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Informal Contact Centers Making a Comeback

Remember the "informal" contact center? It seems to be making a comeback, in part due to new hosted services and product offerings that make it easier for various individuals within an organization to interact with customers. In the past couple of months, I've been meeting with more and more vendors and end-user businesses that are embracing the use of informal contact centers, going beyond the walls of the formal contact center for customer interaction and engagement.

The term "informal contact center" is not easy to define--it can be a small but structured organization, like an internal help desk, or it could include an unstructured group of workers, such as sales, service, or technical support personnel that don't operate like a formal contact center, but still handle multiple incoming service requests.

While the concept of informal contact centers has always been well received, the actual use of non-formal contact center agents to provide customer care has been limited. That's starting to change. Companies are realizing that while contact centers used to be structured customized departments within an organization, things are evolving. Contact centers are now everywhere, even in businesses that don't think they have contact centers. Without using appropriate tools and technologies, companies are missing a way to better serve their customers.

Many of these tools and technologies have been around for a long time--in fact, since the CTI days in the late 1990s. However, CTI technologies were out of reach for most companies due to their cost and complexity, and almost all CTI deployments were in large, formal contact centers.

The main driver for the renewed interest in informal contact centers is the new hosted contact center offerings. As I wrote in a new Interactive Intelligence white paper, "What's different today is the cloud, as well as unified communications tools such as presence and IM. Based on the power of the cloud, customers can reach individuals both inside and outside of the contact center, regardless of their location." Customers can interact with agents or workers operating out of their homes, branch offices, or practically anywhere."

Cloud or hosted services make it easier to provide contact center and UC capabilities for knowledge workers or "informal agents" without having to deploy complex and expensive technology. For businesses with seasonal fluctuation, such as florists or tax preparers, user licenses can be added or deleted quickly and easily.

Informal contact centers is one area where both UC and contact center technologies are beneficial. In addition to the contact center capabilities that provide routing, queuing, reporting, etc., informal call center "agents" with UC capabilities can quickly and easily see which experts are available to help with a customer inquiry in real-time, while knowledge workers, customers, and contact center agents can more easily interact via IM, web conferencing, etc., in order to quickly resolve a customer issue or inquiry.

The biggest barrier is that many companies, especially SMBs, don't realize that they have informal contact centers. Businesses, regardless of size, need to look at their operations and determine whether or not they have workers who frequently interact with customers and could benefit from routing and queuing technologies, as well as reporting, monitoring, recording, etc.

Chances are, when you evaluate your workers and their interactions with customers, you'll find that you have several groups of informal agents who could benefit from contact center and UC tools. You'll also find that there are many cost-effective products and services that can make these informal agents more effective when interacting with customers, increasing customer engagement and customer satisfaction.

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