Toll Free & Long Distance Services | Call Center

After the center’s physical parameters are set, and the agents are hired, the most important element (at least from an ongoing cost standpoint) is the pipeline into the center. The toll free and long distance services that you choose will be so expensive, and yet so rich with features and possibilities, that it’s imperative that you choose carefully, and that you revisit your decision again and again for as long as the center operates.

Toll free service was once amazingly simple. You had one company to buy from, and very little leverage in the kinds of pricing plans and service offerings you could get. By very little, I mean: none. Companies didn’t begin to build call centers until there was a cost-effective means of making nationwide toll free calls, roughly thirty-some-odd years ago.

Wide Area Telephone Service, originally an AT&T creation, was the first iteration of toll free. It discounted long distance service, put the cost onus on the called party, and so began our journey down the call center road.

With divestiture and long distance competition, there were naturally more choices and the price of call center telecom began slowly to descend. And then, in the early 1990s, just as the three main long distance companies competed fiercely in a very public battle for the home consumer long distance market, a not-so-public but just as vicious fight for the call center market heated up, too. It was helped along by resellers and aggregators, which are essentially secondary marketers of long distance service. Resellers would buy bulk minutes from phone companies at a tremendous discount, and resell them at a very small profit margin, making money on the spread. Aggregators would combine the telecom traffic generated by lots of small companies until they were able to go to a phone company and commit to buy big packages of minutes, hence qualifying for the same deep discounts the telcos gave to their largest customers.

All these things worked to drive the cost of a long distance or toll free minute down past 10 cents, in some cases to as low as five. Of course, things are never as simple as they seem.

You almost never buy telecom minutes just bare — they are just the beginning of the process. It’s all in the value-add. What’s a long distance package without some kind of service assurance policy, for example, or without network reliability guarantees?

Or better yet, would you pay more per minute if the carrier let you manipulate the network according to your own traffic needs? Routing calls here for one reason, there for another — that’s a pretty powerful ability and they all have it.

What about being able to hold calls in the network, instead of queuing them up in your ACD? Or park them in the carrier network, while the net queries the ACDs at several centers to determine which one has the right person to answer the call? You can do that too. The more complex the routing dynamic, the more likely it is that you’ll have to go to someone other than the carrier for the actual software that makes it work, but the carriers are now eager to help hook you up. (They were not always so eager; phone companies tend to be less than far-sighted, as technology companies go.)

The carriers have also experimented, with mixed results, with services that actually perform transaction processing, even fax processing, in the network. It’s like having an outsourcer handle your calls and your transactions, but there’s no actual outsourced center; it all happens automatically.

They want you to take advantage of a lot of these advanced services, whether or not they provide the mechanics, because quite frankly, call centers are a gigantic consumer of telecom minutes. The more time your callers spend hanging out in their networks, the better off they are.

Add to that one other critical reason. If you posit the notion that long distance and toll free are pretty much the same from carrier to carrier, that Sprint, MCI and AT&T are all equally reliable, clear, inexpensive and available, then what keeps you from hopping from one to another at the drop of a hat? They hook you by getting you to buy ancillary services. I can foresee a day when the value-added services are more important to the carriers than the presentation of transmission minutes, and they end up giving the minutes away to their best customers as a loss leader. Especially when we enter a world with packetized networks and all sorts of alternative transmission methods that reduce the actual cost of moving a call from here to there to effectively zero.

So what was once simple — buy on price — has become complicated. But wait, there’s complexity on another level. Until 1993, if there was a particular phone number that you wanted to have in the 800 toll free code, you had to buy service from the carrier that had custody of that number. You had no freedom to change carriers and bring your number with you — if you had significant brand equity built into your number (800-CAR-RENT, for example, or 800-MATTRESS), you were stuck.

Until 1993. That was the year that 800 Portability reorganized the way 800 numbers were given out, and changed the whole dynamic of how you acquire and route 800 numbers. Portability meant (and still means) that you have custody of your toll free number. You can keep it if you want to change carriers. This, of course, gives the carriers added incentive to serve you better, to offer more interesting features in their toll free networks to keep you as a customer, now that you’re not a hostage.

Remember also: they need your business. Call centers are monster consumers of toll free and long distance service. They will make deals with you. If they do not serve you well, you can and should leave. In fact, you should absolutely have arrangements with at least two out of the three main carriers for your core service. At a minimum, that protects you against service outages. But it also allows you to compare, month by month, the offerings and prices they charge.

