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A call centre or call center is a centralised office used for receiving or transmitting a large volume of requests by telephone. An inbound call centre is operated by a company or other organization to administer incoming product support or information enquiries from consumers or clients. Outbound call centres are operated for telemarketing, solicitation of charitable or political donations, debt collection and market research. A contact centre is a location for centralised handling of individual communications, including letters, faxes, live support software, social media, instant message, and e-mail.
A call centre usually has an 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 local area networks (LANs). Increasingly, in the 2000s, the voice and data pathways into the centre are linked through a set of new technologies called computer telephony integration.
The contact centre is a central point 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. The majority of large companies use contact centres as a means of managing their customer interaction. These centres can be operated by either an in house department responsible or outsourcing customer interaction to a third party agency (known as Outsourcing Call Centres).
The origins of call centres dates back to the 1960s with the UK-based Birmingham Press and Mail, which installed Private Automated Business Exchanges (PABX) to have rows of agents handling customer contacts. By 1973, call centres received mainstream attention after Rockwell International patented its Galaxy Automatic Call Distributor (ACD) for a telephone booking system as well as the popularization of telephone headsets as seen on televised NASA Mission Control Center events.
During the late 1970s, call centre technology expanded to include telephone sales, airline reservations and banking systems. The term "call centre" was first published and recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1983. The 1980s experienced the development of toll-free telephone numbers to increase the efficiency of agents and overall call volume. Call centres increased with the deregulation of long distance calling and growth in information dependent industries.
As call centres expanded, unionisation occurred in North America to gain members including the Communications Workers of America and the United Steelworkers. In Australia, the National Union of Workers represents unionised workers; their activities form part of the Australian labour movement. In Europe, Uni Global Union of Switzerland is involved in assisting unionisation in this realm and in Germany Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft represents call centre workers.
During the 1990s, call centres expanded internationally and developed into two additional subsets of communication, contact centres and outsourced bureau centres. A contact centre is defined as a coordinated system of people, processes, technologies and strategies that provides access to information, resources, and expertise, through appropriate channels of communication, enabling interactions that create value for the customer and organisation. In contrast to in-house management, 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. The modern contact center has developed more complex systems, which require highly skilled operational and management staff that can use multichannel online and offline tools to improve customer interaction.
Call centre 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. Automatic lead selection or lead steering is also intended to improve efficiencies, both for inbound and outbound campaigns. This allows inbound calls to be directly routed to the appropriate agent for the task, whilst minimising wait times and long lists of irrelevant options for people calling in. For outbound calls, 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 universal queue standardises the processing of communications across multiple technologies such as fax, phone, and email. The virtual queue provides callers with an alternative to waiting on hold when no agents are available to handle inbound call demand.
Historically, call centres have been built on Private branch exchange (PBX) equipment that is owned, hosted, and maintained by the call centre operator themselves. The PBX can provide functions such as automatic call distribution, interactive voice response, and skills-based routing.
Virtual call centre
In virtual call centre model, the call centre operator pays a monthly or annual fee to a vendor that hosts the call centre telephony equipment in their own data centre. In this model, the operator does not own, operate or host the equipment that the call centre runs on. 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 premises. 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. The only required equipment is Internet access and a workstation. The companies are preferring Virtual Call Centre services due to cost advantage. Companies can start their call centre business immediately without installing the basic infrastructure like Dialer, ACD and IVRS.
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, leads management, and other applications. Computer telephony integration 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.
Contact centres run support or help desks, which regularly answers technical questions from customers and assists them using their equipment or software. Support desks are used by companies in the computing, telecommunications and consumer electronics industries.
Customer service contact centres answer specific queries relating to customer issues, in the banking and utility sectors these are frequently used to answer customer questions relating to their account or payments, this type of service may even be used to respond to customer complaints and undertake retention strategies for unsatisfied customers.
A contact centre supports interaction with customers over a variety of media, including telephony, e-mail, social media, and internet chat. A telephone answering service is a more personalised version of the call centre, where agents get to know more about their customers and their callers; and therefore look after calls just as if based in their customers' office.
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). A "blended" centre combines both inbound and outbound campaigns where each type of agent (inbound or outbound) can handle the overflow of the other.
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.
Outsourced call centres are often located in the developing countries, where wages are significantly lower. The call centre industry in the Philippines and call centre industry in the Bangladesh serve as good examples.
Companies that regularly utilise outsourced contact centre services include British Sky Broadcasting and Orange in the telecommunications industry, Adidas in the sports and leisure sector, Audi in car manufacturing and charities such as the RSPCA.
Call centres in healthcare
The healthcare industry has used outbound call centre programmes for years to help manage billing, collections, and patient communication. The inbound call centre is a new and increasingly popular service for many types of healthcare facilities, including large hospitals. Inbound call centres can be outsourced or managed in-house. MountainStar Healthcare is one of the first companies to build an inbound call centre in-house. American Health Connection is an American healthcare call centre corporation with a focus on inbound call centres that use outsourcing.
These healthcare call centres are designed to help streamline communications, enhance patient retention and satisfaction, reduce expenses and improve operational efficiencies.
Queueing theory is a branch of mathematics in which models of service systems have been developed. A call centre can be seen as a queueing network and results from queueing theory such as the probability an arriving customer needs to wait before starting service useful for provisioning capacity. (Erlang's C formula is such a result for an M/M/c queue and approximations exist for an M/G/k queue.) Statistical analysis of call centre data has suggested arrivals are governed by an inhomogeneous Poisson process and jobs have a log-normal service time distribution. Simulation algorithms are increasingly being used to model call arrival, queueing and service levels.
