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A call center 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 center.
A call center 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 center 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.
A call center can be viewed, from an operational point of view, as a queueing network. The simplest call center, consisting of a single type of customers and statistically-identical servers, can be viewed as a single-queue. Queueing theory is a branch of mathematics in which models of such queueing 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 customers hang-up, due to their impatience, before being served.)
Queueing models also provide qualitative insight, for example identifying the circumstances under which economies of scale prevail, namely that a single large call center is more effective at answering calls than several (distributed) smaller ones; or that cross-selling is beneficial; or that a call center should be quality-driven or efficiency-driven or, most likely, both Quality and Efficiency Driven (abbreviated to QED). Recently, queueing models have also been used for planning and operating skills-based-routing of calls within a call center, which entails the analysis of systems with multi-type customers and multi-skilled agents.
Call center operations have been supported by mathematical models beyond queueing, 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 center operations under one roof.
Centralised 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 center staff are closely monitored for quality control, level of proficiency, and customer service. Typical contact center operations focus on the discipline areas of workforce management, queue management, quality monitoring, and reporting. Reporting in a call center can be further broken down into real time reporting and historical reporting. The types of information collected for a group of call center 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 worker inefficiency accounts for the majority of call centre operating expenses, influencing outsourcing in the call center industry.
Inadequate computer systems can mean staff take 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 center, the level of computer and telecom support that may be adequate for staff in a typical branch office may prove totally inadequate in a call center.
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 center. 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.
These include ;
- 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)
- Guided Speech IVR
- 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
- Third Party Verification
- TTS (text to speech)
- WFM (workforce management)
- Virtual queuing
- Voice analysis
- Voice recognition
- Voice recording
- Speech Analytics
There are a large number of patents covering various aspects of call center technology. One of the early inventors in this field, Ronald A. Katz, personally holds over 50 seminal patents covering inventions related to toll free numbers, automated attendant, automated call distribution, voice response unit, computer telephone integration and speech recognition. <ref>Bednarek et. al, "Katz Patent Reexamination: A Change in Momentum Favoring RAKTL Targets", ShawPittman, June 9, 2004</ref>. Mr. Katz has licensed his patents to over 100 companies including AT&T, IBM and Citibank, and has been characterized as a patent troll for his aggressive legal tactics.
Call center dynamics
Types of calls are often divided into outbound and inbound. Inbound calls are calls that are made by the consumer to obtain information, report a malfunction, or ask for help. These calls are substantially different from outbound calls, where agents place calls to potential customers mostly with intentions of selling or service to the individual. (See telemarketing)
Call center staff are often organized into a multi-tier support system for a more efficient handling of calls. The first tier in such a model consists of operators, who direct inquiries to the appropriate department and provide general directory information. If a caller requires more assistance, the call is forwarded to the second tier, where most issues can be resolved. In some cases, there may be three or more tiers of support staff. If a caller requires more assistance, the caller is forwarded to the third tier of support; typically the third tier of support is formed by product engineers/developers or highly skilled technical support staff of the product.
Call centers have their critics. Some critics argue that the work atmosphere in such an environment is de-humanising. Others point to the low rates of pay and restrictive working practices of some employers. There has been much controversy over such things as restricting the amount of time that an employee can spend in the toilet. Furthermore, call centers have been the subject of complaints by callers who find the staff often do not have enough skill or authority to resolve problems, while the dehumanized workers very often exhibit an attitude of apathy to even the most abusive customer.
Owing to the highly technological nature of the operations in such offices, the close monitoring of staff activities is easy and widespread. This can be argued to be beneficial, to enable the company to better plan the workload and time of its employees. Some people have argued that such close monitoring breaches human rights to privacy. Yet another argument is that close monitoring and measurement by quantitative metrics can be counterproductive in that it can lead to poor customer service and a poor image of the company, and an ability to keep within the "stats" while still doing horrible things.
Many call centers in the UK have been built in areas that are depressed economically. This means that the companies get cheap land and labor, and can often benefit from grants to encourage them to improve employment in a given area. There has also been a trend to move call centers to India, where there is a large pool of English-speaking people. However, there has been widespread dissatisfaction from consumers, who are unable to understand Indian call center staff and vice versa, owing to differences between British and Indian English.
