I come from the contact center world, that is, I’m from the telephony side of that world. I worked part time as an AT&T operator in college, did an internship at Bell Labs in college and started my career at AT&T Long Lines after business school. You can’t get more telephony than that.
For me, contact center is the current instantiation of what I began analyzing in one of my first reports, ACDs in the ‘90s. Automatic call distributors (ACDs) were initially modified carrier switches, adapted to queue and route calls systematically to operators or agents. By the mid- ‘90s the term of art became call center which later morphed into contact center. Another change was happening at the same time. The hardware element of the ACD was replaced with software. The routing and queuing of emails and chats was added to voice calls. Today we see an ever wider array of interaction channels being routed and queued by contact center software, from Facebook Messenger interactions to Internet of Things events.
Parallel with the ACD evolution to contact center, another evolution was underway. Most date the origins of CRM software to the mid-‘80s when direct marketing evolved into database marketing. Companies began sending more personalized marketing messages and building bigger campaigns from contacts more efficiently organized and accessible in a database. The ‘90s saw the development of sales force automation (SFA), allowing companies to automate their database marketing.
Siebel emerged as a CRM leader and now broader suites including sales, service, and marketing applications became the standard for CRM software. With the ever-changing world of technology, the future of CRM software became closely linked with adapting to or integrating with new technologies as they are introduced. CRM vendors began incorporating the internet and mobile applications to better serve potential buyers.
It is in the current decade that we have seen some level of confusion between these two types of software emerge. Both contact center and CRM are working to incorporate the latest in technology to offer a better customer experience to the end consumer. We see Salesforce and Microsoft Dynamics talk about adding email and web chat interactions to their solutions at the same time that inContact and other cloud contact center applications have added the same functionality. Both CRM and contact center firms talk about the use of bots to assist in customer experience and the possibilities of the Internet of Things.
Contact center and CRM vendors are clearly moving in similar directions. One common goal is to improve customer experience by incorporating the best that technology has to offer for self-service. Another is to bring as much context as possible to the agent about prior interactions to help guide the agent to a successful conclusion with the customer.
I am reminded of an exchange I had, about 5 years ago, with founder and then CEO of RightNow, Greg Gianforte. I asked why he kept talking about wanting to win in the contact center space when from my perspective, Avaya, Cisco and Genesys were contact center solutions and he didn’t compete in that market. His answer was that he wanted to own the contact center desktop. And it is there that we see the possibility for the two applications to clash.
In the years since that discussion, the debate during implementations of a new customer care application is often about whether the CRM or contact center will take the lead on an agent’s desktop. Will Zendesk be used as a database to populate information on the inContact screen or will the agent use inContact softphone features inside the Zendesk application? Will the agent “live” in Salesforce or in the inContact agent application?
The easy answer is that both types of deployments are possible. The more difficult question is when should a company choose the desktop available from the contact center vendor and when the CRM desktop. For thoughts and guidelines, come back for Part II of this blog.