How contact centres have had to adapt to today’s customer service needs

June 2021


With 1 smartphone for every human on the planet and nearly 4 billion internet users worldwide, it has never been easier for consumers to connect with your business. In this article, we discuss what consumers want from customer service, how it has evolved and the impact it has had on call centres. We also recommend tactics you can implement to deliver a best-in-class customer experience.

In a world of smart assistants, artificial technology and increasingly informed contact centre specialists, we often take great customer service for granted. To understand the evolution of customer service and its impact on call centres, first, we need to delve into its history.

How customer service began

While Alexander Graham Bell was awarded the first US patent for the invention of the telephone in 1876, it wasn't until 1894 that the telephone switchboard arrived, and in the 1920s until the rotary dial was introduced. It was at this point that technological adoption allowed people to more easily contact businesses to speak to their customer service from a distance, rather than in person. In the 1960s, the contact centre arrived due to advances in technology, followed by touch-tone dialling and in the 1970s, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology. Thanks to further advances in technology led by pioneers such as Oracle, call centre outsourcing came into fruition around 1989, further bolstered by the globalisation of the internet in 1991.

How customer service has evolved

Throughout modern history, the rollout of increasingly sophisticated technologies has meant businesses can now progressively profile customers, and deliver a consistent multi-channel experience. Businesses today have become too reliant on technology; a study by Forbes argues that for consumers it can often feel like businesses are "hiding behind bad customer service technology" and that there too often no human available when only a human can help. A study by Accenture of over 25,000 consumers finds companies have "lost sight of the importance of human interaction and often make it too difficult for consumers to get the right level of help and service they need". The impact? Companies are losing over $1.6 Trillion due to bad customer experiences.

How have consumers’ expectations of customer service changed, and how has this impacted contact centres?

Historically, consumers have expected basic services from businesses such as delivering exactly what is advertised, fast call answering and fair pricing. However, today's customers expect proactivity, personalisation and consistent experiences across all channels. Furthermore, a study by Salesforce found 80% of consumers consider the customer experience to be as important as its products and/or services.

As internet and smartphone usage has increased, consumers expect an ‘always-on’ approach from businesses’ customer service teams. This has placed pressure on contact centres to operate out of typical business hours, and during peaks in demand, the requirement for overflow call handling has increased. While many businesses don’t have the option to outsource support services, consumers are increasingly happy to help themselves, provided that their query doesn’t require the human touch; a drive in innovation worldwide has led to a rise in more advanced ‘self-service’ portals.

What is the predicted future of customer service?

A 2016 report by NICE predicted that by 2025, consumers “will have zero tolerance for sub-optimal service, as they will be even more informed about the reality of service, have far higher expectations, be empowered by social sharing, and be more willing and able to shift suppliers.” This report also found that due to shifting consumer perceptions of service performance, great customer service will commoditise, making it increasingly difficult to differentiate and delight customers.

More recently, in 2020 an article by McKinsey & Company argued that the pandemic has forced a rethinking of what customer care means; in a post-pandemic world, the best ways to improve customer experience and efficiency will be “to increase digital self-service and to make smarter operational trade-offs, grounded in what matters to customers.”

Forrester predicts customers will still in the future choose to make a phone call to a real person, despite the resurgence in the Internet of Things (IoT), such as Amazon’s Alexa. For example, for tasks such as account closure, booking a complex airline ticket or asking for their creative input, artificial technology (AI) still needs decades of development to match the human touch.

Forbes Customer Service Infographic.png

The above infographic from a Forbes opinion piece predicts contact centres will need to adapt to customers who demand greater control of where their interaction happens and increasingly be open 24/7. Consumers will expect contact centres to know the information they have provided across multiple channels. This is due to the rise in cross-border commerce and internet penetration, leading to consumers who expect an ‘always-on’ approach from businesses. Customers will also demand products and services that can ‘fix themselves'.

With consumers anticipating an omnichannel experience, contact centres have had to adapt by leveraging all-in-one customer experience management platforms such as Freshdesk and Zendesk, to ensure businesses can give their customers consistent branding, tone of voice and information across all sales and contact channels.

How you can deliver excellent customer service

To better understand how contact centres can provide industry-leading customer service, at Whistl, we interviewed 1,000 UK consumers to understand how e-tailers can improve the experience their customers receive when using call centre support. We found that you must:

  • Make the contact centre process easy and smooth, allowing the customer to speak to the right person with the right answer.
  • Have procedures in place which allow a swift response and resolution. Customers want answers from agents who are willing to help.
  • Avoid customers having to be on hold for too long and being bounced around different departments.
  • Drop the repeated hold messages and rigid script reading in favour of useful information.

How can you drive continuous improvement in response to consumers’ changing needs?

In this article we have detailed the pressures contact centres face from consumers, how they have adapted and how they can further evolve in the future. But what can businesses do to ensure they are on track to meet these changing needs?

At Whistl, we pride ourselves in driving continuous improvement with our outsourced call centre solutions and recommend that your contact centre should gather customer insight, through feedback surveys, identify SMART goals and implement a 'plan, do, check, act' process whilst measuring your Customer Satisfaction Score and your Net Promoter Score.

Customer surveys via email, live chat, social media polls, and of course, telephone, to gather feedback on your call centre strategy will allow you to identify gaps in service quality, performance degradation over time and benchmark your customer experience against your competition.

Deciding whether to outsource your customer service operations

Outsourcing call centre operations is a big commitment on the part of the client, and the business process outsourcer (BPO) who specialises in contact centre solutions. Typically companies will need to be handling a minimum of 50 inbound or outbound calls daily for it to make financial sense to work with the client, due to economies of scale. 

When a client outsources customer service they only pay for the time the calls are being managed. This can be considerably cheaper than employing a staff full-time, along with all other associated costs. Furthermore, working with an outsourced contact centre means you will be leveraging specialists who have exposure and diversification across many industries.

How Whistl can help you enhance your customer experience

At Whistl we help businesses in a wide range of sectors, including automotive, healthcare and online retail, outsource some or all of their contact centre. Providing initial and ongoing strategic consultancy around the customer journey, technology and integration, Whistl helps companies save time, allowing them to better focus on running and developing their business.

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