What do you do as a consumer when you run into a problem with a product, service or website? Even with the rise of the internet, data shows that most people are prone to pick up the phone. Getting in touch with the right call center continues to be the favorite way to problem-solve, thanks to their ease, accessibility and predictability.
What few consumers know, however, is that call centers have made enormous technological advances since they were first set in motion. Perhaps it’s because of these sophisticated tech developments that they have maintained a reputation of immediate help and functionality. Maybe it’s also just human nature. If customers have a problem, they want to vent and talk to someone about it.
So how have companies embraced call technologies to get the job done efficiently and stay at the top of the communication chain? What can they do to continue progressing in the age of automation, artificial intelligence and smart customer relationship management?
To answer these questions, we need to start at the creation of the call center, visualize just how far we have come since then and determine where we can expect emerging technologies to take us next.
A Ringing History: The Evolution of Call Center Technology
There doesn’t appear to be a definite beginning to the story of call center development. Although the telephone was invented in the 19th century, it didn’t become a norm for call centers to handle sales and customer service in regular enterprise until 100 years later.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
While we can’t pinpoint a precise invention date of the call center, we can track innovative telephone technologies that are present throughout contact center history.
1. Sensations of the ’60s: Setting the Stage for Technology Used in Call Centers Today
Manual switchboard operators were a classic innovation of their time, but it’s no surprise that telephone mechanics needed to change to be effective for the expanding business world. The creation of call centers was made possible thanks to a series of technological developments starting in the 1960s.
Inventors and business leaders began pushing to make large-scale dialing and phone marketing more accessible for their individual companies, practices which then grew in popularity over the course of the decades that followed.
For example, before the innovation of touch-tone dialing in 1963, rotary pulses were the only way numbers went out on phone lines. The dual-tone frequencies enabled communication without speaking, and phone models began to come with number buttons rather than the rotary wheel.
Additionally, the 1960s brought the invention of 1-800 phone numbers, which made it easy for companies to advertise their brand. At first, AT&T owned an exclusive monopoly on the 1-800 number market, but eventually, other providers would begin offering toll-free numbers, shooting the concept into the mainstream.
It would take until the 1980s for touch-tone dialing and other innovations to become customary, but they set the scene where call centers would one day thrive.
2. The PABX System: Creating Efficient Customer Call Management Systems
Early on in the telephone era, Private Automated Business Exchanges (PABX) emerged as miniature switchboard systems to help businesses to direct a higher number of customer service calls at a time. Also a prominent component of 1960s corporate phone networks, PABX systems became an underlying element that adjusted with the evolution of telephone technologies.
These systems simplified the process of handling incoming calls, permitting a single business to encompass an entire telephone network of its own. Through a PABX, companies no longer had to operate through a telephone provider to administer various internal telephone lines.
Dedicating a phone network to a single entity not only simplified call routing but also reduced labor costs, since receptionists didn’t have to direct calls from one extension to the next. Organizations also had the freedom and flexibility to invest in fewer phone lines and customize to suit their business model thanks to this improvement.
When PABX systems began implementing Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) technologies, the future of call centers was officially set in motion. PABX devices became more and more modernized, evolving into what started to be referred to as Private Branch Exchanges (PBX) in the 1990s.
3. Automatic Call Distributors: Making the Creation of Call Centers Possible
It was Continental Airlines’s purchase of an (ACD) in 1973 that catapulted the possibility of call centers into the mainstream conversation. The manufacturer, Rockwell, earned a spot as one of the most well-known call center technology pioneers, some even attributing the event as the creation myth of the call center revolution. However, their claim that this was the first ACD installation is perhaps an inaccurate representation, considering that a variety of systems had already been evolving for nearly a decade.
The system Rockwell managed to create for Continental was successful enough that Continental used it for 23 years. This move popularized ACDs and changed the telemarketing world for the better.
When paired with the already growing PABX systems, large-scale organizations could use automatic call distributors to create sizeable call center networks. What ACD technology achieved was replacing human operators with automated computer technologies. Companies were able to handle a much higher number of calls and customer interactions than ever before. In addition, ACD systems provided an algorithm that filtered incoming calls so that they could be assigned to the most suitable agent available.
Aspect Telecommunications was an American company that took ACD technology and improved it to cut down call waiting times, recognizing that with the increase in toll-free phone numbers, they could begin to anticipate high volumes of incoming calls.
