A Brief History of Call Centers

(Source: Boston City Archives)

(Source: Boston City Archives)

The call center can be thought of existing in five distinct eras: the Analog Era, the Adoption Era, the Digital Era, the Offshore Era, and finally, the Contact Era. While the tasks completed at these centres have more-or-less remained the same throughout history, it is the technology and mode of communication that has driven advancements in productivity. In this blog post, I will be breaking down the defining traits of each of these eras and building a timeline of how the industry has progressed.

The Analog Era

The birth of call centres, the Analog Era, began with a creation myth. This myth stated that the first call center was created in 1973 by the US firm Rockwell to serve Continental Airlines and their push towards a telephone booking service. While Rockwell did indeed build the first American call center in 1973, the first call center in the world was created in the 1960s by UK-based Birmingham Press and Mail to handle customer contact. This era was defined by both public skepticism and lack of adoption. The telephone was by no means a new technology at this time, but going into the 1960s only 61.8% of Americans actually had one. Most mainstream companies of this era viewed the call center as unnecessary, and preferred to handle their business offline.

The Adoption Era

This would not last, however, as the productivity and customer service gains from call centres began to be taken seriously by major players. Lloyd’s Bank, the largest retail bank in Britain, was the first to lead the charge. They hired call center staff for balance inquiries as well as complaints, and soon found it to be an effective way to serve their customers. This opened up a deluge of new entrants, such as Direct Line, which became the first company to sell insurance entirely over the phone. Or others, such as Aspect Telecommunications, a purely call-center focused telecommunications hardware company founded by hotel-mogul Jim Carreker. In this vein, this era was one of excitement and a rush of investment. Inverse to the previous era, major companies were now investing in the once humble call center and an industry was beginning to develop.

The Digital Era

This era of boom leads directly into the Digital Era. Prior to this, every single call center was operating using old-school analog telephone lines. When the Digital Access Signalling System 2 (DASS II) was developed by British Telecom, it revolutionized the industry. Instead of being limited by the amount of telephone-wiring connecting each and every terminal, the digital call center allowed mass-scaling. Companies were able to fit hundreds upon hundreds of terminals onto one digital connection that was both faster in speed and lower in “noise” (signal irregularities). Since then, the standard for call centers have been iterated upon tens of times; now-defunct technologies with wordy and obscure names such as Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) receiving their share of the limelight. Among all the dead technology, however, Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) stands out.

(Source: Enghouse Interactive)

(Source: Enghouse Interactive)

This 1990’s poster from Syntellect captures the excitement of CTI technology (and with good reason). As the posters subheader suggests, CTI was the first interactive communications management system. The C - meaning computer, and the T - meaning telephone, CTI is the first technology to integrate computers with telephones. Modern telecommunication features such as call merging, call transfers and computer controlled dialing are all based on this system. So much so that it is still the dominant technology used in call centers today, with global firms such as Jabra and Plantronics heavily invested in various forms of it’s protocol. However, this technology also opened the door to the next era of call centers, the Offshore Era.

The Offshore Era

The Offshore Era of call centers began just after the “dot com” boom. With firms shuttering their doors left and right, many multinational companies faced rising costs associated with their digitized customer service departments. They began looking for an alternative. Enter India and the Philippines. Due to their competent English, relatively high rate of educational attainment, and low wages, many companies viewed them as attractive destinations for an offshore call center. While there is no conclusive data on the number of jobs moved abroad, the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that over 200,000 call center jobs have relocated abroad since the year 2003. For some time it looked like the allure of high margins would never replace the offshore call center, but as with all eras, the next one was just ramping up.

The Contact Era

Social media revolutionized far more than the way we talk with our friends. It changed the way we live our lives. Instead of calling people, we’re now far more likely to be exchanging texts or instant messages (for good reason - it’s usually more convenient!) Just as society was transformed by social media, the modern call-center resembles the 1960 call center inasmuch there are phones present. Nowadays, agents combine phone conversations, emails and instant messaging as part of a customer service suite, or a “contact center”. Rather than being limited to speaking on the phone, many companies allow their customers to get in touch with a representative however they want to.

What’s Next?

While we can’t predict the extent and the impact of artificial intelligence on the newly-minted contact center industry, we know for sure that this will be the next Era. Multiple chat bots have begun replacing agent-messaging (relegating contact centers to call centers once again), Google has invested substantial resources into developing a seamless text-to-speech program and IBM Watson has recently began offering a comprehensive “end-to-end AI customer service” package. The times are moving quickly, and the Era of AI call centers has been all but sworn in; it’s just a matter of when it’ll begin.

Where we come in

inteliKINECT doesn’t fit in neatly with any of these Eras. We are a call center in the sense that we take and make calls, but we’re so much more than that.

(Source: inteliKINECT 2017-2018 outcomes)

(Source: inteliKINECT 2017-2018 outcomes)

What we offer is a two-way conversation.

Using information our clients provide us, we engage leads by developing quick, minute-long relationships and building off this connection. Unlike our competitors, our focus is on creating experiences rather than call volume, and the results speak for themselves: we book leads far more than any other category, converting over 20% in most months. Not only do we act as your lead conversion operator, we also provide account management using bleeding-edge project management tools. This allows you to keep your sales pipeline in focus and up-to-date; couple this with our regular progress reports and you have all you need to stay on top of your sales.

We understand that your business is complicated enough without having to go chase down leads. Let us handle the boring stuff and get back to doing what you love.

Contact us at info@intelikinect.org or (844) 985-9898 for a free consultation.