Where Does Service End and Marketing Begin?

One of the most important distinctions that needs to be made is between the customer interaction and the customer relationship. We tend to talk about these two interchangeably, mostly because for a very long time they were functionally equivalent, at least from the practitioners' point of view. If you were charged with running a contact center (or procuring its technology), you were likely also bound by the traditional constraints, such as cost control, immediacy of response, and a need for precision metrics to evaluate performance and course correct in near real time.

Modern multichannel communications and analytics tools muddy those waters. Yes, the constraints of contact center operations still exist, but they are just one of multiple viewpoints looking in on the customer communications. Lots of people now have to test whether the environment works, and they're not all looking at the same metrics and criteria to judge for success.

Marketers, for example, are a lot more interested in the aggregated results of large customer bases than they are in the particulars of any single interaction. They're looking at the relationship, because they (and not the contact center) have the tools to tune the flow of a relationship over longer timelines (i.e., an entire customer life cycle) than the contact center with its micro, momentary focus.

CRM was initially proposed as a way for organizations to solidify their commitment to that relationship, taking the contact center's micro view to a macro level. But the flaw in that design is that contact centers don't really need CRM, they need CRM data. In other words, they need to know the history of a particular customer and his interactions, and they need to be able to update the records. But do they need to do analysis of how that customer fits into the broad tide of customers? Sometimes, but again, only to the extent that it allows for a cleaner view of how to act in the moment of interaction.

Where once we had separate business functions governing customer behavior, we now seem to have more of a continuum. Marketing departments are involved in governing some of the front-ends, like social media and mobile apps. Contact centers retain control over voice interactions. The ownership of automated self-service, especially in the age of automated chat bots, seems undetermined between those two domains.

That tension in the customer relationship and in customer experience comes from some of these artificially introduced silos between systems and data. But the people who perform these functions (both micro and macro) increasingly have to reach beyond their own domains for the information they need. Complex external environments (like customers with mobile phones loaded with apps) generate complex internal situations, for which there are often no guideposts toward best practices.

The implication here is that as we get farther along the road to more complex interactions, a lot of businesses are going to have ownership issues. Who runs the interaction? Who runs the relationship? Where are the lines in between, and what tools are used to delineate them?

As we bring new tools online for inbound and outbound customer communication, the single-serving interaction becomes a rarer piece. The one-and-done voice call will be, and should be, replaced by more fluid, bidirectional conversations that businesses have with their customers. And when that happens, the nuance of managing the entire context of the relationship will come into play; responsibility will fall to professional marketers to guide it. They have the tools and the domain expertise to monetize that relationship, identifying moments of maximum leverage and influence and directing resources to action. That's just not possible in a traditionally constituted contact center.

Over time, I can foresee an evolution of roles taking place. The contact center will always exist and will always have a significant role in handling those single-serving (mostly) voice interactions. But as we gain more analytic capability and a diversity of contact channels, the contact center will give up center stage to those who can orchestrate a broader kind of communication with and among customers.

Innovations in the contact center are going to feed that transition, ironically. Automated customer journey mapping, for example, has emerged from manual processes for contact centers to track resource allocation. In the hands of marketers, it could become a breakout piece of technology. It gives such a rich view of the many complex pathways that customers can take that it allows for a finer-grained analysis of both individual and group behavior. It's a gateway to the kind of mass customization of service that practitioners have dreamed of for decades.

When we look around at the vendor landscape, we can see that vendors have already noticed this transition and are preparing their portfolios for the shift. The fact that major cloud providers like Salesforce.com and Oracle have marketing automation and analytics platforms that integrate with (and use the same data repositories as) their service platforms is very telling.

It's only a matter of time before we start to define customer service and support as a specialized segment of overall life cycle management. And in that world, software buyers and strategy planners will have to think way beyond customer interactions toward broader kinds of communications. And more marketers than ever before will consider themselves part of this process.

Keith Dawson is a principal analyst in Ovum's customer engagement practice. Prior to joining Ovum, he was industry director in the contact center practice at Frost & Sullivan. He was previously editorial director of Call Center Magazine and is the author of The Call Center Handbook, first published in 1996.