Just 20 years ago, inbound call centres consisted of groups of people with telephones and in some cases even headsets, ready to answer customer calls which were delivered to agents in a hunt-group fashion, writes Paul Fick, MD of Spescom DataFusion.

Today, routing is much more sophisticated.  There are also more communication channels such as email, web collaboration, instant messaging and so on, which customers could select as their preferred method of communication and still expect consistently excellent levels of service.
Consequently call centres have evolved into contact centres which today need to deal with a myriad of legacy, as well as modern technologies, including voice, email and instant messaging, and a host of products from various vendors that do not necessarily work well together. As a result architectures remain complex, often distributed across geographies, and unable to operate in real time to meet the demands of customers.
 
Addressing integration issues
In order to address problems that stem from the above integration issues, there is a growing trend towards open standards solutions that simplify multi-channel integration, reduce costs and complexities, extend customer care throughout organisations and enable the communications strategy to be aligned with business strategy and market segmentation. The most common enabling technology being used in this regard is SIP (Session Initiation Protocol).  Contact centres are able to improve customer interactions by using an approach that covers multiple channels, so that customers can choose how they interact with the contact centre. This gives customers a personalised customer experience through effective customer experience management.
Integrated open standards-based architecture enables contact centres to deliver instant feedback across channels that deliver excellent customer service, no matter which communication method clients choose to use.
 
Improving customer service – the ultimate goal
By deploying a multi-channel contact centre one opens up the contact centre experience for customers, enabling them to give unstructured, unsolicited feedback using modern interaction channels such as blogs, message boards and chats.  These channels can be used in conjunction with others to dramatically improve overall customer service and query resolution.
Improving customer service through new technology should also extend to embracing enhanced self service options which allow customers to interactively solve their problems quickly and easily. This can include online technical support that is accessible via traditional and mobile web channels, offering options such as the ability to select the type of issue, a basic troubleshooting section and a feature to request assistance with a description of the problem as well as request for call back functionality. The latest technologies allow these requests to be set up to include video and or voice for greater clarification.
Using enabling technology to offer customers these options not only enhances the customer experience, but also helps to improve agent efficiency and first call resolution.
 
Looking to the future
The vision for customer service is to have integrated multi-channel and multi-device interactions including short messages, video and smartphones as well as advanced intelligent routing and enhanced automation through self service operations and closed loop analytics. Performance applications that take advantage of integrated multi-channel and multi-device interactions will become the differentiating factor because they enable customers to choose their means of interaction. Additionally, these applications will extend out of the contact centre into the rest of the enterprise to incorporate external data sources and expertise.
Next generation customer service starts with a strategy to introduce a real-time, 'context' centre to replace the outmoded contact centre idea. No longer should customer interactions simply be a one way process, but should involve contextual collaboration sessions between the agent and the customer. This ensures that the right service or assistance is given for the context of the query, according to the medium the customer chooses to use, allowing for more effective communications and quicker problem resolution, creating better customer service and enhanced agent productivity.
Today's capabilities allow for intelligent transfer of callers from self service options to agents. When this happens the agents will have access to information already entered by the caller in the self service aspect, which further reduces agent handling time. With next generation self service, this should be extended into a unified multi-channel dialogue engine. This allows customers to switch to different communication channels seamlessly, for example from IVR to an agent. Customer interaction entered in the IVR system will then be available to the agent, through real-time dynamic dialogues with consumer transaction content and up to the minute contextual customer information.
 
Harness the power of analytics
Using the power of analytics in conjunction with this dynamic agent environment allows for a host of benefits for improving customer service, and enables intelligent call routing according to agent skills, as well as call handling based relevant information. Using analytics, a real-time screen can be pushed to the agent with relevant customer information and insight, and call scripting can be dynamically created based on customer information such as history and profile, allowing for special offers and marketing calls to be targeted specifically to individual customers.
In order to further improve performance, post call analysis can be completed both for individual agents and for team performance, including analysis of why things go wrong, to enable problems to be identified and proactively addressed. This feedback can also be pushed directly to the agents to enable them to manage their own performance.
 
In conclusion
Communication has changed and evolved with technology, and contact centres now need to adopt a new approach that integrates multiple channels, including traditional voice as well as video calling, short messaging services, social networking, email, web chat and instant messaging, and includes next generation self services with reporting and analytical capability.
At the end of the day, improving customer service is all about giving customers options for resolving their problem and ensuring that these options result in resolution of their problems. Integrating multiple channels and enabling real-time interactions is the key to evolving contact centres into context centres and keeping customers happy by enabling them to solve problems through their preferred channel, quickly, easily and efficiently.