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A call centre or call center is a centralised office used for the purpose of receiving or transmitting a large volume of requests by telephone. An inbound call centre is operated by a company to administer incoming product support or information inquiries from consumers. Outbound call centers are operated for telemarketing, solicitation of charitable or political donations, debt collection and market research. In addition to a call centre, collective handling of letter, fax, live support software, social media and e-mail at one location is known as a contact centre.
A call centre is 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).
A contact centre, also known as customer interaction centre is a central point of any organization from which all customer contacts are managed. Through contact centres, 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 telephone, email, online chat, fax, and instant message.
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. This allows inbound calls to be directly routed to the appropriate agent for the task, whilst minimizing wait times and long lists of irrelevant options for people calling in. For outbound calls, 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 standardizes 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 technology
Historically, call centres have been built on PBX equipment that is owned and hosted by the call centre operator. The PBX might provide functions such as automatic call distribution, interactive voice response, and skills-based routing. The call centre operator would be responsible for the maintenance of the equipment and necessary software upgrades as released by the vendor.
Virtual call centre technology
With the advent of the software as a service delivery model, the virtual call centre has emerged. In a virtual call centre model, the call centres 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 centre, rather than at the call centre operator's premise. The vendor's telephony equipment then connects the calls to the call centre operator's agents.
Virtual call centre technology allows people to work from home, instead of in a traditional, centralised, call centre location, which increasingly allows people with physical or other disabilities that prevent them from leaving the house, to work.
Cloud computing for call centres
Cloud computing for call centres extends cloud computing to software as a service, or hosted, on-demand call centres by providing application programming interfaces (APIs) on the call centre cloud computing platform that allow call centre functionality to be integrated with cloud-based Customer relationship management, such as Salesforce.com or Oracle CRM 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).
Calls may be inbound or outbound. Inbound calls are made by consumers, for example to obtain information, report a malfunction, or ask for help. In contrast, outbound calls are made by agents to consumers, usually for sales purposes (telemarketing). One can combine inbound and outbound campaigns.
Call centre staff are often organised into a multi-tier support system for more efficient handling of calls. The first tier consists of operators, who initially answer calls and provide general information. If a caller requires more assistance, the call is forwarded to the second tier (in the appropriate department depending on the nature of the call). In some cases, there are three or more tiers of support staff. Typically the third tier of support is formed of product engineers/developers or highly skilled technical support staff for the product.
Some critics of call centres argue that the work atmosphere in such an environment is dehumanising. 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. Call centres have also been the subject of complaints by callers who find the staff often do not have enough skill or authority to resolve problems, while the staff sometimes appear apathetic. Other research illustrates how call center workers develop ways to counter or resist this environment by integrating local cultural sensibilities or embracing a vision of a new life.
Telephone calls are easily monitored, and the close monitoring of call centre staff is widespread. This has the benefit of helping the company to plan the workload and time of its employees. However, it has also been argued that such close monitoring breaches the human right to privacy. Most call centres provide electronic reports that outline performance metrics, quarterly highlights and other information about the calls made and received.
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. A contact centre is usually an inbound service only.
- 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.
- Telephone answering service – A more personalised version of the call centre, where agents get to know more about their customers and their callers; and therefore look after calls just as if based in their customers' office.
Criticism and performance
||This article's Criticism or Controversy section may compromise the article's neutral point of view of the subject. (November 2010)|
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
- Obsequious behavior by operators (e.g., relentless use of "sir", "ma'am" and "I'd be more than happy to assist you")
- 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
- 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
The net-net of these concerns is that call centres as a business process exhibit 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 automation to standardise the process all agents use. Anton and Phelps have provided a detailed manual on how 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.
Outsourced bureau contact centres
Outsourced bureau contact centres are a model of contact centre that provide services on a "pay per use" model. The overheads of the contact centre are shared by many clients thereby supporting a very cost effective model especially for low volumes of calls.
Bureau contact centres provide an opportunity for:
- Pilot schemes - perform test of concept for new models for communications, sales or customer services before investing in staff and infrastructure.
- Flexible solutions for SMEs - small or medium-size enterprises can benefit from a flexible service that can evolve with the business.
- Best of breed systems/technology - clients can benefit from considerable investment into communications technology, receiving benefits without having to invest in large capital expenditure projects.
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 National Union of Workers represents unionised workers; their activities form part of the Australian labour movement. In Europe, Uni Global Union of Switzerland is involved in assisting unionisation in this realm.
Queueing theory is a branch of mathematics in which models of service systems have been developed. A call centre can be seen as a queueing network and results from queueing theory such as the probability an arriving customer needs to wait before starting service useful for provisioning capacity. (Erlang's C formula is such a result for an M/M/c queue and approximations exist for an M/G/k queue.) Statistical analysis of call centre data has suggested arrivals are governed by an inhomogeneous Poisson process and jobs have a log-normal service time distribution.
Call centre operations have been supported by mathematical models beyond queueing, with operations research, which considers a wide range of optimisation problems seeking to reduce waiting times while keeping server utilisation and therefore efficiency high.
Indian call centres have been the focus several documentary films, the 2004 film Thomas L. Friedman Reporting: The Other Side of Outsourcing, the 2005 films John and Jane, Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night, and 1-800-India: Importing a White-Collar Economy, and the 2006 film Bombay Calling, among others. An Indian call centre is also the subject of the 2006 film Outsourced (film) and a key location in the 2008 film, Slumdog Millionaire. BBC The Call Centre is an often distorted although humorous view of life in a Welsh Call Centre. There are critics of call centres who argue that the working environment within call centre's are dehumanising. The Call Centre argues against this point, and tries to illustrate that you can have high employee engagement within a call centre.
- Automatic call distributor
- Business process outsourcing
- Call center industry in the Philippines
- Call center industry in the Bangladesh
- Call management
- Erlang distribution
- List of call centre companies
- Predictive dialing
- Operator messaging
- Queue management system
- Skills based routing
- Virtual queue
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