Call centre

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A very large collections call centre in Lakeland, Florida.
A typical call centre worker's desk environment in Lakeland, Florida, United States.
Call centre worker at a very small workstation/booth, using CallWeb Internet-based survey software.

A call centre or call center is a centralised office used for the purpose of receiving and transmitting a large volume of requests by telephone. A call centre is operated by a company to administer incoming product support or information inquiries from consumers. Outgoing calls for telemarketing, clientele, product services, and debt collection are also made. In addition to a call centre, collective handling of letters, faxes, live chat, and e-mails at one location is known as a contact centre.

A call centre is often operated through an extensive open workspace for call centre agents, with work stations that include a computer for each agent, a telephone set/headset connected to a telecom switch, and one or more supervisor stations. It can be independently operated or networked with additional centres, often linked to a corporate computer network, including mainframes, 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).

A contact centre, also known as customer interaction centre is a central point of any organization from which all customer contacts are managed. Through contact centres, valuable information about company are routed to appropriate people, contacts to be tracked and data to be gathered. It is generally a part of company’s customer relationship management (CRM). Today, customers contact companies by calling, emailing, chatting online, visiting websites, faxing, and even instant messaging.


[edit] Technology

Call centre technology is subject to improvements and innovations. Some of these technologies include speech recognition software to allow computers to handle first level of customer support, text mining and natural language processing to allow better customer handling, agent training by automatic mining of best practices from past interactions, support automation and many other technologies to improve agent productivity and customer satisfaction.[1] Automatic lead selection or lead steering is also intended to improve efficiencies,[2] both for inbound and outbound campaigns, whereby inbound calls are intended to quickly land with the appropriate agent to handle the task, whilst minimizing wait times and long lists of irrelevant options for people calling in, as well as for outbound calls, where lead selection allows management to designate what type of leads go to which agent based on factors including skill, socioeconomic factors and past performance and percentage likelihood of closing a sale per lead.

The concept of the Universal Queue standardizes the processing of communications across multiple technologies such as fax, phone, and email whilst the concept of a Virtual queue provides callers with an alternative to waiting on hold when no agents are available to handle inbound call demand.

A typical call centre telephone. Note: no handset, phone is for headset use only.

Premise-based Call Centre Technology Historically, call centres have been built on PBX equipment that is owned and hosted by the call centre operator. The PBX might provide functions such as Automatic Call Distribution, Interactive Voice Response, and skills-based routing. The call centre operator would be responsible for the maintenance of the equipment and necessary software upgrades as released by the vendor.

Virtual Call Centre Technology[3] With the advent of the Software as a service technology delivery model, the virtual call centre has emerged. In a virtual call centre model, the call centres operator does not own, operate or host the equipment that the call centre runs on. Instead, they subscribe to a service for a monthly or annual fee with a service provider that hosts the call centre telephony equipment in their own data centre. Such a vendor may host many call centres on their equipment. Agents connect to the vendor's equipment through traditional PSTN telephone lines, or over Voice over IP. Calls to and from prospects or contacts originate from or terminate at the vendor's data centre, rather than at the call centre operator's premise. The vendor's telephony equipment then connects the calls to the call centre operator's agents.

Virtual Call Centre Technology allows people to work from home, instead of in a traditional, centralised, call centre location, which increasingly allows people with physical or other disabilities that prevent them from leaving the house, to work.[4]

A predictive dialling system running out of numbers to dial.

Cloud Computing for Call Centres Cloud computing for call centres extends cloud computing to Software as a service, or hosted, on-demand call centres by providing application programming interfaces (APIs) on the call centre cloud computing platform that allow call centre functionality to be integrated with cloud-based Customer relationship management, such as or Oracle CRM and leads management and other applications.

The APIs typically provide programmatic access to two key groups of features in the call centre platform:

Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) APIs provide developers with access to basic telephony controls and sophisticated call handling on the call centre platform from a separate application.

Configuration APIs provide programmatic control of administrative functions of the call centre platform which are typically accessed by a human administrator through a Graphical User Interface (GUI).

[edit] Patents

Call centre floor during shift.

