Contact Centers Finally Moving Beyond Voice?
A surprising "new" channel is rising, and a future is emerging in which all channels are about equally important.
True or false: Voice is about to be equaled and possibly even eclipsed as the preferred method for customers to reach contact centers.
That's true, according to a survey done at the start of this year by Callcentres.net, sponsored by Avaya. We're always rightfully wary of vendor-sponsored research, but this particular set of questions and responses seems pretty general to me, not skewed toward any Avaya-specific approach. At least in the results that Avaya shared with me, it's pretty straightforward questions asked of consumers: What would you rather do?
So what's about to surpass voice as the preferred contact medium? I'll give you hint: It's another supposedly-dying medium.
The survey found that worldwide, 70% of respondents had used voice most often to reach a contact center in the past 3 months. In the U.S., this figure was 76%. The next-highest response was email at 15% globally and 13% in the U.S.
But when the survey asked, "Which of the following contact methods do you think you will use regularly to contact companies' customer service centers in the next 1-2 years?, 56% worldwide mentioned voice, and 55% mentioned email. In the U.S., 56% mentioned email and just 50% mentioned voice.
The contact channels that we tend to think of as more cutting-edge did show strong new interest: Web self service was mentioned by 38% and web chat was mentioned by 18% worldwide; in the U.S. it was 36% and 28% respectively. The number saying they'd already used these channels in the last 3 months was below 10% in all cases.
What does this tell us? For one thing, it tells us that contact centers are going to face continuing challenges in staffing and organizing their operations. When I talked to Jorge Blanco of Avaya recently, in the context of the company's latest contact center release, he mentioned the fact that contact centers still tend to assign their agents to specific media—agents who take phone calls tend not to deal with email, for example. If we go from a world that's dominated by voice contacts--with the other channels representing niches--into a world where each of the media has about equal weight, that suggests there are major retraining and/or hiring issues ahead for contact center operations. It also suggests that agent cross-training may become more common.
From a communications perspective, the evolution suggests that vendors who can offer the more flexible contact center software, in terms of contact routing as well as interaction functionality, will be the ones who produce the best results for their enterprise customers. Most of the vendors in this market will tell you that's exactly what they’re doing with their flagship systems, so the winner(s) will presumably be those who do the best job of executing on this vision most cost-effectively.
The contact center has always been on the cutting edge of communications technology, because it's often been the only place within the enterprise that can show a hard-dollar payback for investments in advanced functionality--it's the only place that ever adopted CTI in any volume. Now it's poised to demand the kinds of next-gen advanced functionality that all-IP communications systems can provide; and it looks like investments in this area may once again pay dividends. The contact center may be able to prove in a lot of functionality enabled by SIP--showing the value of presence, mid-session addition of media and participants, and communications-enabled business processes.
The next step will then be making the business case for pushing these capabilities beyond the contact center.