An introduction to call centres.
- What is a call centre?
- Key components of a call centre operation
- How is a call centre managed
- 10 things to know about call centres
- What makes a good call
- Call centre performance management
Call centres have become a hot topic in the media with stories of bad service, moves to other countries and poor working environments. Some observers would lead you to believe that call centres have become the modern day equivalent of the sweat shop. In fact, Call centres are highly complex operations, a microcosm of a business in one building. They have People, Process, Technology, Customers, Buildings and Facilities. To setup a Call centre will have required significant investment – often multi-million pound budgets.
The Call Centre Manager has to have the experience, skills and patience to manage all of these components together. Each element is challenging to manage in it’s own right – in no other type of business are you expected to respond to a customer within 20 or 30 seconds and then be able to answer all their queries immediately in a competent, friendly and efficient manner. Call centres have grown up in response to this increasing customer demand, using technology to support staff to deal more effectively with their customers.
The complexity occurs because you are bringing together groups of people, putting them into a single location with technology which combines a modern PC with old legacy processing systems. You require these staff – typically called Agents, to answer as many calls, often mundane, as they can with the right information in the right way, with organised shifts and breaks throughout the day. That may sound onerous, but there are significant positive benefits of call centres both to individuals, employees and to the organisations – some of which are not really appreciated!
To manage a call centre you have to predict when and how many calls will made by customers in order to organise the people resources to answer them, within the constraints of their contracts. Any change in the volume of calls or the number of people to answer them will have an impact on the length of time a customer may have to wait. So a Manager needs to have both a crystal ball and be very good at juggling!
For an Agent taking the calls, the ability to remain polite, helpful and enthusiastic in the face of what can sometimes be customer dissatisfaction or even rudeness can provide a challenging role.
Nevertheless, call centres have become a very important part of our lives whether we like them or not. For many of us, the ability to call our bank to pay bills at anytime or purchase goods from the comfort of our home or office is a significant (and welcome) change to having to go out to the high street or wait for someone to call at your home! We do get frustrated and upset when we are left hanging on waiting to speak to a representative but if we were to compare that time against having to physically go to a place to do the business, it is small in comparison.
What is a call centre?
There are many different terms used to describe call centres – service centres, sales centres, contact centres etc. In its basic form the key role of a call centre is its responsibility for handling the telephone (channel) calls for an organisation
For centres with more than 100 agents this may mean they handle several thousand calls per day! The calls may be inbound from customers or outbound made by the company to the customer. The calls may be for any type of function ranging from sales enquiries, order taking, service, debt management, technical help desk – the list is almost endless. Some call centres will also deal with faxes as part of their remit. Most call centres aspire to become contact centres. A contact centre is where the centre handles both the telephone and fax contacts but also other channels including the web or electronic business and could also handle the paper processing as well. Again, the more contact channels the centre handles for an organisation, the more complex the centre becomes.
Let’s use the term call centre throughout this document, but do remember we could be referring to a contact centre as well.
Why did call centres become such a major business? All centres were set up as a means of dealing more effectively (and at lower cost) with large numbers of customers. By consolidating a number of separate customer facing departments into a call centre allows the organisation to achieve economies of scale. These financial benefits arise from consolidating business support costs – just paying for a single location, one management structure and one set of technologies. This was and still is a very important business consideration.
Call centres have been a victim of their own success for the following reasons:
- Your competitor has one, so you must have one too!
- Employment opportunities
- Ease of contacting a centre (even if it takes 5 minutes to be answered) – results in customers calling more often!
- Evolution of technology
- Perception that call centres can solve lots of problems for an organisation
- Lack of understanding of how call centres actually work
We will explain each of the above points in turn:
Your competitor has one, so you must have one too! A very simple reason why many organisations set up their first call centre was that the senior management felt they could not lag behind the competition. Call centres are seen as an important direct ‘channel’ to customers – in the UK more than 95% of homes have access to a telephone. With the increasing popularity across the world of mobile phones, this trend is continuing. Unfortunately, setting up a centre as a response to someone else doing it, has meant that some organisations have not thought through the strategy of what they wanted the centre for, how it was to meet their business need and how it was to be managed! The result – a poorly performing centre that leaves those organisation’s with problems which can be very costly to rectify later!
