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Contact centers mature, stagnant, report says

Contact centers are making strides in adopting new technologies, but they're still plagued by many of the challenges they've faced for years.

A new report surveying contact centers -- both big and small -- across the globe finds that the industry is undergoing massive change -- yet also remaining much the same.

The study, a result of a survey of more than 850 professionals at all levels of the contact center, demonstrated that although companies are maturing when it comes to the use of new technology such as Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and speech analytics, agent turnover, "intelligent" desktops, and the transformation from a cost center to a revenue generator remain as challenges.

"The results say that actual interest in revenue generation is still very low," said Richard Snow, research vice president with San Mateo, Calif.-based Ventana Research and author of the report. "All the talk about profit centers is just that -- it's all talk. The dominant driver [in contact center maturity] is still cost savings."

According to the survey, only 48% of centers measure revenue generated, less than 30% attempt any type of outbound marketing or sales and, of those that attempt sales, 46% do it as a result of an inbound call.

That has not stopped the market from investing in new technology, however. In fact, Snow said, VoIP investments are being driven by cost-reduction goals as well.

"The biggest thing for me, in terms of new developments, is VoIP is the baseline technology that people are deploying. Many have been saying 'VoIP is coming, VoIP is coming.' Now, that's fairly clear cut," Snow said. "The other major technology trend that's emerging is voice recognition and voice analytics."

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The survey found that 32% of contact centers had deployed VoIP, and Ventana predicts that it will become widespread over the next 12 to 24 months. VoIP reduces communications costs, but it also promises to drive innovation by facilitating the transition to the "virtual contact center," extending the reach of the contact center to the larger enterprise. Results of the study showed that 26% of contact centers involve mobile workers, 23% involve remote workers, and 15% involve line-of-business workers. Nearly half of contact centers are planning to involve agents outside the center walls, a shift from their original mission, which was to centralize call handling, make it more efficient, and give customers a central point of contact.

Voice recognition and speech analytics also promise to lower costs by automating processes such as call monitoring, Snow said; but, in addition, those applications promise to drive revenues as contact centers use the tools for call analysis and customer segmentation.

For all the advances, however, contact centers have yet to resolve some of their longstanding problems. Take, for example, agent attrition. According to the report, the average tenure of agents is less than two years.

"The whole agent thing hasn't changed since I started in call centers 15 years ago," Snow said. "The pattern stays the same. It's not a long-term career. It's not a well-paid job."

To make matters worse for agents, many find themselves dealing with multiple systems. According to the study, nearly half have to access two or more systems, 14% have to use multiple desktops to get that access, and 57% who have a single desktop have to log in separately to different systems. Only 19% have an "intelligent" desktop -- one that requires a single login, reduces the need for duplicate data entry, and provides intelligent navigation without complex menus.

"It's just staggering to me, and I know it from personal experience," Snow said. "I've seen agents in wheeling chairs so they can wheel in between several desktops."

The study found that while the size of the contact center can help determine its level of maturity (e.g., larger centers tend to be more mature), the greatest determining factor is the industry in which the contact center operates. Telecommunications companies, operating in one of the most competitive markets, have the most mature contact center operations. Similarly, financial services organizations tend to run sophisticated centers, while government lags behind.

Organizations have the opportunity to make their customer service operations a competitive differentiator, Snow said.

The report offers five initiatives that can drive contact center maturity:

  1. Centers should evaluate software tools that can help extract and analyze data from multiple sources.
  2. Centers should consider deploying VoIP as a cost-saving initiative, with an eye to spreading contact handling to additional groups within the company.
  3. Centers that support a large number of consumers should evaluate chat technology as an avenue of communication.
  4. Contact centers should evaluate the support they provide to agents at the desktop and evaluate tools to make the desktop more intelligent.
  5. As voice recording, voice recognition, and analytics mature, centers should consider them as the basis for monitoring agent performance and improving their CRM strategies.

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