A call centre is operated by a company to administer incoming product support or information inquiries from consumers. Outgoing calls for telemarketing, clientele, and debt collection are also made. In addition to a call centre, collective handling of letters, faxes, and e-mails at one location is known as a contact centre.
A call centre is often operated through an extensive open workspace for call center agents, with work stations that include a computer for each agent, a telephone set/headset connected to a telecom switch, and one or more supervisor stations. It can be independently operated or networked with additional centers, often linked to a corporate computer network, including mainframes, microcomputers and LANs. Increasingly, the voice and data pathways into the centre are linked through a set of new technologies called computer telephony integration (CTI).
Most major businesses use call centers to interact with their customers. Examples include utility companies, mail order catalogue firms, and customer support for computer hardware and software. Some businesses even service internal functions through call centers. Examples of this include help desks and sales support. However, some companies employ staff to work in their call centers almost by “bulk”, applicants requiring little or no educational qualifications or experience; an example is Lloyds TSB. In contrast, some firms demand lengthy customer service experience, various formal certificates and impose a complicated and staged recruitment interview procedure; an example of this is American Express.
A call centre can be viewed, from an operational point of view, as a queuing network. The simplest call centre, consisting of a single type of customers and statistically-identical servers, can be viewed as a single-queue. Queuing theory is a branch of mathematics in which models of such queuing systems have been developed. These models, in turn, are used to support work force planning and management, for example by helping answer the following common staffing-question: given a service-level, as determined by management, what is the least number of telephone agents that is required to achieve it. (Prevalent examples of service levels are: at least 80% of the callers are answered within 20 seconds; or, no more than 3% of the customer’s hang-up, due to their impatience, before being served.)
Queuing models also provide qualitative insight, for example identifying the circumstances under which economies of scale prevail, namely that a single large call centre is more effective at answering calls than several (distributed) smaller ones; or that cross-selling is beneficial; or that a call centre should be quality-driven or efficiency-driven or, most likely, both Quality and Efficiency Driven (abbreviated to QED). Recently, queuing models have also been used for planning and operating skills-based-routing of calls within a call centre, which entails the analysis of systems with multi-type customers and multi-skilled agents.
Call centre operations have been supported by mathematical models beyond queuing, with operations research, which considers a wide range of optimization problems, being very relevant. For example, for forecasting of calls, for determining shift-structures, and even for analyzing customers’ impatience while waiting to be served by an agent.
The centralization of call management aims to improve a company’s operations and reduce costs, while providing a standardized, streamlined, uniform service for consumers, making this approach ideal for large companies with extensive customer support needs. To accommodate for such a large customer base, large warehouses are often converted to office space to host all call centre operations under one roof.
Centralized offices mean that large numbers of workers can be managed and controlled by a relatively small number of managers and support staff. They are often supported by computer technology that manages measures and monitors the performance and activities of the workers. Call centre staff are closely monitored for quality control, level of proficiency, and customer service. Typical contact centre operations focus on the discipline areas of workforce management, queue management, quality monitoring, and reporting. Reporting in a call centre can be further broken down into real time reporting and historical reporting. The types of information collected for a group of call centre agents typically include: agents logged in, agents ready to take calls, agents available to take calls, agents in wrap up mode, average call duration, average call duration including wrap-up time, longest duration agent available, longest duration call in queue, number of calls in queue, number of calls offered, number of calls abandoned, average speed to answer, average speed to abandoned and service level, calculated by the percentage of calls answered in under a certain time period.
Many Call Centers use workforce management software, which is software that uses historical information coupled with projected need to generate automated schedules. This aims to provide adequate staffing skilled enough to assist callers.
The relatively high cost of personnel and office space as well as need for large manpower and challenges around attrition, hiring and managing a large workforce influences outsourcing in the call centre industry.
Inadequate computer systems can mean staff takes one or two seconds longer than necessary to process a transaction. This can often be quantified in staff cost terms. This is often used as a driving factor in any business case to justify a complete system upgrade or replacement. For several factors, including the efficiency of the call centers, the level of computer and telecom support that may be adequate for staff in a typical branch office may prove totally inadequate.
Call Centers use a wide variety of different technologies to allow them to manage the large volumes of work that need to be managed by the call centre. These technologies ensure that agents are kept as productive as possible, and that calls are queued and processed as quickly as possible, resulting in good levels of service.
- ACW (After call work)
- ACD (automatic call distribution)
- Agent performance analytics
- Automated surveys
- BTTC (best time to call)/ Outbound call optimization
- IVR (interactive voice response)
- CTI (computer telephony integration)
- Enterprise Campaign Management
- Outbound predictive dialer
- CRM (customer relationship management)
- CIM (customer interaction management) solutions (Also known as ‘Unified’ solutions)
- Email Management
- Chat and Web Collaboration
- Desktop Scripting Solutions
- Issue tracking system
- Third party verification
- TTS (text to speech)
- WFM (workforce management)
- Virtual queuing
- Voice analysis
- Voice recognition
- Speech Analytics
- Knowledge Management System
- Electronic performance support systems
Additional issues in call centers
There are many other issues that have to be planned for when managing a call centre. A few of these issues are listed below:
- Call Center Noise Hazards
- Planning for failure of equipment
- Need for flexibility in meal-times and washroom needs
- Need for job variety and training
- Job exhaustion and stress
- Staff turnover (high attrition rates are common in the call centre industry)
Criticism of call centers
Criticisms of call centers generally follow a number of common themes:
- operators working from a script.
- non-expert operators (call screening).
- incompetent or untrained operators incapable of processing customers’ requests effectively.
- overseas location, with language and accent problems.
- automated queuing systems. This sometimes results in excessively long hold times
- complaints that departments of companies do not engage in communication with one another.
- close scrutiny by management (e.g. frequent random call monitoring).
- low compensation (pay and bonuses).
- restrictive working practices (some operators are required to follow a pre-written script).
- high stress: a common problem associated with front-end jobs where employees deal directly with customers.
- repetitive job task.
- poor working conditions (e.g. poor facilities, poor maintenance and cleaning, cramped working conditions, management interference, lack of privacy and noisy).