What Is a Contact Center? Definition, Features, and Uses

December 20, 2023 13 min read

Dominic Kent

Dominic Kent

what is a contact center

Customer-focused contact centers have come a long way from the outdated cost centers of the past.

Modern contact center solutions and compassionate customer service help solve customer issues faster, build better loyalty, and drive customer engagement and retention. Your customers are no longer stuck in a phone tree, and you no longer have to deal with bulky equipment and choppy call quality.

From AI and automation to predictive analytics and sentiment analysis, these support centers now provide deeper insights into customer needs and the tools to deliver personalized and better customer experience.

In this guide, we round up what a contact center is, the top features it provides, and how companies use it to scale.

What Is a Contact Center?

A contact center is a team of agents that handle all incoming and outgoing customer communications via phone calls, email, live chats, social media interactions, and other communication channels.

Whether you’re calling to rebook an airline ticket, inquire about a credit card charge, or troubleshoot why your new laptop won’t connect to wifi, you rely on support centers big and small to solve issues and provide service.

Contact centers integrate people, processes, and technology to offer efficient customer support across multiple communication channels. With robust analytics and enterprise-wide visibility, they create high-quality interactions that drive customer and business growth.

Contact center technology supports various business functions. These can be “call centers,” where staff (usually called agents) only handle calls. Or they can be multichannel contact centers where agents handle transactions from digital channels such as email, social media, and phone calls.

The term contact center can refer to a variety of different uses, so don’t get confused when you come across these.

Contact centers vs. call centers

Call centers focus on managing high-volume inbound voice calls.

On the other hand, contact centers take a much more expansive, omnichannel approach to customer interactions. They allow seamless integration across multiple channels customers prefer to use today, including phone, email, messaging, web chats, and social media. 

Contact centers offer a much more personalized and consistent customer experience than a call center.

6 Types of Contact Centers

Contact centers come in many shapes and sizes to suit the scale and scope of different business needs.

Here are the six key types:

Let’s look at them in detail.

Call Pop deeper insights

1) Inbound

An inbound contact center only handles inbound transactions. 

This might be an inbound call center, where contact center agents (aka call center agents) handle inbound calls only. In this case, staff in other departments will handle other digital channels. For example, your marketing team might handle social media inquiries. Or they might go unmanaged completely.

Within an inbound call center, you have call routing features like auto attendantsinteractive voice response (IVR), and call queues. More on these in the features section further down.

Some inbound support centers manage other digital channels like web chat, email, and social media.

An important part of inbound contact center management is that contact center managers can report on all the channels. Most call center software includes comprehensive reporting and analytics.

2) Outbound

An outbound call center is a team of agents dedicated to calling customers to start a new transaction. Unlike inbound call centers, these teams don’t typically handle incoming calls.

Companies use outbound call centers to grow sales, conduct surveys, collect market research, and proactively deliver customer service.

Agents have pre-populated contacts to call from a database and are assisted by automatic dialing technology called a dialer.

Typical use cases for outbound call centers include:

functions of an outbound call center

3) Multichannel

Multichannel refers to the ability of support agents to handle customer queries via a multitude of contact channels.

As well as handling inbound calls, multichannel centers include:

You still get access to call management features, like in a multichannel call center. Multichannel access gets included on top of this functionality.

The same applies to reporting on these various channels. You get all your call reports and analytics, as well as the same across other channels.

4) Omnichannel

Omnichannel refers to using a multichannel support center in a way that connects all the channels. This means that agents have a holistic view of the customer journey when a customer calls in to follow up on their email, web chat, SMS, or social media transaction.

Rather than having to find the agent that dealt with the previous transaction, agents can access the exact email, web chat, etc., and help the caller right away.

Not only does this improve first-call resolution (FCR), but it also makes for a better all-around customer experience. When both your customer and agent have unified communication experiences, everyone benefits.

Omnichannel vs. Multichannel Contact Center

5) On-premises

On-premises contact centers are, for the majority, a thing of the past. Thanks to advancements in cloud technology, the features available on-premises have been replicated and improved by cloud contact centers.