Call centre operations have been supported by mathematical models beyond queueing, with operations research, which considers a wide range of optimisation problems seeking to reduce waiting times while keeping server utilisation and therefore efficiency high.
- Customer Satisfaction: a measure of how products and services supplied by a company meet or surpass customer expectation. C-SAT is based on customer’s experience with the support or service. The scoring for this answer is most often based on a 0 to 10 scale.
- Average Handling time: a key measure for any contact centre planning system, as it tells you how long a new item of work takes to be handled and not just the talk time.
- Revenue Per Call: usually used in sales projects which calculates the effort of a representative with respect to increasing sales. RPC can be calculated by dividing the total amount of sale by total number of calls.
- First Call Resolution: properly addressing the customer’s need the first time they call, thereby eliminating the need for the customer to follow up with a second call.
- Total Problem Resolution: percentage of time the problem has been completely resolved from the customer point of view. This KPI is mostly used for: Operational Excellence. This keeps troubleshooting time to a minimum, which, according to industry averages, currently accounts for as much as 80 percent of total problem resolution time, and gets the problem fixed.
- Net Promoter Score: measures the loyalty that exists between a provider and a consumer. NPS is based on a direct question: How likely is it that you would recommend our company/product/service to a friend or colleague? The scoring for this answer is most often based on a 0 to 10 scale.
- Quality Scores: by far the most common metric used. It provides the ability to look at the overall caller experience and the conversations that agents are using on their phone calls.
- Service Level Agreement: an agreement between two or more parties where one is the customer and the others are service providers. The contract may involve financial penalties and the right to terminate the contract if the SLA metrics are consistently missed.
- Active & Waiting Calls: measures current volume of active calls compared to the number of callers waiting to be patched through to an agent. This is a real-time status metric that should be shared with all the agents to offer them insight on their performance. Agents should be encouraged to resolve calls on a timely basis in order to get to the next caller in queue and not keep the callers on wait.
- Call Abandonment: measures the number of calls that are disconnected before they can be connected to one of your agents. This metric is closely related to Service Level and Customer Satisfaction. Customers are not expected to be patient. They will hang up and possibly switch their brand loyalties.
- Forecast Accuracy: better described as forecasted contact load vs actual contact load. It is a performance metric that reflects the percent variance between the number of inbound customer contacts forecasted for a particular time period and the number of said contacts actually received by the centre during that time period.
- Staff Turnover/Retention: The best way to measure the satisfaction of your workforce is to look at the percentage of staff that leaves. There can be some telling information in these numbers and it is crucial to track and analyse the turnover rates in many ways.
- Up-Sell/ Cross-Sell Rate: simply the success rate of generating revenue above the original intention of the call. It is becoming an increasingly common practice, not just for pure revenue-generating call centres but for customer service centres as well.
- Staff Shrinkage: the percentage of time that employees are not available to handle calls. It is classified as non-productive time, and is made up of meeting and training time, breaks, paid time off, off-phone work, and general unexplained time where agents are not available to handle customer interactions.
- Blockage:a measure of accessibility that indicates what percentage of customers will not be able to get in touch with the contact centre at a given time due to insufficient network facilities.
- Cost Per Call: A major factor determining revenue is the cost of running the organisation. A common measure of operational efficiency is cost incurred for each minute of handling the call workload, commonly referred to as Cost per Call. This cost per call can be simply a labour cost per call, or it can be a fully loaded rate that includes payroll in addition to telecommunications, facilities, and other services costs.
Criticism and performance
Some critics of call centres argue that the work atmosphere in such an environment is dehumanising. 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. 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, while the staff sometimes appear apathetic. Other research illustrates how call centre workers develop ways to counter or resist this environment by integrating local cultural sensibilities or embracing a vision of a new life.
Telephone calls are easily monitored, and the close monitoring of call centre staff is widespread. This has the benefit 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. Most call centres provide electronic reports that outline performance metrics, quarterly highlights and other information about the calls made and received.
- Operators working from a script
- Ignoring or delaying the calls from the more difficult customers (call screening)
- Incompetent or untrained operators incapable of processing customers' requests effectively
- Obsequious behaviour by operators (e.g., relentless use of "sir", "ma'am" and "I'd be more than 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
- 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)
- Long hours
- 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)
- Lack of support for employees with impaired vision and hearing problems
- Rude and abusive customers
- Lack of advancement opportunities (Most call centre positions tend to be dead-end jobs until the employee decides to leave the company, resulting in high turnover rates within the call centre)
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. Call centres are beginning to address this by using agent-assisted automation to standardise the process all agents use. Anton and Phelps have provided a detailed manual on how 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.
Indian call centres have been the focus of several documentary films, the 2004 film Thomas L. Friedman Reporting: The Other Side of Outsourcing, the 2005 films John and Jane, Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night, and 1-800-India: Importing a White-Collar Economy, and the 2006 film Bombay Calling, among others. An Indian call centre is also the subject of the 2006 film Outsourced (film) and a key location in the 2008 film, Slumdog Millionaire. The 2014 BBC fly on the wall documentary series The Call Centre gave an often distorted although humorous view of life in a Welsh call centre.
- Automatic call distributor
- Business process outsourcing
- Call management
- List of call centre companies
- Predictive dialling
- Operator messaging
- Queue management system
- Skills based routing
- Virtual queue
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