Contact Centers Will Come of Age


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If you’ve been around children, you’ll know the story about the ugly duckling who came of age and found he was a swan. That’s a lot like call centers. In the next year, you’re going to see a shift in call centers as businesses recognize that the longtime ugly ducks are emerging as beautiful swans.

As the April 2005 edition of

The McKinsey Quarterly

put it, call centers are strategic assets, “among the most underused of all corporate assets.” The report said, further, that high-performing companies “understand the strategic value of a call center” and that those that “have acted on these imperatives are already generating higher revenues and providing better service€”at a lower cost.”

Call centers and increasingly, the Internet, are a key point of contact for customers. And I would argue that, together, they warrant the new name: contact center, a hub where agents may handle calls, email, ecommerce transactions and even regular mail and provide customer service, process bills and claims and marketing and sales.

The performance data coming out of contact centers is giving business leaders the fullest picture of their customer relationships that has ever been available. I saw the light in Las Vegas in September 2005, when I attended the International Contact Center Management (ICCM) conference. I found increasing sophistication in contact center operations and blurring boundaries between contact centers and insurance claim processing in back-office service centers.

In practice

A case in point is John Hancock Financial Services, which merged with Manulife to form the fifth largest life insurance firm in the world. The organization is set on establishing a new standard of service in the marketplace, by improving the quality of customer interaction at its contact centers. Using Verint’s Voice Analysis tools, John Hancock is seeing early results that lay a foundation for accelerating improvement in service and customer relationships, one interaction at a time.

  1. Improving first-call resolution.

    Monitoring calls that have the potential to escalate, specialists are alerted early to intervene to achieve resolution within the first customer call.

  2. Catching disgruntled customers before it’s too late.

    By alerting the right person, the problem may be rectified and the customer won back.

  3. Business Process Optimization.

    Analysts reviewing thousands of customer interactions offer timely constructive specific feedback that improves service of an individual agent and is quickly incorporated in overall training and guidelines.

Mike Callaghan, CEO of the performance optimization company, Opus Group, said in an interview at

What once were considered back-office functions, such as underwriting at an insurance company, are now touching customers directly through channels such as email and web chat. … For example I recently visited a customer site where the individual underwriters take as many as 40 customer calls in a day along with email, fax and other electronic transactions. Agents in the call center next door average about 30 calls per day. … The fact is that the back office is melding with the front office. Eventually there will only be multi-channel service centers that will handle all interactions, paper, fax, email, phone… it won’t matter.

Folks like Opus are able to provide 3-to-1 return on investment guarantees on performance optimization tools and services by deeply understanding service in their niche industries. All the basic service steps are being organized efficiently and effectively.

What are companies doing to compete? What is left? Overall customer experience. Where in the organization is that objectively tracked? The contact center.

Human imagination will always be required to devise memorable experiences that prompt customers to say, “I liked that. I’ll come back and tell others, too.” That human touch is being designed, supervised and tracked at the contact center. The contact center is getting important feedback in thousands of interactions with prospects and customers about whether their product and service meets, misses or exceeds expectations. Turning this information into action is the critical continuous feedback loop that can accelerate improvement in customer relationships, one interaction at a time. It’s hard to catch up to, as well, offering those organizations who take advantage of this feedback loop competitive differentiation: The longer the customer is with your business, the better you get at servicing that customer exactly the way he or she wants.

The shift away from CRM technology to contact centers as the customer interaction hub has other benefits. It’s a shift in focus from technology to social science; from slippery shifting marketing terrain to concrete actions and employee training; from abstract concepts to specific people interactions that can be characterized as successful or not. It’s a healthy shift that I’m making myself. No longer do I spend my time explaining why Customer Lifetime Value is important. Instead, I ask my clients: What are you doing to deliver memorable customer experiences that your competition cannot reproduce? Is your contact center giving you the information you need to deliver those experiences profitably?

The contact center is the vital hub in an organization for finding out what customers want and whether they are getting it, for finding out whether customers are having memorable interactions and whether they tell their friends about it. The deepest knowledge about the customer is at the contact center. The CEO’s office has been now been alerted by McKinsey & Co. No longer an ugly cost center, the contact center is a very fine strategic asset, indeed.

There once was an ugly duckling

With feathers all stubby and brown

Till a flock of swans spied him there and very soon agreed

You’re a very fine swan indeed.

€”Hans Christian Anderson

Mei Lin Fung
Institute of Service Organization Excellence, Inc.
Mei Lin Fung, blogs on ebCEM – evidence-based Customer Experience Management. The Service Leadership Transformation Program developed in an innovative public private partnership with Avaya and Oklahoma State University received the Phillip Crosby Golden Medallion in 27. Her curriculum has been implemented by Microsoft Telesales in China, and Johnson and Johnson in Asia. She designed the first US Department of Labor approved Contact Center Apprenticeship Program in Oklahoma. Blog: Learning to Earn Customer Trust by Mei Lin Fung


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