Destination Call Center

Before you buy a switch, hire staff, install a single piece of software, train any agents — before you take a single call — you’re going to have to find a place to put your center. Site selection is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make. It affects every decision that comes after — from the kinds of wiring you install to the services you offer your customers — for years to come. Where do you locate your call center to provide the maximum advantage to your organization and your customers?

Finding a site for your call center is more difficult than finding a site for many other types of business. And it is more difficult to find the ideal site for your call center now than it was just a few years ago.

The choice of locations has never been broader — you can put an effective center just about anywhere these days. But having more choices means you have to do your homework better than ever to find the right site for your center. It used to be a simple matter. You’d put your center in an established call center-friendly city, like Omaha, hoping to get the best telecom connections, and an educated, accent-free workforce.

But that’s not the most cost-effective solution anymore. While there are a huge number of centers scattered throughout the American (and Canadian) Midwest, other factors let you enlarge the area of consideration. Many companies no longer see the Midwest as an attractive area for new centers (though existing ones continue to thrive) because of the tight labor market.

In essence, the traditional barriers have been eliminated, which makes the decision of where to locate if anything, harder. You can get good telecommunications services just about anywhere in the continental US and Canada. Similar conditions exist in other regions of the developed world. And (at least in the US), the cost of telecom has dropped dramatically through the past decade.

A call center is not physically demanding as to the kind of space that you put it in, either. I’ve seen centers in office buildings, strip malls and industrial parks; squeezed into back rooms and former warehouses; converted supermarkets and trading floors — there’s no end to the ways to house a call center.

Given that, you can place a call center anywhere you like. It means that you can choose the physical surroundings based on your specific company’s needs. If you need to be near an order processing center, for example, or the CEO’s summer cottage, you’ll not find that too much of a problem.

What is good news for call center managers is there are plenty of locations, both in the United States and abroad, that are eager to have your call center join their business community.

Call centers are so malleable, physically, that you can just as logically conclude that New York City is an appropriate venue for your center as Ponca City, Oklahoma. In real life cases, both of those cities had something critical for the company that ran a center. In New York’s case, it was a company that already had an office presence in town; converting an extra room into a small, informal call center made sense, even at New York real estate prices. New York City has some of the highest costs for office space and labor in the country, plus a telecom environment that’s not always what I could call a welcome mat for high-tech businesses. But that’s where one company set up a center dedicated to outbound calling on small accounts. They already had the telecom in place, and the networking infrastructure. At $100,000 to revamp the existing space and furbish it for call center work, it made more sense to add-on than it did either to locate somewhere cheaper, or even to outsource.

In the case of Oklahoma, you have a very different environment. Space is cheaper, and there is room to spread out. Several years ago a major outsourcer built a jumbo center, investing more than $5 million to build a 42,000 square foot center in Ponca City, a small town of 29,000 people.

They were not just looking to add an informal center to an existing business function. Instead, when placing a major facility, they were thinking costs, and thinking long-term. So state incentives played a major role in their decision. Oklahoma has a highly developed government program designed to attract call centers, because they quite correctly see call centers as a killer job creation engine for their communities. And in the case of the big centers, you can transform a small community overnight, build a tax base, create a reason for local people to stay in the community instead of migrating to bigger cities, and so on. Call centers do for these communities what factories did a few generations ago.

Dig a little deeper, and you find that Ponca City has an excellent school system, including vocational schools, that can provide a steady stream of support reps with some technical skills. The University of Oklahoma is not too far away, either. Outsourcers like small towns — they provide stability and permanence. But they choose carefully, because if you make the wrong decision, you’re stuck with a multimillion dollar investment.

How Call Centers Evolve, or, How to Start Putting Your Center Into Perspective

A few years back, when the Internet was just a shiny new toy, I created a model of call center development that tried to show how the center evolves in its relationship with the organization it’s a part of. It was a good model, describing with a fair degree of accuracy the struggles that a call center has to go through to deliver better service at a consistently high level of efficiency and lower cost.

