CONTACT centres have always played a significant role in business with their ability to influence the relationship between an enterprise and its customers.

Today, the ability of the customer service officer to resolve a problem or offer a satisfactory solution when a customer calls for the first time (known as resolution at first contact) is essential in maintaining service excellence.

Industry benchmark research studies have found that 92 per cent of consumers form an opinion about a company's image through their interaction with the contact centre, and 62 percent would stop using a company's goods or services if they had a bad experience.

Contact centres have continuously evolved and adapted to meet the changing needs of the customer. Today, they are no longer driven just by efficiency. They are more about delivering effective customer service, and there is a significant difference between the two.

While efficiency focuses on metrics such as the length of time on calls, abandon rates and agent rest breaks, effectiveness measures key business metrics such as customer loyalty, retention, service levels and even staff retention rates.

Industry research has found that 77 per cent of businesses believe their contact centre is critical to the overall success of their business, and that there is a very high correlation between customer satisfaction levels and resolution at first contact.

This in turn translates into benefits in the form of cost savings to the enterprise as less time is spent on customer support.

Resolution at first contact is essential for contact centres to maintain as well as increase customer loyalty, especially as the customer base becomes more tech-savvy, knowledgeable, and increasingly expects speedy yet well-informed service, anytime, anywhere.

As communication technologies such as the telephone, the Internet, e-mail and SMS become more prevalent, contact centres need to be able to leverage on these technologies to best serve their customers.

With unified communications, agents will be able to receive queries from these usually separate media contact points and have them presented in an integrated format on their computer screen.

This way, all enquiries of a specific nature can be routed to specialised agents with the appropriate multimedia tools and knowledge, reducing response times, increasing resolution at first contact and increasing agent productivity as well.

Instant messaging is a popular form of communication that analyst house Gartner has predicted will be in use by most companies by the end of the decade as a common business-to-business tool.

It is undoubtedly already a popular social tool for the younger generation. Although instant messaging is not yet a common feature deployed by contact centres, it is another example of a contact media that all contact centres should look to using as a customer access point in the near future.

In addition to multimedia communication, contact centres are also turning their focus towards outbound calls. Inbound-based contact centres are increasingly embracing cross-sell and up-sell activities, and many service agents now carry sales quotas, so the rate of outbound calls made by traditionally customer service oriented contact centres is steadily approaching that of inbound calls.

Virtualisation of contact centres is yet another evolutionary trend that is shaping the development and operations of customer service operations.

As long as staff have access to an Internet connection, they can work whenever and wherever they wish. The flexibility this brings to contact centre staff and their work-life balance is unprecedented.

Contact centre managers are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain good staff, particularly in cities where competition for skilled staff is high.

The ability to offer flexible options to mature workers returning to the labour market can give a contact centre an edge over its competitors.

A customer service agent with a good work-life balance and flexible employment options would tend to be more satisfied with his job - and this in turn motivates him to deliver better customer service.

Changes in technology have brought around changes in customer behaviours and expectations, as well as how contact centres operate.

As newer devices and multimedia channels are used, customers' expectations regarding access, connectivity and customer service will continue to increase.

In the near future, more contact centres are likely to be upgraded with new technology solutions aimed at delivering effective customer service and driving loyalty.

In addition, the role of the traditional contact centre will evolve to incorporate more sales opportunities while pursuing resolution at first contact as a key priority.