At first there was a lot of concern (generated by AT&T, in part) that portability would cause degradation of service (especially longer call set up times) because each call to a toll free number has to be passed along a more complicated pathway to query a database and determine which carrier routes it before it can be connected. Happily, those problems never materialized. Portability became part of the competitive landscape, and I think was a strong factor in the rush to grab 800 numbers a few years back. That rush, in turn caused the 800 number series to run out and forced the opening of first 888, and then long before anyone thought possible, another series, 877. (Other reserved series are warming up in the bullpen.)

Portability made toll free an intelligent network application. Users with multi-site centers who wanted features like Least Cost Routing, or sophisticated queuing options benefited immensely. Many of these services are expensive, though. In some cases they can add as much as 50% to the cost of a call, putting the options out of reach of many small and medium sized call centers. High volume users have been the main beneficiaries of price-cutting and volume discounts, leaving smaller users with higher costs and no appreciable gain in service.

Through bundled consulting plans and alliances with hardware manufacturers, the three majors are trying to be more to you than just a series of trunks and switches. Offering everything from complete outsourcing of your center to simple “press one for” service, phone carriers are providing more options for call centers than ever before.

Will the call center of the future be paying for carrier services by the transaction instead of by the minute? This is just one of the possibilities raised by the brave new world of call center offerings from the three major long distance carriers.

Future Design | Call Centers

As call centers focus more intensely on retaining their best agents and reducing turnover, human issues will come more to the fore in designing (and redesigning) call centers.

Centers will include more “community” areas: conference rooms, training centers, even classrooms. And as call centers begin to respond to more than just traditional voice phone calls, expanding into areas like email and Web response, as well as possible video calling, the kinds of workspaces that will be required will undoubtedly change. The smart design team will take these things into account now, because a call center is a five to 20 year commitment.

The best way to ensure that a call center is ready to accommodate your needs in 2010 is to allow for substantially more layout flexibility than is typical today.

Components that should be considered include:

  • Uniform, ceiling mounted indirect lighting systems that are layout-independent.

  • Furniture literally on wheels or furniture systems that can be reconfigured overnight.

  • Raised floors that allow ultimate cabling flexibility.

That way, the call center will be completely adaptable to any changing business circumstance, whether it’s driven by new technology, new ways of operating, or changing company cultures and ideas.

The Existing Center | Call Centers

Those ideas are fine, if you’re building a center from the ground up. But what if, as is more likely, you’re rehabbing a center that’s been around for a while, or outfitting an expansion of a center?

Luckily, there are still plenty of facilities factors under your control.

Lighting. Indirect lighting is the best if you can afford it, if not you should use florescent pink tubes and parabolic lenses. These lenses diffuse light straight down to eliminate glare. Full spectrum fluorescent tubes are available from some manufacturers that give a natural sunlight-like illumination.

Full-spectrum lighting is color balanced so there’s no yellow tint and less glare than with florescent lighting. The tubes fit into existing fluorescent fixtures.

Noise. Nothing is noisier than a roomful of people all talking at once. It’s hard on the employees, and it makes callers think they’re calling a roomful of people. There’s nothing so unprofessional as a call center that sounds like a.... call center.

If you want both the caller and the rep to feel more comfortable, try acoustic wall paneling, and if funds allow, white noise machines to diffuse noise. Using sound-absorbing foam or tiles on the ceiling, walls and other soft surfaces, and carpeting, keeps the sound from bouncing around. Plants are also good for the air and absorbing acoustics, but that’s a minor fix at best.

What some centers use are the same kind of foam tiling found in recording studios, though this can give a closed-in look to the place. In a cubicle environment (which most call centers are), talk to the manufacturers of the workstation units themselves about what kind of acoustical absorption properties they build into the wall coverings.

And of course, noise-canceling microphones in the headsets will help keep the apparent volume down, though that’s not strictly speaking a facilities question.

Seating. Your full-time agents spend at least seven hours a day at their cubicles sitting. The chairs you choose mean a lot. A chair affects posture, circulation and pressure on the spine.

I recommend chairs with height-adjustable armrests, split backs that hug your back (to relieve pressure on the spinal column), a moveable seat and an adjustable back angle.

I’m not saying you have to go out and buy everyone a $1,000 Herman Miller chair, but don’t put your agents in a $39 OfficeMax special, either. That’s putting you on the fast train to a high turnover rate.

