I have been associated with the contact center industry for more than 20 years, first as a systems integrator building centers and more recently covering it as an analyst with Ventana Research. From this experience I have distilled three major observations: that centers are dominated by technology, that they change very slowly and that performance is largely judged by the average handling time (AHT) of calls. The main challenges have not changed much over the years: Centers constantly have to balance improving customer satisfaction with reducing AHT; this remains true even though many companies are realizing that first-contact resolution (FCR) is a much better indicator of performance.
In terms of technology, I have witnessed an explosion. From about 20 vendors when I started, the market has grown to more than 120. There are various new classes of applications: workforce optimization, smart desktops, many kinds of analytics (cross-channel, desktop, speech, text, social media and Web; historical, real time and predictive), social media, unified communications and the latest, applications to support mobility. While adoption of all these applications has increased, the biggest technological innovation has been the deployment of VoIP-based centers, but even here my research shows this has been adopted predominantly to reduce costs; few companies have taken full advantage of what VoIP has to offer in the way of improved customer service.
Against this background has occurred the emergence of cloud computing, which includes any software hosted by a third party and made available as a software as a service (SaaS). It certainly addresses the core issue of cost in that it doesn’t involve purchasing new hardware or software licences or paying annual upgrade fees, and it doesn’t require in-house support staff for administration and customization. For many companies the biggest concerns with cloud computing are security of their data and access to the system, but all the vendors that I am aware of can demonstrate security that is often better than the customer’s for on-premises systems, and browser access likewise is often simpler than within the company network.
Many interested parties wonder whether a contact center in the cloud is available and works well. The answer increasingly is yes. No one vendor has quite put the whole package together, but some are getting close to providing a one-stop shop. From an infrastructure perspective, vendors such as contactual, InContact, Interactive Intelligence, LiveOps and Newvoicemedia provide most, if not all, of a center’s infrastructure and supporting systems. As a case in point, I recently heard a user of Newvoicemedia swear that their solution had completely changed the way they provide customer service and manage contact center operations. For example, agents can be brought online at the click of a button on this person’s BlackBerry, home agents can be activated to prevent long queues building up, and calls can be routed to the best person to handle a particular customer; all these actions previously would have required the integration of multiple on-premises systems.
Another aspect of technology that every contact center needs is a system to track customer interactions and help resolve customer queries. Formerly these would have been called CRM systems, and some of the established vendors such as Oracle and SAP have made theirs available in the cloud. The big innovation has come from salesforce.com. Its service cloud2 provides all the usual CRM features but also includes a desktop that gives users a single view of the customer and all their interactions, including those on social media, which helps agents resolve customer queries more effectively. This application does what it is supposed to do, but more importantly, in combination with the vendor’s force.com platform and app exchange, companies have been able to evolve their whole approach to customer service.
In talking of innovation and customer service, we cannot ignore salesforce.com’s latest service, Chatter. This is essentially Facebook for the enterprise, and it allows all parts of an organization to collaborate on solving not just customer service issues but other activities such as shared presentations, proposals and case studies. I recently spoke with three users of Salesforce Chatter, and none said they could come up with a business case for investing in Chatter – for current customers it comes at no extra charge – but all three said they could not do without it.
All of the above suggests to me that we are at an inflection point in the contact center market. The availability of options in the cloud seems to have opened the doors for more innovation than I have seen in many years. Are your centers being held back because lack of investment? If so, have you looked at products in the cloud? I’d love to hear what you think would be the benefits to your company and what is getting in the way of moving to the cloud. It would be truly exciting if cloud-based solutions finally enable companies to improve customer service to the levels many of us wish for.
Richard Snow – VP & Research Director