Dec 19 2013

Today's Contact Center Meets Customers on Their Terms

The virtual and distributed contact center is in evolution – or revolution. Find out which trends are shaping the future.

Customers today want it all — fast response, receptive agents and the ability to contact companies on whatever device, in whatever medium they prefer. That may be a shock to organizations that have relied on the traditional inbound call center model for decades. Still, it’s a shock they must get over to compete and thrive in today’s world.

While meeting customers on their own terms may seem like a nearly impossible task, it’s actually quite possible with the right mix of technology, perspective and processes. Organizations that are doing it right are creating unprecedented levels of closeness and loyalty, translating into higher profits and more satisfied customers.

What’s possible today, thanks to enabling technology, is a far cry from the inbound call center of the past. The traditional call center focused on handling calls as quickly and efficiently as possible while incurring the lowest cost feasible. The large “boiler rooms” featured rows of agents with managers scoping the action for issues and irregularities.

With customers looking for more sophisticated support, today’s contact center focuses on truly fulfilling customers’ needs. It’s more than just a call center. In fact, it can be more than a physical place. A contact center can be considered a customer service department with staff distributed all over the country – if not the world.

Establishing a Two-Way Street

Think of the contact center as a two-way endeavor. Instead of a model that depends on customers trying to reach the enterprise, it’s a push-pull model where it is just as important for entities to proactively reach out to customers. That involves many facets — in essence, becoming a multichannel contact center.

The multichannel contact center is table stakes. That means being able to communicate with customers in a variety of ways, from web chat and text to social media, email and phone.

According to a 2013 report from the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), the multichannel approach to contact centers is critical. The report found that 93 percent of customers would be more satisfied with customer service if they were offered their channel of choice.

Recent research from Nemertes backs this up. It found that while most contact centers today use email, nearly half were using or planning to incorporate text chat, while 36 percent were using or evaluating social media and 24 percent were using or considering mobile enablement.

Social Media: Game Changer

Increasingly, customers prefer to express themselves through social media — everything from Twitter and Facebook to Instagram and Google+. Companies are quickly learning the importance of incorporating social media into the contact center and the penalties for failing to do so.

There are three important reasons for integrating social media into the contact center. The first is customer service; customers want to communicate in the way they prefer, and organizations must provide the means for them to do that. That means knowing which social media channels customers prefer and incorporating them into the contact center.

The second is to circumvent issues. Consider an unsatisfied customer tweeting something uncomplimentary about the enterprise. The organization that has a process in place to monitor those tweets can nip the problem in the bud and avoid a potentially disastrous situation.

“It keeps your ear to the ground so you can protect your brand,” says Peter Milligan, solutions marketing manager of Cisco’s Customer Collaboration group. “If a customer has a bad experience with the organization, it can proactively respond to an individual using the same social media channel they used. That might help them change their view of the entity and then rebroadcast the fact that you fixed their problem.”

Organizations also can use social media as an outreach and marketing tool. For example, the enterprise can use social media to inform a customer that there is a service location near them or a sale on a product it knows the customer buys frequently.

Yet as important as social media is to the modern contact center, relatively few entities have identified a strategy around incorporating and using it.

A joint survey by the Stanford Rock Center for Corporate Governance, Center for Leadership Development Research at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and The Conference Board found that less than one-third of organizations are using social media for business purposes. The survey found that while 90 percent understand the impact that social media can have on their organization, only 59 percent use social media to interact with customers.

One of the reasons for the relatively low adoption of social media in the contact center, despite its benefits, is organizational, surmises Matt Holbrook, a contact center solution architect at CDW.

“Many organizations haven’t figured out which social media channels to monitor and who is responsible for that interaction within a organization,” he says. “It doesn’t fall into the categories of customer service, sales or help desk. It’s a new business model, but it’s one that companies have to embrace.”

The technology necessary to incorporate social media into the contact center is readily available. This type of application, available from companies like Cisco, can integrate with the underlying technology of social media, so it can be adapted to meet any future social media platforms that may be developed.

Conducting Business Anywhere

Another hallmark of modern contact centers is the ability to conduct business from wherever you happen to be, on any device you happen to be using. Hence, we see the evolution of the virtual and distributed contact center.

For companies, that means giving agents the ability to work from anywhere. Organizations that offer that choice to their agents have higher agent retention rates, as well as the ability to contact agents at a moment’s notice to handle spikes in call volume.

It’s not hard to do. Instead of outfitting agents with traditional desktop PCs — “fat clients” — companies are providing agents with thin client web-based desktops and IP connections. With this technology, agents can simply log onto a URL to bring up the entire contact center infrastructure. With technology such as Bucher + Suter’s mobile agent, agents can even work from tablets or smartphones.

While providing mobility for agents can increase a company’s efficiency and reduce costs, it’s also important to focus on mobility for customers. With the general population so dependent on smartphones, it only makes sense to allow customers to do anything they could do online or on the phone with their smartphone — access queue information, place orders or interact with an agent.

“Imagine that you have a menu structure in your Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system and you want to be able to visually present that to the customer in a mobile application,” explains Mike Kulik, vice president of product and sales at Bucher + Suter, which produces an application that allows companies to transform smart applications into mobile customer assistance portals by pushing data out to smartphones from a contact center in real time. “Since most people have a smartphone in their hand at all times, it’s a convenience for them.”

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