do well to learn from their experiences. The emergence of the contact
center in the cloud might just be the stimulus to bring about a surge
of innovation in the next few years.
Richard Snow – VP & Research Director