Meet George Jetson -- and his newfangled contact center.
The contact centers of the future are emerging from the current telephone-based call centers. Someday, customers may receive help from streaming videos on their PCs, reminiscent of the videophones from the 1960s American cartoon "The Jetsons." Even today, customers can reach an agent via e-mail and Web chat. But for contact centers to reach their full Jetsons-like potential, U.S. customers will need more bandwidth to interact with agents.
The most important contact center technology for the future, assuming that Web chat and e-mail are already there, is voice over Inter Protocol (VoIP), according to Mark Smedley, vice president for the European Call Center Alliance.
"VoIP is the Holy Grail," he said, referring to its ability to blend voice and data interaction through one point of contact.
Research and consulting firms have watched as contact centers in the United States have been venturing into multichannel customer service.
"Companies that we've been dealing with have not found that click-to-chat and click-to-talk (are something) customers adopt," said Jason Richardson, senior manager at Chapel Hill, N.C.-based research and consulting firm Best Practices LLC.
The technology might not be reliable, people might not be interested in using it or call center representatives might not have experience with it, he said.
What the customer wants
Richardson paralleled the adoption of new contact center technologies with those of the traditional call center. For a long time, consumers preferred to go into a branch to do their banking, avoiding the call center. But now, brokerages are closing offices because their customers prefer to use the call center. The Web model is facing the same hurdles that call centers faced in their early days, he said.
"It depends on the demographic you're trying to reach," said Susan Thomas, communication center manager for Flint, Mich.-based Security Federal Credit Union. "The younger population prefers a totally high-tech (approach). That's why we have integrated both (the Web site and the call center) here, because we're targeting a very broad cross-section."
Some companies see total integration of many customer touchpoints as the future of the contact center. For Security Federal, plans for the far future include integrating e-mail, phone communication, ATMs and audio tellers into the contact center, ensuring access to a live customer service representative no matter which channel is used, she said.
Currently, Security Federal has its Web site tied in to its communication centers. This way, customers applying for a loan or conducting other banking activities online can click and get a live representative, she said.
A long way off
The technologies that don't seem to be coming in the near future include wireless and streaming video. The average company doesn't find wireless as reliable as land lines, Richardson said.
Streaming video is even further out, by as much as five to ten years, according to Adam Bianchi, manager at Best Practices. For streaming video to work for consumers, they would need a digital subscriber line (DSL) or cable modem connection, at the minimum. Currently, 95% of the U.S. population lacks high-speed Internet access, he said.
"At the current time, pursuing a service strategy that's only applicable to 5% of the service base doesn't make sense," Bianchi said.
Smedley agreed that streaming video would take awhile. Companies would need even more equipment for streaming video than they would for an Internet-integrated contact center, he said. "That means more cost than a simple VoIP."
In a recent searchCRM poll, however, 123 respondents -- or 73% -- voted for streaming video as the contact center channel to add in the next few years. But those respondents may have had business-to-business call centers on the brain. According to Bianchi, the early adoption of streaming video may occur in the B2B sector, only reaching business-to-consumer help desks when bandwidth sufficiently increases.
Even George Jetson's boss, the fictional futuristic capitalist Mr. Spacely, would prefer to invest his money elsewhere until the rest of the universe catches up with technology.
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