Omnichannel Customer Service (Part 1)

Mar 05, 2014


The North American contact center industry has reached “maturity,” which is the code word for a gradual demise.  As noted in the analysis “Opportunities in a Mature Market,” Frost & Sullivan forecasts the total number of contact center seats will shrink from 4.1 million in 2012 to 4 million by 2017.

If anything, the seat loss is a conservative estimate, as there are several factors causing the call center sector to become even smaller:

  • Millennials and Gen Yers are entering the consumer mainstream, but they will only contact companies’ staff if they cannot obtain satisfaction on the Web, in mobile apps, on text-based automated channels (chat, SMS/text, and virtual agent), and on social media.   And, as indicated in the Frost & Sullivan research, “From Interactive Voice Response (IVR) to Automated Customer Interaction,” the new consumers also appear to prefer automated text over IVR, including speech-based solutions.

Here’s the rub: Millennials and GenYers may perceive voice-driven call centers as “irrelevant,” an attitude they may take with them in their careers.  They may also see customer service as a career dead end.  If so, chances are these employees will instead go into marketing, which is usually responsible for the “relevant” mobile, social, and Web channels, and which has a direct route to the C-suite.  Consequently, when these individuals become corporate decision makers, they will be less inclined to spend money on “call centers.”

  • Most companies now understand that the best way to reduce service costs, and to satisfy and retain customers, is by making their products and services easier to use and more reliable.  Moreover, the products themselves can now diagnose problems and alert customers, and, with customers’ permission, automatically fix issues and install upgrades.
  • The depth of online advice and information to help customers solve their own problems is rising. But that means the questions and problems that customers may have after being in self-service may be too difficult for live agents to answer.
  • The rise of more productive channels.  Chat, SMS/text, and social media permit agents to engage in several simultaneous conversations, whereas live agent voice (and video) is one-to-one. Automated proactive customer contact (PCC) solutions reduce inbound contact volumes while improving the customer experience by alerting customers of important issues.

Underlying these trends is the slow economic rebound and a disappearing middle class that is creating a consumer market made up of a small affluent upper class and a large, less affluent lower class.  As a result, companies are focusing on catering to the elite (like with live agents), while devoting only enough resources to profitably retain the other buyers (like with automated service). 

But the net effect will be even fewer live agents, and seats, because of the small size of the elite market, coupled with elite customers’ extensive use of Web, mobile self-service and social media support. 

Yet there has never been a greater need for companies to provide a high touch omnichannel customer service.  Limited growth, combined with customers’ abilities to research companies before buying and influence others’ buying decisions on social media, force companies to adopt this strategy. 

With products and services also becoming commodities, and with similarity in prices, providing an excellent omnichannel customer experience is the only way companies can differentiate themselves. That includes improved IVR experiences as customers will make fewer, but more critical calls to companies; less delays and drop-outs when customers switch between channels; and the shift from automated systems to live personnel.

But what will the future “contact center” look like in this new milieu?  I’ll discuss this in my next blog entry.

Brendan Read


Brendan Read is Senior Industry Analyst with over 25 years’ experience covering business, communications, staffing, and technology. He has worked in, prepared reports, and blogged on a wide range of topics including customer contact, CX, CRM, IoT, social media, supply chain, and BC/DR. He also has backgrounds in construction, manufacturing, materials, resource extraction, site selection, and transportation. He examines the broad economic, environmental, innovation, political, and social mega trends, and their impacts on businesses, markets, and society.

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