Customer service is happening everywhere. No longer are customers relegated to placing phone calls to a contact center to get an answer, place an order, or dispute an issue. Consumers expect companies to serve them not just via phone, but also from mobile apps, chat, email, SMS, and social media—whenever and wherever they are.

Such shifts are forcing contact center organizations to change the way they've been serving customers. This means shedding the inwardly focused processes and performance metrics like scorecards and call handle time, and adopting externally focused practices and policies like leveraging text and voice analytics and voice-of-the-customer data to more proactively engage with customers to enhance the customer experience.


Next-generation contact centers rely on robust analytics to recognize customers across channels, map their behavior to their customer IDs or contact information, and even reach beyond firewalls to aggregate geo-location data with CRM data. They're moving to SIP trunking, cloud architecture, and web services to have the agility and flexibility to seamlessly serve customers on any device they use, via any channel. Next-generation contact centers can recognize any number of consumer devices and respond appropriately to each one. They employ experienced agents who can toggle between a chat session, email, and SMS messaging. And they integrate reporting and apply customer-focused metrics to hold every person accountable for delivering great customer experiences.

Welcome to the future of customer service.

According to Tim Moynihan, vice president of product marketing at Empirix, evolving to that next generation requires contact centers to have the agility to handle a wide range of customer interactions. "Applications have changed, [customer] expectations are different today than a few years ago and they will continue to accelerate," he says.

Ed Shepherdson, senior vice president, enterprise solutions, at Coveo, adds that customer centricity is being reborn and the context of the customer is at the center of the contact center universe. "Ten years ago CEOs would have paid lip service to the customer experience. There's a lot more at stake today. The big step forward is how we engage our customers and interact," he says.

And Fred Brown, of NextIT, says "Customer expectations are climbing; for corporations to keep a good brand promise, they have to invest there."

Such investments will help to propel contact centers into next-generation territory, but it will require a focus in three main areas: cross-channel intelligence, social and mobile engagement, and employee empowerment.

Unlocking and mapping customer intelligence across channels.

A study by Coveo earlier this year shows the significant opportunities afforded by unlocking the hidden value of the burgeoning customer information currently spread across channels and departments. Of the 130 customer service and support executives interviewed for the survey, 63 percent reported that a customer-centric strategy would increase revenue, but 69 percent said information silos and a lack of collaboration hamper these efforts.  

Coveo's Shepherdson says that to obtain a consistent view of customers' "storylines," contact center organizations need interfaces and mechanisms to bring relevant information at the right time to answer customers' questions. Moving to the next generation involves adding context—having sufficient information to know that the customer who sent an email the previous day regarding a shipping question is now calling today to say he still hasn't received his package.

Wokingham Borough Council in the U.K. is one organization gaining a more holistic picture of its customer experience. The council deployed cloud-based LiveOps Platform and LiveOps Social to monitor and respond to residents' comments and questions on Twitter, email, SMS, and chat. The organization is seeing the benefits of having a complete view of the customer across channels.

Sarah Barrow, head of customer services and administration at Wokingham Borough Council, says her agents can view the complete behavior history of each of the borough's customers and see all the ways in which they engage with the borough. "Viewing that information all in one place helps us to be more knowledgeable when we deal with customers," she says. "When we tell them that we can see that they had a Web chat yesterday and today they tweeted, they are quite surprised."

This granular level of context is critical to performance, explains Merijn te Booij, head of product strategy at Genesys. He says that next-generation contact centers view their channels as "message brokers" that route customer intelligence to the contact center hub, where information can be immediately acted on. "Context is king," Booij says. "If you think about moving from one channel to another, you need to understand the context that customers are working in. That can be derived from the channel they're operating in at that moment, previous interactions, the customer profile…"

This requires deep cross-channel analysis that produces intelligence localized enough to get to the root cause of a customer's problem and to identify contact patterns by examining emotion and determining what's triggering a customer's anxiety, according to Capgemini's Paul Cole, vice president of business process outsourcing, customer operations. "The contact center is becoming the hub of interaction. Trying to make sense of all that information and deliver experiences in a seamless manner is no easy task," he says.

Christine Viera, vice president of contact center product management at Avaya, adds that the challenge with contact centers obtaining a deep level of context about customers across channels is that many organizations pilot and trial solutions, and then are left with a number of disconnected technologies. "The impact of disconnected systems is very dissatisfying for customers," she says.

Viera recommends overlaying an analytics solution atop the entire contact center experience to determine exactly why customers are calling and to know how well agents are serving them.

U.S. Airways is one company whose service technologies were disconnected, hampering what should have been a smooth customer experience. The airline was using multiple interactive voice response systems at one point due to various acquisitions and mergers. The IVR menus were cumbersome and difficult to navigate. After deploying Nuance On Demand last July, the airline made several improvements, including natural language call steering (when callers can express requests in their own words) and automated collection of trip information. The new system understands customers' intent and quickly transfers them to an agent. "Enterprises are realizing that consumers are expecting more and evolving faster than before, so the old model doesn't allow them to keep up," says Dena Skrbina, Nuance Communications' senior director of solutions marketing.

