From the Switchboard to Social Media: A Brief History of Customer Service

Did you know that for the first 20 years or so after telephones were invented, they were exclusively sold in pairs — and those two phones could only call each other? Given such a clunky, limited system, it’s a wonder that this method of communication caught on at all. It wasn’t until 1894, when the switchboard was invented, that telephones became less of a novelty and more of a convenience.

Of course, we’ve come a long way since then. Today we have more ways to get and stay in touch with one another than ever before — so many, in fact, that there are plenty of people who rarely even talk on the phone at all!

From a business standpoint, it’s imperative to provide customer service across a multiplicity of channels, too. Let’s take a closer look at how this integral aspect of doing business has evolved over the years as the communication choices have broadened.

Operators Are Standing By

It wasn’t all that long ago when “contacting customer service” simply meant visiting a store or office and talking to the owner or manager. Sometime in the 1960s, large companies realized that they needed a dedicated department to handle customers’ orders, concerns, queries — and complaints. Thus the call center was born.

Getting in touch with a company became even easier toward the end of the decade, when toll-free, 1-800 numbers were invented in 1967. (Aside for the Millennials and Gen-Yers out there: the cost of telephone calls was once based on the physical distance between caller and callee. Being able to contact a commercial enterprise for free was therefore a pretty big deal.)

Press One for the Main Menu

About a decade later, in the late 1970s, call centers began incorporating interactive voice response (IVR) technology. Now customers could push a button to navigate a menu, speeding up the process of getting in touch with a customer service rep — although in the early days, IVR was still pretty finicky, so it often delivered a dose of frustration along with, or instead of, the convenience factor.

Reach Out, Reach Out and Touch Someone

Call centers and their use of IVR continued to expand, but despite technological advancements, many companies found these departments expensive to build, staff, and run. Their answer to that problem was outsourcing to overseas locations with cheap labor, most notoriously India. This made communications cheaper, but not necessarily better.

The same could be said for the increasingly complex and confusing phone trees. Through the 80s and 90s, both offshore call centers and bewildering automated options became the butt of a lot of jokes. They also helped pave the way for today’s multichannel customer service experience.

You’ve Got Mail!

All generational jokes aside, it can be difficult for today’s younger consumers to understand just how revolutionary the world wide web truly was. For the first time in decades, email and live chat support made it possible to quickly and easily communicate with a real person instead of a computerized menu or canned response.

Smart companies saw the possibilities of cyber customer service from the beginning, and jumped right on that bandwagon. It was a huge leap forward for CS-kind, but email was about to be eclipsed by social media.

Don’t @ Me

Similarly, cutting-edge marketing and customer service gurus saw the advent of social media platforms as a golden opportunity to set themselves apart from the crowd. Early adopters of sites like Twitter and Facebook, in particular, discovered that social media was not only a fantastic way to glean insight into customer habits and behavior, but also a remarkably powerful communication tool.

Much like the businesses that set up call centers to meet their CS needs in the 1960s, savvy retailers and service providers set up social media teams to read and respond to tweets, direct messages, and other posts.

Naturally, the public nature of communicating with customers this way was, and continues to be, something of a double-edged sword. One poor interaction could tank a company’s reputation, especially early on before best social media marketing practices were established. On the other hand, a stellar or even satisfactory interaction also wielded great power to build trust, earn customer loyalty, and attract new leads.

“There are so many social platforms that companies need to master these days,” says Zach Hoffman, CEO of internet marketing company Exults. “It can be confusing to understand which ones are imperative, and which you can ignore — for the time being, at least — so don’t be shy about calling in the pros for help navigating it all.”

What’s Next for Customer Service?

According to Adweek, fully 68% of consumers already choose messaging as their favorite way to contact a company or interact with a brand, and that number is predicted to grow. Messaging is quick, easy, convenient, and an effective means of communicating.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning, which can help chatbots and other automated systems crunch data and incorporate it for even more impactful interactions, is another horizon for marketers to keep their eye on.

No matter which channel comes to dominate customer service in the 2020s and beyond, one thing is clear: we’ve come a long way from the days of 800 numbers.