The terms call center and contact center are often used interchangeably, and while they’re both hubs for customer service, they aren’t exactly the same thing. Call centers focus solely on phone communications, while modern contact centers provide support through a variety of channels, including phone, email, live chat, self-service knowledge articles, and chatbots. Let’s dig into the differences between a contact center vs. call center, so you can decide the best customer service approach for your business.
Customers today have high expectations for the companies they do business with. We found that 94% of customers say a positive customer service experience makes them more likely to make a purchase again. Yet, only 13% of customers say they can get their issues solved with little effort.
What does a positive customer experience look like? It’s meeting customers where they are, using the communication methods and technology they prefer, and providing an array of service options — rather than limiting service to only over the phone. So as customer preferences evolve with technology, more call centers are transforming into contact centers.
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What is a call center?
A call center is a remote or on-premises customer service group that provides customer service over the phone. Call centers can employ anywhere from a few agents for small to midsize businesses to hundreds for large corporations.
Each agent typically handles several phone calls per day to help with customer issues ranging from billing inquiries to complex technical problems. Some call centers use customer relationship management (CRM) software to resolve issues faster and provide agents with customer data, but many call centers are still working to adopt this technology.
What is a contact center?
A contact center is a customer service hub that provides a variety of communication channels, including phone, email, social media, chat, SMS and messaging, video conferencing, screen sharing, and more. Agents typically have the expertise to work across all of these channels or a specialized subset depending on their team structure.
A contact center also uses CRM technology to empower agents to help customers, accelerate response times, and provide personalized interactions and offers.
Customer communication preferences vary widely. Someone who is on the go might dial a customer service line, while someone at their desk might reach out to an agent via live chat.
When contact centers route requests from multiple channels to service agents based on their availability and skillset, service agents are able to multitask and increase their efficiency.
One key metric for contact center success is reducing manual work for agents. Agents are tasked with things like case notes, data transfers, and call routing, which can reduce the speed and efficiency of the service they provide.
Contact centers use automation and artificial intelligence (AI) to reduce these tasks from their agent’s workload so they can focus on solving customer problems and providing a seamless service experience. These technologies can do things like automatically transcribe phone calls, suggest live chat responses, or find help articles for agents to share with customers.
Generative AI is making efficiency even easier. When applied to service, generative AI can take customer data, such as a customer query or account information, and create something new out of it. Some examples of these powerful use cases include auto-generating knowledge articles based on case resolution data, providing personalized responses to live chat questions, and pulling real-time data to help agents solve customer problems quickly.
Contact center vs. call center: Which is better?
Call centers have a singular focus — providing quality service over the phone. Contact centers take an omni-channel approach that many consumers find more convenient (no more waiting on the phone line, getting serenaded by elevator music).
Your customers just want to get their issues resolved as quickly as possible. At the end of the day, you need to meet them where they are via their preferred channels of communication, which will vary depending on the type of service or product you offer.
With a contact center, you can reach customers on these channels:
- Social media
- Online forms
- Knowledge bases
- Customer self-service portals
- Online chat/live support
- Messenger apps
- Mobile apps
- Communities and discussion forums
- Video support
Your industry will greatly influence the customer service channels your company provides. Are you a utility company? Then self-service, SMS, and phone are critical for your contact center. How about an ecommerce retailer? Your customers are already shopping online – being able to reach you via web or mobile chat is likely important to them.
Despite the expansion and acceptance of digital channels and the range of customer preferences, 81% of service professionals say the phone is a preferred channel for complex issues, so even digital contact centers have to keep the phone lines open.
Personalized customer service
One major difference between a call center and a contact center is the use of customer data and CRM technology to provide personalized customer service.
When the phone is the only option to get in contact with a business, the interactions tend to be simple — like resetting an account password or asking a question — and less frequent with the same customer. And given that CRM technology is only used by some call centers, agents may have limited information about a customer and their preferences.
Contact centers tend to handle more complex tasks. The simpler customer issues are usually solved via low-touch channels (think self service articles, chatbots, SMS, or live chat), while more complex issues are handled over the phone.
A service agent in a contact center uses the company’s CRM instance to reference past interactions, see which products or package the customer currently has, and provide personalized up- or cross-selling options. This is made possible with integration across sales, service, marketing, and commerce data all funneling through a single CRM platform.
Your choice of contact center vs. call center will also come down to your agents’ skillsets and the budget and resources available for agent training.
Given that contact center agents use more digital and asynchronous channels than call centers, they need to be able to multitask and must be comfortable with digital technology. Call center agents, on the other hand, need to think quickly and remain calm to de-escalate situations in real-time.
Customer service agents need to have the right mixture of soft and hard skills to meet customer expectations. When it comes to soft skills, they need to be proficient communicators and listeners, be good critical thinkers and problem solvers, and be able to resolve conflict in tense situations. When it comes to hard skills, they need to know how to use dashboards, service tools, consoles, automation tools, and access to customer data to do their job well and make more personalized recommendations to customers in real time.
Choosing between a call center vs. contact center strategy
Call centers are more straightforward to operate, with high operating costs coming from headcount and phone systems or software. Their simplicity can be attractive for businesses that want to avoid overcomplicating their customer service strategy, especially if they have a small, known customer base who prefers to get service over the phone.
In contrast, contact centers personalize the customer experience by providing various service channels based on customer preferences. This makes it so easier issues are solved asynchronously and more complex issues are solved over the phone. This cost-effective approach is what we call “Shift to Scale.”
While contact centers generally have higher ongoing costs from software licenses, your customers have a better service experience when they get to choose how they interact with your business. This means your customers feel satisfied or even delighted after a service interaction, which will lead to a higher CSAT score, increased customer loyalty, and result in more revenue from repeat and renewed customers.
Call center vs. contact center strategy
If you’re unsure of which customer service strategy is right for you, ask yourself the following questions:
- How big is the customer base you service?
- A: We’ll service a small, niche demographic
- B: We’ll have a large, diverse customer base
- How hard will these issues be to solve for your customers?
- A: Mostly easy-to-solve issues
- B: The problems will vary in complexity
- How important is it for your business to provide personalized customer service?
- A: Personalized service is not a priority for my business
- B: Personalized service is a priority for my business
- How important is it for your business to offer multiple support channels?
- A: Having multiple support channels is not very important to my business
- B: Having multiple support channels is important to my business
- Does your business have a limited service budget or can it support multiple software licenses and technology?
- A: My business has a limited budget for customer service
- B: My business has budget to support multiple software licenses and technologies
If you answered mostly with A’s, then a call center strategy may be the best option for your business. If you answered with mostly B’s, then a contact center is the best strategy for you.
Customer service is the business of making sure your customers stay happy and loyal. Call centers are still relevant in certain contexts, but the world is changing — make sure your customer service models change with it.
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Jess Munday, Salesforce’s former Content Marketing Writer contributed reporting and writing to this piece.