The Complete Contact Center Guide for Beginners

Updated


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A contact center is a physical or virtual customer service department that deals with technical difficulties, complaints, suggestions, objections, and other customer inquiries. It encompasses a variety of different channels, including live chat, email, phone, social media, SMS, video call, and online troubleshooting guides.

The most common goals of a contact center are to handle user requests and provide a streamlined customer service experience. It’s also common for a contact center to reach out to existing customers for continued business, as well as procure new outbound leads in search of new partnership opportunities.

In some contexts, the terms contact center and call center are used interchangeably, but there is a key difference between the two. Namely, call centers primarily deal with customer interactions over the phone, while contact centers are all-encompassing communication hubs that cover email, phone, video, and self-service support.

Graphic showing customer service options at various levels and that a call center provides phone support and a contact center provides email, phone, and live chat support.

Contact centers come in different shapes and sizes, so it’s worth taking a look at them from the following angles:

  • Standard Contact Center Capabilities
  • Premium Contact Center Capabilities
  • Contact Center Deployment
  • Contact Center: Multichannel vs Omnichannel Breakdown

Standard Contact Center Capabilities

Delivering a decent, ongoing, and reliable customer service experience is completely doable with a vetted, standard contact center. 

In terms of what they’re able to do for businesses and customers, standard contact center solutions usually come with several of the following functions at a competitive market price:

CRM integration

In the context of contact center operations, customer relationship management (CRM) refers to an integrated software system that your agents can use to automate, schedule, track, record, and access customer information to increase productivity on a day-to-day basis. Additionally, CRM software also serves as a customer database that helps with storing and retrieving customer data during common interactions between your contact center agents and your customers.

Call recording

Call recording is an essential feature of standard contact centers, allowing you to record phone conversations between agents and callers or outbound leads to access them later. Recorded phone calls generally serve two main purposes: 

  • They help your agents improve their knowledge, expertise, and delivery with a hands-on approach, usually by listening to some of their earlier and more challenging interactions with customers
  • They can protect your business against litigation from a legal standpoint

Customer file pop-ups

Screen pop-ups, pop-up files, or customer file pop-ups all refer to a specific functionality during which a customer card appears on your agent’s computer screen at the same time your agent takes a call from that particular customer. The pop-up card contains important details about the customer, such as their name, contact history, and order history. This enables your agents to improve their efficiency and provide a more personalized level of service to your customers at the same time.

Standard outbound dialer

A standard outbound call dialer is an integrated software solution or a cloud-based system that enables your contact center agents to place outgoing phone or video calls. This type of system helps your agents automate the calling process and increases their output at no additional cost. 

Outbound systems for standard contact centers usually employ two different functionalities: preview dialing and progressive dialing. 

Preview dialing is when your agents receive the customer’s information right before the call, giving them ample time to prepare for it—while also decreasing the intervals between each different response. 

With progressive dialing, the customer’s information is loaded at the same time your agent answers a call. This method is faster but gives your agents less time to prepare compared to preview outbound dialing.

Automatic call distribution

Automatic call distribution (ACD) is a system that enables inbound calls to be routed to the correct department, agent, or supervisor automatically. This type of software makes it easy to categorize calls based on pre-existing options, after which the calls are transferred to the proper department to answer the caller’s questions.

Depending on the software and the system’s implementation, automatic call distribution may also work alongside a DNIS (dialed number information service) to provide the agent with all the necessary information when responding to a call.

Recap

All standard contact center capabilities—including CRM integration, call recording, customer file pop-ups, standard outbound dialers, and automatic call distribution—offer a complete solution for businesses to stay in touch with their customers and respond to their queries in a timely and professional manner.

Premium Contact Center Capabilities

The main difference between standard and premium contact centers mostly comes down to two things: 

  • Price—Standard centers offer affordable packages for basic service, while premium contact centers are more expensive because they come with an extended number of solutions to address multiple scenarios and different approaches to customer interactions.
  • Number, quality, and scope of capabilities—Standard contact centers are usually limited in their scope, offering basic capabilities that can’t account for all variables, like when an unpredictable event disrupts an agent’s script. On the flip side, premium contact centers typically provide many contingencies to intercept, address, and resolve these situations head-on.

Businesses opting for premium contact center services can expect to leverage the following capabilities at a higher price:

Premium outbound call dialer

In addition to being equipped with progressive and preview dialers, premium centers use predictive and power outbound call dialers as well.

Predictive dialers are an excellent solution for centers that work with a large volume of outbound calls. These types of dialers are very efficient because they only connect agents with calls when the phone gets picked up. When the software is presented with a busy signal or a voicemail, it continues to search for an available agent until it finds one. 

Predictive dialers also use advanced algorithms to predict when the next call might happen thanks to metrics such as the average duration of calls and the average number of customers in the queue.

