Study of the behaviour of queues (waiting lines) and their elements. Queuing theory is a tool for studying several performance parameters of computer systems and is particularly useful in locating the reasons for “bottlenecks,” compromised computer performance caused by too much data waiting to be acted on at a particular phase. Queue size and waiting time can be looked at, or items within queues can be studied and manipulated according to factors such as priority, size, or time of arrival.
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A call centre or call center (see spelling differences) is a centralized 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, and debt collection are also made. In addition to a call centre, collective handling of letters, faxes, 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).
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 through call centres. Examples of this include help desks and sales support.
There are a large number of 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 50 patents covering inventions related to toll free numbers, automated attendant, automated call distribution, voice response unit, computer telephone integration and speech recognition..
Types of calls are often divided into outbound and inbound. Inbound calls are calls that are made by the consumer to obtain information, report a malfunction, or ask for help. These calls are substantially different from outbound calls, where agents place calls to potential customers mostly with intentions of selling or service to the individual. (See telemarketing). It is possible to combine inbound and outbound campaigns, but it is not a common practice.
Call centre staff are often organised into a multi-tier support system for a more efficient handling of calls. The first tier in such a model consists of operators, who direct inquiries to the appropriate department and provide general directory information. If a caller requires more assistance, the call is forwarded to the second tier, where most issues can be resolved. In some cases, there may be three or more tiers of support staff. If a caller requires more assistance, the caller is forwarded to the third tier of support; typically the third tier of support is formed by product engineers/developers or highly skilled technical support staff of the product.
Call centres have their critics. 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, while the dehumanised workers very often exhibit an attitude of apathy to even the most abusive customer.
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.
Common criticisms from staff include:
The net-net of these concerns is that call centers as a business process exhibit stratospheric 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. Call centers are beginning to address this by using technology to standardize the process all agents use. Anton and Phelps have provided a detailed HOWTO to conduct the performance evaluation of the business, whereas others are using various scientific technologies to do the jobs. However more popular alternatives are using personality and skill based approaches. The various challenges encountered by call operators are discussed by several authors.