By Richard Lawrence-Allen
“Call centre” is an increasingly unpopular and inaccurate term to use when describing centres such as RSVP. “Contact centre” is the now preferred moniker and a much more fitting term considering the wealth of contact methods that are now used, including but not limited to, voice calls, emails and webchat. Contact centres are such a well-established fixture in modern life that it is easy to assume they are something that has existed as long as the telephone. While this is not quite true, contact centres do have a long history.
The very first telephone was patented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell; it wasn’t until nearly 100 years later that call centres started to pop into existence. The development of call centres was directly linked to Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) computer technology. These computer systems likely emerged in the 1950s and would have been used to handle central operator enquires by major telephone companies.
Call centres got their start in the UK, when Birmingham Press and Mail installed Private Automated Business Exchanges (PABX) to have rows of agents handling large numbers of customer contacts in 1965. By the early 1970s, PABX systems began to include ACD technology and with this allowed for the development of large-scale call centres. By 1973, when Rockwell International patented its Galaxy Automatic Call Distributor (GACD) for telephone booking systems, as well as the popularisation of telephone headsets following televised events by NASA, call centres quickly gained mainstream attention.
The term “call centre” first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1983, and has been widely recognised by English-speaking people ever since.
Over the years, owing to technological advances, the deregulation of long-distance calling, and the increasing growth of information-dependent industries, the need for call centres to handle customer demand only inflated. Call centres saw a great spike in growth in the 1970s and ‘80s, many large, well-known companies today, establishing themselves during this period.
In 1985, Peter Wood founded the insurance company, Direct Line, the very first company to sell insurance entirely over the telephone. This was a clear indication of how much call centres could truly benefit a vast array of different industries and the true potential these set-ups could provide. In the USA, Aspect Telecommunications improved upon ACD technology allowing calls to be made from touch tone phones to be routed more efficiently, distinguishing between types of calls and routing them to specialised teams of agents. This cut waiting times significantly and allowed for call centres to deal with increasing call volumes.
By the 1990s, call centres had spread all over the world and proved they were to be a mainstay of modern life. Two subsets of call centres emerged from this, in-house managed teams of specialist agents and experts, and outsourced bureau centres (much like RSVP). Outsource centres share overheads among many clients, and thereby support a cost effective model for handling a lower volume of calls, overflow needs, and long-term marketing projects.
Modern contact centre technology allows for the blending of inbound and outbound calls, as well as predictive diallers, dramatically improving the productivity levels that are achievable. Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) systems support coordinated telephone and computer conversations. In 1995, BT introduced Caller ID/Caller Line Identify (CLI) enabling call centres to identify customers and route the call to the needed advisor before the call is answered, improving call times and customer service levels.
Technological advances are continuing to push businesses to keep updating their working practices. This has led to the evolution of call centres into "contact centres". While centres in their infancy dealt only with telephone contacts, now, modern centres deal also with emails, live chats, social media and letters, etc. According to Google Trends, in 2011 people searching for the term "contact centre" finally surpassed those looking for the term "call centre", showing a shift in terminology preferences reflecting the shift in contact centre operations.
The humble contact centre has come on a long way since its inception roughly 6o years ago and it seems as though it will continue to grow and adapt to changing needs to customers and industry alike. Contact centres are definitely here to stay.