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Where is the Contact Center Industry Headed?

The ICMI team recently asked Brad to share his perspective on where our profession is going. The following is an address he delivered at breakfast to attendees of a recent training symposium in Orlando, Florida (transcribed and edited down slightly for print).

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When our team asked me to make comments this morning on where our profession is headed, I smiled, as I had a flashback to my first "real" job in the early/mid 1980s. I was making my way through the last year of high school and the first few years of college; I worked for an interconnect company, which supplied telecommunications and data systems to organizations, and I was the lowest ranking person on the team. One of my primary responsibilities was to pull and install communications cable. This was usually underneath floors, through tight, dark spaces with spider webs, scalding hot utility pipes, and creatures that would scurry just out of flashlight range. There's a popular expression of starting one's career on the "ground floor." In those days, I just wanted to work my way up to the ground floor!

But I also began to acquire a palpable excitement and appreciation for what I was part of. I could only imagine the opportunities those high capacity lines were opening up – ours was becoming a "wired world." (Actually, we're more of a "wireless world" today, but you get the point).

Indeed, the most significant developments to date have been on our end (the organization's end): The invention of 800 number (toll free) service and ACD routing systems in the late 1960s and early 1970s; the introduction of workforce management capabilities and computer telephony integration in the 1980s; web browsers and Internet-based services in the 1990s; and more recently, the amazing developments in multi-media, cloud-based capabilities, analytics and so much more.

But I believe it is imperative that we recognize a major and fundamental shift. For the first time, developments on the customers' end – smart phones, broadband, social media and mobility – are driving the most significant progress in expectations and service. I'm convinced we'll see more change in the next five years than we've seen in the past two decades. It will come rapidly, with significant consequences to every organization (positive or negative depending on how each responds), and whether we want it to or not. We're not in the driver's seat anymore. We can harness and leverage the trends to our benefit, or we can get tumbled by them.

I believe our profession will evolve on three levels, just as our contact centers can deliver value on three levels. The first is efficiency. Our profession is learning and relearning the basics of forecasting, staffing and real-time management for new services entering the mix; e.g., multimedia, and interactions with social networks and communities. The core principles apply as much as ever, and routing, handling, measuring and using what we learn from these new customer interactions will feel very familiar. (A couple of years ago, I wrote a favorable blog on Zappos, and quickly received a thank you from a customer service agent. My blog entered the queue and made its way to his desktop just like other types of contacts – a model we'll see develop across our profession.)

A second level of value we’re relearning and applying in a new context is customer loyalty. If we are listening to and becoming part of conversations taking place across social sites, we have the opportunity to quickly build loyalty and brand reputation. And the one-to-many properties of service in social channels can dramatically boost efficiencies. Yes, the social space can feel like the Wild West of the electronic age – clamorous, unruly, and ever changing. But there's nothing more powerful than quiet, confident service, and organizations like the U.S. National Cancer Institute are becoming role models for interacting with a diverse range of customers (and in their case, on sensitive issues) through emerging social channels.

A third level is strategic value, which is sharing and acting on what we learn through customer interactions – and, in turn, working with the rest of the organization to improve products, services, systems and processes. In this way, we're driving innovation and positively impacting our organization and all of our customers, not just those who we've interacted with directly. We have an historical opportunity to reshape our customer access strategy to reach customers through the channels they prefer – traditional and emerging – and build powerful word-of-mouth and business returns.

And my suggestions on what you need to do, individually, to advance your career and leverage the trends taking shape? First, learn everything you can about how contact centers work, what they do, and the value they can create. Symposiums like this, exploring industry credentials such as through CIAC certification, and networking with other professionals – everything you're doing this week – are all positive components of this effort.

Second, be an active consumer! We're all customers of many other organizations, and I encourage you to engage them through a wide variety of channels and customer communities. Use search on products and services, explore customer forums and feedback sites, and take note of how well each organization responds and, in the end, serves you. What's your impression of their brand, culture and commitment to service? What are you observing that you can you apply in your own customer service operation? While I'm a big proponent of formal training and research, nothing can substitute for observation and common sense.

Finally, take risks. Push the envelope in convincing your own organization – the executive team, agents, colleagues in other departments, and key suppliers – that customer service is more important than ever. There is great peril for those organizations that don't understand today's developments, but an historical opportunity for those that harness today's trends to differentiate through service. Specifically, your organization needs to "connect, engage, thrive" – meaning listen to and become part of conversations across social networks as well as traditional communication channels, understand and build customer relationships, and leverage what you learn into creating a stronger organization through better products, services and processes.

It's probably a continuation of perspective I first began to develop in those challenging crawl spaces so many years ago – customer interaction and communication has been, and will be, more than ever, a powerful force in shaping our future. We are all a part of defining and establishing the next generation of services, and I'm excited to be part of this effort with you!

Please drop me a note with your stories, comments, feedback...I'd love to hear from you.