Understanding the Roles in a Customer Center

In a recent 2011 American Express® Global Customer Service Barometer study conducted in the United States and nine other countries regarding customer service, seven in 10 Americans showed a clear preference and willingness to pay up to 13 percent more for products and services from companies that they believed offered high quality customer service. From telecommunications to banking and retail shopping, Americans placed a higher emphasis on excellence in customer service as the primary indicator of their selection of a company to do business with.

The survey revealed that most customers showed a clear annoyance at this frequently used response on customer service calls: "Your call is important to us. Please continue to hold." The lines offered in these telephone scripts reveal poorly designed responses that fail to acknowledge the human being on the other end of the line. Generation X and Y are most annoyed by long wait times, while older generations typically are most frustrated with the music they are subjected to while they wait.

Despite this clear preference on the part of consumers, so many businesses fail to respond adequately in a timely fashion or end up making changes too late. Outstanding service will make the grade with American consumers much more than anything else, ultimately driving customer loyalty, retention, and sales.

Almost every business today offering a suite of products and services for a large consumer base realizes the importance of having great customer relationships. Customer service via call centers is a significant part of this process, and building powerful, positive customer experiences requires efficiency, quality, expertise, and immediacy. Customers today have more powerful opinions voiced in reviews, blogs, and social media than ever before. Negative reviews can have a strong impact on a company's sales. Nurturing positive customer relationships requires not only delivering a high quality product or service but also offering high quality customer care and service from the beginning to the end of that sale and, subsequently, when the customer returns for another purchase.

Customer service thus is integrally linked to customer satisfaction, which in turn is linked to company profits and company success. Hence, a plan for creating positive customer experiences through multiple touch points in which the customer interacts with the company's brand, product, or services is not only desirable today but necessary.

An essential part of the customer experience is customer service or how a customer's immediate questions and concerns are addressed by the company. This is most evident in telephone and in-store customer service. Telephone services are usually allocated to call centers and hence planning highly functional call centers that place customers as their first priority will succeed in winning the loyalty of customers who feel heard, cared for, and understood.

Despite the automation of business today, with globalization and technology improvements, business at its core remains a fundamental exchange between people, the buyer and seller, in what is ultimately a relationship built on mutual trust and cooperation. Hence, businesses that realize the importance of these relationships from end to end through every aspect are more likely to build successful companies for the long term.

Call centers are important links in the life cycle of customer relationships. Building, training, and running a high-performing call center requires careful planning and a clear definition of your goals.

This ranges from site selection and location to labor costs, hiring staff, technology, and training. By investing the time, effort, and resources to recruit, hire, and train the right staff, you can build a call center or several call centers that are highly knowledgeable about your company, its products and services; and have the kind of passion and enthusiasm for their work that high-performing employees have. This in turn strengthens morale, improves customer relationships and connection, and accelerates customer satisfaction. Learn how to transform your business by cementing positive customer relationships

Businesses that create and maintain well-conceived call centers are able to nurture and sustain highly satisfying customer relationships for the long term.
Site Selection

In this section, we take a closer look at call centers, an integral part of the customer experience. We begin with first taking a look at what a typical call center entails and then discussing important factors in building a high quality call center in an optimal location affordably.

Call Center

A call center is typically a high-density and technology-centralized office environment set up to answer large volumes of customer service requests by telephone and achieve, at times, complex business goals and objectives. Operated by a company to offer product support, answer questions, or address concerns of consumers, call centers also offer outgoing calls for products and services, telemarketing, debt collection, and follow-up with prospective clientele.

In general, a typical call center involves a large and open workspace filled with work stations occupied by call center agents who are equipped with a computer, a telephone headset connected to a telecom switch, and/or telephone. Each call center either exists independently or is connected to additional centers via a mainframe, Local Area Network (LAN), computer networks or microcomputers. CTI, or computer telephony integration, also connects voice and data pathways.

Frequently used by businesses to interact with customers, call centers are employed by utility companies, computer stores, and online retailers, as well as companies that require help desks, sales support, and additional financial support for retail services.

