Insights Article | Switchboards to Circuit Boards: A Brief History of Contact Centers

Switchboards to Circuit Boards: A Brief History of Contact Centers

Contact Centers are constantly evolving. From humble beginnings as call centers in vast offices filled with agents and telephones, to the digitally connected, omnichannel ready, contact centers of the present.

To gain insight on the future of the Contact Center however, requires not just an understanding of their history, but their deep-rooted link with one of humanities own greatest evolutionary triumphs; communication.

The Birth of Communication Pre-1900’s

Over a million years ago, in the cradle of civilization that is now Ethiopia, evidence suggests the first words ever spoken were “Aa”, meaning “Hey.” Fast-forward to 1844 and Samuel Morse sends the first instantaneous long-distance communication in the form of a morse code message, from Washington D.C to Baltimore, Maryland.

Thirty-two years after, in 1876, the words “Mr. Watson – Come here – I want to see you,” are spoken by Alexander Graham Bell through the first telephone. This marked a significant milestone in the progress of communications and the initial step towards contact centers as we know them today.

Getting to the point where the telephone was invented may have taken hundreds of thousands of years, but what followed was rapid technological leaps. Soon after, in 1894, brought the invention of the telephone switchboard, removing the limitation of telephones as paired hardware.

The First Call Centers 1960 – 1990

In 1960 Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) technology was introduced allowing larger companies to filter incoming calls to agents.

At this time, the Private Automated Business Exchange (PABX) system was invented in the United Kingdom. This provided private businesses an automated telephone switching system and enabled the very first instance of call centers. The earliest recorded being part of Birmingham Press and Mail, situated in the United Kingdom, operating with a GEC PABX 4 ACD.

The 1970’s saw Interactive Voice Response (IVR) make an appearance in call centers. This allowed for a computer (automated system) to interact with callers using voice and DTMF tones inputted via a keypad.

Entering the 1980’s, call centers grew more computer-integrated. During this period, the outbound dialer was introduced and call centers, as a result received greater capacity for marketing and sales.

Birth of the Internet 1980’s

Founded in 1969, the Advanced Research Projects Network (ARPANET) sought to develop the ‘network of networks.’, This vast international effort would lead to the birth of the internet in 1983 after the adoption of TCP/IP.  However, this world-changing innovation wouldn’t become recognizable until April 30th, 1993, when Tim Berners-Lee released the source code for the first web browser and editor, creating the World Wide Web.

1983 saw the traditional term ‘call center’, replaced by ‘contact center’ as they adjusted to more multi-channel possibilities. During the same period, with database marketing pioneers Robert and Kate Kestnbaum at the helm, early CRM software was starting to develop.

The Start of the Digital Age 1990

The internet provided new frontiers and customer bases for contact centers during the 1990’s. Companies began constructing websites, bringing about the first iterations of one-to-one digital chat. Electronic mail (email) also exploded onto the scene, becoming an essential tool for businesses, with the first email sent from space occurring in 1991.

At this time, businesses also began to take advantage of online ads, despite metrics being rudimentary to non-existent at the time. This meant contact centers struggled to calculate volumes and fill orders.

The Mobile Age 2000 – 2010 

Social media and mobile expanded the digital frontier in the early 2000’s. In this new digital environment, customers could connect with brands via social media and SMS/mobile usage accelerated. 2007 saw the release of the first iPhone, igniting a smartphone revolution that would see mobiles become essential for both customers and businesses alike.

Rise of Omnichannel 2010 – Present

The first references of omnichannel were used in marketing in 2010. Differing from multi-channel, ‘omnichannel’ as a term embraced the concept of using all available digital communication  channels with a customer centric approach, whereas ‘multi-channel’ concerned itself with using more than one channel with a product or service approach.

Later advancements to omnichannel would see the rise of homogenised platforms. This eliminated the need for siloed setups, further optimising contact centers.

The Future of the Contact Center

The future of the Contact Center is bright. Already, through key innovations this century, we can catch a glimpse of what the future might hold for the Contact Center. One such example being the introduction of cloud-based software, which is turning the contact center from a physical workplace, to an entirely digital one.

Conclusively, no matter what the future brings, is it the intrinsic link with fundamental human-to-human connection, that will ensure the Contact Center perpetually evolves to remain at the cutting-edge of communication technologies.

About Kakapo Systems

Kakapo Systems are white label software providers developing intelligent end-user applications that enhance call and contact center offerings for the Cisco© BroadSoft© platform. Hosting an international client base, with research and development based across the United Kingdom and India. Kakapo Systems delivers best-in-class software solutions tailored to meet the requirements of small to medium businesses.

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