The demise of the corporate call centre

Is it game over for the corporate call centre?

The demise of the corporate call centre may arrive soon than you think.

As technology advances and speed and ease of access become increasingly important to our customers, which elements of the traditional contact centre will stand the test of time?

Thanks to Don Peppers for allowing us to share a great article.

On November 6, 2014, The Coca Cola Company announced to its employees that it was doing away with voicemail at its corporate headquarters in Atlanta.

Who does voicemail any more, anyway?

It’s always been a hassle.

The demise of voicemail has been predicted for years.

Why the voice channel is on the decline

Still, there is a bigger issue here, involving the fact that voice communication, for all its advantages, also has some serious disadvantages:

  • The voice channel is slow. Think about it. When we’re reading a text message, whether email or SMS or something else, we can scan it at our own speed, skipping over the fluff and re-reading or thinking carefully about the important information.
  • The voice channel can’t be multiplexed. We can have several email or text-messaging conversations going on at once, but we can’t really pay attention to more than one voice conversation at a time.
  • And an audible voice generates the most unstructured of unstructured data. Before it can be transformed into other data (such as text) it has to be analyzed and re-analyzed, and a computer can only parse the real meaning of a voice message after it has first been rendered into text.

OK, so now think about the primary purpose of most corporate call centres.

Start with the fact that more than half of the calls made to US call centres today are preceded by an online session of some kind – a customer trying to find the answer to a question, or scheduling a service visit, or buying something.

For most of us, it’s only when we can’t solve our problem online that we resort to a call in the first place.

Having to make a call rather than being able to work things out directly on a company’s web site or within its mobile app is a hassle.

The voice channel is slow and cumbersome.

For almost anything routine, most people would prefer to deal with a machine rather than a person, because automated processes are totally frictionless.

Ever since the advent of ATMs, for instance, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who prefer to go into a physical bank branch and interact with a teller, just to get cash or deposit a check.

At today’s call centres, the vast majority of agents sit in front of their computer screens (often multiple screens), and as inquiries, reservations, or service requests come in, they access their company’s computer systems with their keyboards.

They dig for answers or solutions, and then they relay what their computers have said back to the customers.

So what’s changing?

Today’s call-centre agent is simply the manual interface between a company’s computers and its customers.

Increasingly, these conversations are taking place in non-voice channels.

Online chats and email exchanges with customers are already common enough that many call centres are actually more properly referred to as “contact” centres.

Moreover, cloud computing now permits more and more customer interactions to be handled by at-home agents, or by a company’s retail staff when they are available, so even the word “centre” is no longer really accurate.

Today’s computers are getting better and better at recognising voice inputs, especially for simple things (“Please say or enter your account number…”), while the computer systems feeding the call-centre agents’ screens are also improving rapidly, as they become simpler and more intuitive to access.

So we could easily conclude that the corporate call centre will soon go the way of voicemail, or the teller window, but this is where the analogy breaks down.

Because there is one thing an actual human voice provides to a customer that a computer will never be able to provide: humanity.

The one thing technology can’t do (yet!)

Customers are people, and people want empathy and caring from other people, especially if they are frustrated, or anxious, or unhappy.

They want a human being to hear them out, to commiserate, and to provide emotional support.

We may not want to waste time by going to the teller window for a simple cash transaction, but most of us wouldn’t dream of undertaking a new mortgage without meeting a loan officer face to face.

Yes, routine tasks are rapidly being automated away, but that leaves the really tough jobs – the kinds of problems that can’t be solved with a line of code.

So watch for corporate call centres to be replaced by empathy centres over the next few years.

Rather than simply accessing and relaying computerised instructions, tomorrow’s agents will be tasked with listening to customers, absorbing their feedback, and providing support and advice, as a way to ensure their continued loyalty.

The primary mission of tomorrow’s contact centre will be delivering humanity to customers, a mission very well-suited to voice interaction.

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About Don Peppers 2 Articles
Don Peppers is recognised as a global authority on marketing and business competition. His first book, The One to One Future, written with Martha Rogers in 1993, is widely credited with having launched the CRM revolution.

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