4. Novelties of the ’90s: Transitioning From Analog and Other Call Center Developments
Until the 1980s, telephone networks solely relied on analog lines. It was then that digital connectivity began to gain traction. These digital technologies had reached heights of sophistication by the time the 1990s rolled around.
Here are a few other emerging call center technologies that became influential during the last 10 years of the 20th century:
- Caller ID: Some may have seen caller ID as an obstacle to telemarketers and sales staff who operated primarily over the telephone with consumers. However, caller ID also had a positive effect on routing systems within call centers because of the extra on-screen visibility of caller information, allowing for call advisors to direct calls much more strategically.
- Contact Center Headsets: Advertised for style, comfortable fit, customization and flexibility, the personalization of headsets available to advisors became an industry of their own.
- Short Message Services (SMS): Mobile phones were on the rise, and the introduction of text-based communication technology created a new means of reaching the public. SMS created a trend of predictive customer support that is still prevalent today, relying on requesting feedback from customers about their service experience.
The turn of the century also saw the rise of the internet and web-based, “dot-com” companies. Next, we’ll address how the internet revolutionized the call center game, leading to a new era of outsourcing and progressing systems.
5. The Turn of the Century: Taking on the Internet and Overseas Labor
Call centers dedicated to technical and sales support became a vital part of customer service in the age of growing web-based companies across the world. While these centers were a source of vast potential for jobs, many large corporations saw the financial benefit of transferring their customer service departments overseas.
India, the Philippines and South Africa were some of the largest destinations for these call center relocations. While labor costs were notably lower, some businesses also saw areas where the overseas workforce had more adaptable technical skills to be prime technical support representatives. The one downside to this method was that customers who called in sometimes had difficulty communicating with these overseas agents due to language and accent barriers.
Overseas call centers that operated over the internet were not the only developments spurred by the growth of web technologies.
6. Cloud Computing: Converting Contact Centers Into Virtual Networks
Cloud-based customer relationship management systems (CRM) began to emerge in the early 2000s as well, providing expanded cloud access for its sales teams. The first instance of call centers using the cloud for recording and storing call audio and managing the workforce happened in 2004. At the time, cloud hosts were only on-premise, unavailable offline and off-site. However, these networks have continued to expand and shift since then, and companies have begun to embrace cloud hosting platforms more and more.
Most call center owners plan to install cloud technologies in the future if they haven’t done so already. According to a 2017 poll, just under 41 percent of companies are still hesitant to embrace cloud technology due to lingering questions about reliability and security, among other concerns. This percentage was nearly twice as high only six years prior, meaning that software developers who focus on cloud-based call center technology can rest assured.
With the way they store and track relevant data, presenting information in clear ways across platforms to multiple users, cloud-centered technologies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. While it will take time and effort to evolve these software solutions into the most optimal programs for every call center environment, their popularity and functionality are only expected to grow from here on out.
7. Rebranded Contact Centers: Expanding Beyond the Phone in the Digital Age
To reflect the trend of call center agents responding to email, live chats and other means of communications besides phone calls, many call centers are now referred to as contact centers instead.
In recent years, the web-based focus of industries has shifted a high percentage of customer service interactions to live chats and social media, where consumers can leave reviews, questions and complaints to their service provider in either private or public forums. Thanks to computer telephony integration (CTI) systems, telephone and computer conversations can be easily coordinated for a layered means of problem-solving. However, phone calls continue to be the primary source for most customer support.
Some have feared that growing internet and automated technologies will soon replace many call center jobs. It is true that chatbots are to live chat what interactive voice responses (IVR) are to the customer support phone lines, in that they can have basic conversations without human assistance. However, these automated tools can only handle the most simple inquiries on web platforms, and the touch of human interaction is still an essential part of most customer support centers.
Efficiency and Empathy in Customer Support: Where Are Call Center Technology Trends Today?
While the implementation of automation, chatbots, routing technologies and cloud storage have all assisted in making call center processes speedier and more productive, call center efficiency is not the only objective that executives are facing anymore. In this age of big data and quality assurance, businesses, in general, are aiming to measure their success not only by faster cycle times but also by customer satisfaction levels.
This change in focus is due to the importance of customer loyalty for long-term profit and the power of an excellent reputation in key markets. Without stellar, helpful customer service, web-based companies run the risk of losing momentum caused by poor rapport and reducing levels of trust. Unsurprisingly, the area which is the most vulnerable to this risk is phone call interactions between call center agents and incoming callers.
