Commerce requires people to communicate with each other. A contact center keeps everybody talking – especially customers, salespeople, and support staff.
Without a contact center, customer communications are disorganized and inefficient. With a contact center, messaging is centralized and optimized, making sales and support more productive and your customer interactions more pleasing.
What is a contact center?
A contact center acts as a hub to manage sales-and-service messaging.
Why would you need a contact center for your business? Think about it: Your salespeople use phones to land deals and turn prospects into customers. Customers send emails or texts because they want more of what you’re selling.
If you get sales and service messaging right, you win more revenue and expand your market share. But what if you get it wrong? Salespeople miss great deals, and customers air their complaints to everybody they know. Nobody wants that.
Not every business needs a contact center right now. Let’s say you have a one-person shop with a half-dozen sales or service communication tasks a day. You can manage that easily with a phone, a computer, and an email account, right?
But what if it’s a year later, and your business has five people and 60 of these messaging tasks every day? Sales and service calls start getting complicated and distracting people from their work. Some customers get miffed and bug you several times to get their point across.
This is when it’s time to start thinking about investing in a formal sales-and-service messaging hub to keep everything organized and all your people on track. If you do it right, you can deliver the kind of service that keeps customers coming to you instead of bolting to the competition.
Building a contact center used to be a daunting prospect. A few years ago, you would’ve needed office space, specialized hardware, and advanced technical skills. But with the rise of mobile computing and cloud technologies, you can have all the functions of a contact center in a smartphone app, tablet, or laptop computer.
Thus, anybody with an internet-connected device can use a contact center. And businesses of almost any size can use high-powered service and sales tools previously reserved for corporate giants.
Contact center vs. call center
Before we dig too deep into the nuts and bolts of contact centers, let’s clarify two essential terms.
In casual business conversations, you might hear “call center” and “contact center” interchangeably. But sometimes, it helps to be more precise:
- A call center manages voice communications, primarily on telephones.
- A contact center manages voice calls, plus digital text and video on all devices.
Some sales-and-service operations use only phone banks, while others use only text or video. You could have a large contact center and a small call center (or vice versa).
The key is finding the best fit for you, your staff, and your customers. In principle, a contact center is more comprehensive, taking voice calls and everything else. But if your business depends pretty much entirely on voice calls, then a call center could be all you need.
CCaaS or UCaaS – what’s the difference?
Another critical distinction is between two business communication technologies hosted in the cloud: UCaaS vs. CCaaS.
In short, UCaaS is a digital-collaboration platform, while CCaaS is a sales and support messaging platform.
How contact centers work
A contact center's operations fall into three buckets: staffing, channels, and data analysis.
- Staffing consists of agents and managers who operate the contact center.
- Channels convey message traffic via analog voice calls, digital texts, emails, and streaming video.
- Data analysis studies all customer interactions and delivers critical business intelligence to company leaders.
Contact center staffing: agents and managers
Let’s look at how agents and managers make a contact center work.
What agents do
An agent’s primary functions include:
- Handling incoming customer messages. In a formal contact center, agents use scripts, computer terminals, and headsets to answer questions, resolve complaints, and reroute messages to supervisors or colleagues if needed.
- Conducting surveys and sales calls. Market research and direct-sales firms often use contact centers to orchestrate campaigns. Political campaigns also depend on these tools.
- Developing subject matter expertise. Over time, agents develop topical knowledge that helps them provide better customer service. Contact center platforms help route calls to these experts.
What managers do
Managers orchestrate all aspects of a contact center, including:
- Leadership. Managers recruit, hire, train, schedule, and motivate agents.
- Strategy. Managers streamline contact center operations to remove inefficiencies and boost customer satisfaction.
- Traffic. Messages must be routed to the right people at the right time to resolve customers’ issues as quickly as possible. Managers must master contact center tools that optimize message flows.
- Automation. Technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) can scan messaging to discover customer intent and analyze agents’ performance.
Messaging channels: analog and digital
It’s critical to understand the differences between analog and digital sales-and-support messaging.
- Analog: Voice calls make the best emotional connection because they are organic, human-to-human interactions. However, they are difficult to scale, especially in short time frames.
- Digital: Email, texts, videos, and chatbots offer more convenience and scale, but they may frustrate human communicators. Digital channels can scale up quickly to provide faster time to value.
Choosing contact center technologies wisely can help agents and managers excel in all these areas.
Data and analytics in contact centers
Every interaction between companies and customers generates valuable data. Analytics programs can help you understand what’s going right and wrong in your sales and support operations.
How does this help? Consider these sample data points:
- Call and hold times: If every call takes an average of, say, four minutes and every caller waits for an average of five minutes on hold, you have a starting point for improving the efficiency of your contact center.
