Call Centers Beat in the Heart of the New Economy

Everyone in the call center industry has heard the following questions over the last three years: “Won't the Internet make your business obsolete?” and “Is the Internet good or bad for your business?” The answers are “no” and “yes.”

The call center business is changing, and the demand for call center services will be higher than ever. So the next obvious question is, how will the industry survive and thrive in the new economy?

No expert can say how the Internet will change our economy — let alone one single industry — although most people agree that the Internet will dramatically affect every facet of our economy in the next decade. However, I will go out on a limb and make my predictions: Although the Internet has no experienced experts, the same is not true of the call center industry. Every expert I've spoken with agrees that the call center industry will be a very different one in the next five years, and I would like to add that no other industry, outside the technical infrastructure of the Internet, will benefit more from the new economy.

If one were to dissect every aspect of a call center, it becomes much clearer why the benefits will be so dramatic. Our business is basically people, computers and phones scattered all over the world. The Internet is built on the exact same components. The technology backbone of the Internet is the exact same backbone a call center depends on. As Internet commerce grows, so will the percentage of transactions that require a live human being.

As many as 50 percent of Web transactions require human intervention. These contacts can be for a variety of reasons, including general customer service, such as returns of damaged goods; questions about a product; and help desk-type questions regarding how to navigate a Web site.

The major difference with today's technology is that customers have a choice about how to communicate. They talk to customer service via live chat, e-mail, phone or even voice chat. In essence, we are back to the basics of a call center — people, computers and sometimes phones.

So what does this mean to the call center of today? When the Internet was in its infancy — some may argue that it still is — everyone assumed that Web sites would replace bricks-and-mortar retail. What is now becoming apparent is that retail Web sites have been surprised by the need to communicate with customers and are scrambling to fill this void. What is becoming evident from this need is that call centers, not computers hosting a Web site, are going to displace bricks-and-mortars.

My prediction is that the majority of this customer interaction will be directed to third-party agencies. This is because many Web sites want to remain virtual. In many cases, Web companies don't even have inventory, so why would they want the headache of managing a call center?

Therefore, based on where we have been and where I believe we are going, call centers must invest in talent and technology to handle this new form of communication. The basic infrastructure will remain the same, which is why the industry's growth will follow the Internet — people, computers and phones scattered across the world. The main difference will be how agents communicate with customers.

Assuming that all call centers will be fully Web-enabled in five years, the big question then becomes how to transition to this new way of managing a call center. The key component will be getting the call center out of the data business. Web-enabled call centers can concentrate on communicating with customers, and by using the Web to access customer information, data management will be out of the call center. In addition, by having a centralized repository of information on the Web, everything is scalable and portable. A new call center on the other side of the world could be active and taking or making calls within minutes. Without the data management to worry about, the call center of the future will focus on staffing and training.

This new focus will also enable a stronger emphasis on quality. Because of all these new methods of communicating with customers, there is both a huge liability and opportunity. With the old-style voice interaction, quality has a totally different meaning than when a customized e-mail or written chat interaction takes place. The liability of the written word being sent to a customer has call centers shaking, and quality processes must be applied to all these new forms of communication. The flip side is that with all of this new emphasis on quality and compliance, performance enhancement and job satisfaction are bound to be positively affected.

Finally, what will facilitate all of these changes for servicing Internet customers? Well, of course, the Internet. Without any doubt, every technical aspect of the call center will be Web-based, including database, scripting, quality assurance, scheduling and eventually delivery of voice to an agent.

The Internet solves many of the inherent problems of managing call centers scattered across the world. I have seen this in my own business as we have transitioned our quality-assurance software from a desktop software to a Web-based solution. In my opinion, the most exciting part is to have all of our tools readily accessible via a Web browser from any location in the world, creating infinite possibilities. This is why the call center industry is on the verge of exploding, and this is what makes this new evolution so exciting.

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