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Michael Maoz is a Gartner analyst who spends a lot of time thinking about the future — oh, and a lot of time on the phone.

In the last year, he spoke to more than 500 businesses about how they listen to their customers, particularly when their customers make a call, send a message, tweet a tweet or otherwise reach out to the front lines of commerce — customers call centers.

Who doesn’t have a customer call center story? The lousy music, the interminable time on hold, the scripted replies to your real life problems. Well, says Maoz, all that is changing — fast.

Maoz spoke Monday at the Gartner Customer 360 Summit 2014, a fest of future-gazing into the ways businesses should build relationships with their customers if they want to survive the upheaval of the digital revolution.

He delivered the talk within a basic theme that quickly emerged on the first day of the conference: The relationship between businesses and their customers has fundamentally changed, as Gartner managing vice presidents Gene Alvarez and Leigh McMullen pointed out in their opening keynote address.

 Gartner's Michael Maoz talks to Gartner Customer 360 crowd about keeping up with customers

Gartner's Michael Maoz talks to Gartner Customer 360 crowd about keeping up with customers

New digital realities mean that businesses successes and failures are instantly recognizable to far more consumers and that those consumers are able to point out businesses’ flaws to entire networks of their own. Businesses can ignore the new world and go the way of Blockbuster and Kodak, Alvarez says, or embrace it and aspire to be the next Netflix.

The best way to make it in a world in which customers are armed with more information and more ways to communicate with you and about you than ever before, is to shift your customer support operation to a “concierge” model, Maoz says. Enterprises need to ask more questions and gather information faster. Call center workers need to know enough about customers to be able to serve as advisors.

“What are their intentions in doing business with you?” he says of an enterprise’s customers. “Who are they connected with.”

And modern businesses need to know what to do with that information once they have it. Call center workers with the right approach can tell customers that they’re “going to help you with your customer journey,” he says, “help you move from one thing to another; help you do something that you didn’t know you needed to do, but I do, by looking at big data, for example.”

In short, businesses, in some cases, need to know more about their customers than customers know about themselves, Maoz says.

Yes, Maoz, whose title is vice president and distinguished analyst, is an expert in call centers, which he prefers to call customer engagement centers, but it occurred to me that his insights apply broadly to nearly every exchange a business has with a customer.

Consumers expect big things now. They’ve been trained by companies like Netflix, Amazon, Pandora and others to expect that companies will get to know them. Twitter, Facebook and any number of cell phone and e-mail providers have established a standard that says consumers should be able to communicate almost any time on any number of devices — and that they should be recognized and heard.

 Customer call centers need to keep up with the times 

And all this needs to be done without violating consumers’ sense of privacy. (That’s a topic that the Gartner conference will address and one I plan to write about later in the week.)

It’s a high bar. You know that. Maoz says that reaching it takes an impressive combination of the right people and the right technology.

“How are we going to build greatness?” he asks. “We need people who are committed in spirit mind and body. Does he or she give a hoot about  your business? Do they feel safe? Do they feel like they want to inspire the person next to them? Do they want to understand your goals and your mission? If we think that technology is the most important thing, then this is probably the most important thing we’re overlooking.”

As the digital revolution races forward, workers dealing with customers on the frontline are going to need different skills. One-to-one human interaction is in rapid decline in support centers, Maoz says. But that’s because consumers are choosing other ways to get help and information — social media, self-service web-based help, proactive notices from companies, inbound data from connected devices (aka the Internet of things) that had never been connected before.  All of which require human-power to produce, monitor and act upon.

“Our engagement strategy has fundamentally shifted,” Maoz says. “The same customer, I’m now going to spend more time interacting with on social media or getting more outbound alerts or the Internet of things is bringing more analytics in from the outside.”

The beauty of the shift is it frees up workers from dealing with the mundane and repetitive and gives them the time to solve the more difficult and individualized problems. Think of it as the digital version of the industrial revolution.

A revolution that shows no signs of stopping.

Photo of Michael Maoz by Mike Cassidy; photo of telephone switchboard by Reynermeida, published under Creative Commons license.

Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Reach him at mike.cassidy@bloomreach.com and follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.