The history of call centers, or how technology has changed the work of operators with customers

Published on June 28, 2018

The history of call centers, or how technology has changed the work of operators with customers

    It is considered that call centers are simply halls in which operators sit at computers and communicate with customers by telephone. This is partly true, however, agents of modern contact centers use a larger number of channels to interact with users (for example, instant messengers and social networks). At the same time, modern technologies, including machine learning and data analysis algorithms, are increasingly helping them.

    When the first contact centers appeared, what has changed since their first appearance and how artificial intelligence (AI) systems have to do with the “evolution of call centers”, we will tell further.


    Image of Wikimedia Commons / PD

    How did call centers come about?


    The first automatic call distribution (ACD) systems emerged in the 50s of the last century. They were used by operators of several large telephone companies. However, it is believed that the first "real" contact center appeared in 1965 in Britain. Then the telephone company The Birmingham Press and Mail installed a telephone exchange GEC PABX 4 . The station automatically distributed incoming and outgoing calls.

    The first contact center in America was organized by Rockwell. Its first client was Continental Airlines, having organized a ticket booking service for passengers.

    In the Soviet Union, call centers appeared in the 70s. One of the firstThe contact center of the Kiev telephone network became the contact center in the USSR. It was possible to call the number "09" and find out the desired phone number. Part of the communications center was responsible for the telephone numbers of enterprises, and the other - "specialized" in the apartments of residents of Kiev.

    Until the 80s, call centers were “connected” to the telephone networks by analog lines. But later, digital technologies began to influence the industry. The first wave of digitalization was the emergence of the DASS II protocol (Digital Access Signaling System). It was developed in the telecommunications company British Telecom. DASS II systems allowed data exchange at a speed of 2 Mbit / s and control 30 calls simultaneously (64 Kbit / s each).

    With the development of technology appeared IP-telephony. The first Internet phone for the general consumer was created by the Israeli company VocalTec . Users could call each other using special software. They communicated using speakers and a computer microphone. But already in 1998, VocalTec implemented VoIP-functions for computer-to-phone and phone-to-phone connections.

    At the beginning of the “zero” companies engaged in the production of telephone and telecommunications equipment, realized all the advantages offered by IP-telephony. VoIP-functions began to be added to switches, software, etc. By 2003, 25% of all calls were made via IP.

    Thanks to this technology, software solutions appeared that allowed call center operators to integrate with third-party business systems: service desk, CRM, billing. This made it possible to display on the monitor screen all information about the client, his profile, at the time of receiving the call. This approach improved the quality and reduced the service time in contact centers, and also opened new channels for working with clients.

    How technology has influenced call centers


    As with the development of the Internet, communication mostly moves to the virtual space, new channels for working with clients appear. As noted , for example, in the provider Yota, 89% of calls to their support center accounted for the mobile application, chat on the site, SMS chat, social networks, and email.

    This is due to the fact that people have begun to actively use digital channels. Moreover, it is natural that chat rooms and instant messengers are used not only for communication, but also for teamwork and professional self-development.

    For example, in the network you can find special chats for developers, in which the exchange of knowledge and experience. In particular, IRC-channels in Python on FreeNode: python and python-dev . Another option is the servers in the messenger Discord: The Programmer's Hangout and Reactiflux . The first is devoted to general programming issues, the last is React JS, Redux, GraphQL, etc.

    The popularity of text messaging services, expectedly, has caused contact centers to embed chats into their business processes. This allowed “to speak with customers in the same language” and solve problems that arise without forcing people to wait on the line while waiting for a free operator. It also made it possible to use one of the obvious advantages of instant messengers - chat bots. They “learned” to solve frequently arising problems on their own and only involve operators in difficult cases.

    As for other methods of communication, social media is another channel of communication with customers. In social media, companies get the opportunity to collect feedback about their work. For example, a few years ago Apple launchedTwitter account technical support, so that users can contact them directly and publicly.

    True, in Russia the practice of working with social networks is less common than abroad. From our own experience, we see that the majority of appeals are still received in a voice. But the industry is gradually realizing the importance of providing multiple service channels in call centers, because companies are moving to the so-called omnichannel work model.

    The essence of the omnichannel approach is to create a unified environment for all channels (calls, social networks, instant messengers, etc.) and save the history of communication with the client. A person can start talking on the phone, then continue his chat, and so on. Changing operators will know all the information received from the user in the previous stages.