A contact center manages all the customer contacts for a company. This branch of a call center is an extension of the company's CRM, or customer relationship management process. The contact center routes valuable information to relevant contacts, tracks potential leads, and gathers data. Customers can reach companies via telephone, e-mail, chat, fax, and online Web support.

Some call centers employ sophisticated technology ranging from speech recognition to natural language processing and text mining to enhance the processing of customer service requests.

Inbound versus Outbound

Calls can be either inbound or outbound in nature. Inbound calls come typically from customers, existing or potential, who want to obtain information, ask for help, or report a mistake or malfunction. Outbound calls are typically sales-oriented in nature.

Ideally, an inbound call, which is the most frequent call in most call centers, reaches a call center agent quickly and smoothly without much delay or interruption. By having a well-organized call center into which sufficient planning and effort has been made, the customer reaches an agent quickly who is able to address concerns right away without a long wait time or dealing with irrelevant menu options. For outbound calls, proper planning in lead selection and training of call staff enable targeted phone calls with a higher percentage of sale closings.

Tier System

Call centers generally have multiple tiers for support and to handle calls most efficiently and appropriately. The first line of support consists of operators who can offer general information and answer common questions. If the customer needs more assistance, the operator forwards the call to the next tier or the appropriate department. Some instances may require rerouting of a call three to four times. In general, the third line of support comprises technical staff or engineers and developers. Some call centers have streamlined these processes so that customers can reach the appropriate party immediately.

In general, a customer will begin to grow impatient if the call is rerouted more than twice. Delays, interruptions, and the knowledge and responses of call center agents to customers significantly impact the customer's impression of the company and its overall feedback on the company's performance as a whole.

Frequent Concerns

Below are some frequent concerns from both customers and call centers.
From Customers

Customers in general have criticized existing call centers for reasons that include:

• inexperienced operators; • operators using a script without variation or adjustment to the customer;

• delays in reaching an agent;

• automatic queuing systems;

• hold music or sounds;

• excessive menu options or voiceover;

• incompetent operators;

• overseas operators that have language or accent barriers;

• poor communication between departments;

• requiring the caller to repeat the same information multiple times;

• frustration with call center agents having false English names with overseas locations;

• inconsistent responses depending on agent.

From Call Center Agents

From the perspective of call center agents, frequent concerns include:

• high stress job;

• too much scrutiny from management;

• repetitive job tasks;

• low pay and bonuses;

• poor working conditions;

• difficult customers.

It is easy to see from these concerns voiced on both ends that creating, managing, and running an effective call center requires detailed and comprehensive planning with room for enhancements and change with some flexibility. It also reveals that in order for a company to have an engaged customer base, it needs to have an engaged staff, and this includes the call center staff even if its members are not directly located in the company headquarters or it consists of an outsourced team. Basically, the entire workforce of a company must promote the company's brand and values that demonstrate competence and commitment to customers from beginning to end. In order to maintain and manage expectations on both ends, certain standardization processes have been implemented in call centers worldwide. The Customer Operations Performance Center, Inc. (COPC), is an internationally recognized performance management framework that offers certification for compliance with call center industry standards based on more than 30 performance measures specified in the COPC-2000 CSP Standard.
Now that we have discussed the basics of what a call center is; what people expect when it comes to call centers, and common frustrations experienced on either end, let us take a closer look at some of the key aspects of creating, managing, and running an effective, efficient, and high performing call center.

Site Selection

When you are looking for the right site for your call center, there are several important things to consider. Many companies invest in site selection and research analysts that conduct research from major metropolitan areas to tertiary markets to ensure comprehensive planning for optimal decision-making and to adapt to changing market requirements quickly.

Selection Criteria

Choosing the right site for you will require both a quantitative and qualitative approach. Consider factors such as:

• labor force;

• site options;

• population nearby;

• real estate and property costs;

• social factors;

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• community costs;

• tax breaks;

• economic factors and incentives.

