Call Center vs. Contact Center: What's the Difference?

Call centers have come a long way since the advent of API and microservices. Learn how the modern call center has become a “contact center” based in the cloud.

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Call Center vs. Contact Center: What's the Difference?

For many businesses, the call center is the heart of customer service. It's where customers call in for help and reps call out for sales. It’s referred to as a “call center” because traditional models of customer service are based on phone support as the main method of contact between customers and companies. However, today, call center agents interact with customers through a variety of channels. The call center has evolved into the contact center.

In this article, we’ll explore the differences between a traditional call center based on legacy premise systems and a modern contact center powered by the latest technologies.

What is a Call Center?

Traditionally, a call center is an office where a large number of call center agents provide customer service over the telephone. Inbound call centers receive calls for customer support and often serve as a knowledge base for tech support, billing questions, and other customer service issues. These call centers focus on quick call resolution times and agent productivity. In outbound call centers, agents make calls rather than receive them. These could be sales calls, marketing offers, surveys, fundraising requests, or debt collection, for example.

Meow Call Center

The term “call center” conjures an image for many people of waiting on perpetual hold or being routed through an endless IVR that never gives them what they need. Because so many consumers have had a dreadful customer service experience along these lines, call centers have developed a bad rap. But as legacy phone systems give way to newer digital technologies, call centers are evolving.

What is a Contact Center?

The term "contact center" (or “contact centre”) reflects the modern reality that there are many other ways to connect with a customer these days besides by telephone. The combined trends of increased customer expectations and newer technologies that allow for many channels of communication are creating a shift in the traditional call center model which has existed for decades. Consumers want more ways to reach businesses, and businesses are looking for new ways to improve customer experience.

While call center agents generally focus on inbound and outbound calls, either on traditional phone lines or over VoIP, contact center agents handle a wide variety of communications. In a modern multichannel contact center, technical support might be delivered over in-app chat or video, while order status updates are delivered via SMS, event promotions are sent as push notifications, surveys are deployed over Facebook Messenger, and sales inquiries received by email are sent directly to an agent to connect by phone. Call centers handle voice communications, contact centers handle all communications.

A company’s contact center is usually integrated with their customer relationship management (CRM) system, where all interactions between the organization and the public are tracked, coordinated, and managed. Depending on the infrastructure and ecosystem, it could be comprised of an alphabet soup of complex components. Many companies have purchased off-the-shelf systems or a highly customized network of technologies from multiple vendors. Some companies have adopted a cloud-based solution or two, but they remain siloed from the rest of their systems and can’t talk to each other.

Common Goal: Improve Customer Experience

Regardless of whether customers connect to a company by phone, in-app chat, SMS, or another channel, chances are they want quick resolution—whether they need help with a technical problem or placing a new order. According to research by JDPower, customers spend 30% of their time interacting with a contact center in an interactive voice response (IVR) system—as opposed to speaking or chatting with an agent. Yet only about 7% of the companies JDPower surveyed offer better customer solutions through the IVR experience than an agent can provide.

That means most customers are sitting on the line, waiting to reach someone who can solve their problem. Sound familiar?

This is a major missed opportunity. Solving a customer’s need quickly—or not—affects the bottom line in multiple ways. According to Forrester, the price of resolving a customer need on a call with an IVR versus an agent is a 48X difference. Oracle’s 2011 Customer Experience Impact Report found that 86 percent of customers will pay more for better customer experience, while 89 percent will leave due to poor customer experience. Customers today expect service and support with brands through an ever-expanding network of channels, contexts, and devices. They expect to connect in a similar way that they communicate with friends, from SMS to Snapchat. And they're willing to pay for it, or leave if they don’t get it.

86 percent

So why do so many businesses fail to take their contact centers to the next level of customer experience?