Alternatively, a power outbound call dialer operates by automatically dialing customer numbers for agents when they prompt the system to make the next call. As you can tell, this is not as fast as predictive or progressive dialing, but it gives agents ample time to prepare all the necessary information before calling so that they can provide a higher quality of service to customers. 

Generally speaking, power dialers aren’t capable of bypassing busy signals, basic voicemails, or advanced voicemail setups.

Interactive voice response

An interactive voice response (IVR) system is an automated phone system that leverages pre-recorded messages with a dual-tone multi-frequency (DMTF) user interface to answer customer queries without the need for a live agent. Newer IVRs may use some combination of AI-generated text-to-speech read by an AI voice. 

If the IVR system can’t offer the correct solutions that callers are looking for, the existing menu can escalate the inquiry to the appropriate department for a better, more detailed approach to the problem.

Real-time monitoring

In premium contact center solutions, real-time monitoring is a collection of tools and features that allow supervisors to monitor, track, and give advice to their employees during a call between agents and customers. The benefits of using a real-time monitoring system include:

  • Improving your company’s overall performance
  • Increasing customer satisfaction with your service
  • Facilitate better agent and workflow effectiveness

Recap

Premium contact center capabilities offer a competitive edge to companies while also advancing their automation efforts across several different industries, including education, finance, customer service, and healthcare. 

In a nutshell, extra features like premium call dialing, interactive voice response, and real-time monitoring lead to a more expensive, but still cost-effective solution that can reduce wait times, increase first-contact resolutions, and protect customer privacy.

Features of a standard contact center and features of a premium contact center listed in a graphic.

Contact Center Deployment

Modern contact centers are built to be efficient, agile, and reliable. They are the first line of defense between increasingly curious and proactive customers and talented agents who are trying to solve complex inquiries on behalf of your business.

Contact center deployment solutions come in a few different forms, some of them requiring more responsibility on the buyer side, others requiring extensive in-house IT equipment and personnel to maintain.

Hosted contact center

Pros: More cost-effective than on-premises centers, has remote work capabilities, can be AI-powered, offers granular analytics, integrates quickly and easily, is more flexible than on-premises centers

Cons: Challenging to maintain compared to CPaaS centers, some vendors selling hosted contact center solutions can be unreliable, might cost more than a CPaaS integration depending on the vendor

A hosted contact center is a modern customer service solution that is hosted on the cloud or at a third-party vendor’s physical location as opposed to being integrated on your company’s premises. 

Hosted contact centers are often referred to as cloud-based or virtual contact centers, but this is a mistake. While it’s true that the infrastructure of hosted contact centers is housed externally at a third-party vendor’s data center or in the cloud, hosted contact centers may or may not be entirely cloud-based. In any case, hosted contact centers are still viable alternatives to on-premises contact system integrations. 

In terms of management, hosted centers usually don’t require your company to have developers on staff—unless you demand a special solution outside of a vendor’s pre-established offers. 

This makes a great choice for small to medium-sized businesses with limited budgets since they are flexible, easily scalable, and very cost-efficient.

Finally, hosted contact center solutions are friendly to agents who prefer remote and distributed work environments, as long as the future employees have the proper equipment (usually a modern laptop), great communication skills, and a reliable internet connection.

CPaaS contact center

Pros: Customizable and highly scalable, compatible with a wide array of programming languages (like C++, Python, and JavaScript), very flexible, features omnichannel communications capabilities

Cons: Requires advanced coding knowledge for full integration, combining the CPaaS solution with too many APIs can result in slower response times, less secure than hosted and on-premises solutions

Communications Platform as a Service (CPaaS) is an exclusively cloud-based Software as a Service (SaaS) solution that bridges the gap between businesses and customers in a relatively straightforward way. CPaaS also lets developers add, improve, and work on new features related to workflow automation, customer service, and existing enterprise applications.

How does a CPaaS solution work?

CPaaS solutions use application program interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs) to integrate communication features to other applications. Established CPaaS, such as Twilo, have large databases of pre-built features that you can use to improve the functionality of your existing systems—or build new ones from the ground up. These include capabilities for things like video conferencing, IVR, and SMS for business.

In a way, communication APIs are the building blocks of CPaaS. In other words, the quality of any particular CPaaS solution is directly tied to the APIs the platform can offer.

In even more other words, you can think of CPaaS as the main hub that houses a wide range of different APIs, which are very similar to cloud-based software modules. These modules are then used by an external team or a company’s in-house developers to build a contact center from scratch—or to expand the communication features of an existing contact center beyond its initial capabilities.

CPaaS deployment with Twilio Flex

Twilio Flex is a specialized CPaaS solution for building personalized contact center funnels under the main Twilio brand, and setting it up can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months depending on the complexity of the project. 