The reason you create a model is to explore the general principles that guide a process, in this case, the process of service delivery. Since I created the Six-Stage Model, much has changed in the outside world that affects how call centers operate, and how they change over time. The very idea of CRM, which tries to grapple with the consequences of the later stages, but not always successfully.

The difference between my Six-Stage Model and other descriptions of how call centers work is that my explanation has less to do with what technologies are used, and more with the way the center interacts with the rest of the company. Here’s how it worked:

Stage 1: Startup. Also known as the informal or departmental call center mode. Organizationally, you find this in either small, growing companies that have not yet created a structure for service delivery, or in larger ones that allow diffuse, fractured approaches to spring up ad hoc.

This is one of the most haphazard steps. It’s the point at which a company is operating with little or no strategic view of the value of customers, or the consequences of good or bad service delivery. In this environment you might find a marketing department answering calls, or a voice mailbox set up to handle customer inquiries. What you won’t find is any kind of measurement, or coordination, or support from the higher levels of the company. You also won’t find any specific service-related technology investment. Instead, you find people on the fringe of the organization trying to make do with existing tools like PBXs.

The people doing the call handling are not, at this stage, professional reps. They are low level, perhaps entry level people filling in where gaps are found. Unfortunately, in this case service delivery can be seen as one large gap.

Stage 2: Triage. Because, at some point someone notices that something has to be done. You have to respond in some way to the customer base — even the upper managers know this. But often their first response is an inadequate one. It is reactive, and often guided by a single horrible metric like hold time, or products being returned in droves.

The response usually takes the form of traditional call center tools: ACD features added to a PBX, even a stand alone ACD, and an organizing of the service-delivery hierarchy. Someone is tasked with addressing the problem; that someone is given a budget and a mandate and little else. This is the first step toward creating the call center as it is known today, an infrastructure built to receive and handle customer inquiries.

Often, the problems that drove the process in the first place can be alleviated (note that I didn’t say solved) through the application of tools that are very mature and easily controlled.

Stage 3: The Organized Center. The people in charge become more professional, gaining a better grasp of the array of tools at their disposal, and the pros and cons of each one. The agents themselves also become professionalized; it’s at this stage that training, monitoring, incentives and career pathing become factors in agent management.

The call center management is still focused on cost control, usually at the behest of corporate policy planners. Here’s where you start to see some of the more interesting technology make its appearance, as managers try to squeeze operations to make them more productive in response to the fundamental call center paradox: the need to simultaneously cut costs and improve service. You see attention paid to all the cheap, reliable tech that’s become very standard, like front-end IVR processing and the first glimmer of the possibilities of bringing the telecom infrastructure together with the database. (I did call this CTI or computer telephony - now it makes more sense to lump it all together into CRM.)

And, of course, you see a lot more attention paid to reporting and analysis at this stage. But that analysis is mainly at the level of the call and the agent — not the customer.

Stage 4 is one of Continuous Improvement. That’s the point at which the tension between the external needs of the company and the internal needs of the center are at their most apparent. From outside comes the imperative to cut costs, as before, but also comes the need for more real, useful information about what’s happening with customers. This is where you begin to see the CRM mentality creeping in — not always emerging from within the center. Just as often it comes from the need outside departments have for organized, coordinated information relating call center activity to what the rest of the company is doing in marketing, product development, shipping, financial analysis, and so forth.

It’s also the stage at which call centers become really rigorous internally about things like monitoring and training programs, about workforce management software, and sometimes begin experimenting with things like skills-based routing and simulation.

In Stage 5, the forces at work in Stage 4 have matured a bit, and as a result, outsiders at the organization have come to see the call center more as a Strategic Asset than as a money pit, or a drag on the rest of the company. At this point, people are starting to cast about for a set of metrics they can use to define the relationship between the company and the customer. Often the best they can do is to frame that relationship in terms of call center stats — number of calls, how well satisfied those customers are, and the nexus between customer value and customer cost.

