With the new year has come a significant advance in contact center technologies, enabling enterprises to roll out new applications and interaction-handling processes in record time. What used to take six months to a year to develop and deploy – and that was considered fast! – can now be done in a week or two, creating more potential for innovation in contact centers than I have seen in the last 20 years.

The greatest change is in how companies provision the systems they need to handle interactions. For many years, and still to a large extent today, companies have preferred to license systems and software and deploy them on their own premises. This has been expensive, time-consuming and involving quite high risk as it typically meant integrating several systems from several suppliers. Over the past few years, though, we have seen an accelerating trend to purchase systems instead on a software-as-a-service model – or, to use the latest jargon, cloud-based. This changes the whole supply model and lets companies with even small budgets invest in innovative technologies.

We also have seen an accelerating shift away from traditional CRM to customer experience management (CEM). CRM has tended to focus on automating internal processes such as market, sales and customer service. CEM, however and as our benchmark research has confirmed, focuses on the customer and aims to deliver an experience that exceeds customer expectations. CEM is being talked about a lot, but listening to these conversations makes clear that, as was the case with CRM, companies have different ideas what it is really all about. To me CEM is about managing interactions in real time so responses, whether from an agent or an automated system, are appropriate, in context and personalized. To do so, CEM embraces technologies such as smart call routing, a smart agent desktop, better programmed IVRs and easy to use, more natural language-based Web self-service applications. Using the insights available from new analytics capabilities and rules-based decision engines, the experience can be tailored to satisfy the customer and achieve the desired business outcome.

My benchmark research into use of technology in contact centers found at present the two most popular channels of customer communications are calls to the contact center and visits to the company’s website. In other words, agents working in contact centers continue to have a major impact on the customer experience as confirmed in our agent performance management benchmark. Companies are therefore continuing to focus their efforts on improving the efficiency and effectiveness of this vital resource, seeking to increase agent utilization without impacting customer satisfaction, personalizing training and coaching more to address individual agent needs, and supporting agents so the outcomes of interactions are in line with business expectations.

Businesses can look to five new technologies to support their customer satisfaction needs: cloud computing, social media, analytics, collaboration, and mobility. My head of research has identified the business technology revolution in 2011  and are directly relevant to my contact center resesarch. Of these, I suspect the most important is cloud computing. Anyone who has been involved in building a contact center knows there are three major challenges: integrating all the systems that manage the communication channels (telephone, e-mail, the Internet, postal mail, IVR, chat, mobile text messaging, social media), integrating all the applications needed to manage the contact center workforce and resolve customer interactions, and integrating both sets of systems together to create an environment to resolve interactions efficiently and effectively. Vendors have now emerged that can provide communications, applications and almost fully integrated contact centers in the cloud. This now makes it possible for even the smallest company to create a sophisticated contact center in a matter of weeks. Who for example would have thought two years ago that a contact center manager could use his or her BlackBerry to switch an agent’s calls from the office extension to the home number? Moreover, companies can apply these technologies to all interaction management and thus improve significantly how they interact with customers, all with far less risk and cost than ever before.

More and more people are using social media to find out about companies and their products, to gather opinions and voice complaints. There are ever-increasing numbers of applications to manage a company’s presence on social media; how successful this proves to be for marketing, sales or customer service is, I think, still up in the air. However, what is certain is that companies need to know what customers are saying about them on social media because a bad mention from an influential person can have a far bigger impact than a single customer deciding to stop dealing with the company. Fortunately, thanks to building some clever data extractors that can pull data from most social media sites and also to advances in text analytics, vendors now offer products that allow companies to easily track what their customers are saying about them online. Smart companies are building these insights into their interaction-handling processes so they can respond in the most appropriate manner and through the most appropriate channel.

Most contact centers have not aggressively adopted analytics, and my very latest research into contact center analytics shows that average call handling time, one of the most traditional of measures, is still the most important metric to track performance. This is about to change. The same research shows that companies are catching onto the value that new analytics products can deliver. I am seeing an increasing take-up of real-time operational, speech, text, desktop, predictive and social media analytics, so much so that I don’t think it will be long before companies can have that true 360-degree view of the customer, their agents and how their centers are performing. Companies can use these insights to respond to interactions in a more personalized way and within the context of their overall relationship with the customer, and focus agent training/coaching on specific areas that need improvement. This will result in happier customers and agents, less agent turnover and higher customer sales.

The last two technologies, collaboration and mobility, are connected with the type and volume of interactions companies have to handle and how they are doing so. We are seeing consumers change their communication habits and companies use more employees handling interactions from outside the traditional contact center. Given these changes, there no longer is a choice: Companies must support more channels of communication and more at-home, mobile and knowledge  workers handling interactions and still provide the best possible customer experience; if you don’t you will end up on Facebook or the customer will simply stop doing business with you.

It now is indisputable that consumers are moving from fixed phone-based to smart, mobile phone- and tablet-based technologies for communications. This means that mobile call volumes will increase and companies will have to deal with more text messages, IM sessions and communications via social media. It also appears likely that as companies automate more simple interactions such as account balance queries and requests for information, a larger percentage of employees’ time will be spent handling more complex interactions. This in turn means that more knowledge workers need to be involved and companies will have to find ways to share information across communication channels and allow more employees to collaborate on the resolution of interactions. Applications such as Chatter and unified communications allow employees to collaborate more easily using an environment that also is consistent with that being used by customers.  

Many contact centers are challenged to come up with the budgets and skills to step up interaction-handling to the next level. Nothing comes without investment; therefore the business case needs to be based partly on a cost-and-benefit analysis but also on the need to innovate and advance technologically for the organization to stay competitive. As I see it, the combined effects of these business technology investments can have a dramatic impact for every organization no matter what size and industry.

The challenge is yours – you need to look at your organization’s interaction-handling technology with new eyes to see to what extent you can renovate existing approaches, or if you need to innovate with something fresher, more interesting, and especially more relevant to your company’s future.

Let me know your thoughtsor come and collaborate with me on Facebook,LinkedInand Twitter. 

Regards,

Richard Snow – VP & Research Director