It is important to identify factors that are important to you and take the time to create a "map" of your strategy, considering all the key variables that affect your decision-making for your call center. One of the key elements in this process will involve making a comprehensive matrix or demographic analysis. This will help you in ranking and identifying city alternatives.

When you build a matrix for your demographics, be sure to include relevant information and considerations, such as:

• hourly wage rates;

• civilian labor force;

• unemployment rates;

• job training programs;

• major call centers in the area;

• tax on long-distance calls;

• airport access;

• freeway access;

• incentives/abatements;

• real estate availability costs;

• colleges and universities;

• public transportation.

Geographic Information Systems (GIS) mapping studies are useful in offering modeling data that assist in making tailored, highly relevant site choices. These services include information about:

• population attributes and demography;

• spatial analysis;

• drive-time analysis;

• logistics;

• market penetration;

• market modeling;

• customer/store prospecting.

Large or Small Centers

While the size of the call center is often dictated by the need, there are various factors to consider as well. Large call centers also face additional problems such as high attrition rates and tight labor markets that limit finding qualified agents. By having several smaller centers, it is easier to break centers down into several call centers, depending on the labor markets for many vendors with seats less than 500. While there are more costs involved in setting up additional centers, there is less turnover and employers have been able to offer cost-effective wages.

One of the biggest hurdles facing employers is unexpected regional power or telecommunication outages. By having several centers, this danger is reduced, thus lowering the potential of a client going off-line, particularly in the snow-belt areas.

An advantage of having a large call center is increased efficiency from a centralized location. It is advantageous to go from a small call center of about 20 to 25 people to consolidating such centers into and thus reducing operating costs, as well as streamlining management. This is particularly noticeable in the medical industry and small reservation centers.

Typically call centers have been located near areas with large labor pools of 250,000 or more. While this is still considered a primary advantage in site selection, other factors such as low unemployment in the area, higher expected wage rates, and competition from similar vendors have led to new site selection variables. Hence, many call centers today are located near smaller populations of roughly 50,000 to 200,000, which can also offer tax savings. These communities often provide the company with sales abatements and other incentives, as well as temporary leasing to interview candidates to stay in the area and employ local citizens, along with the guarantee that the employer can leave if unable to find enough labor in the region.

Your next question then is how do you ensure that you get a good labor pool to draw from with sufficient skills and expertise that is affordable and willing to work the way you need? While there are no money-back guarantees with human capital, you can take some preventive measures and through planning effectively, ensure that you find the right labor pool for you.


By far the most important thing that you can do to find the right site for your new call center and to hire the right kind of people is to plan. Through sufficient and comprehensive planning efforts, you take a proactive stance that will enable you to thrive and succeed. Your call center site selection planning must include estimates of your anticipated growth, projected hours, and any contracts available.

When you work with a site selection firm, the company can assist you in finding possible cities for your next call center. This will help you be more prepared, and this step is not costly. Planning ahead of time enables you to overcome the No. 1 problem confronting employers today: enough time. When you plan in advance, you are able to consider each city sufficiently, maximize any economic opportunities, and then work with the right company. Thus you are able to choose your site based on essential labor and economic considerations rather than rushing to seize any available buildings as the last resort, which unfortunately has led to poor performance as well.

While real estate is definitely an important criterion for site selection, be careful to not let this overtake important considerations such as labor, economic incentives, and infrastructure costs of setup and maintenance. When a site is selected purely on facility costs, other important factors such as unemployment rates, wage rates, and competition are not considered, and that can create significant increases in your cost.

The best thing then, in determining your site, is to start out with some basic research. Begin your site selection process by researching the labor, competition, and telecom infrastructure costs first. What areas have the best quality labor markets? What areas have the least competition? What areas have cost-effective telecom costs? Identify these areas and then examine the real estate near by.

Comparing Buildings and Sites

After you have established your criteria for site selection, find sites or buildings that best meet or exceed these standards. You can begin your negotiations with the associated groups and then conduct detailed comparative analysis and rankings of the sites or buildings.

