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Call centre

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A call centre (Commonwealth English) or call center (AmE) is a centralised office of a company that answers incoming telephone calls from customers or that makes outgoing telephone calls to customers (telemarketing). Such an office may also respond to letters, faxes, e-mails and similar written correspondence. However the term contact centre (Commonwealth English) or contact center (AmE) is often applied when such multiple functions are blended in one office.

Call centres are generally set up as large rooms, with work stations that include a computer, a telephone set (or headset) hooked into a large telecom switch and one or more supervisor stations. It may stand by itself or be linked with other centres. It may also be linked to a corporate computer network, including main frames, 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 centres 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 though call centres. Examples include help desks and sales support.

Contents

Mathematical theory

Queuing theory mathematics can be used to demonstrate that a single large call centre is more effective at answering calls than several smaller centres. The most dramatic improvements come when a large number of offices are centralised.

The mathematical problems encountered in a call centre are generally statistical in nature and revolve around the probability that an arriving call will be answered by an available and appropriately trained person. Forecasting the call arrival rates and then scheduling the number of staff required on duty at particular times of the day are challenging problems faced by most call centre managers.

Accommodation

The centralised approach aims to rationalise the company's operations and reduce costs, whilst producing a standard, branded, front to the world. The approach naturally lends itself to large companies with a large, distributed customer base. Owing to the size of companies and their customer bases, these offices are often very large, such as converted warehouses.

Personnel management

Centralised offices means 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 some of the most heavily monitored and tracked groups of workers in the world.

Reporting and monitoring in a call centre can be broken down into four major categories. These are real time reporting, historical reporting, quality monitoring and work force management. The types of information collected for a group of call centre agents are inclusive of: agents logged in, agents ready to take calls, agents available to take calls, agents in wrap up mode, average call duration, average call durtion 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 abanadoned, average speed to answer, average speed to abandoned and service level (the percentage of calls answered in under a certain time period).

Many call centres use work force management software, which is software that uses historical information coupled with projected need to generate automated schedules that will provide the correct mixture of staff with the correct skills necessary to service customers.

Normally, personnel costs are the most significant expense of a call centre operation and even seemingly small inefficiencies can have significant cost issues. This is one of the major driving factors of outsourcing in the call centre 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 effeciency of the call centre, level of computer and telecom support that may be adequate for staff in a typical branch office may prove totally inadequate in a call centre.

Technology

Call Centres 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 technogies ensure that agents are kept as productive as possible, and that calls are queued and processed as quickly as possible according to the desired levels of service.

These include ;

Call centre dynamics

Types of calls are often divided into outbound and inbound. Inbound calls are calls that are initiated by the customer to obtain information, report a malfunction or ask for help. This is substantially different from outbound calls where the agent initiates the call to a customer mostly with the aim to sell a product or a service to that customer.

The staff of a call centre that is focused on support of a product is often organized into a mult-tier support model, with the first tier being largely unskilled workers who are trained to resolve issues using a simple script. If the first tier is unable to resolve an issue the issue is escalated to a more highly skilled second tier. In some cases, there may be three or more tiers of support. Typically the third tier of support is the engineers or developers of the product.

Call centres have their critics as well. 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 centres have been the subject of complaints by callers who find the staff often do not have enough skill or authority to resolve problems.

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.

Many call centres in the UK have been built in areas that are depressed economically. This means that the companies get cheap land and labour, 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 centres to India, where there is a large pool of cheap English-speaking labour. This phenomenon has led to media reports of poor telephone connections and operators with insufficient local knowledge to do their job. But, call centres in India may be more professionally managed than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Whereas a typical call centre employee in the developed world may be a high school drop out, the typical employee in an Indian call centre is a graduate.

Another popular call centre site is the Philippines. Owing to its abundant English speakers that are college graduates and Americanized when it comes to accent in culture. The Philippines was an American colony for almost 50 years. Filipinos are said to be the best outsourcing site outside North America since the accent is nearer to that of American Consumers.

Canada is also a popular call centre site, with the relatively low Canadian dollar and low telecommunication rates. SITEL Corporation, which operates call centres in Ottawa and St. Catharines, Ontario is one such company. Minacs is a good example of a Canadian owned and operated call centre that exploits the Canadian U.S. dollar exchange rate to its advantage.

Around the world, there are a number of professional organisations forming to develop and promote call centre best practice management and operation, to overcome the negative aspects of a call centre.

Management of call centres

Management of call centres 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 centre and so management must minimise the number of staff present.

To perform this balancing act, call centre 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 demand

Forecasting results are vital in making management decisions in call centres. 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 centre in quarter hour increments and these results must be converted to staffing rosters. Special attention must be paid to the busy hour, i.e. those two half hour periods during a day when traffic intensity is at its highest. Forecasting methods can also be used to pre-empt a situation where equipment needs to be upgraded as traffic intensity has exceeded the maximum capacity of the call centre.

Call centre performance

There are many standard traffic measurements that can be performed on a call centre 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
  • The percentage calls answered within a quarter hour period

Refinements of call centres

There are many refinements to the generic call centre model. Each refinement helps increase the efficiency of the call centre thereby allowing management to make better decisions involving economy and service.

The following list contains some examples of call centre 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. If the agent isn’t finished with the current call before dialling is completed, the software doesn’t dial the final digit.
  • Multi-Skilled Staff – In any call centre, there will be members of staff that will be more skilled in areas than others. A Voice Response 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.
  • Queuing Systems – The selection of a queuing system type is a very important decision in a call centre as it determines the level of quality of service. Queueing systems in call centres are usually described as M/M/N type queues where N is the number of agents. The preferred method of queuing is a FIFO (First In First Out) model, as it causes minimum delay to callers.
  • Prioritisation of Callers – Classification of callers according to priority is a very important refinement. Detecting emergency calls or callers that are reattempting to contact a call centre 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 centres

There are many other issues that have to be planned for when managing a call centre. A few of these issues are listed below:

  • Planning for failure of equipment
  • Need for flexibility in meal-times
  • Need for job variety and training
  • Job exhaustion and stress
  • Staff turnover

Variations on the generic call centre model

The various components in a call centre discussed in the previous sections are the generic form of a call centre. 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 centre must still cover the cost of the ISDN line.
  • 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 minimised.
  • Virtual Call Centres – Virtual Calls Centres are created using many smaller centres in different locations and connecting them to one another. The advantage of virtual call centres is that improve service levels, provide emergency backup and enable extended operating hours over isolated call centres. There are two methods used to route traffic around call centres namely, pre-delivery and post-delivery. Pre-delivery involves using an external switch to route the calls to the appropriate centre and post-delivery enables call centres to route a call they’ve received to another call centre.

References

[1] Kennedy I., Call Centres, School of Electrical and Information Engineering, University of the Witwatersrand, 2003.

[2] Masi D.M.B., Fischer M.J., Harris C.M., Numerical Analysis of Routing Rules for Call Centers, Telecommunications Review, 1998.


Useful call centre resources

General

Call centre discussion

Outsourcers

Equipment

Software

Consulting

See also

External links

Call centre news

  • SearchCRM.com (http://searchcrm.techtarget.com?offer=Wikipedia) Original daily news, webcasts, expert advice, white papers and more resources on call center management.
  • Call Center News (http://news.callcenterguide.com/) News related to the call center.
  • Support Insight (http://www.supportinsight.com) News site for the Support Industry, with subsite dedicated to international call center newsde:Callcenter

pl:Call center

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