• Prad Paskaran, Author |
4 min read

The once humble call centre has become the nerve centre for many organizations, and many companies are still learning how best to design their omnichannel offerings around the customer journey. But one thing's for certain: we've come a long way since the call centres of old. Communication technologies have advanced, channels have expanded, and customer expectations continue to change. What began as phone-based centers for post-sale support have matured into multichannel hubs that cater to the entire customer journey.

But while companies have done well to reinvent the call centre experience, opportunities for true customer engagement are being missed. The evolution is far from over.

Looking back
To understand how call (or "contact") centres have advanced and to imagine where they are headed next, we need to dial it back. First appearing in the 1980s, these centres were initially set up to absorb complaints and issues from customers after they'd purchased a product from a brick-and-mortar store or signed up for a new service. Whenever a customer had a problem to solve, there was a number they could call to (hopefully) find a resolution.

I'm sure many readers recall their first call centre experiences. I certainly remember dialing up my service provider to argue over my bill and being passed from one call rep to the next in search of a product refund. True, there were good experiences, but there were many others that left me frustrated and reluctant to pick up the phone again the next time I had a problem.

Operating a call centre wasn't exactly fun for companies in the beginning, either. They were viewed as a cost sink that chipped away at profit margins. An appliance retailer was always happy to sell a new dishwasher from the store. But having to use a portion of their profits to stand up a call centre for when the machine required repairs or replacements down the road was an undertaking often taken begrudgingly. Leadership therefore often invested very little in their call centre operations and continuously sought opportunities to cut costs, whether through outsourcing, staff reductions, or other measures. Unsurprisingly, those cost reductions would result in poorer customer experiences that led to angrier customers, and the cycle would continue to spin.

No one was particularly excited to be on either side of a call centre transaction when they first became available. And it's these initial experiences that gave "call centres" a bad reputation—which unfortunately lingers to this day. Fortunately, new technologies and customer care philosophies are helping to do away with this baggage.

Making contact
In the beginning, there were landlines. Then, the proliferation of email, text messaging, and online chats provided customers with new ways of connecting with their product and service providers. This prompted call centres to upgrade to "contact centres" that could handle customer interactions from various sources.

Yet while the means of contact had evolved, the functionality of the "contact" centre remained largely the same. It was easier and more convenient to get in touch with customer care reps, but the experiences remained transactional. They were less about forming a relationship with the customer and more about closing the case. Companies were—and, in many cases, still are—losing out on the opportunity to turn customer contacts into meaningful engagements in which insights and data from the transaction could be used to provide more personalized and reactive service.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We'll talk more about the shift to "engagement centres" in Part Three of this series of posts.

The self-serve revolution
By the time customers had access to smartphones and online services, most were still sour from their prior experiences and more than happy to help themselves. Companies caught on and began offering apps and online tools that their customers could use to resolve their own issues without ever connecting with another human being. As a result, concepts such as mobile banking, online ordering, and virtual care assistants began to take off the point where companies began forming entire online divisions with Chief Digital Officers to oversee their digital customers' experiences.

The emergence of this online self-service model might have been inevitable, but that's not to say it was ideal. For one, it can be argued that this approach runs counter to human psychology—that people generally prefer to resolve their issues with other people, assuming the process is respectful and largely effective. Secondly, without the willingness or means to truly engage with customers during these virtual interactions, companies left valuable customer data on the table.

The pandemic, as I'd guess we all now recognize, would drive even more customers to virtual and self-service channels. It would also force companies that could no longer operate out of brick-and-mortar locations to fall back on their primary selling platform. Almost overnight, contact centres became omnichannel hubs for their companies' entire operations. Larger companies were able to adapt and innovate their contact centre offerings as a result, but the strain proved difficult for smaller-sized organizations who were unprepared for the shift.

And that's where we are today. In my upcoming posts, I'll dive into how the newer models are faring, where the "omnichannel" approach can lead companies astray, and—perhaps most importantly—why "engagement centres" are the next natural evolution.

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