Next-Generation Contact Centers

Many of us are stuck. We have talked about becoming customer-centric, value-added, mission-critical, and a lot of other hyphenated things, but we are operating in the reactive mode, simply trying to adhere to our mandate to do more with less. But soon “being stuck” will no longer be an option for customer contact professionals: Market forces and new technology are driving the contact center to strategic prominence.

My company, Response Design Corp., recently studied customer contact groups that have transformed themselves into strategic partners. These groups have leveraged the market forces and new technology to permanently change the position of customer contact in their organizations. They see themselves differently now, and so do others. We see them as “next-generation customer contact.”

Until recently, we measured contact centers’ success in discrete areas: Center A is excellent in managing its workforce but less successful in managing its interdepartmental relationships; center B is excellent in change management but not employee relations. “It’s okay,” we would say. “No one center can be good at everything.”

But our new study of next-generation contact centers highlights overall transformations — a holistic approach to balancing multiple needs. A next-generation contact center can be recognized by its ability to meet complex and often conflicting requirements. While customers continue to be the reason these centers exist, the next-generation facility efficiently balances customer needs and expectations with those of their other partners — executives, other departments, employees. Center managers consistently balance investments in customer loyalty programs with corporate fiscal responsibility. They are adept at evaluating the risk and reward of increased talk time as it affects customer satisfaction, shared benefit, and shared costs. They are no longer involved in business as usual.

We learned that to generate this level of next-generation performance, contact centers must

  1. drive value
  2. align strategically
  3. cultivate partnerships
  4. execute impeccably.

Let’s meet three managers who have mastered such transformation. We’ll call them Reggie Robinson, Rick Martino, and Haley Brown. Although they are excellent in all areas, for the purpose of this article we are highlighting each manager’s performance in only one arena.


Reggie’s company competes in a market sector that is rapidly changing. The contact center he manages used to be viewed as an expense center; now the focus is on revenue generation. Formerly the customer contact group was measured on how well it completed mechanical and operational tasks. Now it is measured on its ability to be dynamic and create value. In short, the contact center has evolved from “red-headed stepchild” to a strategic contributor. Here’s how:

  • Top-down executive imperative

    Managers must have the CEO’s ear. Reggie believes that without his participation on the senior leadership team, the transformation of the customer contact group would not have resulted. “Working under the old system,” he says, before he was part of the leadership team, “I would have proposed the concept of [transformation] to the executive management team and left the room to wait for a few months until it considered the idea. Then I would have been called back to answer questions and make another presentation or two. Sitting side by side with the executives helped me answer their questions immediately and point out the benefits of transformation as conversations ensued.”

  • Proactive leadership team

    Because Reggie is a member of the executive staff, his peers are the directors of sales, marketing, operations, and IT, and he has an equal voice in achieving the corporate strategy. Based on knowledge gained through customer interactions, Reggie is able to help change strategy. For example, a business unit wanted to sell a complex product without giving the support group enough time to prepare. When Reggie explained the level of support that such an effort would entail, top managers chose to delay the opportunity for the sake of the customer experience.

  • Actionable intelligence

    Reggie’s contact center adopted a customer advocacy model that entails bringing intelligence from the customer back to product design and development so that not only current products are fixed, but next-generation products are improved and enhanced as well.

According to Reggie, when the customer advocacy model was first rolled out, engineers and designers resisted. They believed they would be faced with contact center employees acting like Chicken Little, crying that the sky was falling whenever they received a few calls about a problem. Over time, upper management’s support for the customer advocacy model helped to overcome this resistance, as did the group’s ability to quantitatively demonstrate the value of its input and analysis to the business.


Before 2005, Rick managed a traditional contact center — a typical expense center with a single objective of maintaining acceptable levels of quality while driving year-over-year expense reduction. It had approximately 250 agents in one site and provided a basic level of customer service. Although the center was recognized as one of the best performers in its industry, negative customer perception of its service was increasing, and external market forces began to pressure the department to differentiate itself from the competition. The company needed a customer contact arm that would increase operating leverage rather than merely create expense reductions. Getting there required several tactics:

  • Alignment with corporate strategy

    The overall strategy of Rick’s company is to have a focused value proposition, expanded online capabilities, a multichannel sales focus, brand differentiation, and improved customer service that is a comparative differentiator. Rick’s well-aligned contact center strategy is to, among other things, increase brand differentiation through the agents’ interaction with customers, increase alerts and notifications, and implement the multichannel sales strategy. This includes a guided inbound selling strategy, which is 10 times more effective than a typical outbound campaign. Every day Rick ensures that his center’s activities align with corporate objectives.

