Back to the future: what can we learn from the history of contact centre innovation? Part 1 of 2

13th Jul, 2017
Read time: 3 minutes

The customer contact centre as we know it is changing. The adoption of new technologies is transforming how companies deliver customer support and experience.

To understand the implications of these innovations, and how they’ll shape the future of our industry, we look at how contact centres have evolved over the years.

The history of contact centres begins more than a century ago, yet it was only in the latter half of the 20th century that the customer support hub we recognise began to take shape.

We can track this evolution through three distinct eras: the ages of the call centre, the contact centre, and the experience hub. In this blog, we will look at how we got to where we are today. Then in part two we’ll take a glimpse into what the future of the contact centre holds.

Age of the call centre (1882-1990)

The concept of the call centre is older than many people would think, tracing back as far as 1882. The introduction of private automated branch exchange (PABX) switching systems in this year enabled inbound calls to be redirected with relative ease. It took almost 90 years, however, for this technology to become the basis of the modern call centre, as PABX started handling a growing number of customer calls in the mid-1960s.

By this point, early adopters were already experimenting with automated call distributor (ACD) systems. This was perhaps the most important technology in call centre history. Invented in the 1950s, ACD adoption only began to accelerate when US firm, Rockwell, released its successful solution for Continental Airlines in 1973. By the 1980s the race was truly on, with call centre managers worldwide rushing to install ACD systems just to keep up.

During this period, another important innovation was making its debut. IP telephony - a general term for transmitting communications over the Internet rather than telephone networks – was invented in 1972 by Dr. Vinton Cerf, regarded as one of the ‘fathers of the Internet’. Despite the clear benefits of IP telephony, widespread adoption and displacement of PABX didn’t take place until the latter half of the 2000s.

Age of the contact centre (1990-2020)

By the 1990s, technology was becoming consumerised. Families had PCs at home, and Internet capabilities were becoming available via mobile devices. This new paradigm was to have a massive impact on the way consumers behaved and communicated, yet business were typically slow to keep up with developments.

The first major innovation of this era was electronic mail (email). Although email was invented in 1972, the public didn’t start swapping messages until the 1990s. Once embraced by consumers, businesses weren’t far behind. Yet surprisingly, even today the majority of contact centres still do not have integrated voice and email solutions.

By the early 2000s, social media began to have mass appeal, and became a common way for customers to interact with companies. Much like email, social media was quickly adopted by consumers, yet is rarely well integrated into contact centres. This is often a frustration for consumers, who expect an instant response to their comments and queries.

In recent years, the growth of The Internet of Things (IoT) has begun to take effect on customer relations. IoT – machines communicating with machines via sensor-based technology – has existed since the 1990s. Its impact is yet to be fully realised, however, largely because the technology itself hasn’t seen mass adoption to date. While the impact of IoT on the contact centre remains to be seen, Gartner predicts that by 2018 5% of customer service cases will be autonomously initiated by connected devices.

As contact centres move towards multichannel communications, the cloud is making continued innovation possible. Despite being introduced in the late 90s, migration to the cloud has been surprisingly slow in the contact centre industry. It is now becoming increasingly mainstream and, according to Cloud Industry Forum’s (CIF) latest research paper, 57% of organisations expect to have adopted cloud contact centre solutions by 2020.i

The relationship between people and technology will continue to change how consumers interact with businesses. So what will the next wave of contact centres look like? Look out for part two of this series to find out.

In the meantime, check out our infographic which explores the most important contact centre technologies in the last century.

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