- Hang-ups and dropped calls: Some people get frustrated and cut calls short. Some agents trigger more hang-ups than others. Analytics can reveal the scope of these challenges.
- Busiest times of day: Documenting when people send the most messages can help with hiring and staffing, especially in seasonal businesses like consumer retail.
- Most successful agents: Ultimately, data will reveal who is succeeding and who needs more guidance.
The more sophisticated analytics apps use natural-language processing, a form of artificial intelligence, to help you understand what motivates customers who contact you. This kind of sentiment analysis can help you make better product and service decisions.
Moreover, collecting data over an extended period can produce predictive insights to help you forecast customer behavior and anticipate their needs.
Types of contact centers: inbound vs. outbound
A small sales and support operation might centralize everything in one location. But larger companies often have two serving distinct purposes: inbound and outbound contact centers.
Inbound contact centers
Agents handle incoming messages, and managers oversee them. For instance, managers create custom message flows to ensure that agents respond to digital texts and voice calls quickly and efficiently and wait times stay as short as possible.
When messages arrive, agents respond with scripts that help them figure out why the customer is contacting them. If message routing is properly configured, calls on specific topics go to expert agents to ensure customers get what they want.
Analytics software tracks all interactions and scans conversations to improve quality control.
Outbound contact centers
Direct sales and market research teams lean heavily on outbound contact centers. Here, sales teams call prospects from lists of leads to find hot prospects, and hopefully, close sales.
Market analysts conduct outbound surveys to find out what’s on the minds of their target markets. Political campaign teams and product marketers use outbound contact centers to determine which messaging resonates best with audiences.
Outbound contact centers often use auto-dialing systems to target expansive lists of potential contacts.
How to set up a contact center
Setting up a contact center requires careful decisions in four areas:
- Identifying your communication needs
- Crafting a contact center plan
- Finding technology partners
- Selecting a technology infrastructure
Missteps at the beginning of your contact center journey can bedevil your operations for months or years. Choose wisely.
Start with the basics. What’s working? What’s broken? Where will a contact center drive the most value for your business? Make sure you pull everybody into the process from the beginning. Get feedback from managers, salespeople, and your support team.
Spell out problems and opportunities. Make a list of your top sales and support messaging challenges. Are contacts mostly inbound or outbound? Do people make voice calls or send emails? What distracts your salespeople from landing sales or encouraging your customers to recommend you to friends and colleagues?
Prioritize challenges to be solved. Which issues belong at the front of the line, and which are less pressing? How do you stack up against your competitors? Think about immediate needs and what’s likely to crop up in a few years.
Document resources and gaps. List what you have and what you need in three areas:
- Technologies: Identify the devices and channels your people already use, like PCs, smartphones, and so on. Also, list what you want – hardware and software that would improve your sales and support.
- Skills: You’ll need abilities and experience in a few key areas. Do you have technical people who know how to implement contact center technologies? Has anybody on staff worked with analytics, security, or data governance? What about documentation and training?
- Finances: How much can you afford to spend on a contact center? What kind of return on investment (ROI) do you need?
Create a plan
You’ll need a formal strategy for your contact center implementation, which should have three parts:
- Timeline: Decide when you need the contact center to be up and running. Make sure you have the people and skills required to get it done. Implementing something new always brings glitches and surprises. Be ready for them.
- Budget: Make sure you have financial approval for the total cost of implementation – and operational expenses when it’s up and running.
- Buy-in and change management: You’ll need to get everybody on board with the new contact center, including investors, executives, middle managers, and the people who will use the contact center every day. Some people resist change, so you’ll need a strategy to get them to come around.
Your contact center may use some of the most advanced messaging technology on the market. You’ll need technology partners to run this tech at peak performance. Vendors typically work with technology specialists called system integrators to implement contact centers.
Look for vendors that have experience in your industry. Check online reviews and ask for recommendations in online forums and user groups. Ask about their support policies and uptime guarantees.
Your partners should help you finalize your contact center implementation. They should have training materials and online demos to help streamline your transition. Finally, they should have a program for support and maintenance after the sale.
Choose contact center infrastructure and technologies
A large company with a sophisticated contact center typically has two kinds of infrastructure: physical (office space, desks, wiring) and technological (computers, networks, software).
With advances in cloud-based contact center services, smaller companies might not need dedicated physical infrastructure. But they’ll definitely need technology infrastructure, which comes in three varieties:
- On-premise: All hardware and software operate within the walls of your business.
- Cloud-native: Hardware and software operate in the cloud. You rent cloud-native infrastructure via a contact-center-as-a-service agreement.
