Perhaps most of us think of a call center as a bullpen full of people answering telephones or placing telemarketing calls trying to pressure prospects into buying windows, or newspapers, or circus tickets, or insurance, or whatever. While these perceptions might fit into a definition of a call center, call centers are actually much more than this.
Businesses today think of a call center as a place where a company can meet customer needs. Those needs can range from finding information on a product to comparing prices to asking for help on how to use a product or seeking repair information. Call centers are used for product or service sales, but also for customer service, the help desk, technical support, repair service, and many other functions.
Call centers can be classified as either inbound or outbound to reflect the direction of calling. Inbound refers to a call from customer to company; outbound refers to a call from company to customer. Both types of centers have heavy voice telecommunications needs, but the inbound center needs a call distribution switch to connect a call to the appropriate agent and, perhaps, to offer database access for the agents. The modern call center might not fall cleanly into one camp or the other because it is common for one center to do both. In fact, an individual agent might do both during the work day.
While the call center emphasis has traditionally been on sales, businesses today see the call center as a vital corporate entity for ensuring customer satisfaction. Customers can buy products, check the status of an order, complain, seek help, or request a repair. With the increase in e-business and products being shipped directly to consumers with no brick and mortar retail outlet to go back to, the call center is often the first place consumers turn for help with a problem.
Finally, while it is easy to think of the call center as a place, businesses increasingly view it as a set of functions whose purpose is to acquire and keep customers. This view allows us to include in the call center not just voice contact with customers, but also data related contact (e.g., the Internet). So, we might consider the modern call center a customer contact zone where multiple media are employed in the contact.
Goals of the Call Center
The goals of the modern call center are focused on both the company’s and the customer’s needs. The call center should be a place where customers can obtain information about the company and its products. Likewise, the company wishes to obtain information about prospective customers and if possible, turn them into paying customers. Information about customers is made available to call center agents and others in the company who need it. Customer relationship management (CRM) software collects and manages data so that call center agents have all customer information while they’re interacting with customers.
To meet these goals, a call center that allows multiple methods of interaction is required. These methods include the telephone, fax, messaging, Web pages, and Web chat.
Another important goal of the call center is to minimize costs, while also increasing revenue and profit.
Types of Call Centers
The simplest form of call center uses a trunk hunt group and key telephones to provide the service. Agents simply interrupt calls in progress to answer an incoming call and put it on hold. Most people are familiar with such call center operations; who has not heard something like, “Dr. Schmidlap’s office, can you hold?” in response to a phone call to schedule an appointment with a physician or dentist?
When more than a few agents are involved, such call centers are ineffective for a number of reasons. First of all, there is no way to determine which call has been waiting the longest. Secondly, the system depends solely on the efficiency of the agents (and how well they are supervised!) for its success. When a company moves beyond a couple of agents, some form of automatic call distribution (ACD) becomes mandatory.
Uniform call distribution (UCD) is a feature available in virtually all PBX systems. A UCD feature routes incoming calls to the first available agent. If no agent is available, the call is placed in a queue (typically, such systems employ some form of hold music to indicate to the caller that he/she is still in the queue). When an agent becomes available, the UCD routes the first call in the queue to that agent. The UCD makes no attempt to balance the load, nor do most UCD systems provide sophisticated management capabilities or reports.
ACD-based call centers use a device that is either stand-alone or integrated with the PBX to route calls. ACDs typically route to the least busy agent, thus providing a load balancing capability. Agents can be grouped into “splits,” where each split handles a different type of call. The ACD can load balance within splits, and provides sophisticated management tools to help improve service and monitor agent performance. We merely observe here that any call center of even modest size will invariably use ACD equipment to support its functions.