Generally speaking, deploying a contact center solution with Twilio Flex can be realized in three major ways:

  • By using your in-house team of developers—Your company’s development team can build a custom contact center solution in a matter of two to three weeks (for simpler projects) or two-three months (for more complex deployments).
  • By working with a Twilio-approved partner—Twilio has an extensive list of partners that can help your business in planning, realizing, and maintaining your contact center as soon as you greenlight the project.
  • By working with Twilio Professional Services—This option gives you unlimited access to the comprehensive Twilio plugin database and full support to implement a seamless and streamlined contact center solution with Flex.

As a final note, using Twilio Flex costs $1 per active user hour (per-hour payment model) or $150 per single named user (per-user payment model), with the first 5,000 hours being completely free. 

Some alternatives to Twilio include Podium, Plivo, and Telnyx.

Contact for a person named Jenny Wilson with information on an upcoming consultation and previous medical history shown.

On-Premises contact center

Pros: Complete control over maintenance and system upgrades, highly reliable and secure if implemented correctly, doesn’t require monthly payments

Cons: Costly to implement, limited mobility, vulnerable to natural and man-made disasters

An on-premises contact center is a type of customer service solution where the business keeps all the necessary hardware, software, and staff (during working hours) at its physical location or site. In general, enterprises that use on-premises solutions have a specialized IT staff to install, configure, and maintain the system.

Setting up an on-premises contact center requires securing a license and then renting or buying all the proprietary hardware, software, or both from vendors like 3CX, Cisco Unified Contact Center Express, or UJET. Thereafter, businesses also need to secure physical space or real estate, implement the required infrastructure according to local and industry standards, and transform the premise into an operating workspace. Cumulatively, all of this can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Apart from setting one up, keeping an on-premises contact center running can also be very expensive, as maintenance fees can reach up to a quarter of the initial licensing cost while replacing or adding new capabilities like IVR or CRM can take weeks to implement in full.

In terms of employees, a typical on-premises contact center will require a team of IT professionals (including developers), trained communications agents, and a maintenance crew to keep the gears turning. Also, businesses have to comply with all local and regional privacy laws in order to keep customer data secure—otherwise, they face the risk of paying a hefty fine for negligence or an external breach. 

Given the complexity of on-premises operations, these solutions are often referred to as legacy contact centers. 

Graphic showing types of contact centers and whether they are cloud based, on-premise, or both.

Contact Center: Multichannel vs. Omnichannel Breakdown

The current state of customer-to-business communications channels has seen customers increase their reliance on digital interactions now more than ever.

Consequently, an increasing number of customers have found it convenient to reach out to businesses across multiple channels, making omnichannel and multichannel communication the new norm.

Omnichannel contact center

An omnichannel contact center is a communications hub programmed to handle a large number of inbound and outbound customer inquiries across every channel in which the contact center operates—all in one centralized hub. This includes phone, email, live chat, technical support tickets, social media, and SMS in a single, fully integrated platform.

Multichannel contact center

A multichannel contact center is also able to handle a large number of customer requests via multiple channels as an omnichannel center does. However, the main difference is that the communications channels in a multichannel center aren’t connected through a main hub, but rather act as separate lines of engagement with the customer.

Multichannel vs Omnichannel

Some customer service professionals might argue that omnichannel centers are more efficient than multichannel contact centers, and they may be right in many cases. Both types of centers allow multiple-channel communications. However, the omnichannel center vastly improves the experience—especially for agents—since all engagement channels are centralized in a single platform.

On the other hand, since the engagement channels of a multichannel center aren’t always synced, this makes it harder for agents to build a coherent report when a customer decides to engage with the business through several different access points at the same time.

Therefore, multichannel centers can often feel disjointed from the perspective of employees and customers alike.

Multichannel and omnichannel use cases

When deciding which channel would be the most applicable solution for your business, a good practice is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • How many customers are you expected to serve within the next three to six months?
  • What is your estimated budget, including funds for maintenance and employee salaries?
  • What are your requirements for future expansions?

You can draw several conclusions by taking some or all of these questions into consideration. 

For example, an omnichannel contact center may be more appropriate for a business that places a strong emphasis on outcompeting its peers in customer experience.

At the same time, a multichannel solution might work better with a company that handles high product volumes because an approach that prioritizes growing the brand’s online presence can lead to more success than hyper-fixating on having an impeccable customer experience.

Also, setting up an omnichannel center is often a more complex, more expensive, and higher maintenance solution. Businesses with tighter budgets may find that setting up a multichannel contact center is simply more practical. 

Last Links

If you’re interested in more communications goodies, take a look at our guide on the best VoIP phone services, and later check out our post on the state of interactive voice response systems as well. 

Finally, don’t forget to check our call routing resource to modernize your business and make your call routing as smooth as butter.

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