This trend is on a decline as India rapidly absorbs most of the highly educated people who are qualified in the science and mathematics streams, and, like in other countries, call center jobs are increasingly viewed as stopgap jobs rather than as careers.
Another popular call center site is the Philippines, owing to its abundant English speakers that are college graduates and Americanized when it comes to English accent and cultural affinities. The Philippines was an American colony for almost 50 years. The Philippines is said to be the best outsourcing site outside North America since the accent of Filipinos is nearer to that of American consumers as compared to other ethnicities. However, due to its small population and unstable political climate, many large corporates are often afraid of outsourcing business to Philippines.
For the Asia Pacific region, from India to Australia and New Zealand, Malaysia is emerging as one of the top locations for setting up call centers. The country has a history of ties with the English-speaking world and English-language education, as a former British colony.
Canada is also a popular call center site, with its low telecommunication rates.
South Africa is emerging as a popular call center location. Companies from countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, United States, the Netherlands, and France have outsourced call center functions to South Africa. Factors such as relatively low labor costs, cultural affinity (with certain European and American target markets), good English and communication skills, and reliable infrastructure have contributed to this development.
Around the world, there are a number of professional organizations forming to develop and promote call center best practice management and operation, to overcome the negative aspects of a call center.
Management of call centers
Management of call centers involves balancing the requirements of cost effectiveness and service. Callers do not wish to wait in exorbitantly long queues until they can be helped and so management must provide sufficient staff and inbound capacity to ensure that the quality of service is maintained. However, staff costs generally form more than half the cost of running a call center and so management must minimize the number of staff present.
To perform this balancing act, call center managers make use of demand estimation, Telecommunication forecasting and dimensioning techniques to determine the level of staff required at any time. Managers must take into account staff tea and lunch breaks and must determine the number of agents required on duty at any one time.
Forecasting results are vital in making management decisions in call centers. Forecasting methods rely on data acquired from various sources including historical data, trend data and so on. Forecasting methods must predict the traffic intensity within the call center in quarter-hour increments and these results must be converted to staffing rosters. Special attention must be paid to the busy hour. Forecasting methods must be used to pre-empt a situation where equipment needs to be upgraded as traffic intensity has exceeded the maximum capacity of the call center.
Call center performance
There are many standard traffic measurements (performance metrics) that can be performed on a call center to determine its performance levels. However, the most important performance measures are:
- The average delay a caller may experience whilst waiting in a queue
- The mean conversation time, otherwise referred to as Average Talk Time (ATT)
- The mean dealing time, otherwise referred to as Average Handling Time (AHT - equal to ATT plus wrap-up and/or hold time)
- The percentage of calls answered within a determined time frame (referred to as a Service Level or SL%)
- The number of calls / inquiries per hour an agent handles (CPH or IPH).
- The amount of time spent while an agent processes customer requests while not speaking to a customer (referred to as Not Ready time/NR, or After Call Work/ACW, or Wrap-Up.)
- The percentage of calls which completely resolve the customer's issue (if the customer does not call back about the same problem for a certain period of time, it is considered a successful resolution or FCR - First Call Resolution).
- The percentage of calls where a customer hangs up or "abandons" the call is often referred to as Total Calls Abandoned or Percentage of calls abandoned. Calls are often abandoned due to long hold times when a call centre experiences a high call volume.
- Percentage of time agents spend not ready to take calls, often referred to as Idle Time.
- Quality Assurance monitored by a quality assurance (QA) team.
Refinements of call centers
There are many refinements to the generic call center model. Each refinement helps increase the efficiency of the call center thereby allowing management to make better decisions involving economy and service.
The following list contains some examples of call center refinements:
- Predictive Dialling – Computer software attempts to predict the time taken for an agent to help a caller. The software begins dialling another caller before the agent has finished the previous call. This is because not every call will be connected (think of busy or not answered calls) and also because of the time it takes to set up the call (usually around 20 seconds before someone answers). Frequently, predictive dialers will dial more callers than there are agents, counting on the fact that not every line will be answered. When the line is answered and no agent is available, it is held in a retention queue for a short while. When still no agent has become available, the call is hung up and classified as a nuisance call. The next time the client is called an agent will be reserved for the caller.
