The days of customer-facing businesses using phone exclusively to engage with their customers and end users are coming to an end, as contact center vendors are integrating advanced unified communications and collaboration features -- such as instant messaging, video and social tools -- into their platforms. And the next frontier might be integration with consumer social media.
"A few years ago the contact center was almost given up for dead -- it was thought of as lines of cubicles with old technology, said Joe Staples, chief marketing officer for Interactive Intelligence, an Indianapolis-based call center software technology provider. "With multi-channel modes of communication available, businesses began to realize they could differentiate their customer service by not only making and receiving calls, but by adding Web chat, email and social media communications."
UC, collaboration builds more promising call center technology
With more emphasis being placed on the customer experience by many businesses, unified communications (UC) and collaboration technology is breathing new life into the contact center by arming agents with contextual information about the caller before they actually speak to the customer. Click-to-call or instant messaging (IM) functionality straight from a consumer-facing website makes reaching a company easier for customers, but also gives call center agents the ability to see what a caller might be interested in -- or need help with -- ahead of the call. "If a customer runs into an issue on a website, the transition to speak to a representative should be seamless," Staples said.
Interactive Intelligence offers a core Customer Interaction Center platform with software application options -- such as voice, email and speech analytics. Customers choose which UC applications to add to the platform for their call center agents and customers, Staples said.
Real-time speech analytics can detect keywords and phrases -- such as "cancel my order" and "money back," -- and can alert managers who can choose to monitor or join the call. "These sophisticated features can deliver a very different experience for end users," he said.
Reporting functionality is becoming increasingly important for businesses, said John Hernandez, vice president and general manager of collaboration business applications for San Jose, Calif.-based Cisco Systems Inc. "Businesses don't want to know simply how long a call lasted for anymore. They want to know if there was call resolution, if the customer called back several times, and if there is information to indicate that the customer got what they needed and is satisfied," he said. "Reporting features tie that information together so managers can fine-tune the call process for their customer base."
Cisco's Unified Contact Center Express and Unified Contact Center Enterprise platforms include inbound and outbound telephony, email, chat and co-Web browsing or screen sharing functionality, as well as call routing algorithms and reporting analytics.
A large East Coast-based university has been using Cisco's Contact Center Express for its 400 agents in 20 contact centers, and is now in the process of upgrading to Cisco Unified Contact Center Enterprise in order to support a dramatic increase in online students.
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"Our number of students has increased by tens of thousands over past seven years," said the university's IT communication liaison who requested anonymity. "We believe the high growth rate is in part based on our use of call center technology for marketing, as well as to support our distant students."
The university relies on its contact centers for marketing, residential, enrollment and financial aid, and uses voice and WebEx for screen sharing and video as a part of its contact center strategy. The university also uses a third-party provider for its website's click-to-call functionality.
Moving forward, the university would like its predictive dialing functionality to use Cisco's Unified Contact Center Express -- a function for automatic phone number dialing and busy single screening to save call center agents' time, the IT communication liaison said.
Call centers leveraging social media
Businesses are all too familiar with dissatisfied customers taking to social media sites -- like Twitter and Facebook -- to voice their concerns. Contact centers can no longer focus exclusively on customers who come to them. They should equip their agents with the tools to engage customers who aren't calling in, but may be ranting on Twitter.
Social media management will be an important tie-in for call center technology, said Paul Stockford president and chief analyst for Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Saddletree Research. "There is general recognition that the next generation of customers [is] going to have a preference for doing things over social media," he said.
Social media as a mode of communications presents a challenge for the contact center, however. "People aren't talking to you, they are talking about you over social media, so it's an entirely different way of engaging with customers," Stockford said. "Businesses will have to decide which conversations to join, which requires a different set of management skills with the contact center."
"Businesses are asking for tools to help monitor what is being said, and then manage the information by getting it into the hands of an agent who can re-contact that person," Interactive Intelligence's Staples said.
Maturing call center technology will be able to help evolve customer service strategies and even present lucrative opportunities for businesses by giving contact center agents the ability to be more active in reaching out to customers with check-ins and appointment reminders, as well as new offers through multiple modes of communication, Saddletree's Stockford said.