Friday, August 26, 2005

Call Center Wiki

A Wiki is an open encyclopedia, meaning anyone can contribute it or reuse the content. Tens of thousands of people have contributed to the Wikipedia, which is extremely useful and you can certainly get lost in it. For purposes of this blog, I found an entry in there under "call center". The content that follows is reprinted here under open license of the Wikipedia. It's amazing:

Call Centre:

A call centre (Commonwealth English) or call center (AmE) is a centralized office of a company that answers incoming telephone calls from customers or that makes outgoing telephone calls to customers (telemarketing). Such an office may also respond to letters, faxes, e-mails and similar written correspondence. However the term contact centre (Commonwealth English) or contact center (AmE) is often applied when such multiple functions are blended in one office.

Call centres are generally set up as large rooms, with work stations that include a computer, a telephone set (or headset) hooked into a large telecom switch and one or more supervisor stations. It may stand by itself or be linked with other centres. It may also be linked to a corporate computer network, including main frames, 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 though call centres. Examples include help desks and sales support.

Mathematical theory
Queuing theory mathematics can be used to demonstrate that a single large call centre is more effective at answering calls than several smaller centres. The most dramatic improvements come when a large number of offices are centralised.

The mathematical problems encountered in a call centre are generally statistical in nature and revolve around the probability that an arriving call will be answered by an available and appropriately trained person. Forecasting the call arrival rates and then scheduling the number of staff required on duty at particular times of the day are challenging problems faced by most call centre managers.


The centralised approach aims to rationalise the company's operations and reduce costs, whilst producing a standard, branded, front to the world. The approach naturally lends itself to large companies with a large, distributed customer base. Owing to the size of companies and their customer bases, these offices are often very large, such as converted warehouses.

Personnel management
Centralised offices means that large numbers of workers can be managed and controlled by a relatively small number of managers and support staff. They are often supported by computer technology that manages, measures and monitors the performance and activities of the workers. Call centre staff are some of the most heavily monitored and tracked groups of workers in the world.

Reporting and monitoring in a call centre can be broken down into four major categories. These are real time reporting, historical reporting, quality monitoring and work force management. The types of information collected for a group of call centre agents are inclusive of: agents logged in, agents ready to take calls, agents available to take calls, agents in wrap up mode, average call duration, average call durtion including wrap-up time, longest duration agent available, longest duration call in queue, number of calls in queue, number of calls offered, number of calls abandoned, average speed to answer, average speed to abandoned and service level (the percentage of calls answered in under a certain time period).

Many call centres use work force management software, which is software that uses historical information coupled with projected need to generate automated schedules that will provide the correct mixture of staff with the correct skills necessary to service customers.

Normally, personnel costs are the most significant expense of a call centre operation and even seemingly small inefficiencies can have significant cost issues. This is one of the major driving factors of outsourcing in the call centre industry.

Inadequate computer systems can mean staff take one or two seconds longer than necessary to process a transaction. This can often be quantified in staff cost terms. This is often used as a driving factor in any business case to justify a complete system upgrade or replacement. For several factors, including the effeciency of the call centre, level of computer and telecom support that may be adequate for staff in a typical branch office may prove totally inadequate in a call centre.

Call Centres use a wide variety of different technologies to allow them to manage the large volumes of work that need to be managed by the call centre. These technogies ensure that agents are kept as productive as possible, and that calls are queued and processed as quickly as possible according to the desired levels of service.

These include ;

ACD (automatic call distribution)
Agent Performance Analytics
BTTC (best time to call)/ Outbound Call Optimization
IVR (interactive voice response)
CTI (computer telephony integration)
Enterprise Campaign Management
Outbound predictive dialer
CRM (customer relationship management)
CIM (customer interaction management)
Email Management
Chat and Web Collaboration
Desktop Scripting Solutions
TTS (text to speech)
WFM (workforce management)
Voice Analysis
Voice Recognition

Call centre dynamics
Types of calls are often divided into outbound and inbound. Inbound calls are calls that are initiated by the customer to obtain information, report a malfunction or ask for help. This is substantially different from outbound calls where the agent initiates the call to a customer mostly with the aim to sell a product or a service to that customer.

The staff of a call centre that is focused on support of a product is often organized into a mult-tier support model, with the first tier being largely unskilled workers who are trained to resolve issues using a simple script. If the first tier is unable to resolve an issue the issue is escalated to a more highly skilled second tier. In some cases, there may be three or more tiers of support. Typically the third tier of support is the engineers or developers of the product.

Call centres have their critics as well. 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.

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. Yet another argument is that close monitoring and measurement by quantitative metrics can be counterproductive in that it can lead to poor customer service and a poor image of the company.

Many call centres in the UK have been built in areas that are depressed economically. This means that the companies get cheap land and labour, and can often benefit from grants to encourage them to improve employment in a given area. There has also been a trend to move call centres to India, where there is a large pool of cheap English-speaking labour. This phenomenon has led to media reports of poor telephone connections and operators with insufficient local knowledge to do their job. But, call centres in India may be more professionally managed than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Whereas a typical call centre employee in the developed world may be a high school drop out, the typical employee in an Indian call centre is a graduate.

Another popular call centre site is the Philippines. Owing to its abundant English speakers that are college graduates and Americanized when it comes to accent in culture. The Philippines was an American colony for almost 50 years. Filipinos are said to be the best outsourcing site outside North America since the accent is nearer to that of American Consumers.

Canada is also a popular call centre site, with the relatively low Canadian dollar and low telecommunication rates. SITEL Corporation, which operates call centres in Ottawa and St. Catharines, Ontario is one such company. Minacs is a good example of a Canadian owned and operated call centre that exploits the Canadian U.S. dollar exchange rate to its advantage.So is also Clientlogic, operating around the world.

