A picture of a rotary dial phone

How Tech Has Shaped Customer Service for Almost 150 Years

It’s Customer Service Week, a week highlighting the importance of providing first class customer service and celebrating the people who make that service possible for organizations every day. In honor of the occasion, we’re taking a look back in time to explore the history of the industry we call “customer service” today — where it started, how it’s evolved, and the way it has always depended on new technology.

Before communications technology allowed businesses to serve customers remotely, the only way to provide customer service was in person. If a customer had an issue they needed to address, such as a defective product or questions about how it worked, they needed to return to the place where they made the purchase and discuss the matter face-to-face. As mass production began to take off in the Industrial Age and technology revolutionized the United States, more and more customers needed assistance with their products — and they often didn’t live near the factories in which the products were made.

Companies needed a way to provide large-scale, remote service to their growing customer bases. Luckily, another new technology was about to make that possible.

A Major Change: The Telephone

The invention of the telephone in 1876 was an essential first step in expanding the possibilities of customer service. At first, telephones were rare technology and had limited capabilities, but the invention of the telephone switchboard in 1894 allowed people to make calls across the country. Phones provided a way for customers to contact companies from a distance to get product information, repair walkthroughs, and more.

The telephone remained the standard for customer service interactions for decades. As the economic boom of the 1920s caused an influx of consumers and more demand than ever before, retail organizations began creating and expanding customer service departments to keep up with the flow of customers. That major growth soon came to a halt as the Great Depression slowed progress — consumers stopped purchasing and markets crashed. 

But in the wake of tragedy, more innovations emerged to expand customer service capabilities, including the Private Automatic Branch Exchange (PABX) technology of the 60s. PABX paved the way for modern-day call centers by allowing call routing to various agents, as well as other innovations such as conference calling. Shortly after, AT&T rolled out toll-free telephone numbers, which patched customers through to a company directly without needing an operator or a collect call.

In the 1970s, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) technology appeared on the scene. IVR allowed organizations to automate portions of their customer service process by playing pre-recorded messages, recording customer responses, and even moving customers through trees of information based on their replies. Using these technologies, customer service workers were now able to assist more customers than ever before.

The Online Age of Customer Service

The internet changed the world forever in the 1980s and 1990s as companies shifted to digital as a new way to improve their customer service. The invention of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software in the 1980s made it much easier to keep track of contacts and customers in a centralized database. 

Moving into the 21st century, email grew as another support channel, providing customers with new ways to contact organizations and receive faster responses. Chat followed soon after, putting customers in direct conversation with service agents for real-time assistance without needing a telephone.

As people grew more comfortable using digital channels, social media websites began to dominate the internet, providing yet another way for customers to seek support from organizations. Sites like Yelp, Facebook, Twitter, and others became platforms for soliciting assistance from brands — often in a very public way. Though this visibility proves damaging for some companies, others embrace the trend, using it as a way to build stronger relationships with customers and provide even faster and more effective support.

Looking to the Future

As technology continues to advance, companies are automating more and more of their customer service processes to help their teams handle the steady flow of tickets and questions — whether that’s using AI to handle phone calls or chat, or adopting dedicated customer service software to organize and manage support requests. This reliance on tech remains as essential as ever while companies race to keep up with the demands of their fast-growing, global customer bases and compete to provide the fastest, highest-quality customer service experience possible.

But even with the assistance of technology, a company’s customer service is only as good as the humans behind it. Even as automation grows and AI capabilities expand, many consumers will always prefer to speak to a real agent on the other line — or the other side of the screen. We thank those who work in the industry for their care and support in providing assistance to customers who need it every day, and we wish you a happy Customer Service Week!