Contact Center Feature Use Evolves

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For several years, the call center and the associated supporting technologies seemed to be designed for a single corporate goal: Find the lowest cost way to deal with the necessary call volume. Frequently clients came to me looking to find out how to get even more calls handled by even fewer staff. But in all my years of teaching traffic engineering, I haven't found a queuing formula that fixes an under-staffed call center.

Self-service emerged and was seen by contact center organizations as the golden egg that would decrease call volume. That, coupled with efficient use of technology, was supposed to somehow make it possible to provide adequate customer service with minimal staff. Ultimately, it felt like a "race to the bottom," with everyone trying to get by without investing in solutions that improved performance, instead turning to solutions that lowered total expenses. Even as smaller business units sought to leverage routing and queuing to improve call handling, the focus was on using technology to do more (calls) with less (people).

The results of this cost-focused approach are well known by everyone. If we actually make it into a queue (I'll get to this in a minute), we are told to wait and that our call is important to them -- but it doesn't feel that way. Firms use the technology to tell callers that it is a busy time for them and they should call back later (when it is convenient for them). Better yet, they tell callers to go to the IVR or the webpage, and figure it out themselves, please.

That is not to say self-service is unappreciated. In fact, customers both accept and even prefer a quick self-service answer to easy or routine questions. But when a call is necessary, most do not want to be browbeaten or made to feel inadequate because they were unable to find an answer through self-service and need to talk to a person.

Often the worst use of technology is the supposedly smart (natural language processing) IVR that will happily handle your every need if you just utter the correct phrase or two. Sometimes, you already know what you need does not match the fixed categories, but you end up with a two-minute "conversation" with a machine that seems to be doing its best to keep you from talking to a human. And you know what is next. Is there a single caller out there who has not experienced the multi-layer deep auto attendant asking for precise information and detail, only to dump you into a generic (long wait) queue where you are asked to repeat everything anyway? It feels like some companies have set up a Please Don't Contact (us) Center. And this is on top of companies that don't take calls at all -- we have all visited websites that are absent of any phone number or options to actually talk to someone.

But we are starting to see a significant change...

Now, my clients are asking, "How do I leverage contact center technology to be better than my competition?" and, "Can we align the technology to our business model?" At last, the questions have shifted from a focus on lowering costs per call and cutting staff to improving the customer experience. Some firms are starting to see that when a customer takes the time to call, they either want or need something that can make or break the long-term relationship.

Organizations want to take advantage of the power of the modern contact center, but it is not as simple as buying all the options; proper implementation focused on how to apply the features is needed to produce the desired results.

In parallel with this adjustment in philosophy is a desire by the business to take advantage of contact center functionality throughout the organization. Call centers used to be implemented only for the large customer service centers where call volumes demanded efficient call distribution methods and management reports. Contact center technology is now sought after by many large and small business units that want to leverage queuing, multi-media, client-driven routing, automation, and better information so that they can do a better job for all customers. Furthermore, many clients want to put casual, infrequent participants (such as support engineers) into the contact center pools to aid in tracking responsiveness to customers and to leverage call routing, screen pops, call recording, and even work force management to improve customer service.

However, the contact center industry has not quite figured out how to properly accommodate such clients. The pricing mentality remains that a premium cost is justified for anyone who might receive an "ACD call" or a contact. The software licensing (for premises-based / Capex systems) or the monthly user fee (for CCaaS / Opex solutions) remains the key chargeback mechanism and at a premium rate. I worked on a project recently where our customer had hundreds of engineers participating in the call center activities, even though they would only take a couple of calls each per week. However, every contact center solution proposal they received was priced on either the number of named agents or the number of agents logged in at a given time. As a result, the total cost for a comprehensive solution was enormous. This just goes to show that the vendors have not yet figured out a good way to charge based on volume of contacts processed, rather than simple agent counts.

This will continue to be an issue as other types of contacts, such as emails and texts, are routed to various resources within the organization. If the only way to determine availability and track resolution is to make each recipient/participant an "agent," it will undermine the concept that "everyone in the organization is part of customer service." It may be a good sales pitch for improving responsiveness and first contact resolution, but it must be cost effective. Few businesses can afford to designate the vast majority of employees as "agents" when it carries a premium rate that reflects the old mentality of the dedicated service rep taking calls all day long.

The contact center solutions vendor that figures out the right pricing model to meet these evolving business needs may be able to jump ahead of the competition by helping businesses apply the contact center features that have expanded outside of the dedicated call centers of yesterday.

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.