Around the world, there are a number of professional organisations forming to develop and promote call centre best practice management and operation, to overcome the negative aspects of a call centre.

Management of call centres
Management of call centres involves balancing the requirements of cost effectiveness and service. Callers do not wish to wait in exorbitantly long queues until they can be helped and so management must provide sufficient staff and inbound capacity to ensure that the quality of service is maintained. However, staff costs generally form more than half the cost of running a call centre and so management must minimise the number of staff present.

To perform this balancing act, call centre managers make use of demand estimation, Telecommunication forecasting and dimensioning techniques to determine the level of staff required at any time. Managers must take into account staff tea and lunch breaks and must determine the number of agents required on duty at any one time.

Forecasting demand
Forecasting results are vital in making management decisions in call centres. Forecasting methods rely on data acquired from various sources including historical data, trend data and so on. Forecasting methods must predict the traffic intensity within the call centre in quarter hour increments and these results must be converted to staffing rosters. Special attention must be paid to the busy hour, i.e. those two half hour periods during a day when traffic intensity is at its highest. Forecasting methods can also be used to pre-empt a situation where equipment needs to be upgraded as traffic intensity has exceeded the maximum capacity of the call centre.

Call centre performance
There are many standard traffic measurements that can be performed on a call centre to determine its performance levels. However, the most important performance measures are:

The average delay a caller may experience whilst waiting in a queue
The mean conversation time, otherwise referred to as Average Talk Time (ATT)
The mean dealing time, otherwise referred to as Average Handling Time (equal to ATT plus wrap up time)
The percentage calls answered within a determined time frame (referred to as a Service Level or SL%)

Refinements of call centres
There are many refinements to the generic call centre model. Each refinement helps increase the efficiency of the call centre thereby allowing management to make better decisions involving economy and service.

The following list contains some examples of call centre refinements:

Predictive Dialling – Computer software attempts to predict the time taken for an agent to help a caller. The software begins dialling another caller before the agent has finished the previous call. If the agent isn’t finished with the current call before dialling is completed, the software doesn’t dial the final digit.

Multi-Skilled Staff – In any call centre, there will be members of staff that will be more skilled in areas than others. A Voice Response Unit can be used to allow the caller to select the reason for his call. Management software, called an Automatic Call Distributor, must then be used to route calls to the appropriate agent. Alternatively, it has been found that a mix of general and specialist agent creates a good balance.

Queuing Systems – The selection of a queuing system type is a very important decision in a call centre as it determines the level of quality of service. Queueing systems in call centres are usually described as M/M/N type queues where N is the number of agents. The preferred method of queuing is a FIFO (First In First Out) model, as it causes minimum delay to callers.

Prioritisation of Callers – Classification of callers according to priority is a very important refinement. Detecting emergency calls or callers that are reattempting to contact a call centre are examples of callers that could be given a higher priority.

Automatic Number Identification – This allows agents to determine who is calling before they answer the call. Greeting a caller by name and obtaining his/her information in advance adds to the quality of service and helps decrease the conversation time.

...even more info is available on the Wikipedia. Not only should you browse, but you should contribute!

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Workforce Optimization Software

One market segment that is gaining increasing visibility and importance in the call center world is the workforce optimization software industry.

"Workforce optimization" is defined as a process implementation that enhances, measures, tracks, and reports individual and group performance relative to established performance targets.

I've researched some of the top Workforce Optimization search results on Google. Here are some of the companies that show up in the top 100. This blog is not advocating any particular companies - but we'd be interested in hearing your comments on any of these or any other companies you've run into:

Blue Pumpkin Software, Inc. Provides workforce management, forecasting, planning, and employee scheduling solutions.

Circadian Technologies - Optimizing the 24/7 workforce via schueduling and training. Shift work schedules and lifestyle education to minimize risk and decrease costs.

IEX Corporation - Workforce Management and Performance Optimization Software solutions for call centers, telecommunications carriers and private networks operators.

GMT - Workforce Management Software

Ptel Inc - Call Center and Workforce Optimization Solutions

Exametric, Inc. - Workforce Management and Optimization Software

Kronos - Workforce Optimization

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A positive follow up on call center surveys...

"No, I have never been offered the chance to participate in a questionnaire relating to contact with a call centre. However, I did design and implement one when I was running the quality assurance for a new telecoms provider. We found that response rate was good and that people generally liked to be asked their opinion on matters relating to the call. It was a worthwhile exercise to do as we got some excellent feedback and ideas for future development."

- Richard Drozda, occupational psychologist specialising in technology and organisational evaluation, processes and best practice in all areas including Recruitment, Training, Development, Management, Culture, Environment, Facilities, Job Satisfaction, Staff Attrition and Organisational Behaviour.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

CRM company directory

We're going to be building a directory of CRM companies that will be a simple guide. A Google search would normally uncover loads of irrelevant sites, and our list will be pure CRM. Here's a preview of our CRM Directory:

CRM Solutions -
I've used and it is an incredible display of using the power of the web to provide an easy to use, affordable, server side solution



We used to use ACT! back in the day. Synching was a nightmare, everyone had copies of ACT! installed on their PCs and then in order to share the latest data, you had to synchronize across your nightmare. Have to check them out and see if they're web based yet -- they'd better be!






Microsoft CRM
This solution was a nightmare. It was clunky, confusing and as of Spring 2005, there was no easy to use search functionality. If you did not spend thousands of dollars extending and customizing, it would be unusable. Of course, Microsoft will probably smarten up and make it web based and superior at some point.

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