Celebrating 15 Years of Contact Centers is as Easy as 1, 2, 3!


Celebrating 15 Years of Contact Centers is as Easy as 1, 2, 3!

The contact center has seen a lot of changes in the last 15 years. We have matured as an industry. The centers have become more sophisticated than ever – especially in the technologies employed. But within the three pillars that most consultants identify as the trifecta of success – technology, process, and people – there is still an opportunity to improve.

Customer Experience (CX) is the latest “buzzword” that we are all talking about and trying to get right. I have seen many definitions of what CX is all about – and I think it can be different depending on your role. In some ways, the diverse definitions are also wrapped around where you are in your CX journey. I think of it this way: The wide definition – a focus on the entire experience – from thinking about becoming a customer to no longer being a customer. In this definition, it becomes focused through the lens of the service within the entire organization. And then there are the specifics of CX – tying every interaction (no matter the channel) to the actual experience (good, bad, or indifferent) that the customer has with a live employee or digital channel.

As I thought about this article – and our celebration of all things contact center-related over the past 15 years, I have written an article outlining three key times we got things right. Two areas where we still need focus, and one thing that is changing everything. There are many more but hopefully, this is a good start.

Three Things We Got Right

1. Quality Management made everything better. I remember the first time someone showed me a demo of Quality Management (QM) Software. My non-technical brain quickly defined the technology as a “voice-mail” system that recorded everything and provided it for playback to the supervisor and the employee. We connected the on-prem QM server to the Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) and we began to use the most consistent quote ever said to customers, “Your call may be recorded for quality purposes.”

In organizations that do coaching well, I believe it has had the most impact of any improvements we’ve made over the past 15+ years.

It allowed supervisors, quality teams, and agents to listen to specific agents and calls. It came with “quality management” functionality that added the ability to set up specific plans around who to record and how often. When done right, the supervisor coaches their agents based on a quality form or template (and eventually reviews the screen capture in real time). In organizations that do coaching well, I believe it has had the most impact of any improvements we’ve made over the past 15+ years.

2. CRM lived up to the hype. In the mid-1990s and the early 2000s, we began to hear about the next big thing – Customer Relationship Management (CRM). I remember as a consultant at a meeting with a huge hotel brand trying to “sell” them on the need for CRM. I remember saying, “Imagine your front desk agent and contact center agents being able to pull up on the screen your customer’s name, products, services, and preferences – even down to what kind of pillows they prefer.”

Customers will give us all their data, but in
return, they expect us to ‘know’ them and service them based on their personal preferences.

In most cases the customer service department had access to the sales and marketing database – but there was limited contact management or service-focused functionality. And, while other software companies launched CRM for contact centers around the same time, for me, the launch of Salesforce Service Cloud in 2009 was the defining moment when we began a clear focus on building an application that was designed through the eyes of the contact center agent. I remember standing in the booth at Dreamforce in 2011, talking with customers and trying to explain for the first time what Service Cloud was – and how it would change the experiences between agents and customers forever. Today there are multiple brands and cloud technologies that do contact centers well. CRM was another example of where the impact of technology, along with best-practice processes, allowed the agents to access customer information relevant to the service process. This eventually led to the reality that customers will give us all their data, but in return, they expect us to ‘know’ them and service them based on their personal preferences.

3. Social Media gave the customer more power than they ever had before. I am not sure we planned for this one – but we had to figure it out by necessity. While some companies immediately embraced it, other companies pushed back. I talked with clients who said, “We are not going to do social media customer service.” My response was, “Your customers are already doing it. They are talking about their experiences and telling the world what they think of your brand. You have no choice – this is a new channel we must address.”

In 1981 the research firm, TARP, conducted a study focused on bad customer service experiences. While the results were different by industry, the industry began to talk about a rule of thumb that an unhappy customer would tell 10 people about their poor interaction. Then, in 2009, a band called Sons of Maxwell posted a video to YouTube with a parody song called “United Breaks Guitars.” They had witnessed through the airplane windows, baggage handlers tossing their guitars on the tarmac and discovered at baggage claim one of the guitars was damaged beyond repair. By the end of the first day, there were 150,000 views. As of today, that video has been viewed 23 million times. Perhaps we had no choice but to be involved. The customer had an outlet to tell more than 10 people about their poor experiences. With the click of a keyboard, they could tell thousands. For the most part, we have adapted as an industry – and for most of us, it is just another channel – albeit an important one. I was talking this week with an industry leader who believes as consumers, it is the best place to start as a consumer. I could write an entire article on this one.

Two Things We Must Get Right Today

1. Moving all channels to the Cloud is a hot topic in all-sized contact centers. As a consultant, I have worked with small organizations (<15 agents) and I have worked with companies with 25,000 agents. All are trying to figure out what to do about the movement of customer interactions to the cloud. If you are reading this, you probably have already taken the plunge into choosing a Contact Center as a Service (CCaaS) or Unified Communications as a Service (UCaaS) partner. CCaaS providers are typically focused on streamlining and improving customer interactions across the service and support center, while UCaaS focuses on streamlining all internal business communication into one solution which can be hosted by a single cloud vendor.

