The Evolution of the Call Center
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The current business climate demands reaping the greatest benefit from existing customers, which means that call centers today are increasingly seen as revenue-generators, complete with sales goals.
Yet much of their operation continues to revolves around time: time to answer, time to resolve, time to close. The increasing array of performance metrics means that standards need to be adjusted fairly often to support the most relevant use of agent and customer time.
The new science of call center workforce also has meant major changes to the clock-punching rituals. Automatic call distribution (ACD) systems that allow thorough analysis of traffic patterns place rolling shift starts, prescheduled breaks and lunches optimized to predicted call volume well within reach of the modern operation. Even so, the usual ratio of agents to team leaders to supervisors to managers has remained largely fixed over the past two decades, says Elizabeth Ussher, a META Group vice president.
What has changed is location. With global telecom links plentiful and inexpensive, and a wide range of English speakers in countries with lower costs of living, offshore call centers appeal to the pocketbook. "We can't find people who meet quality standards for the price we can afford to pay in the U.S.," says Teresa Hartsaw, president of offshore outsourcing provider e-Performax. She indicated that per-hour costs to clients of e-Performax's Philippines center, launched in September, were at least 20 percent lower than a traditional U.S.--based center run by one of its investor parents.
Roughly one out of every 100 Americans works in the call center business. And there are currently tens of thousands of agents working worldwide in outsourced centers for international firms, largely in such countries as Ireland, India, and the Philippines. A recent META Group survey found that more than 10 percent of respondents' companies owned or partnered with call centers in Asia-Pacific.
An arguably more drastic solution to labor management is to create a virtual call center by scattering resources of a traditional monolithic pool out to several small locations, or even to home-based workers. Done right the approach can save $10,000 per employee in volume, says AMR research analyst Lindsey Higgs.
Whatever the structure, call centers face an ongoing challenge to keep their workforce, and to keep it motivated. Annual turnover rates of more than 100 percent are not unheard of at centers that do not feel they have an attrition problem. Even more distressing is the continual problem of managing expectations and satisfaction among the workforce, who take a great deal of front-line pummeling by dissatisfied customers. Service Quality Management Group (SQM Group) surveys reveal that just 37 percent of agents show "high" or "favorable" levels of commitment to their positions, compared to 61 percent who feel "apathetic."
Groping For Identity
Turnover is not the only continual change that causes problems. The call center has suffered an identity crisis over the past two decades, because management credentials changed so frequently, says Jeff Gaus, an industry veteran and vice president of sales and marketing for multimedia messaging firm H2F Media, of Lake Oswego, Ore.
Originally the technical complexities of call centers demanded telecom veterans. Once those issues were conquered in the latter half of the 1980s, operational experts, such as agents who had risen through the ranks, were given the reins. Control shifted to the IT departments when they needed greater control to meet the mandates of implementing CTI and integrating new software suites, Gaus says. Today companies are increasingly regarding their centers as a marketing function, he says.
The data also indicates that centers are rigging themselves to handle all customer interactions with equal intelligence and accuracy, but are not fully implemented with universal-queue technology. The largest portion of contact center--related CRM spending, 30 percent, is on technologies to enable universal queuing, according to Dataquest. AMR Research data indicates that barely one in four call centers use such an approach; most firms manage and evaluate customer contact via e-mail and chat, for instance, through completely separate systems.
While the move to target all customer contacts through the same viewfinder is still in progress, even more nascent is the strategy of treating different customers individually. "The top twenty percent of your customers make you the most money, but most contact centers don't treat anybody differently," says Avaya CRM evangelist Lawrence Byrd. Data from SQM Group bears out his observation: On average, call center satisfaction among low-, medium-, and high revenue customers falls within a 3 percent band.
Internet customer contact promised to change this, but in truth the modern contact center has absorbed the Internet and retained most of the familiar sights and sounds--cubicles, headsets, and terminals--while integrating new cabling under the floor and taking responsibility for email and online chat sessions. As a result customer service costs did not drop to pennies across the board as advertised, renewing the cry for differentiated service. "[The promise was,] 'Everyone will service themselves through the Internet and you'll be infinitely more profitable,' but that didn't happen," Gaus says.
All this technology and process reengineering can bring every conceivable type of customer touch onto a single agent's desktop, but will agents all handle email, calls, and chat interchangeably in the call center of today and tomorrow? Probably not, but the trick will be to find the proper balance. META Group analyst Tim Hickernell says agents can be scheduled for two- to four-hour blocks of time to spend on different contact channels.
But Gartner Senior Research Analyst Esteban Kolsky strongly urges optimizing agent skills on a single contact medium: "It takes time to [adjust] between channels, even from one day to the next."
Those options can contribute to making the contact center a more attractive place to stay. "The call center is looked at as more of a profession. In the past it was where you would go because you couldn't get a different sort of job," says META's Ussher, remarking at the evolution of unionized call centers and those that attract both college-educated employees and college interns who view the experience as a valuable stepping stone.
Wherever it may be located, and whether the headset is a classic design or a wireless, IP telephony wonder, the call center remains a critical, if largely unsung, entity. But there may be no single more important business unit. "The way an organization responds to a purchase request or a customer service request is a greater reflection on the brand than the product itself," H2F Media's Gaus says.
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