- Multi-Skilled Staff – In any call center, there will be members of staff that will be more skilled in areas than others. An 'Interactive Voice Response' (IVR) Unit can be used to allow the caller to select the reason for his call. Management software, called an Automatic Call Distributor, must then be used to route calls to the appropriate agent. Alternatively, it has been found that a mix of general and specialist agent creates a good balance.
- Prioritization of Callers – Classification of callers according to priority is a very important refinement. Emergency calls or callers that are reattempting to contact a call center are examples of callers that could be given a higher priority.
- Automatic Number Identification – This allows agents to determine who is calling before they answer the call. Greeting a caller by name and obtaining his/her information in advance adds to the quality of service and helps decrease the conversation time.
Additional issues in call centers
There are many other issues that have to be planned for when managing a call center. 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 center industry)
Call Center Noise Hazards Place Operators at Risk
Many employers are unaware of the hazard of acoustic shock, despite the fact that up to 300,000 victims have been paid over $15 million worldwide.
Acoustic shock is a sudden spike of noise; a hazard faced by 1 million call center operators. It can lead to physical problems such as tinnitus, and emotional problems, such as anxiety and depression.
Research by the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE) showed 30 percent of call center employees interviewed claimed symptoms of acoustic shock. Potentially this suggests that 300,000 UK operators may be acoustic shock victims.
"Call center operators are becoming the modern victims of noise at work. In a study we conducted, 39 percent of operators were concerned that their hearing was damaged as a result of noise exposure at work and 30 percent said that work tasks left them with tinnitus," said Keith Broughton, former principal specialist inspector for Noise and Vibration, HSE. He noted that the call center workers said they were given little information about noise at work, and were told nothing about acoustic shock.
In fall 2000, a 34-year-old woman, exposed to acoustic shock several months before, complained of tinnitus, sleep disturbance and an increase in a pre-existing migraine condition. In summer 2001, she was absent from work with persistent tinnitus and anxiety relating to working at a call center. By spring 2002, her anxiety had reduced with medication and she had returned to work, though not on the phones, but she continued to complain of persistent, intrusive tinnitus. In early summer 2004, she continued to have tinnitus, disrupted sleep and ongoing problems with migraines. Litigation against her employer is now in progress.
"The health of operators has been at risk for far too long and there is a great misunderstanding between what constitutes acoustic shock as opposed to trauma, and to what extent employers are required by law to mitigate against this risk," said Marcus Quilter, chairman of the UK's Call Centre Management Association (CCMA).
Variations on the generic call center model
The various components in a call center discussed in the previous sections are the generic form of a call center. There are many variations on the model developed above. A few of the variations are listed below:
- Remote Agents – An alternative to housing all agents in a central facility is to use remote agents. These agents work from home and use a Basic Rate ISDN access line to communicate with a central computing platform. Remote agents are more cost effective as they don't have to travel to work, however the call center must still cover the cost of the ISDN line. VOIP technology can also be used to remove the need for the ISDN, although the desktop application being used needs to be web enabled or VPN is used.
- Temporary Agents – Temporary agents are useful as they can be called upon if demand increases more rapidly than planned. They are offered a certain number of quarter hours a month. They are paid for the amount they actually work, and the difference between the amount offered and the amount guaranteed is also paid. Managers must use forecasting methods to determine the number of hours offered so that the difference is minimized.
- Virtual Call Centers – Virtual Call Centers are created using many smaller centers in different locations and connecting them to one another. The advantage of virtual call centers is that they improve service levels, provide emergency backup and enable extended operating hours over isolated call centers. There are two methods used to route traffic around call centers: pre-delivery and post-delivery. Pre-delivery involves using an external switch to route the calls to the appropriate center and post-delivery enables call centers to route a call they've received to another call center.
- Interaction Centers – As call centers evolve and deal with more media than telephony alone, some have taken to the term, "interaction center". Email, Web Callback and more are gradually being added to the role.
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).
Unionization of call centers in North America
Unions in North America including the United Steelworkers have made some effort to gain members from this sector.
- Kennedy I., Call Centres, School of Electrical and Information Engineering, University of the Witwatersrand, 2003.
- Masi D.M.B., Fischer M.J., Harris C.M., Numerical Analysis of Routing Rules for Call Centers, Telecommunications Review, 1998..
- HSE Web site at www.hse.gov.uk/lau/lacs/94-1.htm for guidelines about call center working practices.