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.
Call centre technology
Call centre technology is subject to improvements and innovations. Some of these technologies include speech recognition
and speech synthesis
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, and many other technologies to improve agent productivity and customer satisfaction
. Automatic lead selection or lead stearing is also intended to improve efficiencies, both for inbound and outbound campaigns, whereby inbound calls are intended to quickly land with the appropriate agent to handle the task, whilst minimising 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, socio-economic factors and past performance and percentage likelihood of closing a sale per lead.
The concept of the Universal Queue
standardises the processing of communications across multiple technologies such as fax, phone, and email.
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..
Call centre dynamics
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.
Varieties of call centres
Some variations of call centre models 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 internet technologies to connect.
- Temporary Agents – Temporary agents who are called upon if demand increases more rapidly than planned.
- Virtual Call centres – Virtual Call centres are created using many smaller centres in different locations and connecting them to one another. There are two methods used to route traffic around call centres: 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.
- Contact centres – Deal with more media than telephony alone including Email, Web Callback and internet Chat.
Criticism & performance of call centres
Criticisms of call centres generally follow a number of common themes, from both callers and call centre staff. From callers, common criticisms include:
- Operators working from a script
- Non-expert operators (call screening)
- Incompetent or untrained operators incapable of processing customers' requests effectively
- Overseas location, with language and accent problems
- Automated queuing systems—this sometimes results in excessively long hold times
- 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:
- 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
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.
Unionization of call centers
Unions in North America
have made some effort to gain members from this sector, including the Communications Workers of America
. In Australia
, the Call Centre Workers Union represents unionised workers; their activities form part of the Australian labor movement. In Europe
, Uni Global Union of Switzerland
is involved in assisting unionization in this realm.
Currently, there are no universally bracketable international standards, other than ISO 9000
series, available for the industry to follow up. However, there are some guidelines and standing operating procedures
available on the internet.
is a branch of mathematics in which models of queuing
systems have been developed. A call center can be seen as a queuing network. The models can be applied to answer queing questions for call centers.
Call center operations have been supported by mathematical models beyond queuing, with operations research, which considers a wide range of optimization problems.
- 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. http://www.noblis.org/Publications/TR98_8.doc
- HSE Web site at www.hse.gov.uk/lau/lacs/94-2.htm for guidelines about call centre working * practices.
- Fluss, Donna, "The Real-Time Contact centre", 2005 AMACOM