Monitors. The top of the screen should be at eye height or slightly below and about 18 to 24 inches from the eyes (30 inches if you are concerned with electromagnetic radiation and your monitor is unshielded). The monitor should swivel to help reduce reflections. Once again, this is a small thing, with a really minimal added cost. But buy them the biggest monitor you can, especially if they’re going to be looking at a screen that pops a lot of critical customer information into a lot of tiny windows. The larger the monitor, the larger you can make the type in all those tiny windows. Seventeen inches ought to be the minimum.

Wall height.High walls between employees reduce noise, but they also cut agents off from one another and reduce collaboration. Sometimes the best way to deal with a call is to lean over the partition and ask another agent.

In the past, it was also important that agents be able to see a centrally hung readerboard. Now, with scrolling screen tickers full of ACD info, you’re not so dependent on that, so you can consider not only higher walls but a less formal cluster organization of the cubicles. One generally accepted height is 42 inches. That gives a certain amount of privacy without shutting the agents off from what’s around them.

Agent input. Agents ought to have some say in how call centers are designed. They’re not the only ones who benefit when you give them input — managers and supervisors get happier, more productive employees and fewer compensation claims.

Today, more and more call centers are collecting input from their employees before buying workstations, for the simple reason that they want to keep those employees as long as possible. Because call center agents must perform repetitive phone and keyboard tasks and spend all day (excluding breaks and lunch) at their desks, using ergonomic equipment is crucial. You’ll get happier, healthier and more productive employees. In the long run you’ll save a bundle in time and money since you’ll have lower turnover and better morale.

Considering there are more employees suing now than ever before for repetitive stress injuries (reported incidents of RSIs are higher than ever, accounting for 60% of all occupational illnesses) there’s no better time to offer courses in prevention and/or re-evaluate your center’s set-up.

The workstations. There are a lot of options in buying and coordinating the placement of the actual seats where agents will do their work. I’m not talking just about cubicles here; call center workspaces are carefully designed and constructed for the particular needs of this industry by a number of specialty companies.

This kind of thing is often overlooked, or put aside as managers think more about the critical (and expensive) technology and hardware they need. It’s easy to forget that labor is the single biggest ongoing expense in a call center. Intelligent workstation design is an easy way to reduce costs over the long term by keeping turnover low and employees happy. The type of workstations you choose can facilitate team building or discourage it.

There are three types of workstations: the cluster, a pinwheel like setup with four to six work areas sprouting from the core in the middle; the rectilinear, a traditional panel system with four wall panels at each station set up in rows; and the modular or free-standing workstation.

One vendor says that cluster workstations are beneficial to companies, like large catalog or insurance companies, which need to put many telephone- and computer-intensive workers in the same room. That’s because clusters let you fit more people into less space, but the people don’t feel cramped.

In fact, the cluster arrangement lets you save 10% to 25% of your floorspace and doesn’t give you that mousetrap/maze effect that rectilinear workstations sometimes create.

The gentler floor plan makes it easier for people to walk through the call center and between groups, fostering teamwork.

One downside to the circular workstation arrangement is that the partitions between stations are sometimes too high, making communication between agents on the telephone difficult. With the cluster it’s easier to talk between workstations, but hard for people to come in.

Rectilinear, or panel, workstations are a good choice for centers that need more space for each agent or that need more flexibility in panel and desk heights. The design of a center around these stations is more forgiving, and easier to change as conditions change. The work surface can be moved between notches in the side panel to accommodate wheelchair-bound agents or agents of different heights. Rectilinear workstations are popular choices for engineers, managers, people who need extra room for storage cabinets and anyone who has conferences with co-workers. You also find this the preferred style in technical support centers, where the reps have to refer to a lot of external materials — binders, reference manuals, and so forth. The type of workstation you choose should complement your company’s team-building style.

  • When evaluating workstations:

  • Look for a style that’s easy to install and reconfigure. Look for something that doesn’t have too many parts and pieces, but where you can add overhead shelves and in/out boxes.

  • Make sure the equipment can be connected within a panel, rather than to a box that sits on top of a desk.

  • Buy through a local dealer so you’ll have nearby on-going support. And a dealer can help with things like placement of workgroups for departments who need to communicate regularly.

  • Look at it as a strategic investment. Chances are, you’ll have it for the next ten years, so you don’t just want to look at price. It should be pleasant and functional.

  • Get panels with metal frames because they’re more durable than wooden ones. Also, get fabric panels that can be re-covered if damaged. And again, examine the acoustical properties of those panels.