3.4 The incoming call center

3.4 The incoming call center

Incoming Calls Management Institute has developed a working definition of incoming call center management that is used in this book and was first stated in Chapter 3:

Incoming call center management is the art of having the right number of skilled people and supporting resources in place at the right times to handle an accurately forecasted workload, at a specified service level and with quality.

This definition leads to two major objectives for incoming call centers:

  • Locate the right resources in the right places at the right times

  • Provide a service level with quality

The capability of call centers to meet these objectives has evolved through three definable major stages:

  1. Service level awareness—maintaining service level as calls arrive, with some correlation to service level in planning

  2. Seat-of-the pants management—little consideration of service level in planning

  3. Correlating service level to the organization's mission—choosing an appropriate service level and tying resources to achieving this service level

An eight-stage process for systematic planning and management

Many individual organizations have evolved through the same general stages and most now link service level to quality and the overall mission. Systematic planning and management are required to accomplish this important linkage and can be accomplished through an eight-stage process:

  1. Select a Service Level Objective Service level is defined as a certain percentage of calls answered in a specified time frame, measured in seconds. The level should be appropriate for the services being provided and the expectations of callers using those services. Service level is the critical link between resources and results.

  2. Collect Data ACD and computer systems are important sources of planning data because they provide call statistics and details such as number of incoming calls, duration of calls, call patterns, and changes in the call mix. Information about what marketing and other departments are doing, changes in legislation, competitor activities, and changes in customer needs and perceptions is also required.

  3. Forecast Call Load Call load includes three components: call volume, average talk time, and average after-call work. A good forecast predicts all three components accurately for future time periods, usually in half-hour segments. In the modern call center, forecasting must go beyond inbound calls to reflect other choices customers have to interact with organizations—e-mail, faxes, and video and Web-based transactions.

  4. Determine the Base Staff Requirement A formula commonly used for calculating staffing requirements is Erlang C. This formula (to be described later in this chapter) is used in virtually all workforce management software systems and by many call center managers. Computer simulation programs also may provide solutions for staffing and a number of other management issues. New capabilities, such as skill-based routing and complex network environments, must also be taken into account when planning staffing.

  5. Calculate Trunks and Related Systems Resources Staffing and trunking issues are inextricably associated and must be calculated together.

  6. Calculate Rostered Staff Factor and Organize Schedules Rostered staff factor, also referred to as shrink factor or shrinkage, adds realism to staffing requirements by accounting for breaks, absenteeism, training, and nonphone work. Schedules are essentially forecasts of who needs to be where and when. They should lead to getting the right people in the right places at the right times.

  7. Calculate Costs This step projects costs for the resources required to meet service and quality objectives.

  8. Repeat Steps 1–7 for Higher and Lower Levels of Service Preparing three budgets around three different service levels provides an understanding of cost trade-offs, which is invaluable in budgeting decisions.

New opportunities and new challenges

In the marketing environment of the 21st century, there are enormous opportunities for interacting with customers. New services built around the World Wide Web, video capabilities, and other multimedia technologies are bringing new opportunities and challenges to the call center. Many inbound call center managers and CSRs are concerned about the new technologies and how they will affect their jobs and the call center industry in general.

The changing environment has caused the term incoming call center to be challenged on several fronts even as call centers are being accepted as an integral element of the business environment. The controversy is over the definition of this entity: Is it a center that handles calls? This concept hardly describes the incoming call center of today, of which there are hundreds in a variety of business sectors, from financial institutions to communications companies (see chapter 5, "Call Center Case Studies"). Calls are just one type of customer communication, and the word center does not describe the many multisite environments nor the growing number of organizations that have telecommuting programs. Call center has become an umbrella term for a variety of customer contact facilities, including reservation centers, help desks, information lines, and customer service centers, regardless of how they are organized or what types of transactions they handle.

Call center planning and management has also changed, not fundamentally, but in ways that are related to the new environment and the new technologies. With integrated Web services, customers and potential customers browsing a Website can click a button, be connected to the call center, and receive immediate live assistance. Planning and managing in this environment should involve the steps in the eight-stage planning and managing process described in the previous section. Planning for and managing video calls is another example. The process begins by choosing an appropriate service level objective, then collecting data, forecasting the video call load, calculating the base level of agents required, planning for system resources, and so on. The objectives are the same as for a more traditional call center operation: the right number of video-equipped agents and necessary technology resources in the right places at the right times, performing the right functions.

Changes to come

Changes in call center management practices related to the new types of transactions that need to be handled will be required. The new transactions will become increasingly complex as technology automates simple and routine tasks and leaves CSRs to manage interactions requiring the human touch. Customer expectations will continue to climb, and callers will not tolerate organizations that do not provide the choices and service levels they demand. The personal skills required of call center personnel, however, will not change: CSRs will still need good writing and customer service skills. Finding the right mix of technology and human capital will require an ongoing effort.

Since the early 1900s, there have been many advances in technology and the art and science of communication has been in the forefront, as described in Chapter 2. Technology has had significant impact on the call center: Operators, for example, are no longer needed to connect calls because the process has been automated. But managing the modern call center faces challenges similar to those faced by the telephone pioneers. Forecasting calls accurately, staffing appropriately, and getting the right people and other resources in the right places at the right times are continuing problems that connect today's call center to the past, as noted at the beginning of this chapter.

As telephone services matured, several solutions to resource management challenges were proposed. One of the first individuals to solve the problem of handling vast numbers of incoming calls and arriving at the optimum level of operator resources was A. K. Erlang. Erlang's queuing formula, Erlang C, still widely used today, gradually evolved into a programming language (Erlang) that has been used in a variety of mission-critical areas, especially in applications that must run continuously and across many machines such as air traffic control and, of course, call center operations.