There are many patents covering various aspects of call centre operation, automation, and technology. One of the early inventors in this field, Ronald A. Katz, personally holds over 40 patents covering inventions related to charge-free numbers, automated attendant, automated call distribution, voice response unit, computer telephone integration and speech recognition.[5]

Another notable patent is US Patent number 7,734,029 on Natural Predictive Dialing.

[edit] Dynamics

Calls may be inbound or outbound. Inbound calls are made by consumers, for example to obtain information, report a malfunction, or ask for help. In contrast, outbound calls are made by agents to consumers, usually for sales purposes (telemarketing). One can combine inbound and outbound campaigns.[6]

Call centre staff are often organised into a multi-tier support system for more efficient handling of calls. The first tier consists of operators, who initially answer calls and provide general information. If a caller requires more assistance, the call is forwarded to the second tier (in the appropriate department depending on the nature of the call). In some cases, there are three or more tiers of support staff. Typically the third tier of support is formed of product engineers/developers or highly skilled technical support staff for the product.

Some critics of call centres argue that the work atmosphere in such an environment is dehumanising.[7] Others point to the low rates of pay and restrictive working practices of some employers.[8][9] There has been much controversy over such things as restricting the amount of time that an employee can spend in the toilet.[10] Call centres have also been the subject of complaints by callers who find the staff often do not have enough skill or authority to resolve problems,[11] while the staff sometimes appear apathetic.[12]

Telephone calls are easily monitored, and the close monitoring of call centre staff is widespread.[13] This has the benefit[14] of helping the company to plan the workload and time of its employees. However it has also been argued that such close monitoring breaches the human right to privacy.[15]

[edit] Varieties

Some variations [16] of call centre models are listed below:

  • Contact centre – Supports interaction with customers over a variety of media, including but not necessarily limited to telephony, e-mail and internet chat.
  • Inbound call centre - Exclusively or predominantly handles inbound calls (calls initiated by the customer).
  • Outbound call centre - One in which call centre agents make outbound calls to customers or sales leads.
  • Blended call centre - Combining automatic call distribution for incoming calls with predictive dialling for outbound calls, it makes more efficient use of agent time as each type of agent (inbound or outbound) can handle the overflow of the other.

[edit] Criticism and performance

Criticisms of call centres generally follow a number of common themes, from both callers and call centre staff. From callers, common criticisms include:[17]

  • Operators working from a script
  • Non-expert operators (call screening)
  • Incompetent or untrained operators incapable of processing customers' requests effectively[18]
  • Obsequious behavior by operators (e.g., relentless use of "sir," "ma'am" and "I'd be happy to assist you")
  • Overseas location, with language and accent problems
  • Touch tone menu systems and automated queuing systems
  • Excessive waiting times to be connected to an operator
  • Complaints that departments of companies do not engage in communication with one another
  • Deceit over location of call centre (such as allocating overseas workers false English names)
  • Requiring the caller to repeat the same information multiple times

Common criticisms from staff include:[19]

  • Close scrutiny by management (e.g. frequent random call monitoring)
  • Low compensation (pay and bonuses)
  • Restrictive working practices (some operators are required to follow a pre-written script)
  • High stress: a common problem associated with front-end jobs where employees deal directly with customers
  • Repetitive job task
  • Poor working conditions (e.g. poor facilities, poor maintenance and cleaning, cramped working conditions, management interference, lack of privacy and noisy)
  • Impaired vision and hearing problems
  • Rude and abusive customers

The net-net of these concerns is that call centres as a business process exhibit levels of variability. The experience a customer gets and the results a company achieves on a given call are almost totally dependent on the quality of the agent answering that call.[20] Call centres are beginning to address this by using Agent-assisted Automation to standardise the process all agents use.[21] Anton and Phelps have provided a detailed HOWTO to conduct the performance evaluation of the business,[22] whereas others are using various scientific technologies to do the jobs.[23][24][25] However more popular alternatives are using personality and skill based approaches.[26][27] The various challenges encountered by call operators are discussed by several authors.[28][29][30][31][32]

[edit] Outsourced bureau contact centres

Outsourced bureau contact centres are a model of contact centre that provide services on a "pay per use" model. The overheads of the contact centre are shared by many clients thereby supporting a very cost effective model especially for low volumes of calls.