    An example of such a platform is the Naumen Omni-Channel . The system works with phone calls, web chats and instant messengers (Viber, Telegram, etc.), as well as social networks Facebook and VK. Calls from all channels are lined up in a single queue, within which a certain number of “mini-queues” are created.

    From these queues, tasks are automatically distributed between operators according to predefined rules. For example, they can take into account the employment of operators, the availability of the required skills, the speed of their processing of instant messages, the theme of the appeal. The latter is established by analyzing keywords.


    Image Kārlis Dambrāns / CC

    As an example omnikanalnoy model of work can leadcase of the Petrovich construction trading house. At the end of last year, they ranked second in terms of revenue in Russia, second only to Leroy Merlin. Customers can use several channels to contact the company's call center: by calling, sending an e-mail or requesting a callback. In this case, the history of work with the subscriber is saved by the system for analyzing customer experience.

    Aggregation and analysis of the most diverse information relating to the rules of the operators, their skills, statistical data, etc., allowed us to develop the capabilities of call centers in terms of integration with WFM systems. The forecasting and planning of the workload of staff in an automated form have also become important tools for managing a modern contact center. For example, the possibilities of omnichannel systems and WFM functions are used by one of Russia's largest outsourcing contact centers GRAN . The company is in the top 5 ACC in terms of services rendered and has five sites, which employs 1,700 operators.

    In general, omnicanality is a promising direction. Therefore, the contact centers of the future should not only be able to work with all existing channels, but also be ready to “accept” new ones.

    It is expected that another new channel will be assistants like Siri, Cortana, Alexa. In this case, the call center will have to process information not from the client, but from his robotic assistant. Such a scenario is quite likely, considering how actively this area is developing.

    Google, for example, recently presented the Duplex solution. It is able to make phone calls to various organizations and carry out orders, for example, to reserve a table in a restaurant. At the presentation, Google Assistant called the real beauty salon and booked a time for a haircut. The salon administrator did not even suspect that he had a dialogue with the car (you can find the video here ).

    Yandex is also actively moving in this direction, which recently introduced its voice assistant and, accordingly, a column to it. We believe that such solutions will “master” the mass market in the next 5–10 years.

    How robotic systems help respond to customer requests


    One of the popular technologies that have found application in contact centers today is machine learning algorithms (MO). They allow you to create robotic services, including complex chat bots that can act as a full-fledged first-line support.

    In particular, a voice bot has been implemented for Pochta Rossii, which uses natural speech recognition (NLP) algorithms to determine the subject of a client’s request. If earlier the client had to go to a large and confusing IVR menu and, in fact, classify himself, now he freely pronounces topics of interest to him, and then the robot redirects the call to the desired line. Thus, the possibility of free communication with the robot remains - there is no need to waste time and wander around the long and confusing IVR.

    At the same time, if the client says: “Good afternoon, I would like to know where my package is now”, the robot will provide it with information on the status of the mailing (or transfer the call to the appropriate service). The robot is able to recognize the track numbers of parcels, pronounced in various ways. Including unusual. For example, he can recognize the combination RS250028, even if it was named like this: “Roman, Sergey, twenty-five, two zeros, two, eight”.

    With the development of technology, the introduction of such systems ceases to be costly and cumbersome. Today, such systems are available not only for large organizations with huge client bases. Robotic solutions also benefit small companies. For example, we at Naumen worked on a solution for OMSK RTS, a regional company engaged in the production of electrical and thermal energy. With the help of a robotic service, its customers can transmit meter readings automatically by telephone. The service successfully serves almost 90% of users. The active phase of the project took only 1 month.

    But while AI systems can improve user experience, they are still not able to resolve conflicts. Therefore, today are developingand so-called hybrid AI systems are being introduced. They receive all the necessary information from the client, and then imperceptibly and seamlessly transfer the “control” to the call center operator.

    An example of developments in this area is the LiveEngage platform, which works in conjunction with the IBM Watson supercomputer. Watson “communicates” with clients, collects data and reports them to a human agent if the latter’s intervention is required. This system is already used in more than 45 countries in 20 industries.



    In the following materials, we will continue to talk about technologies that use call centers to improve the speed and quality of customer service. We will also share technical details of the development of the Naumen contact center platform.