The Future of the Call Center Industry

By Clinton Fitch

Like many aspects of communications and technology, the call center is in the midst of tremendous changes. Some of these have resulted from the volatile global economy, while others have come to fruition through improved organizational efficiencies. Other changes and innovations, such as an increasing focus on mobility, have also affected how the call center functions today and will continue to operate in the future.

However, other unexpected changes are being driven by an ever-younger consumer market demanding that their needs be met in ways that just a few years ago were not even possible, let alone considered. These changes affect how communication between the consumer and the business happens. Many Generation X and Y consumers prefer not to communicate by phone, but by other media channels. The businesses that adapt their call centers to these new modes of communication are the ones that will retain their customers – which is no small feat given how nomadic younger consumers are today when it comes to business.

The challenges the industry faces are large and affect both technology vendors and their call center customers. It is incumbent on vendors to develop a deeper understanding of their customers’ businesses in order to meet these challenges. In turn, businesses must be willing to adapt to new models of communication. More than ever, a strong vendor-to-business relationship is critical for the success of both sides of the B2C (business-to-consumer) equation. Five key areas will be critically important to the industry and to the businesses that deploy call centers. These areas reach across the entire industry and influence virtually every business vertical or market.

Vendor Consolidation: First, there will be considerable consolidation of industry vendors over the course of the next three to five years. This has already begun with the recent transactions by Verient, EngHouse, and Genysis, as traditional IVR vendors consolidate or acquire key solutions to complete their portfolios. These mergers, acquisitions, or purchases are a boon for businesses because they provide one source for many technical solutions. The challenge for these vendors is maintaining deep technical understanding of the solutions they purchase or acquire. Businesses, like consumers, will look to other solutions if their needs are not being met.

Multi-Mode Communication: Secondly, the call center industry must embrace multimedia, or more accurately, multi-mode communication with its end customers. Generation X (those born between 1962-1976) and Generation Y (born between 1977-1991) dominate the consumer market today. These two generations make up 66 percent of the consumer market, and they expect businesses they work with to be able to communicate with them beyond the telephone. This includes email, SMS (text), Web-based chat, and social media. Given that these generations have little brand loyalty, businesses and their call centers must quickly move to adopt these modes of communication or these customers will be lost to a competitor. Vendors will have to adapt their solutions to ever-increasing demands by businesses and their end customers.

Web-Based Solutions: A third key area for call center industry vendors is adapting to the increasing demand for Web-based solutions. Traditionally the call center has been dominated by thick clients, large servers, and Microsoft Windows. This is rapidly changing, and vendors will need to adapt to stay competitive. The demand now is for virtualization of server solutions, thin clients such as Windows Terminal Services or Citrix environments, and a wide range of end-user devices. This includes mobile devices as well as non-Windows based operating systems such as Apple’s Mac OS X and Google’s Chrome. The easiest way for vendors to address these new challenges is to migrate to Web-based applications instead of building OS-specific solutions. Web-based solutions are highly adaptable and are far easier to deploy in both virtualized and non-virtualized environments.

The Hosted Call Center: Related to this is the hosted call center. The field of hosted communications is growing rapidly, and the future of call centers will require the availability of these solutions. Today there is much debate around what the true impact of hosted call center will be, but there is no question that it will have an impact. This is particularly true of the small-to-medium-business sector where dedicated staff to manage telephony and call center solutions is generally nonexistent. It will be critical for vendors to offer hosted solutions that have easy-to-interpret pricing models and a strong feature set that can quickly adapt, expand, and contract.

Social Media: Finally, call centers and vendors alike are just beginning to address social media, but Twitter, Facebook, and a host of yet-to-be-unveiled engagement tools will only become more important to the industry. The next step is to cross the chasm between simply feeding social content into a contact center and offering a true understanding of the business analytics of these data streams. Because of the volume of information that these data streams produce, separating what is important to a business from what is not is a daunting task. Vendors will need the ability to get these media streams to the call center and also provide relevant statistical information along with proper routing and treatment of these streams.

The future of the call center industry is both challenging and exciting as “call centers” transition from to becoming “contact centers.” With multiple modes of communication now available and with their expected growth, consumers expect to be able to reach out to a business via any mode they choose. That requires vendors to adapt and mold their solutions to meet both business and consumer expectations.

Clinton Fitch is the senior product manager for Contact Center at ShoreTel. He came to ShoreTel in 2010, bringing over a decade of Contact Center development, design, implementation, and sales experience with him, primarily around Cisco System and Interactive Intelligence solutions. Clinton has been a sales practice manager and product manager over the course of the past five years with system engineering management and system engineering experience dating back to 1997.

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2012]

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