Will the humble phone disappear from the contact center of the future?

Thanks to the invention of the cloud and many advancements in technology, contact centers have undergone significant change in the last 15 years.

New avenues of communication, such as instant messaging and social media, have meant that contact centers are expected to respond to customers on multiple platforms. But does all this change mean that the phone call has been replaced? Will we see phones soon disappear from the contact center?

We take a look at the role of the phone call in the contact center and whether it will still play a vital role in the future.

Introduction

About 10 years ago, we renamed call centers to contact centers. After all, providing customer support no longer consisted only of answering phone calls. Customers started expressing their needs and wants by email or via webforms. In recent years, new support channels such as social media and chat were added. But what about the phone? Will it disappear any time soon in the contact center?

The sociable contact center

When you consider that just 15 years ago or so, Rockwell ACD’s (with their dedicated air-conditioned rooms) were the main technology in call centers, responsible for diverting calls to agents for seven-figure sums of money – it’s clear that call centers have undergone tremendous change. Today vastly improved technology can be deployed for a fraction of the cost and hosted in the cloud. Dimension Data’s 2015 global report points to these vicissitudes.

It notes that 10 years ago there was no web chat, smartphone apps, social media, and very little email. Today, digital interactions account for over 35 percent of all interactions. Based on our observations, it’s likely that in a couple of year’s time, the telephone channel will only be used for 50 percent of all inbound interactions.

However, this is not to say the phone channel will recede in importance – quite the opposite. According to Deloitte’s Global Contact Centre survey, 68 percent of respondents believe voice will experience the steepest growth in response to complex inquiries, whereas web self-service email and mobile will proliferate to meet simple inquiries.

Deloitte recognizes that while the use of the phone channel has decreased overall, there is still a prevailing need to service complicated queries with a real person at the end of the line.

The human touch

Why does this matter? Because people want to speak to other people. Callers will often navigate telephone navigation systems (IVR) and queues to discuss issues that matter to them with a real human being.

However, the difficulty of reaching a person can make or break the user experience and erode customer loyalty. Bearing in mind the amount of money that companies spend on marketing to court new customers – disregarding the very people that come knocking on their door would be insanity.

Boston University examined peoples’ experiences of IVR technology and noted that at the beginning of a customer service experience, 90 percent of respondents wanted to speak to a live agent and no matter how their customer service journey started (with IVR, email, forms, bots or social media), by the end, 83 percent eventually spoke to someone on the phone.

However, taking pains to circumvent a system doesn’t translate into a happy experience. Only three percent of the respondents claimed to like the IVR experience. The study reinforces the point that the phone channel is here to stay – in fact it is often the final destination after exhausting all the other options.

To avoid inciting frustration and exposing agents to disgruntled customers, who are harder to please once they’ve been riled, companies should consider how they can make the phone channel work for them. It doesn’t have to represent a strain on company balance sheets.

Lowering the cost

Businesses have typically associated lowering the financial burden of running a call center with a multi-channel approach. Understandably so – agents’ time costs money. A survey from consumer group which? revealed that callers have been kept on hold by companies for up to 37 minutes, presumably because their agents were otherwise engaged on the other line. When companies come under pressure to reduce these waiting times, they often reach for an automated answering service.

Unfortunately, these don’t always stack-up, as the Boston University study reveals. However, contact center costs can be mitigated by providing agents with the right training, so they can resolve queries as quickly and sensitively as possible. Grouping agents into global specialist areas and providing deeper training along these lines would certainly help, especially as products have become more complex over the years, particularly in the B2B space.

Technology is another significant expense. However, these costs have decreased substantially. Contact center platforms can now be consolidated on an international scale, from a private or public cloud infrastructure. Any company can use a regular local support number (that is either a geographic, national or toll-free phone) from the countries they provide services to – even if the call center is based in another country.

Such numbers are referred to as DID numbers. Calls to the number are locally collected from the old telephone network, converted to VoIP and delivered to the contact center over an IP network (which can be the Internet or a private IP network). The underlying technology is referred to as a SIP trunk. For organizations using SIP trunks for domestic telephone services, integrating international DID numbers into their contact center platform is a simple as adding a new SIP trunk. Set-up time can be hours instead of weeks or months, and the operation costs are far lower than what a similar solution cost 10 years ago.

Hanging on the telephone

Over the last two decades, technology innovations have not only diversified the many ways in which we now interact with customers, they have also modernized the phone line, which is why directing people to a corporate website to fill in a web form is not always the most constructive (and most economical) approach.

The customer experience will only be improved if companies communicate with customers on their terms. For a portion of customers, this will always be through a person-to-person conversation, at least for more sensitive and complex matters. A company’s best recourse is to equip agents to handle phone calls faster, rather than invest in technologies to reduce the number of phone calls they receive.