The Gist

  • Customers want self-service. The contact center allows brands to empower customers, giving them the tools they need to answer their own questions.
  • More than one type. Companies can choose from multiple contact center types, from physical hardware at the location to cloud-based. 

In today's fast-paced world, customers expect quick and efficient service when reaching out to businesses. In fact, one 2023 report found that 71% of customers want immediate service when they reach out to a company. That's where the contact center comes in. 

But what exactly is a contact center, and how can it benefit your business? 

In this article, we'll break down everything you need to know, from the definition of a contact center to use cases, benefits and future outlook. 

What Is a Contact Center?

A traditional call center is a place, whether virtual or on-premises, where brands provide incoming product or service support and information inquiries to customers via the telephone. 

On the other hand, according to Gartner, a contact center is an omnichannel affair that supports customer interactions across all of a brand’s channels, including phone calls, email, chat, web collaboration and social media interactions, which distinguishes it from telephony-only call centers.

Unlike call centers, contact centers require agents to communicate through multiple channels.

Colson Hillier, CMO at Alorica, a customer experience provider, told CMSWire that the experience customers have when they interact with brands’ contact centers — whether for tech support, subscription renewals, questions about new products — is a moment of truth that can make or break customer loyalty.

"That’s why brands are increasingly viewing contact centers as a key component of their strategies."

What's the Function of the Contact Center? 

Contact centers enable customers to solve problems themselves using two-way, keyword-driven SMS messaging, text messaging or a conversation with a chatbot. By providing customers with several ways to take care of their needs on their own, brands allow them to control their narrative while decreasing the amount of time customer service agents have to spend on the phone or chat. 

“The focus on contact centers and omnichannel customer service has shifted from being an expense to an investment — now recognized as a critical piece of the customer experience (CX) journey,” said Hillier. “Contact centers have the ability to deliver tangible outcomes, such as improved CSAT or increase in customer lifetime value.”

In the past, the only way that customers could contact a brand’s customer service employees was to pick up a phone and speak to an agent, or worse, the brand’s interactive voice response (IVR) system. Customers today interact with a brand through many different channels, so they expect a brand to provide customer service through each of those channels as well.

“The buyer journey has become increasingly more omnichannel, therefore building bridges from marketing (social, web) to distribution (retail, online, DTC), delivery and support (chat, calls, self-help) is critical to connecting these functions with the customer at the center,” said Hillier. “Now more than ever, a positive service experience builds brand loyalists and increases the lifetime value of customer relationships.”

Related Article: What Is a Call Center? A Detailed Guide

What Are the Different Types of Contact Centers? 

There are several types of contact centers, which are differentiated by location and other factors, including hardware, cloud-based, hosted and virtual contact centers.

  • Hardware contact centers: Businesses host hardware contact centers on servers at their physical location. 
  • Cloud-based contact centers: Cloud service providers host the contact centers, which can be accessed from any location.
  • Hosted contact centers: Businesses outsource the contact center to another business that manages it. 
  • Virtual contact centers: This type of contact center enables customer service agents to work remotely.

Ralph Bonaduce, president of telephonic interpretation at Akorbi BPO, a business process outsourcing provider, told CMSWire the technology that supports their own contact centers is cloud-based, and features dialers, a platform for call center management and workforce management. “It is secure, fast and state-of-the-art. We use dedicated fiber internet and a softphone on the desktop to access telephony via the internet.”

The COVID-19 pandemic changed the way many businesses operate their contact centers. “Pre-COVID, Akrobi had customer service agents all on-site—interpreters, call agents and translators. When COVID hit, we faced challenges driven by legal requirements to get agents out of facilities and shut them down,” said Bonaduce.

There was a lot of work involved to make the move to virtual contact centers. “We had to do so quickly across the US, Latin America and Africa, where we have contact centers. Then we had to deal with getting agents set up virtually, which required specifications, testing and IT support to make sure they had the right tools, bandwidth and environment to work from home,” said Bonaduce.

For those areas where contact centers were not virtual, there were other challenges involved in meeting the requirements that came with the pandemic. “Another challenge we dealt with was COVID requirements changing often in different regions. We implemented plexiglass separators, sanitation stations, etc.”

Although there were a lot of challenges, the move to virtual contact centers enabled businesses to keep their contact centers operational, and even improved the level of customer service.

“Today, we continue to have sites with agents and interpreters in buildings and we also have a large number of virtual agents and interpreters. It’s become a much more virtual environment and acceptance for that type of service,” said Bonaduce.

What Technology Is Used in the Contact Center? 

Because it's omnichannel, today’s contact center makes use of both old and new technology to reach customers in their preferred channels. In an effort to eliminate the frustration often involved with contacting customer service, older technologies, such as interactive voice response, have evolved to be more easily used by customers.

