It's Time to Redefine Contact Centers, Their Roles, and Personnel

What is a contact center?

This is a surprisingly good question, one that impacts customers, employees, employers, vendors, and everyone else involved in this industry. The reason it's so important to have a commonly accepted definition is because people's expectations of contact centers change based on what they think contact centers are and what they are supposed to do.

Beginning with the basics, contact centers are considered next-generation call centers. According to Oxford Languages, a contact center is "an integrated and usually automated communications system that coordinates all telephone and electronic contacts between an organization and the public." This means that a contact center is a type of technology (or solution) that manages the flow of customer communications in and out of an organization.

But the name contact center has also been adopted by the departments that use these systems to route and queue voice and digital interactions to/from customers to an appropriately skilled agent (also known as a customer service representative, salesperson, collector, etc.).

Today the most widely accepted definition of contact centers comes from Gartner, which back in 1998 described contact centers as a "multichannel, multipurpose organization that serves a variety of constituents (sales, marketing, customer service) in a logically consolidated but physically disaggregated setting."

A lot has changed in the past 20 years, but one thing that hasn't evolved substantially is the perception of the contact center, which is still generally viewed as a cost center dedicated to resolving customer issues. The world has changed, technology has improved, companies have transformed, and customer expectations have grown. It's time for the same things to happen in contact centers.

For starters, these departments are much more than a system or technology, and they need a new name that better reflects the value and contributions they make to companies and their customers. Call centers were first built in the early 1980s to provide a central location (department) for consumers to call to ask for help; the primary mission was to prevent people from contacting employees in other departments in the organization. Today, they have what should be a mission-critical purpose: to represent the voice of the company to its customers and the voice of the customer to the company.

In the customer experience (CX) era, every time people reach out to companies, they are giving a gift and an opportunity to enhance the perception of their companies and expand the relationship. This has many far-reaching implications for companies. Even if a contact center is not actively engaged in traditional revenue-generating activities, this department is instrumental in building the company brand and capturing essential information about customer needs, wants, and challenges; this data is essential for delivering an outstanding CX throughout the organization.

Companies need to reimagine and broaden their definitions of contact center and who is part of this function. Anyone whose primary job is to help customers--regardless of whether in a formal or informal contact center or another department, such as marketing, product development, technical support, etc., that supports digital channels, including chat, short message service (SMS), WhatsApp, and other social media channels--is part of this essential servicing function.

It's time to change the name of the employees who are the primary interface to customers from agent, which has many negative connotations, to brand ambassador or advocate. This step will enable organizations to raise the salary grade and compensation of the employees who perform this role. (Human resources has been opposed to doing this because it has far-reaching implications and the potential to cost companies millions of dollars; DMG argues that high agent attrition and poor service is more expensive.) It will also go a long way toward eliminating the negative stigma of working in a contact center.

An essential step in the contact center restructuring process is to overhaul its operations, processes, and technology. Innovations in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation enable contact centers to vastly reduce the need for brand advocates to spend their time handling low-value activities, such as cutting and pasting information from one system to another or searching for information. This will free up high-value staff members, who know more about their companies' customers than most other employees, to spend their time helping customers and expanding the relationship with them. Furthermore, the new generation of conversational AI-enabled self-service solutions are empowering customers to help themselves, further freeing these essential front-line resources to address more complex issues that require human empathy and reason. This means that contact center employees should be viewed as influencers who drive customer satisfaction, retention, company differentiation, and enhance the brand.

DMG Consulting estimates that as many as 40 percent of employees in a variety of industries (i.e., financial services, insurance, travel, and entertainment) dedicate more than half of their time to assisting customers, which makes them customer-facing employees (or contact center agents). Approximately half of these people are in formal contact centers; the rest work in different departments and functions, where they are protected from being part of a contact center. It's time for the industry to make the changes necessary for contact centers to become employers of choice and great places to work. Once these objectives are achieved, the customer and employee experience will be enhanced and operating costs will be reduced as more departments share the common goal of improving the customer journey.

Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting, is an expert on contact centers, analytics, and back-office technology. She has 30 years of experience helping organizations build contact centers and back-office operating environments and assisting vendors to deliver competitive solutions. She can be reached at