Leveraging social and mobile for proactive engagement

When discussing how to integrate and analyze customer data across channels, contact centers would be remiss not to include a social strategy.

Social media is generating considerable buzz within the contact center space as a critical communication channel. By engaging with customers using social media, contact centers can generate new business, detect early warning signs of issues, and push for efficient communications between marketing and the customer base.

Despite the many opportunities social media affords, Avaya's Viera admits that many contact centers still grapple with defining how to interact with customers via this medium. "You need more than a couple folks in marketing. It's really about watching and monitoring the dialogue between customers and finding opportunities to deliver better service," she says.

A new study from the Genesys/Economist, which surveyed 798 top- and middle-ranking business executives, shows a disconnect between social and service. Only 48 percent of organizations use social media and networking sites to communicate with customers, whereas the majority (90 percent) continues to lean on the company website and email (88 percent). And 42 percent of organizations use call centers to communicate with customers, while just 6 percent see customer support and service as the main purpose of new communication channels.

Despite this lag in leveraging social for service, Genesys' Booij explains that the companies doing social well have incorporated the medium into a wider customer service strategy. Next-generation contact centers are able to understand the sentiment expressed via social channels and correlate that to one specific customer. "The really good companies are engaging and allowing multimodal approaches to social and understanding what the data really means," he says. "When I look at a next-generation contact center, I see an environment that focuses on the correlation between the experience being delivered and the result that comes out of that."

And Coveo's Shepherdson says that social has actually opened doors for organizations to realize how to put customers at the center of the universe. The first-generation social platforms were about listening. Listening, he adds, is no longer enough. "You need to take action on the listening," he says

Capgemini's Cole adds that there's been a great deal of listening in social, but not much engagement—for good reason. "It's a new world, and given transparency and trust, if you make a mistake out there in the public world, you go from being a brand advocate to a brand saboteur," he says.

Wokginham Borough Council has embraced that transparency and leverages Twitter to proactively respond to residents' issues in a timely manner and to update them on pertinent information like the recent changes to the city's waste collection process. Barrow says that the borough is able to deal with a greater number of interactions and can even chart trends from analyzing all the interactions from one central location. "People frightened of using twitter are missing out on a whole group of people who have a voice in the community that they didn't before. Unless you engage with them it can be destructive to your organization," she says.

In addition to social, the proliferation of mobile is accelerating customers' expectations of anywhere, anytime service, notes Empirix's Moynihan. "We're seeing the evolution beginning," he says.

Moynihan points to technologies like SIP trunking that enable companies the ability to interact with customers seamlessly via chat, social media, or voice. "At the end of the day, it's about the customer experience and how the contact center can help out and provide a quick and satisfying resolution," he says.

Video adoption is a part of that evolution. Moynihan says an increasing number of video-related service interactions will take place in the near future. Avaya's Viera says she's seeing more contact center organizations determining how to better leverage video and mobility together to provide a rich service experience. For example, she notes that an increasing number of customers are using video chat launched from a mobile app to initiate service requests. Viera says she's receiving more inquiries from companies that want to deploy video to deliver a truly differentiated customer experience. "It feels more personal in terms of getting their problem resolved," she says.

Empowering employees to enhance the customer experience

Deploying the latest technologies and devices will definitely help to improve the customer experience, but getting customers to recommend a company often depends on friendly, trustworthy agents who understand customers' issues and resolve them quickly. Getting agents to provide such service levels means they must be engaged and empowered.

Yet highly engaged contact center agents are too often the exception. Enkata CEO Dave Stamm says that, according to several surveys, only a third of frontline employees typically are engaged. He predicts that companies will begin to invest in new ways to engage them. "There's nothing more critical than having people who care when customers call," he says.

Part of keeping employees engaged is empowering them in a number of ways, including making the optimal decisions for customers, finding new and innovative ways to motivate and reward them, seeking ideas from them on how to improve the organization, and enabling work-from-home scenarios when appropriate (see "Addressing the Home-Based Agent Conundrum").

Seeking out new ways to motivate and empower employees is essential, but so is incorporating the right KPIs when measuring their performance.

Alla Reznik, director of contact center services, product management, for Verizon Enterprise solutions, says next-generation contact centers focus less on time spent on the phone, and more on measuring the agent's individual success. "These folks have to be some sort of super-humans," she says. "They work off scripts. It's a lot of training."

The next-generation contact center requires a whole new set of metrics. Rather than focusing on call handle time, an increasing number of contact centers will begin to rely on metrics like NPS, customer value, and first-call resolution, as well as social metrics like retweets, "likes," and sentiment. "It's about rebalancing what matters and putting more emphasis on the effectiveness of the experience rather than just on the efficiency," Capgemini's Cole explains.

Cole adds that next-generation centers that empower their agents, cull unstructured information from a variety of sources to help agents conduct more knowledgeable conversations with customers, and incorporate customer-focused metrics, are readily recognizing instances to upsell and cross-sell and not just triage or resolve problems. "Certain companies get that and lead the way," he says. "It comes down to what kind of experience they perceive to be the opportunity to grow the customer base. The Holy Grail is finding the right balance between cost efficiency and delivering the right experience."