The Four Ways That Contact Centers Are Innovating

“The UC (Unified Communications) wave has passed; we’re back in control,” joked analyst Sheila McGee-Smith at the beginning of her Monday panel discussion on the state of the contact center market at Enterprise Connect 2013.

The comment, which referred to the large number of contact center talks scheduled for the annual conference in Orlando this year, drew appreciative laughter from the attendees, many of whom have been to one of McGee-Smith’s contact center talks at Enterprise Connect in the last 8 years.

The levity also belied the tough times in the contact center market (of which Avaya is one of the largest players). McGee-Smith cited figures from market research firm MZA, which showed that global revenue from contact center agent seats actually declined 8% in the first half of 2012 (the most recent figures available).

“You have to be a little concerned,” conceded Jonathan Koziol, President of Aspect Software. But executives on the panel, which also included Cisco, Avaya, Interactive Intelligence and Genesys, noted the many positives in the market. Contact centers themselves may not be growing, but the companies behind them are finding good reasons to invest in them, nevertheless.

“Companies are not just thinking about contact center, but customer experience overall,” said Avaya vice-president for contact centers, Mark De La Vega.

Or as Aspect’s Koziol put it: “The contact center has become more strategic than a mere cost center.”

About two-thirds of companies are looking to increase their use of analytics in contact centers, according to Dimension Data. That is one huge opportunity. But there are at least four others:

1) Multi-channel. McGee-Smith traces the move towards adding support beyond voice and e-mail to include Twitter, Facebook, web chat, text messages and more to around 2010.

While voice remains dominant, with nearly 99% of contact centers using it, smartly-managed, multi-channel contact centers can offer customers a menu of choices, many of which are faster and more effective for the consumer and cost the contact center less money than voice.

Voice is increasingly “not the first choice,” McGee-Smith said, citing surveys from Dimension Data showing 37% of enterprises are interested in social media. Avaya recently announced Avaya Aura Call Center Elite Multichannel.

2) Cloud. McGee-Smith said this had “exploded in importance,” with vendors such as Genesys, Interactive Intelligence and Avaya all recently announcing different flavors of cloud service. Avaya on Monday announced a managed private cloud contact center service for smaller companies called Avaya Communications Outsourcing Solutions Express. Avaya also announced earlier this month that it would begin offering an Automated Chat service through the cloud.

3) Mobile. According to McGee-Smith, the ‘purchase intent’ of a mobile customer encountered by a contact center agent is five times higher than that of  a customer logging in through a conventional PC. As a result, “every customer is doing mobile,” she said.

4) Video calls. Providing customer service through video is not new. Cisco senior director Chris Boting recalled being at a different vendor nearly 20 years ago that was selling a video-enabled contact center. The difference is the picture quality, and the huge population of consumers now itching to make video-based customer service calls thanks to the 300 million reported users of Microsoft Skype.

About 11% of companies are looking at video-enabling their contact centers,according to Dimension Data. Because the cost of bandwidth for video is not cheap, and its richness occasionally cumbersome for mundane customer service tasks, companies should consider offering video only as an “escalated” service,” said Avaya’s De La Vega. Some Avaya customers such as the Bank of Moscow place kiosks in its bank branches so that customers with questions while filling out a loan application can press a key to summon help from a remote contact center agent.