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Year End Review: Service Channels of the Past, Present, and Future

At the beginning of 2014, a lot of people were reading tea leaves, trying to predict what was in store for the contact center industry. Predictions varied, but most agreed that 2014 was going to be a big year for cloud-based services, the expansion and integration of service channels, and a growing focus on customer experience. While most of these predictions came true, there were some surprises as well.

2014 Highlights

Head in the clouds. Contact centers continued migrating to the cloud over the past year. At the end of 2013, more than 62 percent of contact centers were using cloud-based applications, while the remaining 38 percent planned to do so within 18 months. While the primary driver to move to the cloud has been cost, contact centers have realized a wealth of additional benefits, including faster deployment, flexibility, scalability and better support for a remote workforce.

Move over multichannel—omnichannel is here! There’s no doubt that the most overused buzzword this year was the “omnichannel contact center,” which replaced a previously overused buzzword: multichannel contact center. And while omnichannel has been a topic of conversation throughout the year, most people in the industry still don’t know the difference. A multichannel strategy is defined as having several support channels available to customers, whereas an omnichannel strategy is about engaging customers across channels in a holistic way. In an omnichannel approach, customers that begin an engagement in one channel should be able to transition smoothly to other channels without having to start over.

In order to support a true omnichannel experience, contact centers should have a multichannel strategy, but should also integrate software solutions with their big data infrastructure to pull it off. This is one of the main reasons that contact centers struggled with omnichannel in 2014. Luckily, with the growing use of cloud-based services and API-enabled telecommunications solutions, these barriers should start to fall.

More channels to manage. Throughout 2014, we saw increased use of common channels, as well as important new channels being exposed to customers.

Video support. We’ve been able to video chat with friends and family for years, and now we can finally do the same with companies. Solutions like the Kindle Fire’s Mayday button can connect users to a live agent in as little as 15 seconds. These types of real time support options are adding a new face to customer service—literally. Video support capabilities are continuing to grow, and with the emergence of technologies like WebRTC (a browser plug-in), video support capabilities will be available to any size organization.

Evolution of web chat. Historically, most sites have used web chat for sales, but customer service started adding it in 2014. With advancements like virtual agents and Natural Language Understanding (NLU), customers can perform self-service tasks without having to chat with an agent. The addition of proactive chat enhanced capabilities by allowing companies to analyze what a web visitor is doing and pop up a chat window based on what the visitor is trying to do. This not only helps improve customer service but drives additional revenue opportunities as well.

Social madness. Social networks have started to dominate a lot of contact centers’ channel strategy in response to customer demand. Over 50 percent of customers would prefer to use social media rather than the phone for customer service, and customers ranked Facebook as their top social media service tool.

SMS support. 2014 saw the introduction of SMS as a support channel. Historically, most businesses that support SMS use it for marketing or notification purposes only. However, with the emergence of toll-free SMS, business number texting, SMS automation, text chat and business MMS, the concept of using text messaging for customer support is now a reality. While many organizations started to really consider SMS as a viable service channel, only the early adopters began to realize the benefits.

Channel pivot. One cross-channel feature that has surfaced alongside business texting is the channel pivot. Channel pivot lets customers switch from the channel they’re currently using to another one without losing context.Enterprises are now starting to offer SMS as an option within the IVR so callers can transition to to text message support to finishtheir request, instead of waiting on hold. A Harris Poll commissioned by OneReach found that more than 40 percent of customers would press a button to text chat with an agent immediately rather than wait on hold to speak with an agent.

Voice is still king. Even with all the contact options that exist today, voice is still the most widely used channel to contact a business. A NICE Systems survey from late 2013 found that 88 percent of customers call in for customer service, representing the highest use of any channel. Still, while voice continues to be the most used channel, it is not always preferred. The Harris Poll/OneReach study also found that 64 percent of customers would rather text a business than call them. Additional research has found that more than half of consumers would prefer to use social media for customer service, and 72 percent would prefer to use self-service to resolve support issues.