Bureau contact centres provide an opportunity for:

  • Pilot schemes - perform test of concept for new models for communications, sales or customer services before investing in staff and infrastructure.
  • Flexible solutions for SMEs - small or medium-size enterprises can benefit from a flexible service that can evolve with the business.
  • Best of breed systems/technology - clients can benefit from considerable investment into communications technology, receiving benefits without having to invest in large capital expenditure projects.

[edit] Unionisation

Unions in North America have made some effort to gain members from this sector,[33] including the Communications Workers of America[34] and the United Steelworkers. In Australia, the National Union of Workers represents unionised workers; their activities form part of the Australian labour movement.[35] In Europe, Uni Global Union of Switzerland is involved in assisting unionisation in this realm.[36]

[edit] Standardisation

Customer Operations Performance Center Inc. (COPC) is the globally recognised performance management framework for the contact centre and BPO industry. You can become certified to the COPC-2000 CSP Standard after demonstrating compliance to over 30 different items of contact centre performance as outlined in the COPC-2000 CSP Standard.

The COPC-2000 CSP Standard can be downloaded for free and is "open source" meaning it can also be utilized within your contact centre as a service to the industry.

[edit] Mathematical theory

Queuing theory is a branch of mathematics in which models of queuing systems have been developed. A call centre can be seen as a queuing network.[37][38] The models can be applied to answer queueing questions for call centres. The most widespread queueing model used is the Erlang C Formula.

Call centre operations have been supported by mathematical models beyond queueing, with operations research, which considers a wide range of optimisation problems.

[edit] Media portrayals

Indian call centres have been the focus of at least two documentary films, the 2005 film Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night and the 2006 film Bombay Calling.

