Chances are you have this book in your hand because you run, or work in, or have something to do with a call center. Chances are also that when people outside work ask you what you do, you have to explain to them exactly what a call center is, and they don’t always get it. They focus on the things that they dislike about call centers — those telemarketing calls they get at dinnertime or when they’re putting the baby to bed. Or the long time they spend on hold trying to get someone to explain why there’s an error on their bank statement.
Obviously there’s more to call centers than the face they present to the consumer. But that’s the reality — people interact with call centers all the time, and often come away frustrated and bewildered. That’s one of the main reasons this book exists: to help you improve the way the call center operates, and following that, to improve the relationship between your company and your customers.
This book is for anyone who works in a call center. For anyone who sells by phone. Or who helps customers. It’s about all the stuff that’s used in call centers, the technology, hardware and software. It’s also about the kinds of services that call centers buy, things like toll free and long distance services, outsourced call center help, site selection assistance and consulting. And it’s about the people who work in centers: how to keep reps happy, interested, well trained and excited about their jobs. How to make sure that you don’t spend a fortune in training only to lose those people after a few short months because some preventable thing you’re doing is driving them away.
A call center is traditionally defined as a physical location where calls are placed, or received, in high volume for the purpose of sales, marketing, customer service, telemarketing, technical support or other specialized business activity. One early definition described a call center as a place of doing business by phone that combined a centralized database with an automatic call distribution system. That was pretty good for 1985, but today it’s more than that. Today I expand the definition in two directions.
First, I expand it to include call-taking and call-making organizations that were originally overlooked, like fundraising and collections organizations, and help desks, both internal and external.
And more controversially, I expand it to include centers that handle more than the traditional voice call — lets call them call centers plus. These would be centers that handle voice plus fax, or email, live Web chat centers, video interactions — all the many real and hypothetical customer interactions that are now possible.
Estimates of the number of call centers in North America range from 20,000 to as high as 200,000. The reality is probably somewhere around 120,000 depending on what you consider a call center. Some experts believe that you shouldn’t count centers below a certain number of agents (or “seats”). I believe in the widest possible definition, all the way down to micro-centers of four or five people. Why? Because those centers face many of the same kinds of problems on a daily basis as their larger cousins: problems of training, staffing, call handling, technology assessment, and so on. Those smaller centers have to put the same kind of face forward to the customer as the largest centers, in order to remain competitive. And more often than not, those small center become medium-sized centers over time.
Call centers are generally set up as large rooms, with workstations that include a computer, a telephone set (or headset) hooked into a large switch and one or more supervisor stations. It may stand by itself, or be linked with other centers. It will most likely be linked to a corporate data network, including mainframes, microcomputers and LANs.
Call centers were first recognized as such 25 or 30 years ago, in their largest incarnations: airline reservation centers, catalog ordering companies, problem solvers like the GE Answer Center. Until the early 1990s, only the largest centers could afford the investment in technology that allowed them to handle huge volumes (the ACD). More recently, with the development of PC LANs, client/server software systems, open phone systems and browser-based desktops for data access, any call center can have an advanced call handling and customer management system, even down to ten agents or less.
As companies have learned that service is the key to attracting and maintaining customers (and hence, revenue) the common perception of the call center has changed. A call center is rarely seen as a luxury anymore. In fact, it is often regarded as a competitive weapon. In some industries (catalog retailing, financial services, hospitality) a call center is the difference between being in business and not being in business. In other industries (cable television, utilities) call centers have been the centerpiece of corporate attempts to quickly overhaul service and improve their image.
It’s a good working hypothesis to assume that any company that sells any product has a call center, or will shortly have one, because it is the most effective way to reach (and be reached by) customers.
Just when you thought you knew what you were doing — technology is redefining the call center, changing it into something bigger, more complex, and ultimately more customer-pleasing.
You could choose to define a center in terms of its physical reality, like the traditional definitions just given. It is a roomful of people, devoted to the task of making and/or receiving calls to and from customers. It is the place where those calls are handled, and the accumulation of technologies that assist: phone lines, switches, software, human expertise.
Or, you could look at it from the point of view of function — the call center as the locus for customer satisfaction. In that view, the center is the “place” where the customer goes to complain, to place an order, or get help — even if the agents are widely disconnected from each other, or if the database is halfway around the world from them.
