Contact center technology

Contact Center Technology: Past, Present & Future

The philosopher George Santayana once said, “ To know your future you must know your past”, and I do believe that it is important to understand the evolution of call centers, in order to understand and appreciate the developments happening in the modern-day contact centers.

Contact centers are a vital component of any business, as they influence the overall perception of how a business performs.

So let’s take this journey together through the contact center evolution timeline.

Where it all started…

In Angelina Jolie’s 2008 movie ‘ Changeling’, she was working as a telephone operation supervisor, wearing a 0.5Kg headphone, running on wooden roller-skates in the Private Branch Exchange at the end of the 1920s.

This scene showcases the seed of what we call now contact centers.

Contact center technology history
Angelina Jolie as Telephone operator supervisor in the 1920s, from the movie ‘Changeling’.

Since the invention of the telephone in 1876, it has revolutionized the way we communicate with each other across distances.

I the early 1900s, businesses started using phone directories to compile and sell client lists.

Without a doubt, the invention of the telephone is the main reason for the existence of contact centers as we know it today.

Shortly after the invention of the telephone, in 1882, the private automated branch exchange, what contact centers professionals now know as PABX, is the reason switchboards exist.

According to TCN, the development of Wide Area Telephone Service (WATS) in the 1970s allowed companies to economically dial across the country with charges based on geography.

This can maybe confirm the “creation myth”, which states that the first call center was created in 1973 by the US firm Rockwell to serve Continental Airlines, and their push for a telephone booking service, according to callcenterhelper.

From then onwards, call centers continued to flourish.

The game changer

Fast forward to the 1990s, the role of the call center started to change, as the Internet played an integral role to the shift that happened in the contact center industry.

The big change took place, and the transformation from call center to contact centers was inevitable.

This was the result of the rapid consumer internet access, and the rising popularity of email.

Yet the main contributor the the big change in the contact center industry was the ‘dot com boom’, as more companies started operating online, and businesses started to realize the importance of call/contact centers to provide the missing element of customer service.

I believe the Internet made the world a small place.

As Stephen Hawking once said,

We are all now connected by the internet, like neurons in a giant brain.

The best example of how the internet connected the world, especially after the burst of the ‘ dot com bubble’, was ‘ Offshoring’.

Around the 2000s, and due to the rise of contact center popularity, as well as the rise of costs, American and British companies started moving their contact center operations to markets with low cost labor such as India, the Philippines, South Africa, and Egypt.

The digital age

The shift in the contact center technology started taking place, where digitalization of tools for the contact centers to become more efficient was the main target of many organizations.

It is my personal opinion that contact centers are one of the main contributors to the development of the world of business information technology, especially when it comes to Customer Relationship Management systems and tools, as well as telecommunication systems and tools.

Before that, every call center was operating using the ‘old-school’ analog telephone.

According to one article by InteliKINECT, the development of the Digital Access Signaling System 2 (DASS II) by British Telecom revolutionized the industry.

Companies were able to fit hundreds upon hundreds of terminals onto one digital connection that was both faster in speed and lower signal irregularities.

Instead of being limited by the amount of telephone-wiring connecting each and every terminal, the digital call center allowed mass-scaling.

Another technology that led to a big change in the contact center world was ‘Computer Telephony Integration’, what the contact center professionals know as ‘CTI’.

CTI is the first technology to integrate computers with telephones.

Modern telecommunication features such as call merging, call transfers and computer controlled dialing are all based on this system.

CTI technology
Ericsson advertising their CTI system in the 1990s. (Source: Ericsson)

The age of customer and the rise of omni-channel communication era

From smoke signals and messenger pigeons to telephone and email, communication tools have been constantly evolving the way we interact with each other.

And while contact centers from the 1990s till 2000s, where always referred to as ‘Call Centers’, have transformed the setup from call centers that rely solely on calls to contact centers that offer various contact methods to their customers.

It started with adding email communication and website contact forms to the already existing call option, and by the 2010s, customer communication demands shifted to more instantaneous type of communication, such as instant messaging, chat, social media, and web channels.

This shift in communication demands has led the contact centers to adapt, and resulted to the rise of the omni-channel communication.

Omnichannel contact center

The reason why contact centers adapted to customers communication demands is because we are now in the age of customer, where customers are more empowered than ever.

According to an article by techtarget.com, informed customers are able to research a product or service online and negotiate prices and service levels after comparing one vendor to another.

As a result, companies have had to change the way they interact with potential customers in order to build a customer base and foster loyalty.

Customer experience timeline

The rise of omni-channel communication in contact centers coincided with the emergence of social media channels, and customers’ ability to voice their concerns and satisfaction to their community, as well as the need for instant support.

Customers want to reach to brands through channels of their choice and convenience, they don’t want to wait in long queues on the phone, or wait for days for an answer to their emails.

The shift to omni-channel communication provided customers with a range of options for contacting brands — phone, email, chat, messaging, social media, mobile app, and more.

The rise of bots

As mentioned before, the rise of the digital communication era resulted to instant communication and interaction, and to support the rise of the instant contact demand, bots were introduced to enable customers to get instant support outside of working hours.

