Why are 'rooms full of people on telephones' gaining so much attention? And why are they becoming so important to organizations? Here's a look at today's high-tech call centres.
September 1, 2001
Most of us have heard the term. Many of us have even installed one. But few of us may understand what a ‘call centre’ really is — particularly as the term can be used to describe a variety of entities.
Contact centres, customer service centres, help desks, order desks, even trading floors are all, essentially, call centres — though capabilities, design and management styles vary greatly. Some are simply ‘rooms full of people on telephones,’ but that’s far from being the whole story.
Today, with powerful, cheap computing, sophisticated software and industry-wide technical standards, the call centre has become a high-tech wonder: an electronic marvel, capable of handling even the most complex business transactions in real-time. And not just telephone calls: faxes, e-mails, and Web-based transactions are commonly placed ‘in queue’ as well and handled by the next applicable agent.
Billions of business transactions are carried out each hour of every day, and call centres often act as the glue that make this possible. For many of today’s more modern organizations, the call centre is where the rubber meets the road.
THEN AND NOW
Telephone-based contact centres began their climb to prominence in the 1950s, as catalogue shoppers began using the telephone rather than ‘mail order’ to make purchases. The business-to-business use of telephones was already commonplace by then. One person, one phone was the standard configuration, but multi-line telephones were common as well. One telephone line and one twisted pair equaled one phone number. The thing is that five lines used five pair and provided five separate phone numbers.
But what happens when 200 people call the same number at the same time in response to a television offer? Things can get a bit hairy. And what if 200,000 callers want to win Back Street Boys tickets?
Interactions and order taking become much more immediate by telephone, but expensive telephone circuits and trained staff members are required. New administration and fulfilment systems become necessary as well, to handle, record and ship the resulting orders. Masses of cable, and dozens or often hundreds of desks or specialized workstations are required so the specially trained telephone operators, or ‘agents,’ can spend extended hours ‘on the phones.’ Usually all these elements end up wired together in rooms filled with rows or clusters of small cubicles, not unlike the once popular ‘typing pools’. However, these rooms often sport masses of cable overhead or snaking from area to area.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
But what makes a call centre different from any other ‘phone’ system? The primary difference between a call centre and a standard business telephone system lies in the way calls are handled. In a modern business system, a private branch exchange (PBX) handles all calls in and out of the company by connecting users with the necessary telecom services — toll free, local, long distance, and so on. This way, several telephone services are ‘pooled’, or made available, to many users.
In the call centre world, the key component is usually the automatic call director (ACD), a specially configured PBX, or sometimes a stand-alone box, designed specifically to handle the kind of traffic experienced by call centres. Holding calls are placed into ‘queues’ and then switched to the next available agent.
Most call centres are designed for very specific uses: ‘inbound’ call centres for accepting and fulfilling orders, ‘outbound’ call centres for originating large volumes of outgoing sales or marketing calls, or ‘blended’ call centres that provide a little of both.
Other devices often lend specialized functions to such an installation. Interactive voice response units (IVRs) allow customers to route their own calls based upon a series of ‘voice prompts’. Automatic dialers handle large numbers of outgoing calls (for a massive sales campaign for instance, or an opinion poll), doing so in concert with the ACD. (The dialer places the call and the ACD ‘hands it off’ to an available agent.) Music on hold (MOH, pronounced ‘Moe,’) and announcement boards serve to fill those silent waits with music, instructions and/or sales messages. ‘Call management systems’ track operations and provide management and analysis reports. All are typical call centre add-ons, residing either as cards and software within the PBX/ACD chassis, or from independently tethered boxes positioned alongside or in rack mounts.
EVERYWHERE YOU LOOK
Ian Angus, President of Angus TeleManagement Group, an Ajax, Ontario-based telecom consulting and research firm, notes that call centre technology is used by just about every business and in every industry. “Call centres range from informal ‘phone rooms’ to large and complex installations with thousands of staff answering the phones 24 hours a day, seven days a week” says Angus.
Most Canadian provinces are call centre boosters — after all, such installations bring employment — so call centres are very common in small towns and large cities alike. In New Brunswick, for instance, almost any telephone in the province can support a call centre agent — thanks to advanced ACD systems built right into NBTel’s modern telecom infrastructure. Toronto remains Canada’s call centre hot spot, though. “Despite what you might have heard about other cities or provinces, Greater Toronto is probably the call centre capital of Canada,” says Angus, “with more centres and more agent positions than the rest of the country combined.”
Still, it’s a very large pond, so call centres are evident almost everywhere you look — if you know what you’re looking for. Call centres are not always in-house or at corporate head office. The need for call centre services tends to fluctuate with business and economic trends, so more organizations are opting to outsource their contact centre requirements to specialized service firms specializing in customer relationship management (CRM).
“There is a growing trend toward outsourcing by companies seeking more efficient and lower cost methods of servicing customer needs,” says Elaine Minacs, president and CEO of Minacs Worldwide Inc., Markham, ON.
ON THE LEADING EDGE
So why are contact centre tools gaining such prominence now?
Avaya (Communication) Inc. of Basking Ridge, NJ knows the ropes. Likely the world’s most prominent call centre solution provider and boasting a large presence in Canada, Avaya has a very long and distinguished history in the call centre business: first as the business systems division of the giant AT&T, then as the enterprise systems division of Lucent Technologies.
Paul McDevitt, Senior VP at Avaya Canada, explains the enduring popularity call centres enjoy: “Organizations the world over are on a continual quest to retain customers and attract new ones,” he says. “The market is global and telecommunications tools are increasingly more sophisticated and far less costly to implement, manage and maintain.
