Contact center vs. call center: What’s the difference?

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A contact center agent talking to one of the clients

Customers expect companies to be on their preferred communication channel. And guess what? That channel isn’t always the phone. In fact, a lot of customers don’t have the patience to go through the entire  phone calling process. They want nothing less than a quick and effective response—something that may be easier to get through digital channels.

For this reason, contact centers emerged and have quickly become a necessity for businesses.

A contact center agent in the middle of a call

So, what is a contact center?

A contact center is a department or facility that manages a company’s inbound and outbound customer communications. Apart from phone calls, it covers interactions via text, email, live chat, and social media.

There are two major types of contact center:

  • On-premise - All the infrastructure needed to operate are located within the office premises
  • Cloud-based - All the infrastructure needed to operate are located in the cloud (we’ll be focusing on cloud-based contact centers)

Power of the cloud (Let’s discuss cloud computing for a moment)

Cloud computing is the delivery of computing services over the internet. That includes software, artificial intelligence, and analytics—technologies contact centers use to personalize customer experiences and improve customer engagement. (You’ll learn more about them as we go along).

The term “contact center” is often used interchangeably with another term: “call center.” Let’s make a clear distinction between them.

What is the difference between a call center and a contact center?

A call center handles only voice calls, whereas a contact center is omnichannel. To put it more simply, the power of contact centers goes beyond just providing customer service over the phone.

When you realize that customers now demand service through multiple channels, you can think of contact centers as the next step in the evolution of the call center. This digital transformation has been fundamental in building customer relationships in the age of digital media.

What is a customer service center?

A customer service center is really just a general term for call centers and contact centers. (Agents are called customer service representatives in some offices, right?)

You might also hear phrases like customer support center, customer care center, consumer help desk, etc. Don’t be confused—all these terms refer to the same thing. Companies can even coin their own term for branding purposes!

As we have learned, the differences between call centers and contact centers mainly lie in the communication channels they support. Let’s see how this works in practice.

Contact center vs. call center: Customer empowerment

  1. Contact centers and call centers use an interactive voice response (IVR), an automation tool that allows humans to interact with a computer-operated phone system through voice prompts or keypad entries. Designed right, an IVR system should make it easy for customers to reach live agents or help them resolve issues on their own.

  2. Today’s IVR for sales and customer support also uses computer telephony integration (CTI), the technology that links your phone system to the business apps you’re using. This allows agents to perform phone functions (e.g. answering calls, ending calls, putting calls on hold) from software on their desktop using on-screen controls.

  3. In addition to the IVR, self-service can also come in the form of two-way texting and chatbots, both of which are only possible with contact centers.

  4. Two-way texting - Companies can use two-way texting to deliver omnichannel support. Here, the customer sends a text message to a short code (e.g. replying STOP to stop receiving updates) and receives a reply (e.g. "You have successfully been unsubscribed to messages from this number").
  5. Chatbots - A chatbot is artificial intelligence (AI) software that simulates human conversations through instant messaging. It uses certain forms of speech recognition technologies to identify and respond to human speech. This way, customers would feel as if they’re talking to a live agent.

Contact center vs. call center: Agent empowerment

  1. It isn’t uncommon for agents to find themselves at the receiving end of rude comments from irate customers. There is no better way to counter this than to deliver five-star customer experience every single time they contact your company. Here are some of the key features that make it possible:

  2. With workforce management tools, contact center managers can not only track agent behavior but also streamline the hiring process to make sure agent positions are filled by the most driven and qualified talents.
  3. Self-service tools like IVRs and chatbots ensure that agents have fewer basic questions to address and can therefore focus their attention on more critical issues.
  4. Reputable cloud contact center platforms like RingCentral integrate well with business apps you're already using, including customer relationship management (CRM) software. This gives agents the information they need to efficiently handle customer interactions.
  5. Ultimately, the experience is more enjoyable when you let customers interact with you on their preferred channel. There’s less chance of them experiencing a long waiting time and your agents are more likely to provide first contact resolution. When customers are satisfied, your agents are happy.

Contact center vs. call center: Agent-customer interaction

Contact center solutions are typically loaded with sophisticated features designed to bring customer experiences to new heights. For example, using advanced analytics and supervisor tools, a contact center manager can assign the right agents to customer concerns based on expertise. This automatic call distribution (ACD) method is called skills-based routing.

To the uninitiated, an automatic call distributor is a telephony feature that answers and routes incoming contacts to a specific department, agent, or IVR menu based on preset rules.

