Nov 05 2012

Will the Web Kill the Call Center?

Customers expect more than just phone support from today's companies.

Customers have long loved the instant gratification of call-in customer service and support: The phone rings, they talk to an agent, they get an answer.

Unfortunately, call-in service may also include extended hold times, confusing phone trees and irritated agents, which can make for a less-than-ideal customer experience.

To circumvent these annoyances, customers have increasingly opted for support through web channels, such as chat or self-service applications. In fact, a recent Avaya report showed 60 percent of consumers continuously change how they contact a company. Could this mean that consumers will one day skip the phone call altogether?

My company explored this question — Will technology kill the call center? — last month in a live debate for research firm Software Advice, hosted through Google+ Hangout. In the discussion, the panel answered four questions about contact channel utilization, technology and the impact of these trends on the future call center:

  • How has consumer contact channel utilization changed in the past decade?
  • What role has technology played in this change?
  • How will technology impact the way customers contact companies in the future, and what kind of service will they receive?
  • Will technology eventually render call centers irrelevant?

Here are some of the key takeaways from the event.

Leverage Contact Channels Together

All of the speakers agreed that consumers are embracing new contact channels, such as virtual agents and self-service support, at a pace never seen before in the contact center industry. This shift is not taking place because customers are choosing these new channels over voice, but rather because they are using social media, FAQs and other channels in addition to the telephone.

In response, companies need to do more to integrate these web-based channels with phone support and leverage each medium to better serve the customer. Once customers get to voice contact, they are at a crucial juncture in the interaction, and the company needs to be much more informed about them at that point.

For example, what were they looking at in the FAQ before they called the toll-free number? Did they interact with a virtual agent? Having these answers can bring critical context to the live response and personalize the experience, which can increase efficiency and boost customer satisfaction.

Respond to Empowered Customer Choice

Technology can finally deliver on the round-the-clock customer service promises of five or six years ago. This has revolutionized customer service in that consumers now have a choice.

Customers are empowered to choose the communication channel they want, when they want it. It’s up to the company to “right channel” their business, which means determining which channels are most important to customers and investing in those technologies.

Companies should consider that the majority of customer contact will soon come from a smartphone or tablet. Users may not want to tap through self-service login screens or fish around FAQ pages using a tiny keyboard.

Ready Your Agents for the New Contact Center

All of the speakers agreed that customer contact preference is shifting away from voice. But this won’t kill the call center — because it’s already dead.

The concept of a call center made up solely of phone agents has evolved into a contact center of “command teams” who manage customer interactions through multiple channels. That’s because today’s consumer demands instant gratification, and the reborn center is expected to support that demand, whether it comes through Twitter, a live chat or a phone call.

This expectation of multichannel support will continue to affect the consumer’s expectations of contact centers and their agents. Support agents will need to develop a Swiss Army knife–like skill set when it comes to delivering customer service.