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Is the call center dead?

No, it's not time to lock the doors to the your call center. But, with so many contact channels, some analysts say it's time to turn your center into a "customer interaction hub."

As customers interact with businesses over a growing number of channels, companies are looking to devise a comprehensive data management strategy. The goal is to arm call center agents with the information needed to make the overall customer experience a good one.

In fact, with so many customer-facing channels -- Web sites, e-mail campaigns, catalogs, sales forces and the traditional call center -- some experts see call centers morphing into central "customer interaction hubs." These centers are a point at which an organization processes all incoming information, regardless of channel. The IT infrastructure automates customer interactions across channels and provides a uniform response to service demands.

Michael Maoz, research director at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc., is the chief proponent of the customer interaction hub. He said that most enterprise call centers have already deployed technology like channel management applications, queuing programs and analytical software. Eventually, Maoz said, some centers will add business rules servers and knowledge-based technology.

But Maoz's colleague, Gartner senior research analyst Esteban Kolsky, thinks these technologies are "not being leveraged efficiently" in the contact center.

"Instead of having multiple iterations of the same components deployed for different channels, organizations should be taking a more unified approach," Kolsky said.

He advises companies to attempt to build a segmented, analytics-based profile of each customer that allows agents to quickly assess which channels that customer has utilized and determine the best path of escalation or level of service a caller might demand.

Kolsky said that most of the investment necessary to begin building interaction hubs revolves around integration. The idea isn't to go out and buy new systems, he said, but rather to figure out the best way to link existing platforms.

"It's a lot easier to do a very detailed review of what you have, where you want to go, and what you can leverage into the larger integrated system," Kolsky said.

A large part of this integration involves aligning database and other underlying architecture to help support new cross-channel applications, according to Kolsky. He advises clients to keep in mind long-term interaction management goals when deploying systems. There are also vendors currently creating applications to help pull together multi-channel systems, but Kolsky said these are two to three years from delivering acceptable performance.

"You have to keep in mind that this is a forward-looking strategy and focus on integration," he said.

Some call center experts believe that one of the keys to this transition is the relationship between CRM software vendors and providers of computer telephony integration (CTI). According to Steve Bonadio, senior program director at Meta Group, in Stamford, Conn., organizations need to put all cross-channel customer data into a "universal queuing paradigm," so call center agents have better visibility into all incoming and outgoing activity. The problem for CRM vendors is that the CTI market has already taken on that role, he said.

"We're starting to see some friction with the CRM vendors who have traditionally partnered with the CTI providers for that capability because, at the end of the day, the question becomes who owns the customer interaction," he said.

Bonadio said CRM suite vendors and CTI providers both want to own customer interactions, and he believes the more practical implication of this struggle is "how businesses manage rules associated with how they deal with customers." This puts increased pressure on users in creating routing rules or agent skill set requirements, he said.


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