Employment opportunities Many call centres have been set up in places were there were location grants available. These incentives encourage firms to locate there, as the area may have had high unemployment. As a result the call centre has become an important employment tool in that area. In addition, call centres provide important employment opportunities to many different types of people. Young people starting out on a career or first job after school or college; parents returning to work after looking after their children or needing hours to fit in with school times; part-time work for students; and also more mature people looking for routine jobs. In addition, the minimum skills required by many call centres included the ability to talk to customers nicely over the phone and how to use a PC and a keyboard. Few other jobs can offer such diverse opportunities and therefore they are a very important sector of employment.
Ease of contacting a centre – results in customers calling more often! We as consumers, have got used to directly contacting different organisations ourselves in order to find what we want. Previously we may have gone to a third party broker to help us to find the best deal, or spent a Saturday on the high street looking for what we wanted. Now we can browse catalogues or brochures at home, organise our bills etc. then make a call. Our whole pattern of shopping and household maintenance has changed significantly so we have driven the growth in call centres in the same way that their availability has changed how we transact business. We have as consumers become much more demanding whilst products and services have become significantly more homogenous and available.
Perception that call centres can solve lots of problems of an organisation! Many early adopters to call centres believed that the technology would solve all their problems. Processes that were inefficient or complex were put into call centres with the belief that they would be sorted out. They then became the responsibility of the Manager in charge of the centre, who may not have had any say over what shape the processes were in when being asked to manage them! When you take a bad or complex process and put it into a call centre then you will probably just be adding more problems to it. The call centre then gets a bad name because they were not handling the processes right. It may have been a lack of understanding or ignorance on the part of those setting up the centre, but many processes that were put into a centre ‘as is’ were automated by technology in the belief that the technology alone would sort it. When these processes have gone wrong the centre has taken the blame because few people remember how bad things things were before. Do you remember having when ‘the bank closed at lunch times’ or ‘shops that shut at 5 pm’? We now expect service 24 hours per day 7 days per week and that is one of the reasons call centres have grown up, as a response to that demand.
Lack of understanding of how call centres actually work! Call centres as a business channel have only been in operation for the past 10 – 15 years, so the experience and knowledge required to effectively manage them is still fairly new. In the Industrial Revolution there were similar challenges because so few people knew how to manage the new technology and combine it with existing employees to create goods and services at a price that both the company and the customers wanted to pay. Call centres are very similar. They bring together highly complex technology equipment, groups of individuals and combine them to provide a service to customers who demand an answer within 20 seconds. It really does require very specialist skills to manage a new world operation like this.
Evolution of technology! We all know how dramatically technology has changed over the last 20 years and the call centre is one area where this is very important.
Within a call centre there will be: Personal computer with multiple applications – on the PC will be a number of different pieces of software that access the systems of the organisation. Each of these components changes over time with updates and new releases!
Sophisticated telephone system – A machine to handle the incoming or outgoing calls, known as an Automated Call Distributor (ACD) – this replaces the switchboard telephonist and in itself is a complex piece of kit that will handle all the calls made, identify what they are for and route them to the right person to answer the call (provided it has been set up correctly). They can handle and report on thousands of calls per hour!
Many of other types of specialist equipment – Interactive Voice Response (press 1 for this or 2 for that); automated speech recognition which enables a conversation between the computer and the customer; predictive dialler to make large volumes of outbound telephone calls; resource planning tool to forecast and plan shift patterns to meet expected call volumes etc.
The evolution has added to the complexity even more because organisations are looking for ways to better manage and handle the calls that customers make. It is very difficult to understand how all the technology works together but more importantly how customers will react to it and how the people using it will cope.