- Hybrid: On-premise and cloud-native technologies work together.
Decisions on cloud computing technologies boil down to renting vs. owning. You either have capital expenses to buy and maintain hardware and software or operating expenses to rent hardware and software from somebody else (or both with hybrid infrastructure).
When you rent cloud services, your provider keeps all the hardware and software secure and up to date – taking a huge volume of technical issues off your plate. However, you also pay for all the digital data your cloud provider manages.
This means the more data and bandwidth you consume, the bigger your cloud bill gets. Some companies are so vast that it’s cheaper to buy and maintain their technologies than to rent them from cloud vendors.
Cloud services typically work best in smaller companies that need to scale up (and down) quickly and avoid paying for technologies they aren’t using.
On-premise pros and cons
- Pros: On-premise infrastructure gives you full control of your technology environment. You always know where your machinery is, and you can bring technicians to fix things under your supervision.
- Cons: You pay high up-front costs with hardware and software that’s often quickly outdated (making it prone to security risks). You also have low flexibility for adapting to new needs.
Cloud-native pros and cons
- Pros: Cloud-native services have low up-front costs and potentially fast implementation times. You have the flexibility to try new things that work well and dump features that aren’t working out. Your vendor handles security and upgrades.
- Cons: Cloud-native can get expensive if your communications generate large cloud fees (such as live video support, which requires a lot of bandwidth). You may find the feature set limited compared to what’s available in hybrid or on-prem offerings.
Hybrid pros and cons
- Pros: Hybrid infrastructure covers the greatest number of requirements. Some companies need on-premises technologies backed up to the cloud, allowing “failover” that keeps services up and running all the time. Building a hybrid contact center technology infrastructure may make sense if customer sales or support is your primary business.
- Cons: With hybrid, you’re still buying and maintaining hardware and software. That means heavy up-front investment and long-term support costs for tools that quickly become obsolete. Moreover, hybrid infrastructure is far more complex to implement, operate, and maintain than either on-prem or cloud-native.
Contact center use cases
Contact centers are best for product support, direct sales, and market research. Here’s how this might work in a few sample businesses.
Let’s say you own an independent insurance agency selling policies to local small business owners. You have a half-dozen staffers and a customer base dealing with complex risk management issues.
A contact center gives you tools to monitor, measure, and assess your communications with customers. Data insights can tell you where you’re winning and losing in areas such as:
- Answering basic customer questions. Suppose a notable number of calls are simply asking for simple things like office hours or your portfolio of services. In that case, this data can lay the groundwork for automatically setting up a chatbot to answer easy questions.
- Giving advanced guidance to expert users. One person in your office specializes in commercial real estate, while another focuses on medical offices. You can configure your contact center to route calls, texts, and other messages to these experts, ensuring your customers get the right answers.
- Handling conflicts and complaints. Some people call in with beefs that require diplomacy and patience. Others swamp you with emails listing everything you’ve done wrong in the past six months. Analytics data from your contact center software can help identify these issues and find ways to avoid them in the future.
Direct sales contact centers can be both inbound and outbound. Let’s say you’re a B2B distributor of components for heavy machinery like tractors or dump trucks. Your primary customers are repair shops and their technicians. Contact center technology might help you with:
- Taking customer orders. Perhaps one of your customers is rebuilding a bulldozer’s diesel engine. It’s an extremely complex job that requires a sales agent who understands the nuances of this kind of order. You can configure your contact center technology to streamline these interactions and assess the skills of your call agents.
- Cold-call prospecting. Your salespeople are constantly scouting for new clients within a 200-mile radius. Your contact center can help your salespeople leave automated voicemails, allowing them to call more people and land more sales.
- Marketing campaigns. You can integrate your contact center platform with customer-relationship management (CRM) software and other marketing tools. This optimizes customer interactions and helps keep your messaging on brand.
Your political consulting firm is orchestrating a campaign to get a candidate elected to the U.S. Congress. Your contact center manages inbound and outbound messaging.
- Inbound: The contact center pulls in messages from your social media team and coordinates incoming phone calls, emails, and texts.
- Outbound: Agents use phone surveys, email, and text messages to identify likely voters and ask them about the top issues on their minds.
The contact center platform analyzes all messaging – analog and digital – for patterns that reveal voters’ preferences and motivations. It also helps identify key phrases and words that trigger specific reactions. This helps you hone your messaging to highlight the candidate’s positives and downplay the negatives.
Contact center automation
Automating everyday communication chores makes a contact center much more efficient because machines can do repetitive jobs better than people. With automation, you can:
- Introduce your company to the message sender and help them find whatever they’re looking for.