On-premises deployments still exist in niche use cases like financial institutions and data-sensitive industries. When legislation dictates that customer information must not leave a physical location, migration to cloud technology is difficult.

FunctionCloud contact centerOn-premises contact center
Setup Time1–4 weeks6–12 weeks
EquipmentOptionalMandatory
ScalabilityFeatures delivered on-demandRequires extensive hardware upgrades
IntegrationsNumerous API-based integrationsLimited middleware integrations
FlexibilityEmployees can work in the office and remotelyEmployees must work within an office
AnalyticsReal-time customer journey analyticsLimited to agent dispositions
PricingApprox. $100 per agent per month that grows with youApprox. $75,000 upfront per agent, plus software licenses, trunks, and maintenance
ReliabilityRedundant upstream carriers monitored 24/7Less susceptible to jitter over the Internet

6) Virtual/cloud

virtual contact center, otherwise known as a cloud contact center, refers to software deployed via the internet.

There is no need for a physical installation in your office. Agents can access a virtual desktop interface via software and log in using a username and password.

Choosing from these types can look daunting at first. But figuring out what you need is much easier when you dive into your specific use case.

Benefits of a Contact Center

Improved customer service

Contact centers allow for omnichannel support, shorter response times, personalized interactions, proactive outreach, and faster complaint resolution. By prioritizing the customer experience, they drive increased satisfaction, loyalty, and referrals.

Operational efficiency

Sophisticated routing tools distribute high volumes of inquiries across the right channels and available agents. This increases productivity, first-call resolution, process consistency, and the capacity to handle more interactions without expanding headcount.

Valuable data and insights

With comprehensive integration of CRM and other data sources, businesses gain holistic customer intelligence to understand customer expectations, behaviors, and preferences. Predictive analytics and interactive feedback also fuel strategic decision-making.

Enhanced sales and revenue

Many contact centers have dedicated sales teams and outbound representatives to drive lead generation, cross-selling/upselling, appointment setting, and higher deal closing rates. Their efforts directly impact top-line revenue gains.

Cost savings

Consolidating customer interactions allows businesses to use economies of scale and newer technologies to reduce overhead. Outsourced and offshore models provide additional budget flexibility. Investments in automation and self-service also contain long-term costs.

Key Contact Center Use Cases

Proactive customer service

By providing your customers with a logical way to contact you, rather than phoning and getting through to random staff, their queries get answered faster and by the right people.

One example of proactivity in contact centers is auto attendants, which provide automated options for callers to choose from. 

For example, “press one for sales or press two for support” immediately sends customers into the correct queue for a team that can handle their query. 

Here, you can configure logic as simply or complex as you deem necessary. Some businesses opt to provide information, like opening hours or website details, upfront so customers don’t need to queue for an agent.

The same applies across other channels too. 

Omnichannel Contact Center Dashboard

👉 If your business sounds like this use case, consider an omnichannel contact center.

Outbound sales and lead generation

Instead of dialing each phone number, getting the occasional wrong one, and losing time due to inefficiencies, an outbound dialer can pull contacts from your database and automatically call each number when an agent is free.

If there is no answer, contacts get added back into the queue. If the caller doesn’t wish to be called again, the agent can choose “Do not call.”

Success can be viewed thanks to the use of sales analytics, usually included in outbound dialer technologies.

👉 Consider an outbound call center if your business sounds like this use case.

AI-powered self-service (Artificial Intelligence)

Making a payment no longer needs human intervention. Instead, when a customer needs to pay a bill, they call you, choose “make a payment,” and get directed to a self-service payment line.

Secure and automatic collection of credit card payments is possible thanks to contact center solutions that comply with PCI-DSS standards. Customers can simply enter their card information using their dial pad and make a payment. If they need help, they can opt out of the self-service call and get connected to a live agent.

Other use cases, like knowledge bases, provide your customers with answers to FAQs. Instead of queuing to speak to an agent, you can redirect customers to a comprehensive bank of helpful content.

