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Hosted contact centers don't help or hurt customer experience

Compared with on-premises models, hosted contact centers don't harm or enhance customer experience.

The hosted-versus-on-premises contact center debate rages on, fueled by the attractive promises of the cloud.

The scalability, low cost and minimal -- if any -- maintenance of hosted contact centers all entice enterprises to move their contact center technology into the cloud. Yet some companies worry about ceding control and hesitate to make the move.

The good news for enterprises is that, after a rollout, there is no significant difference in the customer experience between the two contact center models. In fact, opting for a hosted contact center model may allow for a speedy rollout of new features that enable agents to offer better service to customers.

"There's very little difference from the customer's point of view, if there's any difference," said Keith Dawson, practice leader in the customer engagement practice at London-based analyst and consulting firm Ovum. While the cloud holds benefits for the enterprise -- namely, frequent updates, faster access to technology and a lower initial price point -- it's purely speculation as to whether those benefits translate into customer satisfaction, he said.

Hosted contact centers might facilitate consistency

The cloud gives you more options.
Jonathan Grodskycustomer service manager, Kent International

The cloud might improve customer service in complex interactions, particularly those originating on mobile devices and transitioning to phone calls, according to Dawson. These interactions are better facilitated by platforms that can integrate multiple channels and provide consistency to the customer experience, which many North American companies have struggled to do. But he emphasized that while cloud-based systems may provide base-level data integration and an easier-to-use interface for agents, their ability to improve customer service is purely theoretical.

But in-house implementations of a multichannel infrastructure may be difficult, due to the temptation to choose best-in-class components, such as interactive voice response (IVR), then to attempt to integrate them, according to Mike Burke, vice president of sales and development at Minneapolis-based contact center monitoring firm IQ Services. Integrating different channels provides a more seamless customer service experience than standalone solutions.

"Customers now expect a seamless experience regardless of channel, and really have no patience for the need to repeat their version of their customer journey just because they happened to call in this time rather than browse via the Web or use a smartphone app to do something," he said.

Feature rollout is where the rubber meets the road

But releasing new customer service features and channels is where Software as a Service (SaaS) contact center solutions pull ahead of on-premises options. "Hosted and cloud providers upgrade their solutions across the board, so innovations in customer service-facing features just show up without the disruption often associated with new releases when conducted in-house," Burke said. On the other hand, SaaS solutions might take longer to customize when an enterprise discovers a new need, such as changing an IVR menu structure, he said.

In the case of Kent International, moving to a cloud-based hosted contact center system kept it on the right track. According to Jonathan Grodsky, customer service manager at the Parsippany, N.J.-based bicycle importer and distributor, the company didn't use formalized contact center software and knew it needed something to manage incoming calls. By opting for the cloud, Kent International could not only accelerate deployment but also add a queuing system that lets customers know where they stand in line, and plays bicycling and bicycle maintenance tips for customers that have opted to wait, rather than press a button to leave a message, he said.

"The cloud gives you more options. You're not limited to a system that you can only access from your building or a remote desktop," Grodsky said. Kent International had chosen Broadview Networks' OfficeSuite Call Center Services, which he noted is easy to use and seems to be upgraded regularly and seamlessly, unlike an on-premises solution he had used before that required an understanding of the programming process to upgrade or even generate reports. "We can be proactive with the system," he added.

Cloud facilitates pilot programs and internal operations

While the impact on customer service is minimal, choosing the cloud over an on-premises solution greatly affects internal operations. It changes the relationship of the enterprise with technology, offering a more frequent and faster upgrade cycle and experimentation with technologies that the enterprise might not be ready to commit to on-premises, Ovum's Dawson said.

This allows enterprises to run smaller pilot programs to see how a feature works with a small subset of agents before rolling it out in the entire contact center. "Whereas, in the pre-cloud days, you'd have to commit to a full-blown pilot with a legacy vendor, then you'd have to pay for an upgrade if one was even available in the time cycle you were thinking of," Dawson said.

But none of the behind-the-scenes advantages will really affect the customer experience, and customers will not be able to tell the difference unless the customer is embedded in the industry, Dawson said.

What really affects the customer is the processes behind the technology, and before implementing or upgrading an on-premises or hosted contact center solution, companies first need to understand the customer experience in working with a hosted center. "If [companies] aren't aware, throwing technology at the service experience isn't going to make it better. It might by accident, but it's not a prescription for service excellence," Dawson said.

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