Forget call centres - the future lies in multi-channel, multimedia customer contact centres. Datamonitor research and analyst manager Steve Morrell makes the case...The internet will destroy the call centre. Hundreds of thousands of jobs will be lost. An economic disaster is just around the corner. Over the last year these bleak sentiments have been voiced repeatedly by people who really should know better. The truth is that the internet will make the call centre even more of a strategic asset to leading businesses than it is today. But it is true that the call centre will change. By 2003, we'll be talking about 'contact centres', where a significant amount of customer contact will occur via email, interactive TV, WAP-enabled phones and websites. As with any new idea in the world of technology, there has been a lot of hype and confusion. So what will be the likely impact of the internet on customer contact? A true multimedia contact centre has various key business processes which make it more than just a call centre which occasionally answers a few emails: - It treats all contacts as equals: if your best customer sends an email, you need to provide an accurate, rapid response, in the same way you would a telephone call - It provides reliable service levels for all media: all call centres today provide a tight measure of their success - such as "90 per cent of calls answered within 20 seconds. Very few have a rigid service level agreement for emails - It is likely to use a mixture of email management, web self-service and web-based live agent help to provide a similar or better experience than customers would get on the telephone. The good news for those people who are still just answering phone calls is that, with a few exceptions, that's what everyone else is doing - only four per cent of contacts today are through email and almost 90 per cent by telephone. By 2003, however, email will account for 20 per cent of contacts. This isn't just a random analyst making things up. These figures are from a survey of over 300 call centre managers across Europe - the people who really know what is going on with your customers. So what do you need to do? The most important thing is to not rush in. What happens if you implement a badly-designed and patchy web self-service system? People will still use it - but just the once. Then they will go back to your call centre and never use the website again. Your agents will be inundated with questions, the answers to which are easily available on the second version of your website, which no one is using because they had a bad experience last time. The other, even more concerning option is that your customers will just leave your company altogether. A radical idea is to get your IT department talking to sales and marketing to make your customers' experiences better - whether on the phone, email or website. For your IT department, a good website is one with 99.99 per cent availability - but there's more to a successful site than this. Design the site with the customer in mind, not just a reflection of your internal company structure. Consider whether you want to push customers onto the internet. It can be cheaper to service them like this, but if a lot of your revenues come from cross-selling, up-selling or skilled sales closure, keep the customer close to you - in the call centre. Finally, link and share information between the call centre and the website. Businesses in Europe lost over $1.4bn last year because potential customers surfing websites wanted to talk to a real person but couldn't. Of course, this is a rounding error in the great scheme of things, but by 2004, the figure will be close to $60bn. The contact centre solutions, unlike many other contact technologies, can lower cost while increasing customer satisfaction. Could you say the same about interactive voice response (IVR)? For most technologies, three-letter acronyms and new business ideas there can be some form of debate on likely success. For multimedia contact centres, this is not the case. Plan carefully, implement slowly, but do it.