But before there was CRM, call centers were busy handling customer calls for sales and service. With the advent of CRM and the Internet, call centers are expanding their role to become contact centers. Contact centers not only handle customer interactions over the phone, but through new e-business channels like e-mail, Web forms, and live chat as well.
The transformation is an important one because it can help create a unified view of the customer. One of the loftier goals of CRM is to provide a complete picture of the customer and their interactions with an enterprise. The idea is that someone in sales, marketing, or customer service can see the entire history of the customer's involvement with the company, thus letting them respond in a more attentive and intelligent way. The result is improved efficiency, improved customer satisfaction, and more effective up-selling and cross-selling.
In practice, it isn't easy creating a unified view of the customer, because many companies that have implemented CRM have not done so for all their customer channels. Even when they do, they may use different systems for different channels, providing a fragmented view at best.
First, it's important to understand how call centers and contact centers help an enterprise manage customer interactions. The work falls into three areas: call management, workforce management, and interaction management.
Call management: Call management helps individual agents manage specific customer interactions. Once a customer initiates the contact by phone, e-mail, or chat, an agent creates a record to track the progress of the interaction until it is resolved.
Workforce management: Workforce management helps companies manage the contact center staff by helping with scheduling, quality monitoring, recording of calls and keystrokes, developing and routing scripts, and developing agent skills.
Interaction management: Interaction management is the traffic cop--managing the flow of incoming calls and routing them efficiently to make best use of available agents.
There is an important distinction between the two ways that contact centers handle interaction management-multi-channel routing and universal queuing.
Multi-channel routing sends incoming contacts to unique queues for each channel. For example, there would be a separate queue for phone contacts, a queue for e-mail contacts, and a queue for chat contacts. The problem with this approach is that the contact center agents still need to investigate the queues separately to deal with customer contacts coming through different channels.
"You want all your contacts to come into a centralized queue, but many companies are still routing those interactions through separate queues because they aren't ready to pull out of their existing investments," says Joanie Rufo, research director at AMR Research.
Universal queuing is a more sophisticated approach--one that's a better fit with the unifying concept underlying contact centers. Universal queuing organizes all contacts, regardless of channel, into a single queue for consistent treatment of the customers. This comes much closer to the goal of achieving a complete and integrated view of customer activity.
"The compelling reason to unify channels is to get information to serve the customer better," says Meta Group vice president Elizabeth Ussher. "You have better information that you can profile your customer so that you can sell existing products or identify new products," she says.
Companies that want to transform their call centers into contact centers need to make sure that they are putting the right technology in place to provide a complete view of their customers. Universal queuing is the key to this transformation which ensures that information about individual customers isn't fragmented. It's the pivotal step in upgrading a call center to a contact center based on the broader goals of CRM.
Adrian Mello has covered the technology business for nearly two decades and is a former editor-in-chief of Line56, Macworld, and Upside.