The Past, Present and Future of Customer Contact: Driving contact centres into the 2020s

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December 17, 2019
Contact Centre

On the brink of moving into a new decade of customer communications, it’s a good time to take stock of what the 2010s have delivered to the contact centre space and form clear strategies to propel contact centres into the 2020s.

Let’s cast our minds back to 2010: what a year it was!

2010 saw the release of the iPad, the game changer which would see personal laptops become increasingly redundant. Angry Birds was the app that would begin a worldwide craze, and musicals were pushed back into the mainstream spotlight by Glee. And who could forget the undulating soundtrack of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa… vuvuzelas.

But let’s turn our attention back to contact centres and customer service. Throughout the 2010s, particularly earlier on in the decade, voice was still the number one preferred channel for customers to communicate with companies through, closely followed by email. As the decade went on, social media became a channel used by companies as well as by individuals for personal use. The technology around voice-activated smart speakers became much more sophisticated and mainstream, and communicating through video with apps like FaceTime and WhatsApp became the norm.

The 2010s and the multichannel model

With the advent of emerging technology early on in the last decade, customers demanded the ability to communicate with companies through these alternative channels. The response from contact centres was to create a multichannel approach, expanding into channels such as social media and chat. The goal was to open up as many channels as possible, the more the better, to drive engagement with customers at multiple points of their customer journey.

The multichannel model is intrinsically linked with the explosion of technological advancement in communications which we saw in the early 2010s. It was all about casting the net wide through these new and exciting channels, to show their customers how innovative, relevant and available they were, at a time where digital touchpoints were gaining momentum.

But there was a problem with multichannel models for contact centres. Workflow was coming in from different places and channels, and the early multichannel contact centres didn’t necessarily factor in how these workflows should be managed efficiently. With different systems and teams in place for handling for telephony, emails, social media and chat enquiries, this would easily lead to backlogs.
Enter the stereotypical visions of customer service teams: being kept on hold for hours, waiting days for an email response, and those dreaded words…

“You are currently number 39 a queue. We will be with you as soon as possible”

Recognising that this was a problem for both customer experience and contact centre efficiency, the focus over the past few years has been on omnichannel: a method of joining up multiple contact channels into a centralised environment which has now become the gold standard. Customers can start their journey on one device or channel, and finish on another in a completely seamless way. Likewise, agents are able to begin a conversation with a customer on one channel, such as email, and continue the same conversation easily through multiple channels, such as phone, web chat or social media.

Contextualising contact centres: Smartphones and the death of the high street

The advancement of technology over the last decade has had a huge impact on the way we live, work, communicate and shop. Arguably one of the biggest changes of the last ten years has been the effect of online shopping on our local high streets, leading to multiple store closures and collapses of numerous well-established, heritage brands including House of Fraser, Staples, Toys R Us, BHS, and Debenhams, which ultimately failed to keep up with changing tides in consumer behaviour.

At the beginning of the decade, smartphones were relatively new on the scene, being owned primarily by early adopters of the iPhone. At the time, the number one choice was the QWERTY-keyboard Blackberry Bold, which quickly became the ultimate status symbol in pop culture. However, small screens and limited high-speed broadband connectivity when out-and-about meant that online shopping was still reserved to laptops and PCs.

Once tablets arrived and smartphones had become mainstream - dominating the mobile market with large, ultra high resolution screens and fast broadband (and 4G) widely accessible in most towns and cities - brands began to realise that websites were no longer simply a marketing tool or ‘shop window’.

Before, customers would use websites to view stock to later buy in store. Now, websites had become a hugely lucrative and popular shopping channel where a large proportion of customers would complete full, end-to-end customer journeys through their smartphones.

Companies and organisations across all industries recognised that digital touchpoints were now the primary channels used by many customers to interact with their brand, leading to mobile-first web development and more focused digital marketing strategies.

Changes we’ve seen in 2018 and 2019

Over the last couple of years, the game has changed again. Today, it isn’t about whether or not we choose to go online, it’s about how we choose to go online, and for what purpose.

The problem that many organisations faced was a mis-match between the popularity of digital channels for customers and the traditional telephony-based contact centre setup. The expectation for instant responses, consistent across multiple channels and various stages of the customer journey, is higher than it has ever been.

To solve this problem, the conversation has shifted towards bridging the gap between contact centre and website environments. Previously, contact centres were run by customer service teams, and websites weren’t really a part of that environment at all. These two divisions were silo’d away from each other, telephony and email channels being owned by contact centre teams and websites/social media being owned by digital marketing or web development teams.

Now, with the increasing need for real-time communications, these two divisions are being joined up through integrated chat and web calling systems which link directly into your contact centre environment. This has driven digital marketing teams and contact centre teams to combine forces in order to achieve the seamless journey customers now demand.

Moving into a new decade of unified communications

It is no secret or surprise that businesses today are primarily focused on delivering a great customer experience. In fact, research by "Gartner shows that two thirds of companies claim to compete mostly on the basis of customer experience, making it a more important competitive differentiator than price or product.

