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Contact center technologies finally reflect multichannel realities

While call centers have gotten a bad rap, new contact center technologies have helped turn their reputation around.

After years of conversation about rude reps and inefficient and poor-quality customer service, call centers' reputation was at a nadir. Some might have thought irreparably until a few years ago, when new contact center technologies swooped in to improve the customer experience.

Historically, call centers were viewed as departments that provided a service but didn't add anything to the bottom line. But times have changed. Contact centers are evolving in how they are perceived internally and externally. In addition, the number of technologies to support these changes is growing faster than ever. Several significant events helped initiate these changes.

The Age of the Customer

The 2010 economic downturn created the Age of the Customer.

In a recent Forrester webinar, analyst Kate Leggett explained that those changes? in technology brought about an Age of Information. Businesses that had efficient supply channels dominated. But customers were still at the mercy of the services businesses wanted to offer.

The 2010 economic downturn created a new cycle, Leggett said, calling it the Age of the Customer. Today's customers have access to more information than ever. Their expectations about service are higher than ever. At the same time, customer loyalty is low. As a result, companies now feel the pressure to meet those expectations.

Another aspect of the economic downturn was that customers were forced to make more frugal choices, said Erin Raese, co-founder of Loyalty 360, the loyalty marketers' association. "Companies watched a lot of customers leave. As revenues dropped, you saw a huge shift in organizations listening to the customer," she said.

Siloed approach ineffective in customer service

Organizations may have been more interested in listening to the customer, but savvy customers were no longer content to connect with a company just through the telephone. With access to email, company websites and social media, customers wanted to contact a company through a variety of means, Raese said. They wanted an omnichannel experience, but many companies weren't -- and aren't -- prepared to offer that.

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Part of the problem was organizational. Contact centers are often considered an isolated part of the company, not integrated with sales or marketing or social media marketing. A customer may write about a problem on a customer's website and again on the company's Facebook page or in an email, and be frustrated if within three tries, the problem isn't resolved. "Few companies have standardized processes and cross-functional teams to address this," Raese said, adding that organizations are beginning to understand that having that cross-functional ability is essential.

Many companies turn to contact center technologies to help them with the cross-functional aspect. A customer relationship management (CRM) system can store customer and prospective customer data and information from various departments in one place. Add a social CRM component, and that customer who contacts a company via Facebook and email can be responded to comprehensively.

Growth in CRM technology

Customer relationship management technology continues to evolve, said Ashley Verrill, content strategist for Software Advice, with most growth coming in the social aspect, allowing companies to identify and address their best, most persuasive or angriest customers first. "There are systems that can prioritize social requests in real time, based on social influence," she said. "Another way is by purchase history -- look at a person's social media profile, tie that to their contact profile in your history and prioritize a response." Software can also prioritize inbound customer comments based on the sentiment of the request through key word filtering.

Another example of the increasing sophistication of contact center technologies, Verrill said, is the emphasis on proactive customer service through interactive voice response systems. "The technology in that space is becoming more advanced and proactive at solving customer's problems before they know they have them or so they don't have to wade through the system," she said. Based on the number a customer calls from, sophisticated systems can look at purchase history and data for most of the reasons people call and then immediately suggest solutions based on that data.

Although today's contact centers have matured, for the most part, they aren't where they need to be. But the experts agree: Companies that look at contact centers as marketing and not as cost centers, that take a holistic view of the customer, that truly listen and respond to customer needs, and that adopt technologies to support those efforts will be the ones who win the battle for loyal customers.

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