CRM and contact center are on a collision course

CRM and contact center—two industries that have, for the most part, co-existed on the desktop of the contact center agent—are headed for a mashup.

CRM and contact center are on a collision course
NASA via Wikimedia (Public Domain)

The arcs of two industries, customer relationship management (CRM) and contact center, are about to entangle. More descriptively, these two industries are on a collision course. Consequences include exciting new innovations in customer experience and dramatic market-wide change.

Changing times

Propelled in an age of big data and artificial intelligence (AI), CRM is entering the industry’s platinum age. At the same time, contact center is facing disruption as newer communications protocols come to broader acceptance, old guard companies face transitions, and ways of deploying applications—cloud for one—accelerate in adoption.  

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The two industries have existed in the same universe, that of the key ways that customers interact with an enterprise, but for the most part it's as if they have occupied different dimensions. As CRM matured, it was embraced by marketing, sales and service delivery. CRM and contact center would occasionally interact, such as when telephony call controls were added to a CRM screen or when a service call turned into an upselling opportunity. However, true synergies have seldom really gelled.

Origins of contact center and CRM

The arc of the contact center industry originated in the call center where at first only telephone calls were (are still today for many) managed. With the advent of computer telephony integration (CTI), where meta data from incoming telephone calls is used to trigger transactions in desktop applications, the evolution began. 

The call center became the contact center as the idea to have call center agents manage multiple ways to communicate with customers, such email and web chat, began to be introduced as “channels” into desktop tools. The “multi-channel” contact center is typical for the biggest and most sophisticated of centers. Multi-channel is less common for centers where high transaction volumes remain the key driver.

Meanwhile, as database technologies proliferated and the sources of information about customers accumulated, the concept of CRM emerged. Companies found themselves awash in information about customers, their interests, buying preferences, transactional history, service history and other elements of context. Organizations sought ways to put this information into actions. Innovation occurred not only in marketing and other aspects of the enterprise organization as the CRM tool spread. 

By the mid-1990s three other industries were taking advantage of the information explosion attacking other parts of the enterprise value chain. One is enterprise resource planning (ERP), which is aimed at increasing the efficiency of processes involved in sourcing, production and logistics. The others are sales force automation and customer service and support (CSS). I mention these because they play into a consolidation of functions important to the impending CRM/contact center collision.

It’s too much to get into here, but if you are interested, the Graduate School of Business Stanford University has an interesting case study that tells part of the story of how some vendors consolidated many of these functions into CRM. Follow this link to download a free copy of the paper.

What's happening today

Fast forward to today, and we have a CRM industry that has benefitted from a series of company and technology consolidations and groundbreaking new entrants. The value propositions offered by companies, large and small, span from marketing and sales force automation, to ERP, to CSS, big data analytics, machine learning, AI and others. The spectrum of options available touch enterprise organizations from top to toes. The one function that is notably absent from the list, with relatively few exceptions, remains the contact center.  

There are instances where the two industries have intersected. The CRM/CTI integration mentioned above is one. The two industries also share a deep use of analytics, comprehensive management reporting systems and extensive techniques for resource matching. By and large, though—while applications might co-reside on the plane of desktop—the technologies used in the contact center have remained segregated from CRM. This is changing.

In a recent conversation, Shai Berger, co-founder and CEO of Fonolo, made the point that “the mystique” of real-time communications is fading. Businesses that once protected the voice call as sacrosanct are becoming more willing to let the borders fall.  

CRM is coming to the contact center

The result of all this is that CRM is coming for the contact center. A harbinger is the recently announced alliance between Cisco and Salesforce. More will come, as it only makes sense that there be a single unified platform for managing how a customer experiences an organization—ranging from marketing, to sales, to services, to the contact center, and across the entire customer relationship.


In a past life, I interviewed the two inventors of CTI, Pat Shafer and Greg Borton, talking about the technology’s origins. You may listen to a podcast of that conversation at the following link:

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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