This is not the usual place where I post interviews but I thought I’d share this anyway since it still holds value.

Regardless of your business, customer satisfaction is arguably a high priority in 2009. Industry observers believe this will remain true in 2010. How companies plan and execute strategies to achieve better than ever customer satisfaction is the question to ask.

What is also certain is that this drive towards better customer satisfaction [7] is helping boost the business of contact center operators worldwide. In Asia, it is fueling expansion among the large contact center operators like Convergys.

A [8] Asia Pacific survey [9], touching more than 2,100 consumers across six countries in Asia Pacific, suggests that customer service is a key differentiator today. The survey found that over 58% of respondents identified receiving polite and friendly service, having their calls resolved efficiently and receiving the right information from agents were the most important factor in driving ‘Good’ or ‘Excellent’ Customer Service.

Contact center associations recognize this and continue to promote it through education, training, recognizing and rewarding the best in the industry. At the 10th annual Hong Kong Call Centre Association [10] (HKCCA) Awards [11], 61 individuals and companies were recognized for their achievements across a broad spectrum of innovation including customer service, training and development, and corporate social responsibility. Among the winners were call center operators from Southern China and Macau.

No one argues that 2009 was a very challenging year for all businesses. Despite rhetoric from the Obama administration about making it tougher for US companies to outsource jobs that could be filled by local hires, outsourcing to low-cost locations remains a strong and viable alternative for many US and European companies looking to cut cost and keep afloat in a volatile global market.

According to Paul Chen, systems engineering director for Avaya [12] Asia Pacific, productivity, efficiency and customer service excellence were key concerns in the contact center industry in 2009. She notes that while the technology is available to help businesses to transform their contact centers into strategic assets that enable them to deliver better customer service more profitably, there are still companies out there which are outdated in their approach.

“This often translates into bad customer service and leaves the customer wondering why he or she should be giving away hard-earned money to an organization that provides such bad customer service,” said Chen.

Shivanu Shukla, an industry manager at Frost & Sullivan [13] concurs noting the heavy focus on efficiency among operators in 2009. With budget restrictions and hiring freeze, contact centers had to manage the growing volume of calls using existing resources. “The challenge of doing more with less has always been a constant in the contact center industry, but this challenge was amplified due to the economic backdrop. In 2009, enterprises were also focused on customer retention activities,” said Shukla.

“Optimization of operations is one of the primary concerns for contact center operators today, particularly during this economic downturn. Pressures to do more with less have resulted in organizations embracing technology as a solution to optimum resource allocation, managing operating costs and ensuring efficiency,” said Kenneth Chong, Unified Communications Product Specialist, Cisco [14].

The shape of things to come

So what will the contact center industry shape out to be in 2010? Pundits believe that the days of small, mom and pop contact centers are numbered. Customers will lean towards large contact centers because they are faster to adopt new technologies and their sheer size allows them to shift business to other branch operations in the event of business disruptions.

Shukla sees the improving economic conditions will help shift the focus back to customer acquisition. “Hence, investments in customer care are expected to increase in 2010. Apart from efficiency, focus on effectiveness and driving customer satisfaction ratings will also resume focus,” said Shukla.

Sidney Yuen, head of Global Consulting Services for Convergys [15] in Asia Pacific believes that companies are recognizing the value of the contact center as a revenue generator. “Contact centers used to be treated as cost centers because they were primarily geared towards delivering support services. But continuing improvement in language skills and business processes have enabled companies to use contact centers to generate sales using outbound traffic,” Yuen observed.

“Revenue generation will take on more importance in 2010 as companies look to contact centers to bring in the business. This will see the contact center shift from a cost center to one that actually earns money,” predicts OVUM [16] analyst Peter Ryan.

OVUM reports that cost control, agent recruitment and establishing service metrics are the top three worries among contact center managers. Analytics, self-service and virtualization will be the hot technologies of 2010.

Social influence [17]

With the rising popularity of social networking platforms [18] across many parts of the world, companies are starting to look for ways to harvest and monetize information gathered through these platforms.

“Contact center managers need to monitor and engage “unmoderated” customer feedback channels like social networking channels for service level assurance and reporting. In addition, a consistent review of operations will achieve optimization in workflow, resource management and systems integration,” suggested Chong.

Industry surveys suggest that the web-savvy generation of customers prefer self-service to resolve non-technical queries. “As such 2010 investments will revolve around quality monitoring and analytics, in addition to advanced routing and computer telephony integration applications,” Shukla predicts.

Fortunately some of these technologies don’t necessarily have to mean significant financial burden on contact centers. Web 2.0 technologies and Software as a Service [19] (SaaS) like web-based training and rich media collaboration platforms will provide organizations with enterprise technology without the initial capital investment.

Software dominance

The contact center industry is seeing a shift in proprietary hardware technology to one dominated by software. A reliance on software mitigates hardware obsolescence while allowing companies to take advantage of new software development to deliver improved or enhance service.

Raju predicts Session Initiation Protocol [20] or SIP will deliver the highest benefit to contact centers in 2010. SIP makes the contact center an integral part of the organization by bringing to bear the right resource within the company to answer the customer query. One application associated with SIP is unified communication [21] (UC).

Unified Communication, which amalgamates Web 2.0 technologies [22] with existing communication tools via software, is seen as an enabler of improved customer service delivery.

Lim Sim Hua, senior vice president for Asia Pacific and Middle East at Aspect Software believes UC will help contact centers streamline business processes more effectively. But he cautions not to let the benefits blind businesses from the perils from implementing UC for the sake of the technology. “Contact centers need to be mindful when selecting and implementing UC products and solutions. It is important to tailor UC solutions according to their specific needs, goals, existing infrastructure and business processes to fully achieve the promised efficiencies,” warns Lim.

A byproduct of all these software enhancements is the opportunity to consolidate operations creating virtual contact centers. In a virtual contact center environment, the customer no longer cares or needs to be aware of where the service is being handled.

“Virtual contact center applications will allow organizations to manage operations in real time across contact channels and locations, and significantly improve the quality and performance of their customer-facing processes,” says Rob Delnoij, senior manager for BCM Field Enablement APJ, SAP [23] Business Communications Management.

Indeed technology is helping contact center operators create service-specific offerings that deliver targeted and highly specialized to suit customer needs. The end goal, of course, is to deliver improve customer satisfaction both for their clients and their clients’ customers.

So do you agree with the headline…”your business is customer satisfaction – nothing else matters?” I would love to get your view. By way of closing this is what customer service is all about.