“Electronic sales, marketing and administration is hot and customers are demanding instant service, so call centres become very useful, because they combine efficient and effective communication management tools with full-featured measurement and reporting tools. By allowing all forms of electronic customer contacts to be handled through one facility, an organization can provide much more consistent service to customers while increasing manageability and saving money,” explains McDevitt.
“More important,” adds McDevitt, “today’s systems even allow you to route calls according to advanced criteria such as time-of-day, skills required, language of choice and so on. The software managing the call flow is able to pick callers out of the queues and give them to specially trained agents as required.”
Independent telecom consultant, J. David Windrim of Toronto notes that ‘remote agents’ and ‘virtual call centres’ are now becoming much more prominent as well.
“Today’s call centres no longer find it as necessary to cram everyone into one room,” says Windrim. “Remote agents are people wh
o work within a call centre, but from a completely different physical locale. They use computer and telephone services provided by call centre operations located at some distant location, but do so from home or at a branch office,” he explains. “Operations based upon this model are often called ‘virtual’ call centres.”
A similar model, the ‘distributed call centre,’ he explains, lets companies place call centres in multiple locations while managing and servicing them all as one, large call centre. This is very helpful from a management standpoint, but also useful for providing localized services and spreading calls over multiple sites during busy periods.
Virtual centres commonly use digital subscriber line (DSL) connections (Centrex, ADSL, BISDN) to pass voice, data and signalling between remote agents and command central. Distributed centres are often linked by permanent high-speed connections.
So the call centre, boasting these and many other advanced, computer-based, routing and management tools, has become a must-have in today’s frenetic business environments.
But nothing ever remains the same, so as network-based commerce and on-line service offerings proliferate, the sophisticated applications that once differentiated the call centre from the run-of-the-mill business telecom systems — the metering, measurement, routing and control tools — are becoming the very core of today’s business world.
“The more integrated the call centre is with the business a company is doing, the better they can function and the better it is for the company,” says McDevitt.
Today call centres take many very different forms. ‘Phone calls’ and faxes are still very common, but some say that these days more e-mails travel networks then business voice calls. Electronic chat and ‘instant’ messaging are also increasingly common in today’s mainline organizations. File transfers move photographs, animations, educational material, books, manuals, charts and diagrams and software. Meanwhile, voice mail, fax and plain old telephone service (POTS) carry on full throttle offering toll-free, ‘976,’ fax-on-demand and various other, more traditional, interactive services — and doing so more often via packet data networks, as opposed to more traditional ‘circuit switched’ telephone networks.
As icing on the cake, the World Wide Web has added a whole new dimension to contact centres, allowing customers more opportunity to find the information they need and place orders with less need for ‘live’ agents.
However, while the number of ways people choose to undertake business contacts have grown, voice traffic appears to be holding its own, if not actually growing dramatically.
“Many people have said that with the advent of on-line self-service systems, call centres will go away,” says Avaya’s McDevitt. “What they’ve forgotten is two-fold: First, there is only so much self-service people are willing to do. Second, customers want several different ways of doing business. They don’t want to be forced to do business in one way only,” he points out. “They want choice. So the call centre will continue to become an important and integral part of business simply because it is a very efficient and effective way to communicate. And as new media types open new channels to the customer,” he predicts, “they will be integrated into call centres as well, because in most cases, it simply makes the most sense.”
‘OPEN SYSTEMS’ DELIVER
Throughout the 20th century, information technology development efforts were running hard just to keep up with the ever-growing demand for telecom services. What the world wanted was a variety of easy to use, accessible and inexpensive telecom services. What they got were dauntingly complex, amazingly expensive, finicky and proprietary business systems based upon several different, generally incompatible, technologies. ‘Data processing,’ ‘telecom’ and ‘audio/visual’ were separate worlds. ‘Open systems’ are now delivering on the promise.
At the tail end of the last century, several well-organized, broad-based, industry-wide efforts were implemented to move the world toward standardized, fully integrated, multimedia telecom and networking systems — open systems, as they became loosely called. As the new century dawns, these efforts are beginning to pay off, and the entire IT world is coalescing around the various internetworking protocols, hardware design and business practices standards developed and instituted as a result. UTP has become ‘king’ in local networks of all kinds (with the exception of cable television, for a while) and the entire planet has been encased in a web of optical fiber, copper strands and microwave pipes.
Structured cabling systems — standards-based, manufacturer-independent, cabling systems that simplify installations and greatly reduce cost and complexity — move these standards into the enterprise. Moves, adds and changes (MACs), the bane of most network operators, become quick, easy and inexpensive as well.
“Several years ago, companies that already had a call centre in place to take telephone calls found they were building separate facilities to handle Internet activity,” says McDevitt. Web sites, and the resulting traffic they created, were being developed and managed outside the customer care envelope, creating yet another point of contact and duplicating staff. “The ‘powers that be’ quickly realized that if they married these new channels into the call centre, they could improve connection with the customer, reduce costs, improve service and increase sales,” he adds. The resulting Internet connected, multimedia call centre is taking the customer contact world by storm.
As these powerful business tools come online and develop, it becomes obvious that other parts of the business can benefit from them as well, so entirely new classes of business tools are emerging.
Enterprise Management Systems (EMS), Network Management Systems (NMS), Customer Relationship Management (CRM), e-commerce and several other advanced, new business technologies all hale, at least in part, from the call centre. So the lines begin to blur, as whole enterprises become call centre-centric.CS
Chris Blythe is a broadly published writer and infocom analyst. Send correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org.