This is an area we have to get right because customers expect their interactions with a company to be consistent across all channels. Digital channels have increasingly become the channel of choice.

Some companies like Frontier Airlines have chosen to stop offering service via telephone completely – opting for a digital-only approach. While others will probably join this trend, I believe the voice channel will always be around in some form. But even this channel is different. Conversational Interactive Voice Responses (IVRs) are now Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered phone systems that use Natural Language Processing (NLP) to manage customer requests and provide automated self-service without involving a live agent. If your organization has not followed this multichannel path, you will soon. It is a tough choice because there are many good solutions with similar functionality. While working with clients to choose the best solution, I have found there are two important decision points for choosing the right vendor. How does their service culture match yours (implementation, internal IT fit, onboarding plans, and ongoing support)? The second decision point is understanding where the partner is in their AI journey. How much of the functionality is already available versus what is planned and will be released soon? Choosing the right CCaaS/UCaaS is probably the most important decision you will ever make as an organization and a leader. But doing it right can lead to better customer experiences and reduced costs.

2. We’ll do Service with fewer people – but with higher expectations. This fact is not new in our industry. Every budget season starts with a discussion about how we can do Service cheaper. Over the past 15 years, the role of an agent has continued to get more complex. Multiple channels, complicated desktops, and higher customer expectations – are all a reality. I think this is why I love this industry so much – because no matter how good you are with technology, success often still comes back to people. Leadership at all levels is the difference between great and mediocre service. Employee retention, coaching, supervisor leadership – and the leadership of the managers and directors is still the most important thing we do. If you have seen me speak in the past, you have probably heard me say more than once, “Good people leave great jobs because of a poor relationship with their Supervisors.” I believe it is the most important relationship in the center – yet it is often the most under-trained and under-supported position in our industry.

Ken Blanchard many years ago gave us the concept of Management By Walking Around (MBWA). In today’s remote, work from home service world, we are all learning a new acronym – Management Via Zoom (MVZ). Using tools like Teams, Slack, and Mural, we are learning a completely new way to build relationships via a screen. The good news is there are great podcasts and online training specific to our industry. We have more resources (many free) than ever to help us grow as supervisors, managers, and directors. But of all the things I have mentioned above, if you get the focus on people wrong, you will never have a truly great contact center.

The One Thing That Is Changing Everything

1. AI is changing everything, and we will never go back. The original writing assignment was to share my thoughts about the industry over the last 15 years. You may have other ideas for what made us successful – or what made us lose our path to better customer experiences. But I would be remiss if I did not include the impact that AI is making on our industry. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet, wrote in a blog post on the Google website, “AI will be the biggest technological shift we see in our lifetimes.” He added, “It’s bigger than the shift from desktop computing to mobile, and it may be bigger than the internet itself.”

AI is already making a huge impact in most industries. According to Gartner, Inc. by 2026, conversational AI deployments within contact centers will reduce agent labor costs by $80 billion. Worldwide end-user spending on conversational AI solutions within contact centers is forecast to reach $1.99 billion in 2022. “Gartner estimates that there are approximately 17 million contact center agents worldwide today,” said Daniel O’Connell, VP analyst at Gartner. “Many organizations are challenged by agent staff shortages and the need to curtail labor expenses, which can represent up to 95% of contact center costs. Conversational AI makes agents more efficient and effective, while also improving the customer experience.”

This quote was made in August 2022, before any of us saw the true impact that GPT and generative AI are making across all aspects of the contact center. To name a few: Knowledge Management is not only finding the right answer but then presenting it to the agent (or customer) in a conversational tone specific to the brand. CCaaS applications are routing calls based on very specific customer data, and quality systems are analyzing hundreds of thousands of interactions to learn more about the customer. Digital bots are handling more interactions than ever, and with the right AI plan, often do it better than a live agent.

Gartner also projects that 1 in 10 agent interactions will be automated by 2026, an increase from an estimated 1.6% of interactions in 2022. Conversational AI is already automating all or part of contact center customer interactions through both voice and digital channels, and voicebots or chatbots.

Projections like this make it easy to believe that AI will create another tectonic shift in the way we run contact centers and provide service to our customers. Looking back in another 15 years, I believe we will see that the AI revolution was bigger and more disruptive than anything we have seen in the last 15 years – and yes, even more than the impact the internet made on modern contact centers.

Bob Furniss

Bob Furniss has been an advocate for contact centers for more than 40 years. As a former agent, center leader, and consultant in the industry, he loves to talk to others about the three pillars of service and support centers – technology, processes, and people. You can reach him via LinkedIn or email at [email protected].
He and his wife founded a nonprofit, www.warriorprincess.org, in 2020 in memory of his daughter who was diagnosed with stage-4 metastatic breast cancer at just 30 years old. The disease took her life after a valiant fight at the young age of 34. The organization shares her story to advocate for breast self-checks, annual healthcare visits, and early detection – especially in women 25-45.