The Call Center Is Coming Back Around

It's occasionally useful to ask where customer service as a business process is going in addition to analyzing the latest technologies. That opportunity presented itself recently when announced its acquisition of ClickSoftware, a field service and workforce management company with which Salesforce has been partnering since 2016.

I was intrigued by a photo accompanying a news item about the deal at one of the many industry sites tracking the news. It showed a field service technician talking on a cell phone, with an open laptop as he serviced an array of solar panels. What impressed me most about this was that the photo didn't imply anything about robotics or manufacturing or any of the other tech sectors that have gotten field service attention over the past decade.

In a way those are all derivative of the IT impulse that's been with us since the 1960s. Solar panels represent a different technological disruption that's just taking shape and that will be with us untill mid-century, I think. They represent two distinct long economic cycles called K-waves.

What's fascinating is that the newest technologies likely to need all sorts of service and support are increasingly in areas not considered traditional tech. This is why I think an economic cycle is turning. Let's face it, the tech revolution is getting long in the tooth and what once employed many people has been commoditized to the point that what was once a whole computer room now fits in our pockets and the jobs that once supported that infrastructure have evaporated.

The new tech disruption seems to be all about sustainability, which I wrote about in a recent book, and the people who will need service and support are increasingly on that sector, hence my interest.

In older sectors, service and support is increasingly coming from automated systems, as Steve Fioretti, vice president of product management at Oracle, told me. We've known this for some time; nevertheless, the penetration by automated systems has been impressive.

In some government service systems associated with taxation, for instance, Fioretti says up to 70 percent of questions get handled by automation. What started as a way to offload service calls and lower costs has become preferred. Millennials and Gen Z customers, especially, are happy to figure things out for themselves rather than waiting in line.

On balance, though, Fioretti told me, "Everybody is saying the contact center is going away but it's not." He's right. New uses are coming into view. As more routine issues are handled by automated systems, businesses find they can focus more on the difficult issues or at least those that don't have binary answers. "It's enabling our customers to hire different competencies," Fioretti said. For example, he says that one Oracle customer specializing in home goods hires agents who are more well-versed in interior design because they're getting into the nuts and bolts of customerss project instead of dealing with simpler questions about, say, returns. As a result, these agents have better engagements and customers have richer experiences during calls and hang up happier.

The numbers seem to back all this up. Earlier research commissioned by Oracle found that 60 percent of all consumers expect to talk to a human when they call the contact center. Clearly they don't always use that channel, but it's a confidence builder just knowing that if all else fails, there's still the phone or text or social media.

But back to the solar panels. New markets and new disruptive innovations are where customers have the greatest likelihood of struggling, and that brings with it a need for customer service. It's likely that these new industries will need a long runway before they can apply service automation to some processes. For them the call center in some evolved form will be very important.

But all of that automation doesn't explain what's happening in field service. There, machines are becoming more intelligent, at least to the point that they can diagnose some problems and alert home base to generate a service request for an impending problem. So, trucks can roll with a high certainty that they're out to fix a specific problem and that they are not on some wild goose chase. We can thank IoT for that, but also advances in field service automation, manpower management, and navigation tools. This scenario's importance grows exponentially when you consider what it takes to service, say, an offshore wind mill.

A disruptive innovation (or several) sparks a K-wave and significant economic activity that inspires additional invention and disruption. CRM itself is the outgrowth of a tech sector trying to deal with a hoard of new customers dealing with disruptive products that weren't always designed or engineered perfectly. The rapid adoption of service automation technology is a good indicator that the tech sector has gotten its act together to the point that most customer issues can now be settled without human involvement.

Fioretti is right; the call center isn't going away. The next wave of tech adoption in sustainability is going to require some of that old-style human-to-human interaction. I like to think that the aforementioned solar panels initiated their own service request through IoT protocols. But in that scenario, I also think there are call center agents assuring customers that the power outage is being actively fixed. The agents are necessary simply because customers' experiences with this new technology is still nascent, and any vendor in its right mind, especially for a new category product, wants to keep customers happy. In that way the next generation of technology products and their service modalities stand on the shoulders of giants. What came around before is coming around again in a more powerful and automated approach.

Denis Pombriant is founder and principal analyst of Beagle Research. Prior to that, he held multiple sales and marketing management positions in emerging companies. In 2000, Pombriant joined Aberdeen Group and held positions as research director and vice president of the CRM practice.