- Answer basic, factual questions, so your agents aren’t always saying the same things a dozen times a day.
- Optimize call routing in ways that keep customers satisfied and returning to your business.
- Escalate the most complex queries to human agents who can do things the machines can’t, like understand the tone of voice and defuse conflicts.
A voice interface lets spoken words control a machine. Contact centers often use voice interface tools called interactive voice response (IVR) to handle inbound calls. These are the automated voices that calmly walk us through telephone support processes.
- How they work: IVRs create menus that ask callers to do certain things like tap a number on their phones to call specific departments within a company or get answers to different questions.
- Pros: When somebody calls your company needing help, they get a voice speaking to them. Even a computer voice is better than silence. Also:
- You don’t have to hire operators to take these calls, which saves on salary and benefits expenses.
- Every caller gets the same menu, preventing human error.
- Smaller companies can use an IVR to look much bigger and more professional.
- Cons: You can become over-reliant on automation, creating frustration that sends customers to the competition. Other issues:
- Menus can be too complex, confusing, and aggravating for callers.
- Voice prompts may be difficult to understand, especially if callers speak another language or have hearing problems.
A chatbot is a small application that mimics a human agent in websites and mobile apps.
- How they work: Visitors to your website see a message asking them if they want to chat. When they click to chat, an automated script asks a question. The chatbot’s software has a database of common replies that trigger commands to keep the conversation going.
- Pros: A chatbot is a digital machine that works the same way every time, reducing human labor. Also:
- Chatbots can answer basic factual questions that rarely change, like office hours and return policies. You don’t pay people to repeat the same answers dozens of times a day.
- It can be fairly easy to set up a chatbot in a short time frame if you partner with a company with extensive chatbot experience.
- With intelligent algorithm technologies (see AI and machine learning below), your bot gradually becomes more effective over time.
- Cons: A chatbot does not comprehend the context of a human conversation, so misunderstandings can cause problems. Also:
- A chatbot must be able to reroute questions to a human agent if it cannot answer the user’s question. Getting this right can be a delicate balance.
- Chatbots require ongoing fine-tuning and maintenance.
- Some users will not use chatbots, so you cannot afford to rely too heavily on bots.
- There’s no substitute for genuine human interactions.
AI and machine learning
Contact center software can use artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) to analyze customer motivations, optimize message traffic flow, and predict likely outcomes based on previous behaviors.
- How they work: AI/ML applications scan for patterns in text, voice, and video files stored in contact center databases. Statistical modeling algorithms help the applications learn to become more accurate and useful over time.
- Pros: AI/ML algorithms can analyze massive contact center databases and uncover subtle patterns that you’d never notice on your own. Also:
- You can customize the contact-center experience so customers get better service attuned to their specific needs and interests.
- Data analysis algorithms can automatically route messages to the people best able to respond to them.
- Predictive algorithms can help you anticipate message-traffic volumes and tell you when you’ll need the most (and least) staffing.
- Cons: Bots and algorithms can go only so far in replicating human interactions. You have to be careful about making machines a substitute for conversation. Also:
- AI/ML operations can be extremely complex, requiring substantial skill and education. You’ll most likely hire vendors to supply AI/ML capability, so you’re subject to any limitations in their skills.
- AI/ML can produce unexpected results that are difficult to explain.
- Data must be accurate and up-to-date; inaccurate data can produce biased predictions.
Benefits of a contact center
Let’s review the business case for implementing and managing a contact center.
- A contact center can provide consistent messaging on every channel, ensuring you’re always communicating in ways that support your brand.
- You can align messaging channels with people’s preferred devices, so everybody communicates the way they like most.
- You build stronger emotional bonds with customers, who are less likely to stray from your competitors.
- Managing and optimizing message flow helps you fine-tune customer service and improve satisfaction.
- Monitoring agents help managers motivate, reward, and correct when needed.
- Messages can automatically be routed to the experts best able to resolve customer issues.
- Intelligent contact center software helps you understand why people buy and what they expect from support interactions.
- Real-time feedback helps you respond to issues that crop up when introducing new features and services.
- Predictive algorithms help project future customer service needs.
- Software helps you streamline employee scheduling during specific days, weeks, or months.
- Automation reduces repetitive tasks and removes inefficiencies from messaging patterns.
- Cloud-based contact center services accelerate the time to value of new products and services.
- Consistent, centralized feedback helps you improve quality control.
Choose the right contact center technology
A contact center can help you streamline everyday sales and service messaging. If you choose your contact center technology carefully and manage it strategically, you can boost productivity while keeping pace with customers’ ever-changing preferences.
Learn how you can use predictive analytics to forecast and make future decisions based on historical data and better address customers' changing needs.