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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).

Most major businesses use call centres to interact with their customers. Examples include utility companies, mail order catalogue retailers, and customer support for computer hardware and software. Some businesses even service internal functions through call centres. Examples of this include help desks, retail financial support, and sales support.

A contact centre, also known as customer interaction center is a central point of any organization from which all customer contacts are managed. Through contact centers, 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 .

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. Automatic lead selection or lead steering 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, socioeconomic 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 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.

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

Virtual Call Centre TechnologyWith the advent of the Software as a service technology delivery model, the virtual call center has emerged. In a virtual call centre model, the call centre 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 center, rather than at the call center operator's premise. The vendor's telephony equipment then connects the calls to the call centre operator's agents.

Cloud Computing for Call CentresCloud computing for call centers extends cloud computing to Software as a service, or hosted, on-demand call centers by providing application programming interfaces (APIs) on the call centre cloud computing platform that allow call center functionality to be integrated with cloud-based Customer relationship management, such as Salesforce.com 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).

Patents

Call centre floor during shift.
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..

A report on the performance of an outbound call centre agent.

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.

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 of which 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

Some variations 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.


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:
  • 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
  • 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:
  • 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—especially callers who ask, "Is this the answering service?" (Most operators are not allowed to disclose this.)
The net-net of these concerns is that call centres 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 centres are beginning to address this by using agent-assisted voice solutions to standardise 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.

Unionisation

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

Standardisation

Currently, there are no universally bracketable international standards, other than ISO 9000 series, available for the industry to follow up. However, some of the relevant standards are loosely published by ISO with the division of ICS 33.040.35 . Most of the standards under this division have not been reviewed thoroughly, but there are some guidelines and standing operating procedures available on the internet.

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. The models can be applied to answer queueing questions for call centres.

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

See also



References

Further reading

  • 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
  • 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.



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