In Stage 6 (as I defined it a few years ago), the importance of the physical call center dropped away as the continuing focal point became that of the company-customer relationship. Prefiguring CRM a little, in this stage, which I called Mass Customization of Service, the call center and its company became a tightly integrated whole. I posited a situation in which each rep would have at his or her disposal all the information needed to handle the customer at the point of interaction — no more or less information than was needed, at the precise moment of contact. And the caller and rep would be as precisely matched as possible, with the agent empowered to do whatever was necessary to meet the customer’s needs, within the context of knowing what business rules to apply, and what the value of the customer is.

I also said that Stage 6 was a) not here yet in any meaningful way, b) a theoretical end point at which the boundaries between call center and company are indistinguishable, and c) a largely unattainable goal based on the technology and business contingencies of the day.

While in large measure this model still fairly describes the well-beaten path most companies take over their lifetime, it’s become clear that this model works best looking backward at centers that already exist today. For companies starting out on this road in 2001 and beyond, there are more factors that come into play.

There are three “side stages” that seem to have evolved just in the last few years — alternative tracks that include some aspects of what I’ve just described.

First, the dot-com online retailing boom and bust cycle that everyone just went through revealed some things about online customer service. Mainly, that it isn’t any good. Small companies that came out of the Internet industry sometimes thought that Internet-based tools for service delivery were adequate for their customers — that customers would be satisfied asking for help by perusing a webpage and sending an email. Many invested in front-end email processing tools, and even a back-end customer management system, only to neglect the telephone infrastructure. And people being people, they do still like to pick up the phone and call when something goes wrong (especially when it goes wrong with Christmas presents ordered online.)

So that first side stage involves what I call “Backpedaling to the Phones.” It’s a stage that could occur in any industry, really, that set itself up to handle customer interactions through non-telephony modes, and belatedly realizes that the customers couldn’t care a whit about a high-tech Internet service strategy but demand satisfaction by phone. In these cases, though, the company doesn’t backpedal all the way to Startup or Triage anymore. They go full bore into Stage Three. That’s because unlike ten years ago, or even five, it’s reasonably fast to throw together a technically robust call-handling infrastructure using what are now mature, proven, well-integrated tools.

The second side stage is more of a decision point that a lot of call centers find themselves reaching very early in their life cycle nowadays: Multichannel Choices. What do you do about emails? Or Web interaction? Before you even get to the question of HOW, all call centers face the question of whether to integrate these alternate modes of customer interaction into the telephony center at all. Which road you go down influences which set of technologies you’re going to buy, and what face you’re going to present to the customer, and how your internal management will be structured, and how much you’ll spend to integrate the different channels, and even how you train agents. It’s immensely important, and it’s something that’s sidestepped all the time, because it’s so profoundly complicated, and affects so many different aspects of business planning, that it’s often just decided by accident or default or both, often from outside the center. I’m not talking about the technology decision here — I’m talking just about the raw gut choice of whether emails are handled in the call center, or should a separate center be created to handle them? Should telephone reps lead Internet chats, or should it be left to a separate group?

Because it is so hellishly complicated, a lot of companies head straight for the relative safety of the third side stage: Outsource the Whole Mess. This is a fairly clear proposition, especially when it’s clear that there’s no industrywide operational consensus for how best to run a center under multichannel conditions. And when it’s clear that what you’re looking at buying is a set of very expensive and very transitional technologies that are going to look quite different five years hence. More than at any time since I’ve been covering call centers, outsourcing all or part of these multichannel components and the CRM overhead is a popular way to cut uncertainty’s Gordian knot.

Obviously this model isn’t going to look right to everyone; not all centers are created equal, and not all company agendas are the same. I’m just trying to paint (with a very broad brush) some of the common choices made by people grappling with similar problems. As things get more complicated, though, and as the modes used to connect with customers multiply, the “call center” will be harder and harder to describe in a universal way.