Origins of Telecom: Call Center Tech Through the Years
Call Center can be awesome. Step into any modern call center and prepare to be amazed by technology. As with most telecommunications technology, the modern call center wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for the pioneering projects that came before. Here’s a brief look at some of the early innovations that have contributed to the rise of the call center.
• PBX systems — Early PBX (private branch exchange) systems serve as mini switchboards located in a business. PBX systems allow a single telephone to set to be used to answer multiple phone lines. With early and manual PBX system, as phone calls come in, regardless of which actual phone line they are on, an operator answers and greets the caller and then connects the call to the appropriate extension.
• Touch-tone dialing — The modern call center, with potentially hundreds of agents working at any given time, might not be possible without this innovation. Prior to touch tone dialing, you couldn’t simply press 1 for English, 2 for Spanish, or 0 to speak to an operator. You could not simply enter an extension. For all requests, you had to first speak to an operator who would then attempt to determine what you needed and then manually connect you to the appropriate person or department. Touch-tone dialing was introduced in 1963 but didn’t fully take off until the1980s.
• Toll-free telephone numbers — Around the same time in 1967, the 1-800 number arrived. AT&T was the sole provider of toll-free numbers until the mid-1980s when MCI and Sprint began offering them. Airlines, florists, financial institutions, and mail-order companies were among the early adopters. Today, businesses of all types and sizes use low-cost toll-free phone numbers and international toll-free numbers to receive phone calls from callers around the globe.
• Automatic call distributor (ACD) — Whether receiving incoming toll or toll-free calls, businesses receiving a high volume of phone calls needed a way to distribute those phone calls to available agents. Human operators could certainly do this using a PBX system, but not very efficiently. Imagine dozens of incoming phone calls all needing your immediate attention while agents idly sat at their stations waiting for you to connect the next call. The automatic call distributor computerized this process, automatically routing calls to the next available agent. PBX systems began incorporating ACD by the early 1970s.
• Interactive voice response (IVR) — One of the first uses for interactive voice response was for bank customers to retrieve bank balances via phone — without having to speak with a bank teller. While you could do this using a touch-tone phone, this wasn’t an option for those using rotary phones. Speech recognition technology enabled voice commands.
• Predictive dialers — In addition to all of the incoming call technologies that have transformed call centers and business telephone systems, predictive dialers arrived in the 1980s, ushering in the era of telemarketing. These computerized systems retrieve phone numbers from a database and dial them automatically. If a human answers the call, the dialer would then connect a live agent to the call. While telemarketing existed prior to predictive dialers, this technology dramatically improved efficiency. Agents no longer waste time dialing or getting busy signals, fax machines, or unanswered calls. Instead, they are fed a constant serving of live calls.
Call center technology has evolved, incoming and outgoing calls alike are often accompanied by detailed information that pops up on the agent’s screen, enabling the agent to know who they are speaking with, where they are located and other important details.
Today, call centers are often called “contact” centers because they no longer simply handle telephone calls. In fact, contact center agents using unified communications systems can interact with different customers using a variety of different communications channels like voice, chat, text, and social media. Meanwhile, chatbots and artificial intelligence are starting to emerge, serving many of the same functions as IVR, freeing agents to work on the more challenging customer service tasks.
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———. “A Comprehensive History of AI in the Call Center: From ACDs to Predictive Analytics and Beyond – CallMiner.” n.d. Accessed July 9, 2018b. https://callminer.com/blog/comprehensive-history-ai-call-center-acds-predictive-analytics-beyond/
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