Learning Opportunities

Many contact centers use the following technology:

  • Computer Telephony Integration (CTI): CTI facilitates the interaction between computer and telephone systems, enabling contact centers to use computers to manage telephone calls.
  • Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) System: ACD systems analyze incoming calls and route them to specific agents based on specific elements.
  • Email Response Management: Similar to ACD, email response management systems analyze email-based customer service inquiries and send them to specific agents based on criteria within the email.
  • Interactive Voice Response (IVR) System: IVR is the traditional telephone-based technology that enables customers to use their phone’s keypad or voice commands to find a solution to their particular customer service query.
  • Knowledge Management System: A knowledge base or repository of information that customer service agents use to find answers to typical customer service queries.
  • TTY/TDD Communications: By using teletypewriters (TTY) and telecommunications display devices (TDD), customer service agents can assist deaf or auditorily challenged customers.
  • Chatbots: Chatbots enable customers to use chat functionality to solve basic customer service inquiries on their own.

Additionally, artificial intelligence (AI), natural language processing (NLP), machine learning (ML) and natural language understanding (NLU) allow customers to have conversations with chatbots in a way that feels exactly like they are speaking with a human agent.

Generative AI, such as OpenAI’s ChatGPT, are fueling new systems that will be able to successfully and efficiently serve customers without the need for a live customer service agent to intervene. One example of such a system is Level AI, which recently announced its AI-driven system for customer service teams, AgentGPT.

Related Article: Level AI Debuts Generative AI Tech for Contact Centers: AgentGPT

The Contact Center as the 24/7 Customer Support System

Stanislav Khilobochenko, VP of customer services at Clario, an internet security suite provider, told CMSWire that the contact center of today is part customer service, part IT department and part marketing. “It is crucial to do more than customer recovery or answer FAQs,” said Khilobochenko. “Our contact center is a 24/7 support system for customers who use our cybersecurity subscription service.” 

It’s extremely important that customer service agents intricately understand their own products and services to effectively assist customers who turn to the contact center for help.

“We not only need to have in-depth knowledge of our own systems, but how they interact with potential threats and the day-to-day needs of our customers. Being able to educate our customers is as important to our brand identity as our ability to troubleshoot, and the bulk of this happens in our contact center,” said Khilobochenko.

The focus and goals of the contact center have changed over the years as the contact center became largely automated.

“The contact centers of the past were mainly aimed at customer recovery and retention, so, responding to customer problems and complaints,” explained Khilobochenko. “It was reactive and only had the goal of keeping the customer happy. This underwent a massive change as customers expected the convenience and solitude of automated customer service through AI or FAQs, and today's contact center is a hybrid of those extremes.” 

As customers became accustomed to the instant gratification and satisfaction that came with the level of automated customer service that brands such as Amazon provide, it became necessary to keep or add a new level of human interaction.

“Customer service conveniently at your fingertips, instant communication, a focus on satisfaction but with an added emphasis on human interaction,” explained Khilobochenko. “I think a combination of frustrations and fatigue dealing with automated systems and the isolation of the pandemic has brought the idea of real human help back in style, and so far it works well for us.” 

The Challenges of the Contact Center

Because the omnichannel contact center operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, many challenges may arise. The frustration that customers experience when contact center technology fails leaves them feeling emotionally disturbed, often losing faith in the brand they're doing business with. 

“It’s a common mistake for companies to quickly try to implement new technology based on a promise of efficiency gains and digital-first resolution,” said Hillier. “We have all been stuck in a ‘CX fail’ — an endless set of interactive voice response prompts and bots that can't understand you as a customer or resolve your issue. To avoid this, contact centers must create a seamless integration of digital and human delivery, and provide a human backstop to digital tools to ensure customers can always get the support they need from people who understand the brand they’re interacting with.”  

Hillier suggested that if the contact center is not digitally enabled or is not using analytics to learn how to solve customer intent and build that into digital support models, brands will find themselves hamstrung and their automation efforts will stall.

“AI and ML technology is only as good as they are trained. Contact centers should leverage analytics from every interaction to evaluate how to best resolve customer inquiries and automate only when confident the experience can effectively be handled without live support,” said Hillier.

Related Article: Kinder AI in the Contact Center: Best Ways to Improve Your AI Customer Support

Contact Centers and the Future of Customer Service

Today’s contact center is an omnichannel communications hub where customers are empowered to take control of their own narrative and find solutions to their queries on their own. Additionally, contact centers enable customers to speak to a live customer service agent who is immediately aware of the customer’s history with the brand, leaving the customer feeling satisfied and fulfilled.