One of my favorite topics is the inevitable coming together of unified communications, collaboration, and the contact center. I’ve been writing about expanding the contact center to the enterprise and using “expert agents” since the late 1990s. In fact, I gave a presentation at a Call Center conference in 1998 entitled, “The Call Center Without Walls.” Back in the 1990s we were talking about using computer telephony integration (CTI) to extend the contact center to the enterprise, and in the early-mid 2000’s IP telephony and IP PBXs came into the picture and made this scenario even more likely. The idea of expert agents or informal contact centers is a great idea, but was limited due to the technology, and more importantly, management and personnel issues – particularly, how do you get knowledge workers who have important jobs and responsibilities to take time from their day to assist contact center agents and customers?
Here we are in 2009 and we’re still talking about extending the contact center to the enterprise and making customer service the responsibility of the enterprise, not just the contact center. Why do I think it will finally happen now?
Many people think of unified communications as being the evolution of CTI, and in some ways I agree. While CTI was a first step in unifying computers and telephony, UC goes further by integrating computers, telephony, communications, collaboration, mobility, applications, business processes, and more. And - it provides presence capabilities. Contact centers have been using presence status for years – agent state is simply another term for presence. Contact center agents also have ways of chatting or interacting with their supervisors. But presence and chat capabilities weren’t available to knowledge workers outside of the contact center as they are now.
Between the predominance of IP telephony and IP networks, unified communications tools, especially presence, IM, and collaboration, the technology barriers no longer exist. The personnel and management issues haven’t gone away, and companies will have to find ways to incent knowledge workers to cooperate with contact center agents and take time out of their busy days to provide information to agents and/or customers. Companies will also have to use some of the contact center technologies throughout the enterprise in order to track, manage, and record customer interactions that involve knowledge workers, and vendors will have to make it easy for enterprises to do this.
There are still some obstacles to overcome, but vendors are providing enterprises with new tools and capabilities to meet the challenges. And there are now case studies and examples of companies that are tying in the contact center and unified communications, with more on the way. As companies find ways to be more competitive in these challenging economic times, customer service and customer retention will play an even more important role, Tying in unified communications and the contact center is one way to set your company apart while making your customers happy and loyal – now.