In most cases, companies want to keep up with changing user behavior and emerging channels, but their existing infrastructure is holding them back. Up to 40 percent of contact center managers say that their IT doesn’t meet current needs, with 80 percent saying current systems won’t meet future needs, according to Dimension Data’s 2015 Global Contact Center Benchmarking Report.

Legacy Contact Center Infrastructure

Many businesses built their contact centers using products designed nearly a decade ago. This is a lifetime in the digital age. A system launched in 2009 likely began with an RFP and vendor evaluations in 2007. Given the product development cycles for contact center hardware and software, the product proposed by a chosen vendor in 2007 was probably first released in 2004 and initially designed five years before that.

This is how many companies currently find themselves caught in the trap of an aging and costly infrastructure that impedes their progress. Their contact center systems were expensive and time-consuming to install and customize, so they are, understandably, reluctant to update them.

Traditional Contact Center Timeframe

How often have you called into an IVR and heard, “Please listen carefully because the menu options have recently changed” and known that the menu actually hasn't changed in a very long time? That’s because most legacy IVR systems take an average of nine months of professional services to make even the smallest changes.

It's very hard to experiment, iterate, and improve a contact center under those circumstances. In the meantime, customer expectations continue to change rapidly as new technologies and communication channels become the norm. When aging infrastructure can’t keep pace with customers and the technologies they rely on for communications, the result is frustrated customers and agents, along with wasted time and resources.

Modern Contact Center Solutions

Today, a new approach to the traditional call center is available that allows businesses to deliver the caliber of real time customer experience necessary to win in increasingly competitive markets. Instead of taking an ‘off-the-shelf’ system from a telecom vendor and accepting inflexible systems with a monolithic feature set, this contact center software approach enables companies to build the exact solution they need, when they need it. It’s an approach that offers more than updated technology; it re-envisions how contact center operations are designed and built.

Two main factors are driving the evolution of the call center: digital innovation and the changes in customer behavior that this creates. Today’s customers use an array of devices, in a seemingly endless set of contexts and channels. According to the 2015 Dimension Data survey, 50 percent of organizations will soon be managing an omnichannel contact center, featuring at least eight different forms of contact methods, seven of which are digital.

Customers want companies to communicate with them on the channel they like to use—whether it’s phone, SMS, or Facebook Messenger. The proliferation of digital channels doesn’t lessen the importance of the call center; in fact the opposite is true. People still want to connect with other people at the other end of an interaction. Integration is the key to creating an experience that leaves customers feeling like the service was created just for them. When an IVR (or agent) knows the entire customer journey—the pages they've looked at, the products they’ve purchased, their billing situation, etc.—it greatly improves the customer experience.

Contact Center Building Blocks

API-Based Contact Center Software

So how can companies create the best contact center experience for their customers? The answer lies in application programming interfaces (APIs): routines, protocols, resources, and tools developers use to create software applications. APIs communicate between data and devices—they are how software components interact, and they underpin all of the ways we do the things we do online today.

Software based on APIs allow real time customer experiences over multiple channels (voice, chat, SMS, IVR, email, social media, etc.). They act as an automatic call distributor (ACD) that can route any task from multiple sources. And they maintain context of the conversation and surface customers to the correct agent through computer telephony integration (CTI) and WebRTC.

When you build your contact center with communication building blocks like Twilio’s programmable APIs, you can choose the channels and features you need and add more as your call center expands into multiple channels. APIs give you the flexibility to build the exact customer experience you want, and the freedom to iterate your IVR, call flows, and other aspects of your communications as frequently as you like.

There's also a new option on the market: the programmable contact center platform. This contact center is based on APIs, but is instantly deployable out of the box. Unlike other off-the-shelf contact center solutions, which offer limited features and functionality, a programmable contact center platform is fully customizable at every layer of the stack. This allows businesses to both buy an out-of-the-box contact center and build a completely custom experience to meet their business objectives today or in the future.

Sign up for a demo of Twilio Flex and learn how to run a fully programmable enterprise contact center out of the box, without deciding between build or buy.