When human intervention is needed, customers can escape the chatbot and get connected for non-AI help.

👉 Use an automated contact center if your business handles transactions and payments regularly.

IT Helpdesk

Whether internal or external, a support center license is often used to facilitate helpdesks.

Here, IT managers can manage their incoming tickets while providing a proactive experience to colleagues reporting issues.

Mimicking the inbound call experience of a customer contact center, IT can optimize the experience. After all, if you’re looking after your clients, why wouldn’t you look after your employees?

👉 Look into an enterprise telephony system if your business needs to streamline IT requests.

Contact Center Technology & Features

We’ve touched on the basics a little. Let’s dive into 10 high-quality contact center features that can really transform your customer care or sales operation.

1) CRM integration

Integrating your contact and customer relationship management (CRM) software is a no-brainer. 

When you receive a call from a customer, you need to know who it is—not just the company they’re calling from, but their recent and historical activity.

When you empower your agents with information, you set them up to provide the best possible customer experience.

Nextiva Call Pop displays useful information on the screen about incoming calls.

Integrate Your Apps: See Which Ones Integrate With Nextiva

2) Inbound call routing

Call routing directs inbound phone calls to any person or team in real time, given a set of rules. Call routing rules can be as simple or as powerful as you want. 

You can choose round robin-routing, which rings different agents in a circle. Or you could choose to provide the next call to the person who’s answered the fewest phone calls this morning.

3) Advanced call routing (ACD)

For more advanced capabilities, you can allow customers to say why they are calling and route them to the most qualified agent.

This allows you to add more context to the call and be even more specific with your agent routing. 

With this conversational AI approach, you can save customers’ time holding for the wrong person and queuing for long periods.

Advanced call routing knows whether there’s a long queue—and whether calls to that queue are usually long—so it offers a callback when a specialized agent becomes available.

Screenshot of changing call flows in Nextiva

In some cases, like booking appointments and making payments, there’s often no need for a human whatsoever.

4) Website chat

Nobody likes waiting on the phone. This is where chatbots come into play.

They can be resourceful when well-executed. New data from Gartner suggests consumers are less enthusiastic about bringing their customer service concerns to a website chatbot.

But it’s not all bad, either.

Live chat is an excellent way to quickly provide information to visitors without the burden of calling in, navigating their IVR phone system, and maybe reaching someone in less than five minutes. Answering a prospect’s questions accurately and quickly is a worthwhile business investment.

Website Chat Example - Nextiva

5) Social media channels

Like your live chat on your website, you can use almost any social media channel to manage customer inquiries. 

Platforms like Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Facebook are commonplace in businesses. 

If a customer is on your social media and wants to reach out, offering a way to do so without leaving that channel is a win-win for both the customer and the business.

social media channels

If customers can immediately contact you, there’s little friction and minimal wait time.

6) Knowledge base integration

The best customer experience is the most integrated. There’s no need to keep everything in different places. That just keeps your customers searching.

When customers have access to everything they need without the need to call and ask for it, they become more autonomous and self-sufficient.

knowledge base nextiva

Check out Nextiva’s knowledge base as a prime example. You can access support materials for all products, chat with an agent, or submit a ticket, all from the same place.

7) Workforce management

“Failing To Prepare Is Preparing To Fail” —Benjamin Franklin

The best-performing support centers embrace workforce management (WFM) for their workflows.

In high-demanding and ever-changing environments, it’s important to be accurate with staffing for each area.

WFM is forecasting software that uses data to suggest how many agents are needed to manage customer inquiries at certain times of the day or season.

Staff reallocations must be based on data if your business suffers a major outage. The more data in your WFM software, the more accurate your forecasting is.

8) Customer experience analytics

When a customer contacts you, it pays to be aware of their entire journey. 

Rather than only knowing their most recent call was three hours ago, viewing their hour-long web chat, email message, and public social media rant adds a lot of context to the next conversation.

Analytics tracking the customer experience also flags this scenario as happening, so it doesn’t have to get to this situation anyway.

