There are many aspects to designing and developing a call center operation, including selecting the location, telephone equipment, networking equipment, and software. This combination of technologies and the complexity of integrating all elements effectively and economically present a challenge to the call center development team.
Building a call center internally may be feasible only for very large enterprises—smaller companies should consider outsourcing their call centers to organizations that specialize in providing these services and already have the latest technologies installed and operating, with trained staff. These organizations can often provide excellent customer-oriented services, relieving smaller organizations of the financial, managerial, and human resources issues involved in an internal, corporate call center. Calculating the overall budget for the project will determine whether to build and manage a call center internally or to outsource some or all of the operations to keep costs down and focus on customer retention. Building a call center can run to several million dollars in capital equipment alone, not to mention the cost of hiring staff and managing the day-to-day operations.
With the Internet and potentially rapid response opportunities, new ways for customers to reach companies—e-mail, Web chat, and voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP)—have been added to the traditional forms of communication. To prepare for these multiple communications media and to efficiently serve customers, companies need to capture information from across the enterprise and consolidate customer-related data into a central database. In most cases, customer data resides in many systems, such as order history, fulfillment, shipping, and billing. The number of sources of data can reduce the ability of CSRs to handle requests and can also contribute to errors and duplication. For corporations to handle these multiple customer contact channels effectively, integrating the varied systems is essential. Its call center facility requires carefully selected technology tools.
A complete analysis of the technology and human relations components of a call center reveals a number of planning and selection challenges for the project team charged with development, management, and maintenance of the call center operation. It also highlights the major issues to be addressed for the start-up and on-going management of the center. This analysis will involve the following major activities:
Location and size
Staffing and training
Monitoring and measuring performance
Call management and handling
Integrated call centers
A first step in implementing a call center is to decide on the location of the facility. Whether it is a small department in a local facility or a large, enterprisewide center, this step is important to corporate growth and the bottom line, so it must be planned carefully. The high cost of real estate in populous areas is driving many call center operations to locate in rural areas. This is especially true throughout North America, where call centers are concentrated in several regions of the United States, as well as in Canada. With the communication and computer technology available today, it is very easy to locate call centers in any area where high-speed, high-quality communication resources are available, and many organizations have made this choice.
The size of the call center refers not only to square footage but also to the number of CSRs required, telephony and LAN equipment, client desktops, and other switching and computer hardware. Because call centers usually grow in size, it is a sound planning practice to choose a site with room for expansion.
As noted previously in this chapter, there is a wide range of technologies available to the call center development team, as well as many sources of excellent advice—consultants, vendors, and users with experience in call center implementation. The core technologies of a call center involve many underlying components, including the following:
Computer telephony integration (CTI)
Automated call distribution (ACD) facilities
PBX phone switch
Integrating all the components of the enterprise is time-consuming and expensive. It is important to determine which systems and applications need to be integrated with the call center operation, including
Disparate relational databases
For ease of integration, it is important to select specific tools that will enable the interconnection of telephony equipment and software components.
Hiring skilled staff is more important than ever in a call center operation, where the impact of effective, responsive customer communication can be critical to a company's customer relationship management (CRM) strategy. Modern call centers are much more complex than earlier facilities and require well-trained personnel. Customers are more demanding; they expect immediate response and intelligent help.
It is important to train CSRs, often for specific roles, and to give them call center responsibilities that reflect their areas of expertise. For instance, some are better on the phone and others are better at handling e-mail. To streamline the distribution of contacts and the effective use of trained staff, choose tools with workflow process support and skills-based routing. The latter feature enables the system to take a call regarding a specific product or application and then automatically route it to a representative with the appropriate skills to handle the request.
Once CSRs have been hired and properly trained, retaining them is just as important as retaining customers. Customer service representatives need to be kept up to speed on support methods, products, and processes. Keep knowledge bases up-to-date so that agents can satisfy customers in the best manner. Advanced training, recognition, and competitive salaries are essential in retaining an effective, productive, call center workforce.
The variety of different customer channels available for contacting a call center means that incoming calls need to be answered in a timely manner. Response processes and call management features that enable the appropriate agent to assist the caller require a definition of workflow processes and SLAs (service-level agreements) with customers. Call centers that have automated workflow and skills-based routing can effectively route the incoming calls and ensure that the calls are being responded to appropriately by trained CSRs. Integrating with the Internet is critical, because this capability provides more avenues for assisting customers with chat, self-help, and live agents.
Monitoring tools and reporting features are essential for measuring response times and the number of calls received; these data help ensure that corporate goals are being met and can also be used to increase productivity. The process of keeping a call center running smoothly is an ongoing task that needs to be reviewed and revised from time to time to address problem areas and to help improve customer relations.
Corporate Websites are an important adjunct to call centers. More and better information on Websites assists customers; they benefit from on-line knowledge bases and FAQs and can often resolve issues without contacting a call center, thereby easing the load on the call center. However, when Internet-savvy customers need to interact with the call center, they may prefer to use e-mail, and they tend to ask more complex questions, which require call center representatives to be better skilled.
Call centers are changing as a result of the influence of the Internet and its integration into the call center. Integrated call centers decrease customer waiting time, offer alternate access to an organization, improve customer access, and improve call routing. Numerous studies and surveys have demonstrated that companies benefit from satisfied customers, who come back for more business. In spite of the high costs of a call center, most organizations with either a large number of customers or a frequent requirement to communicate with even a small number of customers need this facility to successfully compete in the 21st-century business environment.