Contact Centers Are Truly Amazing Places

The following is excerpted from Brad Cleveland's new book, Contact Center Management on Fast Forward: Succeeding in a New Era of Customer Experience, ICMI, 2019.

In my consulting work over three decades, I have witnessed many calls for help that were full of emotion and significance. There was the retiree not sure how to access the benefits for which he had worked all of his life; the scared mother whose small child accidentally ingested a household product; the manager struggling to get her computer working before the biggest presentation of her young career; the person newly diagnosed with a frightening medical condition whose outreach was the first step in the treatment journey.

There were many developments that had to happen to enable these connections to take place. So ... just for a moment ... let's go back to how it all started.

The Birth of Instant Communication

If you're in Washington and have the opportunity, consider a visit to Hotel Monaco. The ultra-high ceilings and classical architecture are amazing. The building was the city's original post office and, more significantly, where inventor Samuel Morse opened and operated the first public telegraph office.

Telegraph enabled the transmission of Morse code, a signaling system of short and long beeps. (You might have seen telegraph systems in historical movies.) Messages that took ships or land carriers days or weeks to deliver could now be relayed in seconds. You get a sense of the awe that this new technology inspired in the words of the first transmission Morse sent on May 24, 1844: "What hath God wrought?"

Morse and others who were there that day likely got a glimpse into an astonishing future—instant communication across vast distances. I can only imagine their wonderment had they lived to see the communication capabilities we now carry in the palms of our hands.

The immediacy of telegraph helped inspire other advancements in communication. The telephone, invented in 1876, quickly became part of everyday life. And it had a big advantage over telegraph: It could be used by anyone, with no special training required. Its ease of use led to rapid growth—a parallel we see today in smartphones.

Immediate communication became the new normal. French artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes wrote, "By the wondrous agency of electricity, speech flashes through space and, swift as lightning, bearing tidings of good and evil." Historian John Brookes described the impact of the telephone on life in the first decade of the 1900s this way: "In city and country alike, the telephone was creating a new habit of mind—a habit of tenseness and alertness, of demanding and expecting immediate results, whether in business, love, or other forms of social interaction."

The First Call Centers

In the early 1900s, fast-growing demand in transportation and communication services was creating new challenges. Whether it was roads, rails, runways, or relay circuits, the pressure was on to get capacity in place. And business leaders struggled to understand how these new capabilities would change customer behavior.

As the subscriber base grew, telephone companies were contending with a perplexing resource-planning problem. Human operators were required to establish connections for customers, as automated central offices hadn't yet been invented. The big question was how many operators were needed? Too few, and long waits would be unacceptable to customers. But too many would be inefficient and drive up costs.

Further complicating the issue, the calls came in randomly, driven by myriad motivations individuals had for placing calls. It was one thing to get physical infrastructure in place. But it was a different challenge altogether to get ever-changing calling demand and patterns accurately matched with the correct number of human operators day in and day out. Service that was slow or unavailable was unacceptable to a public that had thoroughly embraced this new means of communication.

In the years that followed, many bright people would grapple with these and related resource management challenges. One of the first was A.K. Erlang, an engineer with the Copenhagen Telephone Company in Denmark. In 1917, he developed the formula now called Erlang C, which is widely used in today's contact centers to calculate staffing requirements. Others who followed Erlang worked on forecasting techniques, scheduling methodologies, measurements, and objectives, and, more recently, systems and software that enable the vast range of capabilities now available.

Today's Contact Centers

Today—more than a century later—even as speed and innovation have reached levels previously unimaginable, there are unmistakable similarities in the challenges and opportunities communications capabilities create. We see significant breakthroughs, from social networks that connect us in new and powerful ways to multimedia capabilities that can instantly put us face to face. What Brookes described in the early 1900s is as true as ever: Communications capabilities have us demanding and expecting immediate results.

And if you manage a modern contact center, there is a familiar ring to the demands the early telephone switchboards faced. Accurately matching resources to customer needs in a dynamic, always-changing environment is an ever-present challenge. Forecasting the workload, getting the right people and other resources in place at the right times, meeting customer expectations—these continue to be key objectives and competitive necessities.

Of course, the value contact centers create has evolved by leaps and bounds. Today's contact centers handle work that is, in a very real sense, already escalated—the complex issues not immediately resolved through search, online resources, self-service capabilities, or other means. They enable customers to quickly reach the help they need. And they empower organizations to listen, engage, and learn. When fully leveraged, contact centers capture insight that enables organizations to improve products, services, processes, and overall customer experiences.

If you think about it, it's amazing. When it's set up well, we can—right now— reach someone who cares and who has the expertise and resources to help. A century and a half of developments have helped to make that possible.

Brad Cleveland is a customer service consultant specializing in contact centers, support desks, and other customer-facing environments. One of the two original partners in the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), Cleveland acquired ICMI outright in 1996 and served as its president and CEO from 1996-2008. Today, Cleveland consults and speaks to a broad range of organizations and associations and serves as a senior advisor to ICMI. He is author/editor of eight books, including Call Center Management on Fast Forward. His current research is focused on the future of customer access management and the impact of social media; his blog can be followed at