A call centre (UK) or call center (US) is a centralised office of a company that answers incoming telephone calls from customers. A call center may be an office that makes outgoing telephone calls to customers (telemarketing). Such an office may also responds to letters, faxes, e-mails and similar written correspondence. However the term contact centre (UK) or contact center (US) is often applied when such multiple functions are blended in one office.
Queuing theory mathematics can be used to demonstrate that a single large call centre is more effective at answering calls than several smaller centres. The most dramatic improvements come when a large number of offices are centralised. The centralised approach aims to rationalise the company’s operations and reduce costs, whilst producing a standard, branded, front to the world. The approach naturally lends itself to large companies with a large, distributed customer base. Owing to the size of companies and their customer bases, these offices are often very large, such as converted warehouses. They are often supported by computer technology that manages, measures and monitors the performance and activities of the workers. Examples include utility companies, mail order catalogue firms, and customer support for computer hardware and software.
Call centres have been aided by a range of telecommunications and computer technologies, including automatic call distribution (ACD), interactive voice response (IVR), computer telephony integration (CTI), which allows the actions of the computer to be synchronised with what is happening on the phone. In addition, early customer relationship management (CRM) technologies, such as Siebel, and other database systems, were heavily employed in call centres. The latest internet technologies allow “virtual” call centres to be established across a company’s telecommunications network without physically putting all the people in one office.
Types of calls are often divided into outbound and inbound. Inbound calls are calls that are initiated by the customer to obtain information, report a malfunction or ask for help. This is substantially different from outbound calls where the agent initiates the call to a customer mostly with the aim to sell a product or a service to that customer.
The staff of the call center is often organized in tiers, with the first tier being largely unskilled workers who are trained to resolve issues using a simple script. If the first tier is unable to resolve an issue the issue is escalated to a more highly skilled second tier. In some cases, there may be third or higher tiers of support.
Call centres have their critics as well. Some critics argue that the work atmosphere in such an environment is de-humanising. 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. Furthermore, call centers have been the subject of complaints by callers who find the staff of the call centers often do not have enough skill or authority to resolve problems.
Owing to the highly technological nature of the operations in such offices, the close monitoring of staff activities is easy and widespread. This can be argued to be beneficial, to enable the company to better plan the workload and time of its employees. Some people have argued that such close monitoring breaches human rights to privacy. Yet another argument is that close monitoring and measurement by quantitative metrics can be counterproductive in that it can lead to poor customer service and a poor image of the company.
Many call centres in the UK have been built in areas that are depressed economically. This means that the companies get cheap land and labour, and can often benefit from grants to encourage them to improve employment in a given area. There has also been a trend to move call centres to India, where there is a large pool of cheap English-speaking labour. Many American corporations outsource their call center operations to Canadian firms due to the low Canadian Dollar and cheap telecommunication rates. SITEL Corporation, which operates call centres in Ottawa, Ontario,Canada, and St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada, is one such company.
Around the world there are a number of professional organisations forming to develop and promote call center best practice management and operation, to overcome the negative aspects of a call centre.
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