There may not seem to be too much difference between those two points of view. Until recently, there wasn’t. Whether you subscribed to one or another definition mattered little in the day to day running of a center. You could even hold both views without much cognitive dissonance.
Call centers have emerged as a powerful, strategic tool in the fight to gain and keep customers. Running a center has become its own corporate discipline. The call center industry has become an industry — not simply a collection of dissociated vertical markets with similar needs. I’ve seen phenomenal growth in all segments — equipment sales, outsourcing services, toll-free traffic, customer sales made by phone.
And yet, the moorings are coming loose. Something ironic has happened. At almost the precise moment that I, and the readers, can herald the arrival of the call center industry, we can see, looming out there on the horizon, the signs of something coming along to replace what we know as the “call center.”
This isn’t a dire phenomenon. It’s a technological and cultural revolution in the way customers interact with companies. Call centers started that revolution, by creating a place (a real, physical place) where customers could get in touch with intelligent representatives of a company. Information could pass in two directions.
Here is what will happen. What is already happening. Starting with IVR, technologies enabling automated contact with companies. Nobody does this better than banks and financial services. Anyone who wants to transfer funds can do it at 3 am without talking to a person. AND, anyone who wants to report a stolen credit card can also do it at 3 am, through a live agent.
IVR cuts out the agent for routine database transactions. It handles as much as 40% of the volume that formerly went to agents. And like all good technologies, it creates its own demand — people who call trying to get the IVR system, who wouldn’t have called at all if they thought they were going to have to talk to a real person.
IVR was step one. Step two was fax-on-demand. Call an agent or an IVR system and retrieve a document instantly. Directions. Brochures. White papers. Sales literature.
The industry is now in the middle of step three: the Internet and websites. Self-support by customers who search your database for the answers to their questions; who log their own cases by email and wait for your reply. By combinations: fax-enabled websites, for example.
At the same time, the physical center itself is devolving. Smaller centers are more practical. You can put a fifty-seat center into virtually any town or city in the US without worrying about telecom infrastructure or labor. Cities, states and foreign countries are falling over each other to offer tax incentives to attract call centers.
Centers can use agents-at-home, virtual agents who sign into a center from their homes whenever demand requires; the ultimate in just-in-time staffing. I heard of one company that trains spouses of call center agents. Those spouses, who already know much about the company, are then equipped to pick up part-time work on very short notice, and can sign into the call center from their kitchen tables.
This is happening more and more. Technology makes the role of an agent more powerful — agenting is more of an analytic and interpretive skill, as well as more interpersonal. Agents have access to more information about the customer and the company. And the kinds of questions they are called upon to answer are different. They are higher level, more complex, often requiring more decision-making authority for customer service and support.
We are rapidly approaching the time when most calls coming into the call center are not directed at agents. When you add up the total — IVR calls, fax-back retrievals, hits on websites — you may already be there. That forces us to rethink two things.
There is a need for a broader definition of a “call.” With so many alternate entry points into a company’s sales/service operation, the industry needs to rethink the traditional measures of service level, revenue generated per call, cost per call, and so on. What is the relative cost of a Web hit, and its benefit. (The economics of the Internet are a very fuzzy area.) In the same vein, can the call center industry afford to treat email requests for service any differently than it does live calls?
Most of what is now describe as a call is really best described as a transaction or an interactionbetween two parties, you and the customer. Eventually most customer interactions won’t involve an agent. They will be electronically processed database transactions.
It is necessary to recognize that the call center is more than the simple place I defined earlier, a place for making and taking calls. It is best described by its function — as a collection of people and technologies whose role is to serve customers.
You are on one side of a chasm, your customers on the other side. There are many ways to get from one side to the other. The customer chooses which route depending on what he needs.
ACD vendors are already grappling with the need to route incoming Internet traffic. It was thought a few years ago that the ACD itself would evolve from a voice-call routing processor into an all-purpose traffic cop for all the voice and data pathways into the center. Now it’s wondered whether there is a future for the ACD at all.
There is already evidence that the role of call center agent is changing into more of a knowledge worker. Reps are now, more than ever, on a career track to supervisory and management positions.
Things are changing faster than ever before. As soon as this book hits your hands, I’ll be ready with a pile of new technologies to write about, new products that are out there, and new ideas about how to run the call center.
As always with any project this size, you might find errors of fact or judgement in this book. If so, please let me know, and if possible I’ll correct them in the next edition.