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Call center vs. contact center: What's the difference?

Call centers and contact centers provide customer service in different ways. Decision-makers should understand which option best fits their organization's needs to optimize CX.

The line between call centers and contact centers is fuzzy but important. Decision-makers must understand how these centers differ to determine which best suits their organization's needs, as one negative interaction can damage a customer's trust for life.

Call centers were once the gold standard for customer service, but new technologies emerged over time, which changed how many organizations provided customer service. Digital channel development, in particular, caused many call centers to morph into contact centers. Despite their similarities, call centers and contact centers differ in many ways, including channels, data, customer self-service (CSS), agent skills and technology.

Defining call center and contact center

While people may use the terms call center and contact center interchangeably, these centers have notable differences that decision-makers should know.

Call center. A call center is a department where customer service professionals, known as call center agents, handle inbound and outbound calls.

Agents who take inbound calls help customers with account inquiries, scheduling, technical support, complaints and questions about products and services. On the other hand, outbound calls focus on telemarketing, fundraising, lead generation, scheduling, customer retention and debt collection.

Call centers can improve CX, as they aim to provide dependable and timely customer service through a historically reliable channel -- the phone.

Contact center. A contact center is a department that provides customer service across several communication channels.

While many contact centers include a call center, they also handle communication through digital channels, such as text, email, social media, voice over IP, live chat and chatbots. With multiple channels, organizations can collect more marketing data and enable customers to interact with the business in more convenient ways.

The key differences between call centers and contact centers include the following:

  • channels
  • data
  • CSS
  • agent skills
  • technology
A chart that compares call center and contact center attributes
Explore the differences between call centers and contact centers.

5 differences between call centers vs. contact centers

Decision-makers should understand where call centers and contact centers differ to determine which approach best suits their organization.

Channels

Call centers and contact centers both provide customer service and outreach, but they differ in the communication channels they use. Call centers use one channel -- the phone -- while contact centers use several channels.

Call centers emerged in a time before digital channels. Still, they benefit many organizations because phone calls with live agents offer a personalized experience that other channels often lack. On the other hand, contact centers include digital channels, which enable customers to interact with an organization on whichever platform best suits their needs.

Data

As contact centers offer more communication channels than call centers, they can collect more customer data. They can also enhance customer profiling, enabling organizations to provide personalized customer support to improve CX.

Call centers can use speech analysis software to analyze calls and gain insights into a customer's personality and preferences. Contact centers do the same, but their omnichannel approach enables more opportunities to collect data. For instance, contact centers can use social media data, such as likes and follower counts, to determine customer affiliations and attitudes that may not be apparent over the phone.

Customer self-service

Most call centers use interactive voice response (IVR) systems -- automated phone assistants that respond to voices and keypad entries -- for CSS capabilities. IVR systems can route callers to relevant agents and perform simple tasks, such as prescription refills, but they can also annoy customers with lengthy menu options that fail to address specific needs.

A contact center's CSS capabilities go beyond IVR and include chatbots, FAQ webpages, online knowledge bases and forums, which can all help customers find answers independently. Other examples of contact center CSS include automated text messages that confirm or cancel appointments and mobile applications where customers can place or change orders.

Organizations with CSS tools can reduce costs, customer wait times and live agents' workloads. Also, CSS can help an organization thrive amid the COVID-19 pandemic, as customers increasingly prefer self-service options, according to a 2020 Northridge Group report.

Agent skills

Although call and contact center agents need customer service skills, such as empathy and patience, contact center agents need additional skills, as they use more diverse channels that enable different types of communication.

Call center agents provide customer service over the phone, so they need excellent verbal communication skills, personability and problem-solving skills. Contact center agents also provide customer service over the phone and via text-based forums like email, live chat, text messages and social media. Therefore, contact center agents need reading comprehension, written communication, multitasking and social media etiquette skills.

Unclear writing from contact center agents can frustrate customers and force unnecessary follow-up messages. Additionally, agents must know proper grammar, as grammatical errors can make an organization appear unprofessional. Social media interactions also require professionalism, as one negative interaction can go viral and damage an organization's brand.

Technology

While call center and contact center technologies can overlap, contact centers require additional services to help manage their omnichannel natures. Call center technologies, aside from the basic requirements of phones, computers and headsets, include the following:

  • IVR. IVR's automated phone assistants select the right agent or department to help a customer based on voice and keypad responses.
  • Automated call distributor (ACD). After an IVR determines with whom a caller needs to speak, an ACD automatically transfers the caller to that agent or department.
  • Speech analysis software. This software can analyze calls to detect emotions, such as satisfaction and anger. Speech analysis software can help an organization know when to follow-up with unsatisfied customers.
  • Workforce management (WFM) system. As some days in a call center are busier than others, WFM systems can help schedule the appropriate agents for each day.
  • Enhanced internet access. Agents that work remotely need a fast and secure connection to use call center software, which may require internet upgrades.

In addition to call center technologies, contact centers include the following:

  • Email response management system. These systems can help organize, track and archive large volumes of emails.
  • Omnichannel routing. As contact centers use many channels, agents may struggle to manage their different interactions. Omnichannel routing uses AI to identify a customer's intent and forward all requests to a live agent, regardless of the channel.
  • Advanced analytics. This methodology includes various AI technologies and analysis techniques, providing a holistic view of the customer journey and predictive insights into a customer's future choices.
  • Channel reports. Reporting software collects raw data across channels to create KPIs, such as first contact resolution and customer effort scores. Managers can monitor KPIs to ensure quality assurance across channels.

Call center and contact center similarities

Despite the differences between call centers and contact centers, they provide inbound and outbound customer service. Also, they both use agents and many of the same technologies.

Whether an organization should use a call center or contact center depends upon its specific needs and priorities. Call centers can be cost-efficient for organizations that mostly interact with customers through phone calls. Organizations that receive a lot of digital engagement or want to stay up-to-date with the latest technologies may benefit from a contact center.

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