• December 1, 2006
  • By Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal, Beagle Research Group

The End of Call Centers?

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In-demand computing is beginning to disrupt the call center. We are all familiar with the disruptive innovation that started with SFA, but that was simple compared with what we'll see in call centers' futures. When on-demand first appeared there were plenty of skeptics who said it could never compete with conventional applications. There were other skeptics who said that on-demand would be a security nightmare. Vendors, however, kept innovating and selling, and eventually they overcame the major objections to the point that even large, conservative companies now run on-demand applications--and many are open minded about getting more of them. All these proof points will come in handy as the on-demand call center tries to traverse the same hierarchy to land larger customers. On-demand call center infrastructure is changing what call centers do. Once, they were a central place that agents commuted to; now the new infrastructure brings technology to people. Not only does on-demand infrastructure enable people to work from home, it can also enable different departments to have their own specialized calling operations. The call center has much better organized (and vocal) opposition to on-demand than earlier innovators did in sales and marketing--it's the difference between having reservations and being entrenched. The conflict brewing is between the workforce management group and the adherence group or, roughly, the usual tussle seen between groups oriented toward managing costs and those focused on generating profit. Because the on-demand call center infrastructure can do both, there should be no problem, but there is. The adherence group is responsible for measuring and enforcing metrics related to amortizing the sunk costs of the conventional call center. For the adherence people, an agent in a seat making or taking the prescribed number of calls per hour is nirvana. The operational people are more interested in making sure that the right things are being said and done when the agents are on the phone. The operations side is about profit. The conflict between adherence and operations could be a very high stakes battle: Adherence groups might not be able to verbalize it yet, but they might be fighting for their lives. For example, marketing might focus on satisfaction and need development, and sales might focus on better qualification. As different departments develop specialty-calling operations, the call center might be able to focus back on its traditional role of service and support. By distributing agents to other departments and then to the field, the call center as we know it might cease to exist. It wouldn't be the first time automation eliminated the need for a business function--remember the keypunch operator? Denis Pombriant is the founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. He can be reached at denis.pombriant@beagleresearch.com
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