[edit] See also

[edit] References

  1. ^ L Venkata Subramaniam (2008-02-01). "Call Centers of the Future" (PDF). i.t. magazine. pp. 48–51. Retrieved 2008-05-29. 
  2. ^ "US Patent 7035699 - Qualified and targeted lead selection and delivery system". Patent Storm. 2006-04-25. Retrieved 2008-05-29. 
  3. ^ M. Popovic and V. Kovacevic. "An Approach to Internet-Based Virtual Call Center Implementation". University of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. 
  4. ^ David S. Joachim. "Computer Technology Opens a World of Work to Disabled People". New York Times. 
  5. ^ "Bednarek et al., "Katz Patent Reexamination: A Change in Momentum Favoring RAKTL Targets", ShawPittman, June 9, 2004". Retrieved 2010-11-03. 
  6. ^ Freeman, Laura M; Whitfield, Hilary C (1996). "Setting up for integrated inbound/outbound telemarketing". BNET. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  7. ^ "Working conditions and health in Swedish call centres". European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. 2005-04-28. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  8. ^ "Hourly Rate Survey Report for Industry: Call Center". PayScale. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  9. ^ "Advice regarding call centre working practices" (PDF). Health and Safety Executive. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  10. ^ "Hazards 81 extended briefing: Toilet breaks: Give us a break!". Hazards. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  11. ^ Shaw, Russell (2006-01-30). "Tone-deaf to customer complaints, Dell opens yet another call center in India". ZDNet. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  12. ^ Ahmed, Zubair (2006-02-22). "Abuse rattles Indian call centre staff". BBC News. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  13. ^ "Call Centre Monitoring". Management. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  14. ^ "The Call Center Answer Team reaches out to the industry for to crack a tough nut". Q&A: How Many Calls Should I Monitor. 2003-07-30. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  15. ^ "Who’s on the Line? Women in Call Centres Project" (PDF). Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women's Health. Health Canada. Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  16. ^ Raik Stolletz (2003). Performance Analysis and Optimization of Inbound Call Centers. Springer-Verlag. ISBN 9783540008125. 
  17. ^ "If You Want to Scream, Press... - Preview". Retrieved 2012-01-28. 
  18. ^ "nationalcallcenters". Retrieved 2012-02-09. 
  19. ^ [1][dead link]
  20. ^ Fleming, J., Coffman, C., Harter, J. (2005) Manage Your Human Sigma, Harvard Business Review
  21. ^ "NACC". Retrieved 2012-01-28. 
  22. ^ Anton, Jon; Dru Phelps. "How to conduct a call center performance audit: A to Z" (PDF). Retrieved 1 July 2008. 
  23. ^ Paprzycki, Marcin et al. (2004). Data Mining Approach for Analyzing Call Center Performance. Berlin: Springer. doi:10.1007/b97304. ISBN 9783540220077. 
  24. ^ "Evaluation of the Performance of customer service representatives in a call center using DEA/Network Model/Fussy Sets". Retrieved 1 July 2008. 
  25. ^ Srinivasan, Raj et al.; Talim, JéRome; Wang, Jinting (2004). "Performance analysis of a call center with interactive voice response units". TOP (Springer Berlin) 12 (1): 91–110. doi:10.1007/BF02578926. 
  26. ^ Skyrme, Pamela et al.. "Using personality to predict outbound call center job performance" (PDF). Retrieved 1 July 2008. 
  27. ^ Stolletz, Raik; Stefan Helber (2004). "Performance analysis of an inbound call center with skills-based routing". OR Spectrum 26 (3): 331–352. doi:10.1007/s00291-004-0161-y. 
  28. ^ Witt, L. A. et al. (2004). "When Conscientiousness Isn’t Enough: Emotional Exhaustion and Performance Among Call Center Customer Service Representatives". Journal of Management 30 (1): 149–160. doi:10.1016/ 
  29. ^ Aguir, Salah et al.; Karaesmen, Fikri; Aksin, O. Zeynep; Chauvet, Fabrice (2004). "The impact of retrials on call center performance". OR Spectrum 26 (3): 353–376. doi:10.1007/s00291-004-0165-7. 
  30. ^ Murthy, Nagesh N. et al.; Challagalla, G. N.; Vincent, L. H.; Shervani, T. A. (2008). "The Impact of Simulation Training on Call Center Agent Performance: A Field-Based Investigation". Management Science 54 (2): 384–399. doi:10.1287/mnsc.1070.0818. 
  31. ^ Armony, Mor; Itay Gurvich. "When promotions meet operations: cross-selling and its effect on call-center performance" (PDF). Retrieved 1 July 2008. 
  32. ^ Goldberg, L.S.; A.A. Grandey. "Display rules versus display autonomy: emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and task performance in a call center simulation". Retrieved 1 July 2008. 
  33. ^ ed. by Pradeep Kumar ...; Pradeep Kumar, Christopher Robert Schenk (2006). Paths to Union Renewal. Broadview Press. ISBN 1-55193-058-7. 
  34. ^ "Improving Call Center Jobs a Top Priority for CWA Customer Service". Communicattion Workers of America. Retrieved 2011-02-23. 
  35. ^ "Call Centre Union Busters Get Wake-Up Call". Workers Online. Retrieved 2008-07-08. 
  36. ^ "Uni Global Union's call centre organising campaigns". Uni Global Union. Retrieved 2008-07-08. 
  37. ^ "Call Center Mathematics | A scientific method for understanding and improving contact centers by Ger Koole" (PDF). Retrieved 2010-11-03. 
  38. ^ Queueing Models of Call Centers: An Introduction Ger Koole[dead link]

[edit] Further reading

  • Cusack M., "Online Customer Care", American Society for Quality (ASQ) Press, 2000.
  • Cleveland B., "Call Center Management on Fast Forward", ICMI Press, 2006.
  • Kennedy I., Call centres, School of Electrical and Information Engineering, University of the Witwatersrand, 2003.
  • Masi D.M.B., Fischer M.J., Harris C.M., Numerical Analysis of Routing Rules for Call centres, Telecommunications Review, 1998,
  • HSE website for guidelines about call centre working practices.
  • Reena Patel, Working the Night Shift: Women in India's Call Center Industry (Stanford University Press; 2010) 219 pages; traces changing views of "women's work" in India under globalization.
  • Fluss, Donna, "The Real-Time Contact centre", 2005 AMACOM
  • Wegge, J., van Dick, R., Fisher, G., Wecking, C., & Moltzen, K. (2006, January). Work motivation, organisational identification, and well-being in call centre work. Work & Stress, 20(1), 60-83.
  • Customer Operations Performance Center Inc. website for more information on the COPC-2000 CSP Standard.
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