  • Alignment with other corporate departments

    Rick is proactive in overcoming the silo mentality that continues to exist in portions of his company. “One day,” he says, “we want the customer experience to be the same no matter what product the customer has or needs. The customer is an enterprisewide asset.”

    His contact center is piloting a nine-month certified product-expert program. It has implemented a screening process and identified two high-potential managers based on specific criteria. These two managers have become apprentices, working for one or two days a week outside of the center in a product area.

    “The apprentices are aligned with the product managers,” Rick says. “Not only is it a great career development opportunity for the individual, but it also supports the synergy between product goals and service goals.” The managers bring a customer contact perspective to the development of the product and return to the contact center to help the agents understand why products are made a certain way and why certain rules are in place.

  • Customer experience alignment

    Since 2005, Rick has orchestrated a transition of his company’s customer contact function. He has centralized customer channels, simplified business processes, and ensured ease of customer contact regardless of the channel that the customer chooses.

The company expects the contact center to continue to automate and streamline processes when it makes sense to do so. “If customers are speaking to us because they want to, that is one thing,” Rick says. “However, if they are speaking to us because they cannot do business on the Web or the [interactive voice response system], we need to leverage our people, technology, and business intelligence to provide outstanding customer service through all channels.”

For example, about 20% of customers use a process called “easy connect,” during which agents walk the individual through a solution provided on the Website. The company believes that as the customer becomes more familiar with the Website, he will use it more frequently. The company realizes that it needs a variety of quality channels, from high touch to low touch, to serve all customers effectively.


The employees in Haley Brown’s contact center create value by being proactive, not reactive; they are moving from order-takers to dialogue-creators. Agents in the past would simply respond to customers’ request; now they engage the customers in conversation to determine how the company’s products can better meet the customers’ needs.

To fully use her agents, Haley is holistically examining the workload of her internal and external resources and determining which calls to outsource and which to service inhouse. As a result of process mapping, she was able to make an insourcing decision that decreased her outsourcing bill by 35% last year.

Haley carefully manages her outsourcing relationships. “The relationship is not just plug and play,” she says. “We cannot just turn the customer contact process over to the outsource provider and expect it to run itself.” Haley is responsible for communicating specifically to the provider how she wants contacts to be handled. “We do not have a Big Brother relationship with our outsource provider; we stay engaged. If they need me, I will be there.”

Haley was delighted that the corporate office was placing more demands on her. She realized that her organization could improve customer relationships, win and retain business, and align itself with company products. As the customer contact function transitioned, Haley formed a tight alliance with the product manager, who believed in what she was doing. Currently the two groups are aligned completely; their objectives are the same.

Haley’s group has also increased its value to the company’s sales and marketing group by developing feedback and analytical capabilities. Sales and marketing can make business decisions based on the customer contact feedback. Customer advocacy can predict how many calls will come into the company based on a piece of literature or a characteristic of the product. Then it can multiply the number of predicted calls by its measured call-to-ship ratio for different product lines. Sales and marketing uses this analysis to help with sales volume forecasts.

Haley’s team attends the staff meetings of the business units so that they can provide customer intelligence and understand the units’ plans and how they will affect customer contact. The managers create and deploy support plans. “We are there to support where those business units are trying to go,” Haley says.


We learned from all our leaders that change is a core competency in next-generation customer contact. Too often the failure of a project or a program is not in its design but in its execution, with few contact centers allocating the time or resources required to implement change well. Reggie, Rick, and Haley patiently review the potential changes, conducting a too-much-vs.-too-little evaluation to avoid paralysis by analysis on one hand and a hurried decision on the other. When they commit to the change, they implement well-defined change management processes and communication protocols so that they can implement the changes quickly and effectively. For Reggie, Rick, and Haley, change is not the differentiator; executing it well is.

All of us in the customer contact industry have our work cut out for us. Our industry will change much in the coming years. Our job is to be out in front of the changes, proactively serving not only our external customers but our internal ones as well.

Kathryn Jackson is president/cofounder of Ocean City, NJ-based Response Design, a contact center consultancy.

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