Back in the good ol’ days, when life was oh so simple, most call centres were either inbound or outbound. Inbound teams dealt with customer service, and outbound teams focused on sales. In the last 20 years, the rise of omnichannel and the demands of customers have blurred the lines, and changed both functions completely.

The main function of the modern contact centre is to deliver the Customer Experience. And its goals are to increase customer satisfaction, loyalty and, ultimately, customer value. 

Inbound and outbound are no longer synonyms for service and sales. They are instead a good way of indicating which party – customer or company – is responsible for initiating an interaction. Both cover a multitude of functions and channels (not just phone) and, as we shall see, it’s the complexity and urgency of the customer’s issue that determines the best mix of channels to use.

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Outbound in 2021

The predominant function of an outbound call centre used to be sales to new customers. Whether it was B2B or B2C, this generally involved cold calling lists of prospects procured from a data provider or even just cribbed from the phone book.

Just because it’s gone out of fashion now, and consumers generally hate it, we can’t pretend that it didn’t work at the time. Plenty of large companies in the telco, energy and financial services sectors owe a significant proportion of their customer bases to industrial-scale outbound campaigns conducted 20 years ago.

Cold calling on the decline

Today cold calling only accounts for around 4% of outbound activity, according to the latest ContactBabel research. In response to consumer concerns about privacy and intrusion, legislation in many territories as well as initiatives such as Do Not Call Lists make it difficult, if not impossible, to cold call consumers and earn an ROI.

Where it is still done, it is often offshored to reduce costs in order to make the acquisition costs feasible. Even so, the downside hit to brand perception makes it a risky activity.

In B2B, cold calling (or prospecting) is still very much a legitimate business development and research tool – as long as it’s done legally and respectfully, and you’re employing knowledgeable people capable of holding substantive, helpful conversations.

Outbound contact by function

Outbound has moved on. Today, the majority of outbound is service-focused in nature. Study after study has shown that the majority of consumers actually like to receive proactive customer service.

Indeed, the largest outbound activity today is callbacks about ongoing issues. This accounts for 32% of outbound calls, according to ContactBabel. Proactive notifications (e.g. your delivery is here, delayed) account for another 16%. Callbacks requested by the customer are an additional 9%, and Customer Satisfaction follow up surveys are 4%.

That means 59% of all outbound contacts are now service related. The other major activities are sales calls to existing customers (21%) and debt collection (9%).

Not all of these contacts are live agent phone calls. Around 20% of companies employ automated outbound notifications sent by SMS, messaging, email, and even recorded voice messages to update customers on service and delivery issues.

Outbound contacts are now multi-faceted and multi-channel, and they are personalised and targeted. This shift also marks a move away from productivity and sales targets, towards the prioritising of metrics such as customer satisfaction, customer effort, and customer loyalty. It is perhaps for this reason that while 81% of contact centres perform some outbound activity, only 25% use a dialler.

Inbound in 2021

Before the internet and mobile phones, customers had two ways of interacting with companies. They could visit them in person, or phone the call centre. In those days, even requesting a brochure or catalogue meant making a phone call. Companies that ran DRTV (Direct Response TV) campaigns had to have hundreds of agents on standby to take a deluge of calls inside a few minutes whenever an ad ran. Today that inbound marketing function of the call centre has largely moved online – either to self-service channels such as chatbots, FAQs, web order forms, and IVRs, or human-based digital support.

Multichannel and Omnichannel

SMS, social media, messaging, and email are often faster and more accessible than phone, delivering the contact centre’s dream of improving the customer experience while actually reducing costs to serve.

There’s still low-hanging fruit to be picked, however. The majority of contact centres say they are multi-channel, but few are genuinely omnichannel. That means most customers are still having to repeat themselves every time they switch channels because the contact centre does not have a single customer view and is unable to share and connect customer information and outcomes across channels.

An omnichannel approach to inbound service is a still-untapped source of competitive advantage for plenty of brands, given most are yet to do it.

Mix of inbound channels

Of course, live agent phone calls do still account for most inbound activity (66% of all inbound contacts, according to Contact Babel). Email is the next largest channel at 15%, followed by phone self-service (IVR), web chat (6%) and social media (5%). While SMS is used for outbound notifications, it accounts for only 1% of inbound traffic. Perhaps this is because so few companies offer two-way SMS customer support.

The fastest growing channel is phone self-service, while web chat and social have increased their share by 50% in the last few years, and both are surging at the expense of email. This suggests digitally savvy consumers prefer the near real-time response of web chat and social versus the ‘one working day’ that is the standard response time for email.

Channel preference today appears to be dictated predominantly by the consumer, and depends largely on the importance, urgency, and complexity of their query. Contact centres should ensure they are guiding customers towards the most appropriate channels for different query types. Streamlining of costs and staffing issues, while important, should not be the only consideration.

Metrics used

There has been a move away from productivity metrics such as Average Handling Time, in favour of outcome-based KPIs such as First Call Resolution, CSAT, and NPS.

As even customer service centres are now operated as profit centres, a metric that is gaining popularity is Revenue per Call or Promise to Pay. While this gives information about productivity as it necessarily includes information on Cost per Call, it is outcome focused. The danger in incentivising agents on productivity metrics alone is that they might, for example, keep calls short when longer in-depth interactions that better satisfy customers could lead to higher loyalty and revenues.

One productivity measure that is important to customers, however, and impacts on outcome-based and customer metrics, is Average Time to Answer. Make them wait an excessive amount of time, and they will hang up. Abandoned calls are to be avoided as you lose the opportunity to fix the customer’s issue, leading to lower satisfaction, lower usage rates of your products, and lost sales.

Call blending

Of course, there is a simple solution for abandoned calls, which is simply to call customers back. The best customer service teams offer a callback as an IVR option during busy times.

This is just one use for call blending, which allows a contact centre to make efficient use of both channels. Primarily used for customer service follow up or callbacks, a blended contact centre routes both inbound contacts (from the call routing software) and outbound contacts to the same team of agents.

While this needs a highly skilled team, not to mention the enabling technology, the benefits are many. It can make a team more productive, with fewer agents needed to close off more queries. It is also an omnichannel enabler in that it breaks down information and operational silos (one team instead of two) and allows individual agents to case manage individual customers to some extent – the Holy Grail of personalisation.

The Average Time to Answer for blended teams is lower compared to centres that run distinct teams. The proviso here is that the dialler and call routing settings need to be constantly adjusted to ensure there are always available team members for the volume of calls.

An outcome-based approach

Whether your contact centre is inbound or outbound, or a mix, the game has changed. Although productivity remains important, it is subsumed by the need to deliver outcomes that increase customer satisfaction, loyalty and value.

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