Text: Ernst Kruize

Where a new field of study arises, the need to share knowledge and meet like-minded people grows. It’s thus not strange that customer contact professionals have united themselves in different member platforms during the last decennia. The degree of joining now stagnates for all initiatives, despite of further growth of the field of study. These more traditional ‘communities’ also have a future. That is, when certain conditions are being met. With the rise of call centres, about 25 years ago, a completely new field of study was born: customer contact. Amongst the growing number of professionals who worked in this young field, the need to meet with colleagues arose. It is not surprising that during the eighties and nineties of last century a few unions (often in the form of clubs) of organizations and individuals with comparable interests arose into being.

In most cases the emphasis within the member organizations was on the sharing of knowledge: how did you handle a specific challenge? What are your ‘best’ and ‘worst’ practices? Is my situation comparable with yours? Interviews in newsletters, presentations during a conference, looking behind the scenes during a site visit: for a long time these were the most important ingredients for a valuable membership. But also anno 2010 these traditional forms of knowledge exchange show to be key aspects of the membership of different clubs. By doing so they walk on thin ice.

The last decennia clubs have gotten ‘competition’ from specialized publishers. Organizations that don’t only publish professional journals and newsletters but have proven themselves as excellent organisers of events and exhibitions. Though not only by publishers and public interest organizations, but also by suppliers within the field of study. Events are often organized together as a result of which the distinguishing characteristics of an own event disappear almost entirely.

And then to think that the key target audience is an operational-minded group of managers or specialists: a group of professionals with limited time. People who cancel when there is a disturbance or escalation on the work floor. This is one of the reasons that the rise and popularity of several web 2.0 applications form a threat to the status of member organizations as a knowledge organization. Cases and numbers are shared via forums. Weblogs and networking websites have become internationally in only a short time span and they often have worldwide communities. They don’t let themselves be restricted by financial thresholds like paid membership and content that has limited access. You don’t have to leave your desk to have a world of knowledge within your reach. No more traffic jams when leaving a seminar, but driving onto the digital freeway in the evening!

Also in the digital era – and despite the competition of professional media – member organizations can still play a valuable role. This does need to go further than distributing a relative shallow business case or publishing a paper. The field of study ‘customer contact’ still lacks a scientific foundation. Marketing and sales are accepted scientific speciality fields, but this is not the case for customer contact. Herein lies a good job for public interest organizations, particularly in the area of making the value of customer contact more visible. A better insight will increase the acceptation of customer contact organizations and will lead to an increase of investment willingness.

And so we also touch upon another possible (and sensitive) accent in the service field, one that can provide certainty of existence for a member organization: image. Even though a lot of organization’s board members complain that the (negative) image of contact centres is a theme we preserve by talking about it (so it would be better not to talk about it), nobody can deny reality. The great popularity of the don’t-call-me-register, the periodical flare of negative publicity around contact centres as ‘sweatshops’ or as foundation for data criminality… The facts are hard and the numbers speak for themselves.

Most organizations don’t dare to get their fingers burnt in this area. They don’t achieve noticeable lobby results, they are practically absent from public discussions and are strong in giving trivialized reactions. A serious counter reaction is not heard, at least not pro-active. What a missed opportunity! Offering a counterbalance with the right objective numbers, showing PR-wise what customer contact has got to offer: that’s what public interest organizations can serve the field of study and its members with. This does not require tons of money for image campaigns.

And how strong wouldn’t it be if the membership would actually be used to talk to each other, for instance about the reprehensible behaviour towards the customer? Only then can a membership grow into a quality label: a status that is only reserved for the most professional companies. It cannot be ruled out that the organizations don’t even know they have a membership.

That is a real flaw in a time of economic realism. Value for money is an important indicator to become and stay a member. Member organizations can certainly respond to this. But then they will have to show what they really stand for and behave likewise, show themselves in the media pro-actively, make an important contribution to the professionalising of a young field of study, and design the need for knowledge in a more profound and innovative way. And all of this of course in combination with the use of modern media!

Ernst Kruize is manager of the Klantencontactacademie, an independent agent for certified professional training concerning customer contact professions.