Interface showing a roster of contact center agent

With customer data and an overview of the customer journey, agents will have the information they need to effectively handle outbound and inbound calls—and in the case of contact centers, texts, emails, live chats, and social media messages. Sure, some of the previously-mentioned capabilities may be possible in a call center, but they don’t always work well in practice.

Let’s say a call center agent is preparing to make an outbound call. They may have the necessary customer contact details and other information at their disposal, but the thing is, people aren’t always at home. The agent can dial the customer’s mobile number, but there’s no guarantee that it will be answered. Fact is, many people are cautious when it comes to answering unfamiliar numbers.

With a contact center, customers can reach your company using their laptop or mobile phone and agents can respond in real time, no matter the channel—talk about an improved customer experience.

A customer using her mobile phone to reach the contact center agent.

Contact center vs. call center: Data gathering

Customers share personal information every time they contact your business. They could talk about their product preferences and hint some buying behavior. With call center software, agents can keep track of all this valuable information—but let’s not forget that there are other channels, and customers may engage differently on each of them.

Multiple channels mean more data. Contact center software compiles all of them into a single profile, allowing agents to tailor the experience to the customer they’re speaking with. More often than not, the result is omnichannel customer satisfaction.

Contact center vs. call center: Common complaints and mitigation

Traditional call centers are no strangers to complaints. But customers can rest assured that the best companies are doing everything in their power to address the issues, which include:

  • Long wait times - Customer satisfaction decreases as waiting time increases—that’s a fact. Here are some of the things you can do to reduce long wait times for both call centers and contact centers:
    • Improve your IVR system design
    • Make sure your agents have access to all the customer data they need
    • Use the callback tool
  • Language barrier - This is a common complaint against customer service centers (and contact center infrastructure) that are outsourced overseas. Customers want to talk to someone who speaks their natural language, and some of them might easily get annoyed at the first sign of a foreign tongue. A good workaround is to try virtual call centers or virtual contact centers.

    Going virtual means not having your entire contact or call center workforce based on one location. You have the power to hire remote agents from anywhere in the world. This puts you in the perfect position to get the most fluent agents while also saving on operational cost.
  • Unhelpful agents - People reach out to your company to have an issue resolved, and if they aren’t satisfied, they naturally get frustrated. The answer is skills-based routing. With such a custom call routing system, contacts from any channel will be routed to the agent who has the skills and experience to best handle the issue.

The above mentioned challenges can be mitigated when you get a top-tier contact center solution like the one offered by RingCentral. Apart from keeping abreast of current call center and contact center technologies, the company also happens to be the global leader in unified communications. Find out what this means for your business by contacting our sales team.

Use cases: What does a contact center do?

Some people think that contact centers are all about addressing product complaints and providing technical support. These use cases certainly form a huge part of what a contact center agent does, but they aren't everything. Contact centers also serve the following purposes and more:

  • Billing concerns - People may contact your company for anything that involves billing. For example, a customer makes a purchase and their bank statement shows a slightly different amount. If there are other customers that have experienced this, expect your call volumes to rise from a flood of inbound calls.
  • Sales calls and marketing offers - Outbound call centers can reach out to existing or potential customers with the intention of selling goods/services or inviting them to avail an ongoing promo. Some customers, however, may find this a little intrusive and would feel more comfortable getting contacted through other channels like email or social media.
  • Fundraising efforts - Nonprofits may reach out to communities when raising money for a cause. They can do it through any communication channel.
  • Surveys - Businesses usually conduct surveys to get the pulse of consumers. Again, this can be done on any communication channel and in fact should be easier and more efficient through digital options.
  • Supply chain and logistics - Companies use contact centers to provide visibility and transparency in their operations, from order placement to shipping.

With continuous advancements in contact center technology, we could expect more use cases to emerge. The future of contact centers is indeed looking good. But is it really what your business needs?

Call centers vs. contact centers: Which is better for your business?

A call center is, without question, great for businesses with a customer base that relies heavily on voice calls. The ability to get in-depth reports about sales calls, take international calls minus the roaming charges, and set up an efficient routing system are too good to pass up on.

That being said, we should remember (this can’t be stressed enough) that customers don’t always use the phone when contacting your customer service department. A lot of them are more comfortable with text, email, chat, or social media. Some may see the phone as a last resort.

This is what modern contact centers have come to address. As business organizations, you go where your customers go to deliver first-rate omnichannel customer support and ultimately boost your contact center performance.

Customers expect nothing less than the best service from brands they trust. How about taking RingCentral Contact Center for a spin and see how it can help you give what your customers (and agents) deserve?