Customer experience. If there is one thing that stood out this year in customer service, it was the goal of creating a better customer experience. According to Forrester’s Customer Experience Index, customer-centric companies gained 43 percent in performance, compared to a 33.9 percent decrease for companies who have neglected customer experience. In response, most contact centers focused on making improvements to the overall customer experience in 2014, including implementing an omnichannel strategy, adding channels and providing more engaging self-service capabilities.

Self-service. Providing self-service capabilities not only reduces costs for businesses— it also addresses customers’ needs.The number of consumers who prefer self-service has doubled since 2009, and 62 percent of companies see self-service as a key differentiator. Web self-service and live chat were two of the most used and preferred channels in 2014. We also saw the introduction of the Interactive Text Response (ITR) this year, which allows people to perform self-service tasks over SMS.

Automated callbacks. Another contact center technology that saw significant adoption this year was automated callbacks. Contact centers can now provide alternatives for customers on hold: they can receive a call back from the company if there are no agents available, or to submit a request for a return call on a customer support website. These callback options reduce customer hold time and greatly increase customer satisfaction.

Proactive customer engagement. Contact centers are starting to see the value in providing automated notifications to improve customer experience and influence customer behavior. The healthcare field has already started using voice and text-based appointment reminders to reduce no show rates. Contact centers are now seeing proactive notification as a way to reduce call volumes by keeping customers up to date on things like order and repair status.

Looking Ahead to 2015

2015 will be a banner year for the customer. Not only will they have more support options to choose from, but they’ll also have more control over how and when they interact with a business. They will start to expect smarter, more targeted communications based on the things that actually matter to them.

For most enterprises, this will mean more challenges, such as determining how to balance ever-evolving customer expectations with new support models and technology changes. However, for the enterprises that focus on the customer experience, there are significant possibilities.

Customer experience improvements. Improving the customer experience will continue to be a major focus for the enterprise in 2015. In fact, by 2020, customer experience will have overtaken price and product as the key brand differentiator. Customer experience improvments will come in the form of more channel options, such as SMS support, improved automated self-service, and the implementation of integrated solutions that track and anticipate customers needs across channels.

Delivering on the omnichannel promise. As Aberdeen analyst Omer Minkara so aptly put it, “2015 will be the year where we'll hear more conversations on how to implement omnichannel, rather than why.” Since customers will expect service 24/7/365, the best (if not only) way to provide a great customer experience is to ensure service channels are seamlessly integrated and always available.

Continued Migration. There will be more movement to the cloud in 2015 as companies continue to recognize its many benefits (storage, security, simplicity, etc.). As existing ‘on-premise’ solutions continue to age, businesses will replace them with more open and flexible cloud-based solutions.

“Shall we play a game?” According to Gartner, more than 40 percent of top businesses will use gamification to transform their business operations. This means that employers will start “gamifying” the work process (prizes, level ups, rankings) in order to encourage the best employee performance. Contact centers can utilize gamification as a way to improve worker morale, and as a result, also increase customer satisfaction.

Text support channel. In 2014, the concept of texting a business for support was really just beginning to take off. Now that business texting is a reality and has proven the impact it can have on customer experience and cost reduction, organizations of all sizes will start to implement SMS solutions for customer support. This will include implementing text self-service (ITRs), proactive notifications and live text chat with contact centers through existing toll-free service phone numbers.

Personalization. The popular TV show Cheers may have premiered 30 years ago, but the theme song lyrics still ring true: customers want to go where everybody knows their name. That’s why businesses should be investing more in intelligent automation in 2015, where technology recognizes the customer across channels for a better, more personalized interaction. The more you know about a customer at the beginning of an interaction, the less you ask from them and the faster you can solve their problems -- and the happier the customer will be.


We’re in the midst of what Forrester calls the “Age of the Customer,” and contact centers are responding. There is thoughtful, concerted effort to move beyond the monolithic customer experiences of the past and into more personal, meaningful, efficient, and contextual experiences of the future. As leading companies adopt these breakthroughs in technology and allow their customers to interact on the channels they prefer, new standards for customer experience will emerge in the coming year. The companies that drive a superior service experience by leveraging the most recent technology advancements will most certainly see success in 2015.