What a Difference a Decade Makes

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It's always fun to try to predict the future, mostly because it's so easy to be wrong in amusing ways.


For me, this winter marks 10 years of covering call centers. What an amazingly different industry this is - compared to 1990. Remember what things were like a scant 10 years ago?


• Windows was brand new, crashed a lot and wasn't at all useful for complex


applications.


• Call centers were associated with telemarketing and 900 numbers, and not much else.


• Telecom switches, whether ACDs or PBXs, were closed, proprietary and not extendible. The idea of building a bridge between the data repository and the phone system was barely on research-and-development drawing boards.


• Most centers used legacy mainframes or midrange systems (remember the AS/400? And remember DEC?) as a platform for data and custom agent applications.


• No one had yet given a moment's thought to the Internet, let alone imagined it could be used as either a sales front-end or self-service vehicle.


• Fortunes were being made by outsourcers who were able to afford the high-end systems needed to do large-scale call centering and selling capacity to small companies that were either overwhelmed or too befuddled to build and operate their own centers.


The list could go on, but why? We know what happened. Technology improved. The entire infrastructure within and surrounding call centers was appreciated within the business community as something fabulously useful. The argument was made, successfully, that call centers could do more than answer calls. And around the middle of the decade, people began asking the inevitable question: What else can a call center do?


Different kinds of "calls" were pushed through the center, with varying results at different times. The call center, when properly equipped and managed, proved itself up to the challenge of handling fax traffic, for example. Then you started to see the call center become the nexus of a much more varied and nuanced enterprise, either for sales or service, or some combination of the two. As the tools got better, the call center became more important. While it still looks a lot like it did 10 years ago, with people sitting in cubicles talking on the phone, the actual work that's going on is far different.


The power of the center to feed information to the rest of the company is just beginning to be realized. When companies talk of CRM, customer relationship management, they unwittingly admit that the call center's role has changed from simply call handling to creating an exchange of information between customer and company.


So what's next for this industry? Two years ago I was an Internet skeptic. I downplayed the impact that the Internet would have on customer service. How wrong I was. But, one of the reasons why I had so little confidence in the Internet/call center combination was that the products that were out in 1996 and 1997 were so horrible. The idea of putting a click-to-call button on a Web site may seem like a good one now, but back then, I saw a good many demos of Web/center integration that were - to put it charitably - not ready for prime time.


Now, prime time for the Internet is here, at least from the customer end. People are being told by the media that it is OK to order products online; they are being presented with a "new economy" that involves electronic commerce, and they are responding by testing the limits of that infrastructure. They order online, they visit Web sites, they return merchandise, and they call and complain.


There has been an incredible amount of hype and attention paid to the fact that customers turned to the Internet this past holiday season in unprecedented numbers. What is less commonly remarked upon, however, is that companies often spend less time and money ensuring that they have an adequate and effective customer service infrastructure in place to handle the upsurge in contact volume.There is going to come a point, probably some time around April or May, when we look back at this amazing time with eyes that are able to discern some pattern, some lesson that can be learned and implemented by call centers, in time for the 2000 season.


In an amusing reprise of the early 1990s, successful consumer-oriented companies are putting themselves in the public eye, and then are surprised when customers respond by that decidedly low-tech method, the phone call. Amazon.com made a lot of hay out of the notion that it didn't need bricks-and-mortar infrastructure to capture the imagination of consumers and investors. But wait - it turns out they need bricks after all: Warehouses for distribution and, of course, call centers for customer contact. Amazon is not alone. It is just the most public face of this new rush to put people in seats to answer calls.


It reminds me very much of the rush by catalogers eight or 10 years ago, to add call center capacity in a hurry to satisfy growing demand. Only this time, they are pushing all the media through the call center at once: calls, e-mail, live chat and instant messaging. Interestingly enough, some of the companies that were there for the boom 10 years ago, are doing it again, as they go online: Lands' End, L.L. Bean and other catalog retailers.


Ten years from now, I predict, all the familiar names will be different. Companies will come and go. Small companies with tools that work will be swallowed up in a grand consolidation that will leave us with a half dozen or so major suppliers of call center tools. We will see the end of the outsourcers as a significant force in this industry in the United States. That action will move overseas, as capacity expands in lower-cost countries. The outsourcers that will prosper will be the ones that run U.S. call centers from India, the Middle East and Latin America, and that take calls from Japan and China through the Philippines and Malaysia.


We will see the "turnkey-ization" of call center products. You will call Lucent, or one of a handful of companies, and choose from a menu of options, and then your call center will be created virtually from among your existing workstations, wired together through existing networks, and ripped down when no longer needed. You will virtualize nearly every aspect of your center, with your choice of locations, personnel and ASP-delivered tools made based on any criteria you choose. The look will remain the same, but the heart and guts of the sales and service infrastructure will change just as dramatically as they have in the last decade.


There's one thing to remember, however. The tools might change, as might the urgency of the interaction, the cost structure and the relationship between the center and the enterprise. What remains constant, however - what will always remain constant - is the need for smart, articulate, well-trained and well-treated reps. Never forget that all the technology in the world isn't going to make a company look smart when it uses undertrained, undermotivated reps.


The rep talks to the customer. Treat the rep poorly and you treat the customer poorly. Coddle the rep, though, and you coddle the customer.

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