Bots in contact centers
The history of chatbot — Source automationedge.com

The first chatbot was created at MIT in 1966 by the name of ELIZA. This was later called the chatter bot.

The main purpose of this chatbot was to create a communication interface between the machine and the Man.

Eliza chatter bot

Early in 2016, the introduction of the first wave of contact center artificial intelligence technology took place in the form of chatbots.

Social media platforms like Facebook allowed developers to create a chatbot for their brand or service so that consumers could carry out some of their daily actions from within their messaging platform.

The evolution of AI technology is now in full speed and chatbots are only a faint splash on a huge wave of progress.

With the spread of messengers, virtual chatterbots that imitate human conversations for solving various tasks are becoming increasingly in demand.

Online chatbots save time and efforts by automating customer support.

Gartner forecasted that by 2020, over 85% of customer interactions will be handled without a human.

What’s next…

With all the developments taking place, as well as the impact of COVID-19 on the way we live, communicate, and do business, the contact center has been recognized as an essential element for keeping the business going.

Since March 2020, when most of the world entered some form of lockdown, the rise in the demand for online support services has surged.

(Also read about COVID-19 impact on digital transformation here)

And since customer expectations, especially since COVID-19, have been rising, and the need for digital & instant contact is a given, here are some of the contact center technology trends projected for the next few years:

1. More integral role for Ai

Hype cycle for artificial intelligence

There is no doubt that the power of technology has influenced almost all the changes in the space of the call center.

The speed of innovation was frantic, and new solutions for modern call centers were fast.

One of the latest technologies in this area is artificial intelligence (AI).

According to Gartner research, during the pandemic, for example, AI came to the rescue.

Chatbots helped answer the flood of pandemic-related questions, digital communication helped maintain social distancing, and machine learning models were indispensable for modeling the effects of reopening economies.

AI use cases will grow further, and the benefits the contact center can reap from it will be endless.

Here are some of the benefits of enabling AI in contact centers:

Intelligent call routing implementation

Call routing is the process of redirecting incoming calls to available agents at the contact center.

Now, artificial intelligence can predict the best available group of services according to the customer’s profile and communication history and send a call to this agent.

Alternatively, artificial intelligence can also be used for skills-based routing to ensure that the customer’s call is routed to the right person.

Well-informed actions performance

The infusion of AI into conversations has fueled a revolution in terms of enhancing agents’ efficiency.

AI application assimilates information over time and creates patterns that can be addressed with ease.

For example, when a customer calls and raises a complaint, the predictive power of AI takes over, giving the agent multiple possible responses.

Then, the agent can choose a suitable response or disregard them altogether if they make no sense.

Conversational AI

Conversational AI is a type of artificial intelligence that enables software to understand and interact with people naturally, using spoken or written language.

Conversational AI acts as first line of defense for customer queries, fielding simple questions and forwarding complex problems to human agents who are better suited to handle them.

As per a report by Research and Markets, in 2018, the conversational artificial intelligence (AI) market is currently at $3.2 Bn and is predicted to reach $15.0 Bn in 2024, advancing at a 30.2% CAGR during 2019–2024.

The market is growing due to the rising demand for AI-powered customer support services, positive return on investment (ROI) for companies deploying conversational AI solutions, and an increasing number of solution providers in the market.

2. The driving force of data & predictive analytics

The contact center is a hub of interactions between a business and its customers.

These interactions produce data that can be analyzed to derive insights into agent productivity and consumer behaviors.

More contact centers are using data analytics to turn these metrics into meaningful feedback that supports decision making.

Predictive analytics can help your contact center operate more efficiently in increasing customer retention, predicting the success of follow-up contacts, and provide better insights in forecasting and trends analysis.

3. Get ready for the Self-Service economy!

Self-service

A study shows that 40% of consumers now prefer self-service over human contact.

This doesn’t mean the end of contact centers.

On the contrary, with the right combination of self-services and the human touch of more personalized customer services, another evolution in contact centers will take place.

A digitally integrated customer contact journey always begins with the digital touch points, and with seamless transition to the contact center, an effective journey can be achieved.

4. The next frontier: social media community care management

Social media communities for contact center

Social media is now an indispensable touchpoint for brands and customers.

According to a study by smartinsights.com, 63% of consumers expect a brand to offer customer services through social media channels.

The changing mindset of the customers about the use of social media has dawned upon brands.

Social media is now becoming an inseparable part of the unified communication system.

Brands are all out to enhance responsiveness and expediency of social media service.

In particular, two-way social media conversations are taking center stage in the contact center service.

“We’re changing the world with technology.” — Bill Gates

Contact centers have been evolving for almost half a century now, and they have proven to be a crucial element for any business, and the technological developments will always have an impact on contact centers, as they do to our regular lives.

As long as businesses understand that contact centers are ‘value-generating centers, and build up their strategies towards that purpose, the benefits that will be realized can be limitless.

Always remember that every interaction with customers is an opportunity to create a remarkable experience, and setting up the right contact center with the right technologies, will be one of the key differentiators for business success.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

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