The North American contact center industry has reached “maturity,” which is the code word for a gradual demise. As noted in the analysis “Opportunities in a Mature Market,” Frost & Sullivan forecasts the total number of contact center seats will shrink from 4.1 million in 2012 to 4 million by 2017.
If anything, the seat loss is a conservative estimate, as there are several factors causing the call center sector to become even smaller:
· Millennials and Gen Yers are entering the consumer mainstream. They will only contact companies’ staff if they cannot find a satisfactory solution on the Web, in mobile apps, on text-based automated channels (chat, SMS/text, and virtual agent), or on social media. And, as indicated in Frost & Sullivan’s research, “From Interactive Voice Response (IVR) to Automated Customer Interaction,” these new consumers also appear to prefer automated text over IVR, including speech-based solutions.
Here’s the rub: Millennials and GenYers may perceive voice-driven call centers as irrelevant, an attitude they may take with them in their careers. They may also see customer service as a dead-end career. If so, chances are these employees will instead go into marketing, which is usually responsible for the “relevant” mobile, social, and Web channels, and which has a direct route to the C-suite. Consequently, when these individuals become corporate decision makers, they will be less inclined to spend money on call centers.
· Most companies now understand that the best way to reduce service costs, and to satisfy and retain customers, is by making their products and services easier to use and more reliable. Moreover, the products themselves can now diagnose problems and alert customers, and, with customers’ permission, automatically fix issues and install upgrades.
· The depth of online advice and information to help customers solve their own problems is increasing. But that means the questions and problems that customers may have after being in self-service may be too difficult for live agents to answer.
· The rise of more productive channels such as chat, SMS/text, and social media permits agents to engage in several simultaneous conversations, whereas live agent voice (and video) is one-to-one. Automated proactive customer contact (PCC) solutions reduce inbound contact volumes while improving the customer experience by alerting customers of important issues.
Underlying these trends is the slow economic rebound and a disappearing middle class that is creating a consumer market made up of a small affluent upper class and a large, less affluent lower class. As a result, companies are focusing on catering to the elite (with live agents), while devoting only enough resources to profitably retain the other buyers (with automated service). But the net effect will be even fewer live agents and seats, because of the small size of the elite market, coupled with elite customers’ extensive use of Web, mobile self-service, and social media support.
Yet there has never been a greater need for companies to provide high-touch omnichannel customer service. Limited growth, combined with customers’ abilities to research companies before buying and influence others’ buying decisions on social media, force companies to adopt this strategy. With products and services also becoming commodities, and with increasing similarity in prices, providing an excellent omnichannel customer experience is the only way companies can differentiate themselves. That includes: improved IVR experiences as customers will make fewer, but more critical, calls to companiesfewer delays and drop-outs when customers switch between channels,and a the shift from automated systems to live personnel.
But what will the future “contact center” look like in this new milieu? Our research finds the new landscape will feature:
· The old fashioned telephone switchboard, reinvented. Multichannel “concierges” will answer simple questions, screen and triage contacts, and connect customers to subject matter experts (SMEs) with unified communications (UC) applications. Interactions will be shorter: 60 to 90 seconds at the most, as compared to the traditional three-minute inbound calls.
· “Consumerized” account representatives, each of whom will be responsible for set groups of customers and build relationships with them. Long proven in B2B, the account representative approach provides highly personalized service. Account representatives can be “virtual only,” in the field, or in brick-and-mortar facilities – all connected by employee-owned wireless devices though bring your own device (BYOD) programs.
· Merged customer service with marketing, and incorporated into the marketing “DNA” – the notion that, in the omnichannel business environment, an excellent customer experience is key to marketing and sales. To illustrate, instead of forcing agents to sell, which has often proven futile, agents should be trained to provide that excellent customer experience, which is measured on customer retention and brand advocacy.
· Brick-and-mortar staff connected to customers over each others’ mobile devices.
· No more outbound voice calling for collections and marketing. Technology has made it so easy for scammers to get around existing laws, and to misrepresent legitimate businesses that consumers now treat all calls from numbers they do not recognize as suspect. Therefore, it is only a matter of time before lawmakers, pressured by consumer advocacy groups and by their constituents, will say “enough!” and outlaw the practice. Instead companies will have to use easier to ignore email, SMS/text, and “white mail.”
With these changes, there will be fewer contact agents, workstations, and facilities, and less demand for “traditional” automatic call distribution (ACD), interactive voice response (IVR), outbound dialing, call recording, and workforce optimization solutions. But there will be greater demand for mobile, social, chat, SMS/text, virtual agents, UC, text-based proactive customer contact (PCC), analytics, remote support, enterprise quality assurance (QA), and workforce management applications.
At the same time, companies will have to step up their human resource (HR) processes to attract and retain top performing staff (we will publish a new Market Insight this spring on HR trends and issues across verticals, not just in contact centers – stay tuned).
Companies should also abandon brick-and-mortar facilities and go to a home agent model to cut costs, add flexibility, and obtain the best talent regardless of agents’ locations, or agents’ ability to commute, and also provide business continuity/disaster recovery. There is no longer a valid reason why contact center employees (or knowledge workers for that matter) must commute to employers’ places of business. The communications, computing, HR, performance management/QA, and security methods and technology have reached a point where it no longer matters where an employee like a contact center agent or supervisor is in order for them to work productively.
Finally, companies must improve their contact center technologies (such as consumer-disliked IVR systems), which, when combined with high quality customer-serving staff, are the keys to providing an excellent (and profitable) omnichannel customer experience.
About the Author
Brendan Read is a Frost & Sullivan Analyst, with extensive experience covering contact center applications, operations and technology, CRM and social CRM, and site selection, outsourcing, teleworking, staffing/training and business continuity. He has held editorial positions with Call Center Magazine and DM News and has written for other publications including 1to1, Call Center Management Review, Customer Interaction Solutions, Direct Marketing News and TMCnet. He is author of Designing the Best Call Center for Your Business, Home Workplace and, with Joseph Fleischer, The Complete Guide to Customer Support. He also contributed to Computer Telephony Encyclopedia. His first article on the industry, “TeleSell”, appeared in Electrical Wholesaling in 1992.