When looking at historical customer data, you can see where things went wrong in your process and put in place changes where necessary.

customer experience analytics

9) Conversational analytics

Customer journey analytics are those applied to the entire call, while conversational analytics are those applied to specific conversations.

These customer analytics can be over the phone or via written channels like email, web chat, and social media.

Reflect on trigger words, emotional responses, and raised voices in a conversation. These all show that something happening in the call could lead to a different outcome.

10) Quality monitoring

If you’re not monitoring the quality of your contact center, you’re never going to improve.

Quality monitoring is the process of checking in on agents’ calls or transactions to ensure they’re doing a good job.

This might be the role of a specialized or senior agent or supervisor. Whoever is tasked with quality monitoring will be aided by the use of quality monitoring software, usually included within a modern contact center package.

Example of call center QA analyzing call recordings with AI.

Here, you can select flagged calls or choose randomly, then evaluate agent performance on that call.

As a result of consistent quality monitoring, you can learn about repeat issues, compile training sessions, and escalate agent or customer issues that need intervention from senior staff.

Developing a Contact Center Strategy

The right contact center for you may differ from someone else’s.

Just because a manufacturing firm uses one vendor for their inbound call center doesn’t mean a technical support function must use the same one.

contact center platform nextiva

Consider these five key areas when choosing your contact center:

Then there’s the overriding factor: can you afford it? 

A more effective perspective is to ask yourself: is there a clear return on my investment? If the answer is yes, move on to onboarding and support options.

If you run a 24/7 support function, does your contact center provider mirror these hours? If you need help setting up 200 agents, can your provider help with this?

These are all crucial factors when considering which provider to choose.

Related: The Leader’s Guide to Call Center Strategy

Futureproof Your Contact Center

When looking into a contact center for the first time or renewing your existing one, make sure every element is right for now but as well-prepared as possible for the future.

Think about features you will use immediately versus features you will need in the future.

For example, you might not need web chat or social media today. But if you know your customers try to send you messages via other mediums, it makes sense to factor this into your plan.

The same applies to AI and automation features that may seem like too much of a step into the future.

voip phone service

That’s where selecting a flexible vendor with proven deployments of traditional and futuristic support centers pays dividends.

Nextiva was a lifeline to a benefits administrator that was frustrated with its on-prem call center. The company switched to a cloud-based contact center without doing all the work — Nextiva did.

The importance of providing for the now while planning for the future is of the utmost importance. And that’s recognized throughout the Nextiva client base.

Nextiva is the 2022 winner of G2’s Best Software Award, an award voted for by users, and is recognized by Gartner, the leading provider of research and consulting services for businesses in the IT sector, as being rated the best in the world.

🙌 Case Study: How a FinTech Company Scaled Growth With a Contact Cente

Contact Center FAQs

How does a contact center improve the customer experience?

A contact center improves the customer experience by providing a single pane of glass experience for agents to handle inbound customer interactions.

Customers communicate via their channel of choice and experience connected, frictionless customer relationships

What are the core functions of a contact center?

Support
Sales
Market research
Customer service

What technologies should I look for in a contact center?

Omnichannel: the ability to service customers via voice, SMS, email, web chat, and social media.
AI and automation: self-service options to make a customer’s interaction with your business easier.
Cloud deployment: a flexible rollout method that doesn’t need physical installation.
Reporting and analytics: graphs, predictions, and trends that trigger business decisions.
Advanced call routing: management of inbound calls for efficient customer resolutions.

What metrics determine contact center success?

Some of the key call center metrics are:
– Net Promoter Score® (NPS®)
– Customer Satisfaction (CSAT)
– First Response Time (FRT)
– First Contact Resolution (FCR)
– Call volume
– Customer Effort Score (CES)
– Customer Retention Rate (CRR)
– Customer Churn Rate (CCR)

Check out more call center metrics here.

Dominic Kent

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dominic Kent

Dominic Kent is a content marketer specializing in unified communications and contact centers. After 10 years of managing installations, he founded UC Marketing to bridge the gap between service providers and customers. He spends half of his time building content marketing programs and the rest writing on the beach with his dogs.

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