This article originally appeared in the Sept. issue of CUSTOMER magazine.
If there’s one thing everyone can agree on it’s that call centers are no fun. No fun for consumers and no fun for agents that have to deal with angry people all day and night. Well there’s some good news. The days when rows of support agents sat chained to desks, answering support calls, are over. Today, computers and headsets and giant call centers have become old school. By leveraging cloud, social and mobile innovation, we’ve entered a world where agents are no longer pinned to their desks and constricted by phone cords and business hours. The traditional view of the call center is officially dead, a new wave of online support is putting a smile on faces of both businesses and consumers thanks to the following innovations:
Support is going mobile
Let me tell you a story. On an early morning in 1965, John Q. Support wakes up to the buzzing of his alarm clock at 6 a.m. He makes his coffee, grabs the paper and heads into the office. From 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. he sits at his desk, where papers are stacked in organized piles. His phone rings all day as he helps customers navigate the troubles of their newly purchased washing machines and televisions. He leaves for lunch around noon, completely unreachable until he gets back into the office. And once the clock strikes 5 p.m., John Smith is out the door and headed back home. He turns his mind off from his busy workday until tomorrow.It’s not 1965 anymore. Businesses today get more work done outside the office than at the desk. Employees play multiple roles within one position, ranging from business development to sales to more support-focused roles. With such diverse responsibilities, no one can afford to be tied down to a physical office space.What’s more, mobile devices are quickly overtaking the traditional desktop computer when it comes to getting work done. According to a recent study conducted by Forrester (News - Alert), 25 percent of work devices are mobile, i.e., smartphones and tablets. Clearly workers today are less dependent on their PC for productivity. They’re perennially on the go, demanding platforms that support such mobility.
Secondly, we are living in a bring-your-own-device world that is changing the way companies communicate. Interestingly, because of the fragmentation of mobile devices and their respective apps, many businesses are building support systems using the new old thing: e-mail. Yes but this is a new form of mobile-centric e-mail that is smarter than the old inbox. When it comes to business communication, it is obvious that e-mail is here to stay. With support agents spending the greater part of their day with their mailboxes, it only makes sense to let them control their help desk right from e-mail, be it via an iPhone, an Android or a BlackBerry (News - Alert).The question is: How do you make an application-centric shift between PC and mobile? If you are thinking about specific mobile apps, that’s hardly a solution. For the help desk to be truly mobile, agents need to be completely unchained from devices. The solution is to give support agents the freedom to talk to their help desk from mobile, PC or tablet devices – and through technologies that they are already using. In short, the help desk of tomorrow will rely on technologies like HTML5 to allow support teams to be truly device-independent.
Support as a service changes the money game
Call centers first emerged in the 1960s when companies began investing in employees dedicated solely to handling customer service. The reason was to increase efficiency and post-purchase customer satisfaction. As demand for customer service representatives skyrocketed (alongside cost), many companies began outsourcing help desk support to countries abroad. Yet this transition also led to call centers being staffed with uninformed agents. A recent Harris report reveals that 86 percent of consumers have quit doing business with a company because of bad customer experience, and that’s up from 59 percent only four years ago. Too many customers have experienced long holds and multiple transfers from one unhelpful customer support rep to another.With the costs of employment and real estate continuing to rise, companies cannot afford to waste money on superfluous employees or unused space. The traditional “desk” is costly to scale, and it’s expensive to hire unnecessary support agents. According to IDC, call center-based agents cost a company an average $31 per hour, including overhead and training, while in-house agents cost $21 per hour on average. These in-house customer support solutions are obviously more cost effective, and with IDC predicting the SaaS (News - Alert) market to reach $40.5 billion by 2014, the trend toward viable cloud-based support solutions is a done deal.Smart companies see their customers as the moneymakers – they’re the ones who keep business moving. In this sense, the ability for companies to shift to a scalable in-house customer support model kills two birds with one stone: lowering overall expenses and guaranteeing that a knowledgeable agent takes the reins of the help desk.
The lean (and global) startup
The global startup may sound like an oxymoron, but it is the reality for the Internet economy. The Academy of Management Executives published an article about 10 years ago that predicted the trend of global startups we are witnessing today. In the coming years, we’ll see a major boom in global small businesses. These are businesses with relatively small staff that are not contained in a single geographic location. We tend to expect that new companies start locally and then slowly begin their quests for international growth, but this isn’t always the case.In reality, these startups are international from the moment they are born, forcing them to compete in a global market from the get-go. Look at Flipboard. The company quickly made its move to China to halt copycat competitors. The new rule: Prove your concept, then scale like crazy. It’s not uncommon for small teams to span multiple countries and practices, much like larger companies establish offices across the globe.Supporting the lean and global startup is the best thing to hit the support business in years. Companies are looking for readily available virtual support as more global growth is driven by Internet startups, so that barriers like time zones and regions don’t stand in the way of business. McKinsey & Company (News - Alert) recently noted that the Internet alone accounts for 21 percent of GDP growth among developed countries over the last five years.
Many agents – one brain
Support agents are often like deep-space explorers, spending time and knowledge to discover fixes and solutions not found in a manual. Previously this knowledge would stay with one support agent and that time and energy was unrealized across a business. That has all changed with the rise of crowd-sourced knowledge.Learning by example is the most effective way to absorb new information. With all the new advancements in ways to communicate across borders and time zones, we live in a new era of customer support where support teams worldwide can take advantage of collaboration and shared information almost instantaneously. Agents get tremendous value out of learning from others on their team, and restrictions of time and place no longer get in the way of sharing knowledge. If one agent answers something in Cleveland via his or her iPad in an e-mail, it can impact the knowledge of another support agent in Romania, fielding a similar question and tapping into the “brain” of the entire support answer database.
The call center is dead. It’s time to party. It was a necessary evil that has become liberated in a mobile age. The next wave of innovation will certainly come from a new breed of startups that aim to create tomorrow’s Virgin and Southwest Airlines by making customer engagement and support their primary marketing channel, not just a way to fix issues. These new startups are breaking down doors and thankfully breaking down call centers as we knew them.
Vikram Bhaskaran is head of marketing at Freshdesk (www.freshdesk.com), a cloud-based social customer support platform. Prior to Freshdesk, he was a research fellow at the Center for Excellence in Customer and Brand Management at Georgia State University, where his work on "Managing Customers through Social Media" won the 2010 Google (News - Alert) and WPP Marketing Research Awards and the 2011 ISMS Practice Prize Award.
Edited by Brooke Neuman