Leaving the big room: the changing contact centre


Image: Karl Reed, Ellingo Marketing Director. By BiztechAfrica
Karl Reed, Ellingo Marketing Director

Elingo's Sales and Marketing Director, Karl Reed, examines the history of the contact centre, and how The Big Room came to dominate, and limit, modern customer interactions.

Contact centre legend has it that the centres we recognise today originally stem from the Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) system developed in 1973 by US firm Rockwell, to allow Continental Airlines to run a telephone booking system.

While research reveals that this story is more good marketing from Rockwell than strict historical fact, the brand certainly was one of the first to develop and utilise an ACD system. Private Automated Business Exchanges (PABXs) were, however, actually the first to handle multiple customer contacts, and that happened as far back as the mid-1960s. This, rather than the Rockwell ACD, was the development that put us on the road to the modern contact centre.

Regardless of the finer historical details, there's no doubt the story of the contact centre is also the story of mankind's accelerating love affair with communication technologies – an affair which has touched every aspect of our lives, including, of course, the way in which we do business.

In the business world, the most obvious impact of our rapidly evolving technological use has been the changing relationship between the consumer and the company. In the sixties, seventies and most of the eighties, this relationship was pretty much a communication one-way street. A business offered a range of products to consumers, who bought an item of their choice. Anyone wishing to communicate with the provider of the product had three options: 1) write a letter 2) locate a sales agent 3) get on the phone to head office.

As use of the telephone grew globally, brands were faced with the imperative of setting up systems to cope with an increasing volume of insistent phone calls. In fact, dealing with the insistent customer on the other end of the line was to become the dominant service and communication paradigm until the 21st century. The phone effectively became the coal face of consumer interaction, and as a result in the 1980s automated communication systems gained serious commercial traction.

Dell is often cited as the pre-eminent case study of the period, one that illustrates a growing realisation across the global economy over this time that the quality of the consumer interaction could define bottom line success. The Dell CEO famously moved his desk into the back office area of his company that dealt with customer phone calls. This move was an unambiguous recognition of the centrality of the consumer interaction to business, and marked the beginning of the end of the Rolodex as an office communication tool.

In the 1990s, the customer-centric philosophy swept the business world on the back of the Dotcom boom and the communication revolution. While new technologies created powerful automation ability for companies, communication advances also allowed consumers to call companies on the move, via the cell phone.

Contact centres thus became the business status quo, regardless of the nature of the business. The technology was clumsy and large, however, consisting of multiple hardware components requiring extensive integration and management within what industry specialists came to call The Big Room.

In the first decade of the 21st century, the shift from The Big Room began, with software based systems coming into their own. Contact centres were now recognised not only as cost cutting tools, but also as sources of significant advantage in a highly competitive global market. 

Nonetheless, the size and complexity of existing contact centre investments housed in The Big Room sawmany companies effectively running several contact centre 'silos' within their larger operational umbrella. Not only did the silo approach create spiralling technical and cost headaches thanks to widespread emergence of new communication mediums and channels such as email and social media, it also clouded the high level strategic view that decision makers need so badly.

With each communication silo added, the reporting integration nightmare escalated, until the ability to gain a clear view of customer interactions across multiple divisions or business units was severely limited.

And so we arrive in the second decade of the new century, an era when multimedia communications channels are demanding more and more from contact centre technologies, and an era when communication system consolidation is an essential part of any business strategy. 

After several decades of telephone dominance, companies now have to address a new reality, one where the traditional communication one way street, where brands try to control how and when customers interact with them, is filled with strategic pot-holes.  Simply put, companies slow to act on the multi-channel imperative are already losing ground to the early adopters. Of course, understanding the strategic need to evolve a communications system and actually getting it right are two different things entirely.

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