A few years ago most consumers would refer to a call centre – a term which reflected the fact that the majority of brand interactions centred around voice calls, writes Karl Reed, chief marketing and solutions officer at Elingo. 
Today, thanks to the surge in digital communication across the world, most users have instinctively switched to contact centre. From Facebook posts to Twitter, SMS, e-mail and fax, the list of possible interaction channels between the brand and customer goes on and on. Contact centre really is the only relevant phrase to use.
But this is just the beginning of the change. Deeper shifts are occurring within the communication sphere, and many of them are illuminated by an evolving understanding of common industry phrases such as inbound, outbound and, perhaps most importantly, the blended contact centre.
The inbound centre
An inbound contact centre does exactly what its name suggests – it deals with contact initiated by the consumer or stakeholder. The most significant shift over the last five years in the realm of inbound communication is the proliferation of possible contact channels.
Today’s brands have been forced – very suddenly – into opening up methods of communication that not long ago would have been unthinkable. As a result, contact centre technology has become mission critical to handling a veritable flood of inbound communication. Proprietary, hardware-based systems involve significant development work to cope with the addition of new communication channels.
Not only is this a time consuming exercise, but it can be logistically complex and very expensive too. Conversely, single engine communication systems with an open structure are able to scale easily (and quickly) when the brand needs to add or remove contact channels.
The outbound centre
The word outbound immediately brings to mind those dreaded (to say nothing of illegal, if users haven’t specifically asked to receive them) sales calls. But a sale is actually just one function of the outbound contact centre.
An additional outbound function is proactive customer service. It has become common cause across the global economy that customers value being proactively updated by the brand they’re interacting with, and many organisations now use outbound calls as an important customer service tool across complaints and repairs/service processes.
The oft-hidden ace up the outbound sleeve, however, is the ability to reduce the debtor’s book. Corporations are significantly improving bottom line performance by adding outbound diallers specifically tasked with getting to the front of the customer’s payment schedule.
Debt write-offs are reduced, and debtor’s days generally come down too. In high volume operations the savings achieved can be staggering, and an account management approach to outbound actually delivers the highest ROI of any contact centre element. Many companies cover the cost of rolling out a new system in a matter of months by taking control of account management with outbound interactions.
The blended centre
As the name suggests, a blended operation will utilise both inbound and outbound functions. But this isn’t actually where the word resonates. Rather, blended refers to how a contact centre chooses to apply its human resources to the mix of inbound and outbound processes.
In well structured contact centres, agents can be used to carry out more than one function. This is often an economically efficient use of the talent within a centre, because it reduces the risk of redundant agent time when contact volumes dip.
The key to blended contact centre success is ensuring that the dual functions fall within the agent’s general area of activity. An agent making debtors’ book calls would more than likely cope very well with incoming account queries, for example. Users wouldn’t want to ask them to get involved in sales calls, however.
The local context
In the South African economy, all three centre types are utilised, and the country is not nearly as far behind global trends as is thought. In fact, in certain areas South Africa is actually a little ahead of the curve.
The country lags in terms of certain processes, and in perpetual bandwidth limitations, but when it comes to inbound contact centres, it is right up there with the world leaders, and in the outbound and blended spheres South Africans are catching up at good pace.
It’s interesting to note that in certain sectors of the economy the idea of a blended contact centre still raises scepticism. This generally occurs when the role players have only experienced systems featuring poor reporting, poor management or poor security functionality.
The bottom line, as always, is that the technology must support the desired processes. If users are changing or limiting a business process to cater to the parameters of the system, they’re using the wrong technology.