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Call Centers: Catalysts for Corporate Change

Outsourcing Technical Support

Outsourcing non-core and IT services has become the business strategy for growth in the new millennium. Managers need no longer justify outsourcing: rather, they have to justify work done internally that could be done better outside the organization.

Call centers have thus become catalysts for business transformation: freeing up businesses to focus on core activities.

What is a Call Center?

It can be one or all of these:

  • A huge telemarketing center
  • A teleservicing center
  • A help desk, both internal and external
  • An outsourcer (also known as a service bureau) that uses its large capacity to serve lots of companies
  • A reservation center for airlines or hotels
  • A catalog retailer
  • An e-tailing center
  • An e-commerce transaction center that doesn't handle calls so much as automated customer interactions
  • A fund-raising and collection organization

  • Planning to set up a call center, but not sure what it takes?

A call center is traditionally defined as a physical location where calls are placed, or received, in high volume for the purpose of:

  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Telemarketing
  • Customer service
  • Technical support
  • Specialized business activity

In a study conducted by the WEFA Group for the Direct Marketing Association, the total sales generated by telemarketing in 1997 was estimated to be $289 billion.

One early definition described a call center as a place of doing business by phone that combined a centralized database with an automatic call distribution (ACD) system. However, call centers have evolved to become sophisticated business enterprises providing integrated services that are essential to the success of the corporations they serve. They are also called "customer care centers", "contact centers", "multimedia access centers" and "service bureaus".

What's the difference between "agents" and "seats"?

"Agents" refer to the number of staff at a call center. Typically it is a 24x7 operation where people work in shifts. "Seats" refer to the number of people who can work at a call center at any one time.

Does a call center have to be large?

Call centers began as huge establishments managing a large volume of communications and traffic. Only large companies had the financial muscle to invest in technology like the Automatic Call Distribution system that allowed them to handle huge volumes. More recently, with the development of LAN-based switches, internet-based transaction processing, client/server software systems, and open phone systems, any call center can have an advanced call handling and customer management system, even down to ten agents or less. A call center today could range from a micro-center with 5-10 seats, to a huge set-up with 500-2,000 seats.

How many call centers are there?

According to the Call Center News Service, this is a hard question to answer, because definitions of a call center vary widely. Would you define them by technology or by function? Also, some call centers are hidden within organizations that don't talk about them. The widest definition would include micro-centers of five to ten people. These centers also have to provide customers the same quality of service as their larger counterparts. An educated guess would put the number of call centers at around 140,000 in the US and Canada with perhaps 20,000 more scattered around the world. (67,000 call centers are known to exist using a particular type of technology).

Other estimates say that presently, there are more than 1,00,000 call centers and 2 million agent positions across the globe. The demand for agent positions is growing at the rate of approximately 23 to 25 percent.

What technology is needed for a call center?

Call centers are generally set up as large rooms, with workstations that include a computer, a telephone set (or headset) hooked into a large telecom switch and one or more supervisor stations. The center may stand by itself, or be linked with other centers. It may also be linked to a corporate data network, including mainframes, microcomputers and LANs. Increasingly, the voice and data pathways into the center are linked through a set of new technologies called CTI, or computer-telephony integration.

The multimedia call center

Today's call center encompasses not just phone support, but Internet web sites and electronic commerce as well. By leveraging voice, video, and data, information can be delivered in a variety of compelling ways that encourage customer self-service and enhance the user experience. Convergence — the merging of data, voice, and video communications over a common network infrastructure - has made this possible. It interconnects the public telephone with the internet and the corporate extranet.

Virtual support: extending the scope of the call center

Full-time call center agents or "virtual agents" - employees whose primary role may encompass other responsibilities but whose expertise in certain areas is required for part-time call center support - will be able to provide call center support services from a remote office, manufacturing site, home, or on the road. With advanced connectivity and intelligent call routing, they will be able to work outside the central call center location, virtualizing their support services.

Which are the industries using call centers?

The scope is wide. Any business which has to interact with customers and manage large volumes of data effectively can use a call center to improve productivity, sales, delivery and customer satisfaction.

  • Businesses include:
  • Catalog retailing
  • Finance and accounting services
  • Hospitality
  • Cable television
  • Utilities
  • Manufacturing
  • Consumer products

How important is a call center to a company's business?

Companies have learned that service is the key to attracting and maintaining customers (and hence, revenue). In a service business like airlines and hospitality, a call center is the difference between being in business and not being in business. In other industries, call centers help companies quickly overhaul service and improve their image. In fact, a call center is a strategic asset that companies can use to strengthen customer relationships, learn more about customers and therefore serve them better. This improves the bottom line. Thus call centers have evolved from being cost centers to profit centers.

Thompson Financial Publishing conducted an instant poll of user companies sought to determine their plans to use call centers in the near future. Their responses were as follows:

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