In many instances, these callers express frustrations which the agents can’t control, leading to hostile interactions without the right tools for agents to engage their customers with sympathetic responses, rather than merely quick ones. As this phenomenon has become more and more apparent, executives are searching for call center technology that will reflect a change in ideology about customer experience. In turn, much of the software that is emerging to the scene and predicted to thrive in coming years uses concepts of big data to achieve favorable results across the board.
Emerging Tech Predictions: What Can We Expect for the Future of Call Center Trends?
Data-focused solutions today look to improve call center effectiveness, both in areas of productivity and positive communication behaviors. On this journey toward a consumer-centric mindset, agents can gain insights to improve their performance thanks to precise and intuitive big data analytics and artificial intelligence trends.
Most of the call center trends of the future are not necessarily brand-new. Some are over a decade in the making. However, they continue to shape the industry and change with the tides of reworking business strategies, and their ultimate influence has yet to be seen and measured. Here are some of the ways we can expect call center management to evolve in the coming months and years.
1. Big data analytics and integration
Business intelligence is the leading trend for organizations to understand markets and implement effective customer support strategies using the power of sophisticated data analytics and metrics. Making the copious amount of harvested data more accessible to improve processes is a primary objective for call centers moving forward, and with cutting-edge capture and analyzing technologies, it’s a goal that is more attainable now than ever before.
2. Omnichannel communications
As customers search for the fastest response to their inquiries, they explore the various means of communication open to them, from email and social media to phone calls. This is no new concept, but moving forward, the companies that fail to embrace this change and provide multiple means of interaction will miss out on a lucrative competitive opportunity. Omnichannel contact centers offer access via whatever route the customer finds most suitable, making them the expedient for sales, gathering consumer data and so much more.
3. Compliance assurance
Call center communications have increasing regulations to follow, whether from within the business itself or imposed by the FTC and other organizations. Another reason for the trend of prioritizing compliance awareness lies in the threat of security breaches. The prevailing need to crack down on robust cybersecurity will continue to be a concern for call centers and other environments that are loaded with market data and sometimes classified customer information.
4. Social media feedback
Online reviews provide some of the primary research that consumers use to determine if a company can meet their needs. Part of the recon process also involves perusing the responses and conversations that customer support offers on these web forums and comment threads. The data from these interactions is an excellent tool for contact centers to assess the brand’s reputation and service quality, and smart companies will aim to use an increasing awareness to build that customer rapport and loyalty.
5. Self-service options
Contact centers can thrive in companies that offering help services such as blog posts, video tutorials, free eBook downloads, FAQ forums and other resources for self-service opportunities for consumers. Not only can these tools serve as a reference point to help guide customer support conversations, but it gives DIY customers a chance for an improved experience and can reduce the volume of incoming calls agents receive for basic problems.
6. Artificial intelligence
In addition to helping in back-office operations like data capture and sharing, AI is being used to replace a variety of call center functions. AI can also provide opportunities for customers to problem-solve without picking up the phone. Because of its multiple uses, it’s difficult to predict just how big of an impact AI will have on call center technology. For now, however, most companies are not looking to replace their human workforce with artificial intelligence yet.
7. Personalized live chat
Next-generation chat iterations are a significant part of multi-channel communication strategies. While chatbots are undoubtedly present on many web communication platforms, many industry leaders are looking to increase the personal feel of live messaging, doing away with automated responses altogether. There are even predictions that the live chat will morph into video-based communications to give a more personal feel.
8. Comprehensive suite platforms
Standalone software tools are the way of the past. Not only is there no guarantee that separate technologies will be compatible, but there may be an unnecessary overlap of tasks, gaps in visibility and minimized control. To capitalize on all of the benefits of cohesive call data management, contact centers will start investing in all-encompassing programs with features that all work in tandem. The right CRM platform will help them manage leads, support email marketing, generate reports and forms, create automated workflows and more.
Companies that want to gain the competitive advantage of innovative call center technologies can benefit immensely by staying ahead of these emerging trends. Start investing today in the future, for visible and measurable results from day one.
At LeadMaster, we understand that your call center management system needs to be clear, simple and, most of all, productive. Let our cutting-edge lead managing and call center solutions do the work for you.
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