Customers expect service to be fast, helpful and convenient. They also want the quality of service to remain consistent across every channel they use, and expect businesses to adopt the same communication methods that they use for day-to-day, personal use. And this isn’t about to slow down.

The roll out of 5G is anticipated to service major cities by next year, with mass market roll outs expected before 2022. Users will have lightning fast connectivity (around 10x the speed of 4G). With this comes a huge capacity for remote streaming, and super-high resolution 4K video calling will become widely available. As well as this, according to Vodafone, 5G uses millimetre wave spectrum, meaning vastly more devices will be supported concurrently: 4G currently supports around 4,000 devices per km², 5G can support around 1 million.

What does this mean for contact centres?

It means that contact centres are going to have to step up to the plate if they want to deliver that all-important customer experience. As we move into the 2020s, one thing we can be sure of is that the demand for alternative channels such as video calling will increase exponentially.

As it stands, video is yet to become a mass-market adopted channel. Despite this, some trailblazing companies are already making strides with video, taking full advantage of the versatile service it enables.

Bravissimo, a British retailer, are using video calling powered by Talkative which integrates directly into their Mitel contact centre environment. They use video and cobrowse to offer personalised consultations and fittings services for online customers who can’t easily access a store, but still want a face to face experience.

Moving from fashion to function, Australian charity Deaf Services using Talkative’s video calling for accessibility reasons. They employ sign-language trained agents to communicate via video to assist hard-of-hearing users.

Bleeding edge contact centre trends for the 2020s

The next decade will see huge changes to the contact centre management, in terms of both technology and the way teams of agents operate.

The hybrid contact centre

AI is becoming increasingly sophisticated and increasingly mainstream. Many homes in the UK are now equipped with smart speakers, IoT and wearable technology are in high demand and chatbots are used commonly to provide quick support on websites. There is an argument that the 2020s will therefore see the rapid deterioration of the traditional human contact centre. It’s easy to understand why this prediction exists; as tech is becoming increasingly advanced, it is both cheaper and faster to adopt such technologies into your contact centre environment.

However, this isn’t providing the full picture.

Another key trend to have emerged over the last couple of years is that of ultra-personalised service. Coupled with the general rise in expectations for customer experience, this shows that customer’s demand for human interactions from businesses is stronger than ever. A study by PWC shows that 78% of UK consumers want more human interaction in future, not less, despite the increase in automation.

Moreover, when customers were asked to rank what they value most in customer experience, human attributes dominated the top spots, such as friendly service, knowledgeable service and human interaction, far surpassing automation.

As such, future contact centres will be based on a hybrid model, rather than purely human or AI based, and the roles of human agents will become much more focused.

With the desire for efficiency being paramount, automation and self-serve will continue to rise in demand. Chatbots and other forms of AI will be used to assist customers with basic requests and FAQs, alleviating pressure from agents. In turn, contact centre agents will have more time available to dedicate to more complex or consultative enquiries, satisfying the need for personalised, tailored service. This means that the agents of the 2020s will become hyper knowledgeable and specialised in dealing with these types of enquiry.

The technology is already out there for the agents, too. For example, Talkative’s language translator tools, customer journey mapping, analytics and customer message preview allow agents to contextualise website enquiries faster, enabling more effective and tailored support.

Fluid contact centre management

The idea of having separate teams of agents managing phones, emails or chat interactions worked well before omnichannel, but in order to truly deliver an omnichannel service agents will have the ability to swap across multiple channels and manage workflows centrally from a single dashboard.

Being able to move across different channels, and handle multiple interactions at once will provide the customer with a seamless service in a much shorter time frame. Particularly in the case of web chat, agents can manage up to 5 chats concurrently, reducing overall contact centre wait times.

Cloud based contact centres and remote agents

Cloud based contact centres aren’t anything new, but over the next few years we can expect to see almost all contact centres migrating onto cloud. As well as having benefits from a setup and management point of view, this could also have an effect on how agents choose to work.

Given the rising demand for flexible working, the prediction is that agents will have more freedom to work remotely. This is a far cry from the traditional call centre, with rows of agents in crowded and noisy floor, but has been shown to increase agent productivity and overall employee happiness, potentially decreasing staff turnover.

More customer visibility

With the increasing demand for video, contact centre agents will be more visible to the customer. Face-to-face interactions through video or cobrowse sessions will pave the way for more direct, personal customer/agent relationships to form.

From this, we might even see an increase in agent reviews, with each agent being given their own profile, customer feedback and ratings so that customers can be hyper selective about the consultant they interact with.

The upshot

The primarily voice-based contact centre which defined the last decade is simply not enough to meet the needs of a customer in the 2020s. As customer experience becomes more entwined with the end to end customer journey, contact centres have to reposition themselves within the company in order to deliver the standard of service desired by the customer.

Gone are the days when a contact centre was silo’d away from digital marketing and sales teams. Nowadays, with the increasing encroachment of digital channels into every part of our lives, customers will expect their engagement with companies to be much more transparent, fluid and joined up than ever before. In order to achieve this, strategies need to be more unified across company functions, and companies must be agile to keep up with the changing tides of consumer behaviour.

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