Time To Change “Contact Centers” To “Interaction Centers”

“Call Centers” became “Contact Centers” when they started to let customers use other forms of communications, i.e., IM chat, email, SMS to contact customer-facing staff in a business operation. However, because most consumers still didn’t have ready access to a desktop computer, the telephone was still the most convenient form of immediate contact. Contact center “applications” also included automated self-service applications to minimize the use of live customer service staff.

The use of the telephone interface for customer service access, of course, impacted the way automated self-service applications were developed, based upon the Telephone User Interface and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology. However, the limitations of short speech menus for input, as well as practical limitations for speech informational output, meant that only simple customer requests could be satisfied with telephony based self-services. The traditional contact center solution to such limitations has been to “Press 0” for on-demand access to live assistance, placing the caller into a wait queue, which often causes customer frustration and hangups.

While alternative call center strategies have evolved, i.e., giving the caller an option to leave the waiting queue and receive a “call return,” there could be problems if the caller cannot have convenient access to the original telephone number used. Scheduling a “call return” is also not a great solution, since it requires the caller to carefully plan their availability.

With the advent of Internet access to online (self-service) applications, the dependency on the telephone for such services to consumers has been reduced, but it still requires consumers to have ready access to a computer. But, then, if live assistance is needed, the choice is limited to text chat or a request for a callback, both of which are not necessarily time-efficient.

Mobile, multimodal smartphones and tablets, that are UC-enabled, are finally bridging the gap between online-self service applications and live assistance on-demand by providing more efficient access to a variety of customer-oriented online applications, as well as making it easy to “click-for-assistance” in the modality of their choice. Even if there may be a delay in a wait queue, the “call return” can be ASAP, rather than scheduled for a particular time to a particular contact number.

Needless to say, the more that customers can do by themselves will increase customer satisfaction, and if they do require live assistance, the ability to flexibly provide such access will also enhance the customer’s control of their situation. Repackaging online applications into bite-sized “mobile apps,” for different consumer mobile device, is already a major thrust for business operations. Bottom line, it is a win-win situation for both consumers and contact center operations.

So, the images of the old “call center” and even its “contact center” successor really need to be refurbished by recognizing the increased role of online self-service applications, rather than legacy IVR implementations. Not that the voice interface will disappear, because certain situations will require both speech input and output, e.g., while driving a car. But, as Apple’s Siri personal assistant for its iPhone has demonstrated, speech recognition for input is very simple and convenient, but they also provide visual information output that is more efficient than voice.

The future of contact centers can now be based on access to live assistance when necessary to supplement online business applications that must be considered key to contact center operations. For this reason, I see the “contact center” label being expanded to an “Interaction Center,” because most customer contacts will no longer be so dependent on live agents simply to get information or perform transactions. With Mobile UC enablement, the ability to get immediate access to live assistance anywhere, anytime, will increase customer activities with any business operation.

In addition to the “inbound” customer contacts, Mobile UC and Communications Enabled Business Processes (CEBP) will facilitate outbound notifications that will also increase either customer satisfaction or business process performance. The faster and easier that customers can interact directly with a business process without incurring time delays and labor costs will benefit everyone.

Finally, community sentiments that can be derived from social networking activity, will also play a role in evaluating business performance, rather than by direct customer contacts.

So, isn’t it time to recognize this shift to customer mobility and start calling contact centers “Interaction Centers?”

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