Gather up your requests for proposal (RFP) from each landlord and developer and put this information together in a way that enables you to make a comparative review sufficiently. Your site selection firm will also assist you with brokerage and transaction management so that you can receive the most cost-effective pricing. How do you get the best pricing? Well, competition is a key factor. When you create the opportunity for bidding among various real estate owners, private sector industries, economic development councils, and municipal authorities, and offer simultaneous negotiations, you are able to receive the most cost-effective pricing.

When you are choosing your site, there are some important lease provisions to consider, such as:

• free or step rent;

• expense stops;

• TI allowance;

• termination options;

• parking allowances;

• triple net leases;

• free generator and backup.

The process of choosing your site will involve, at times, complex lease negotiations; but it is important to do so in order to get the highest flexibility and options. Your lease negotiation must include transactional aspects such as economics, liabilities, and operational and legal issues, such as complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and environmental language for the best financial solutions.

Some transaction types to consider include:

• build-to-suit;

• acquisitions;

• dispositions;

• leases;

• renewals;

• subleases;

• sale and leasebacks;

• tax-free exchanges;

• easements;

• options;

• buyouts;

• condemnations.

While lease documents vary significantly from one building to the next, be sure to carefully read each lease. Prepare a lease summary of the major business aspects and consider what clauses could potentially be problematic. Important areas in the lease to pay attention to include:

• operating expenses;

• ADA and environmental compliance;

• insurance;

• interruption of services;

• subordination and non-disturbance;

• tenant finish construction;

• expansions;

• renewals.

In addition, be sure to keep notes of value-added results that could assist you in subsequent negotiations through this business summary of transactions.

Labor Factors

Labor is by far one of, if not the most, critical aspects of site selection for a call center. Finding a good pool of relevant, qualified labor applicants is important. A challenging factor is low unemployment, which can create a lot of competition for quality workers, especially when the pay is lower. Factors that have been affecting labor include the ability to offer competitive pay rates and benefits.

It has been getting harder to find a volume of workers at lower pay and benefit rates compared to the levels that spurred on the growth of the industry initially. As salaries have increased, keeping large call centers staffed has grown more difficult.

Turnover is a frequent problem. Typically, call centers consist of people who are "marginally employed," such as students, part-time workers, recent graduates, housewives, or people in between jobs. In order for employers to retain staff, they need to have incentives that will keep workers.

Factors Affecting Labor Selection
What then are the most important factors to consider when selecting labor? Placing your location simply near a labor pool is not enough. You have to look for quality and continuity of labor.

Quality of Labor

Quality of labor involves finding people who are educated, have computer and communication skills, and a strong work ethic. It helps if they worked in a call center before. People with positive energy, enthusiasm, and a willingness to get to work from the beginning are an invaluable asset.

Continuity of Labor

This means that you have a big and deep labor pool to draw from so that you have a steady stream of workers, even if your turnover is high. An important part of this equation is not just looking at the area's unemployment rate but also its potential for growth.

Setting High Standards

While unemployment offers you a pool of workers, it does not guarantee the quality of these workers. Hence, when you have a growing labor market, you are able to confidently set high standards for recruiting and to let go of employees who do not meet standards.

Of the two most important factors in determining your call center, site selection and labor factors rank the highest. Site selection is determined by your business needs and site options that are available to you. There are many considerations to keep in mind. Initially, call centers were located right in the heart of cities and dense urban areas accessible by subway and all major public transportation. Today, these centers are located often internationally.

However, what is most relevant in determining the location of these call centers is still integrally linked to finding and retaining labor. This is important whether you stay inside the city or outside of it or in a semi-urban area as well. The question always becomes, "Where can we locate a center and have access to potential staff?"

When you are assessing site options on you own, it is vital that you create, develop, and maintain your own matrix for evaluating and assessing potential locations. What are some factors to consider in your matrix?

Important factors to consider in your call center location matrix include:

• staff or workforce issues;

• current population;

• employment level;

• unemployment level; and

• workforce participation.