Is There a Call Center Industry?

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I've recently come to the reluctant conclusion that the call center "industry" isn't really a unique industry sector. Reluctant, because this challenges some of the fundamental assumptions we've trained ourselves to make about how call centers have developed and what they're supposed to accomplish.

Call centers were designed, first and foremost, as customer-contact proxies. Most people can't trek down to the offices of their phone company to ask a question. Most people who buy from catalogs find it easier than a trip to the mall. You connect with national companies by telephone.

Sears, Roebuck & Co., Chicago, realized a century ago that distance between customer and company didn't need to be a barrier to commerce as long as there were communications and delivery networks (even slow ones) between them.

Now we are experiencing dramatic changes in the way companies and customers interact. But these are changes in degree, not in kind. We adopt a more scientific approach to measuring customer happiness than Messrs. Sears and Roebuck did. And we certainly use a finer set of networks to take orders, answer questions and deliver goods.

But, in fact, neither the rise of the call center nor the placement of the Internet between the company and the customer has changed anything about the core relationship except its speed and the range of competition for divided attention.

Call centers have now been recognized by the world as key factors in doing business with customers. (Even the Encarta, Microsoft's new dictionary, has an entry under call center; check it out, it got the definition wrong. Typical Microsoft.)

To succeed at connecting with customers, a company first has to come to grips with the notion that there is a wall between it and the customer base. Once that barrier is recognized, of course, there turn out to be many useful ways to contact customers. Call centers are just one example. But for most companies, in most instances, the call center is the best.

Now that call centers have arrived on the scene and are accorded some respect and status within an organization, the rules are changing. There are new forms of interaction not just on the horizon but bursting upon us so quickly it's almost insane. There's no way to make calm, studied assessments about what something like e-mail or Web interactions will do to a call center's productivity, let alone to a company's profit line. You'd like to have the luxury of taking it slow, but you can't because the competitive landscape is so cutthroat that once your competition offers a service, you have to offer it too. Even if neither one of you is ready to do so.

So where does that leave you? With a call center that's fine on the phone calls - in fact, better than anyone ever hoped with the phone calls - but struggling to make sense of how to train and manage a group of agents whose job is to answer e-mails? Or talk one-to-one with customers over a chat connection? Or, God help us, use a video link?

Suddenly, what looked like a pretty stable practice - the art and science of managing a call center - looks like something hellishly complicated. And the call centers, which had suddenly become islands of success and stability and solidity within a company, now look like a swirling mass of confusion. At least, they do to upper management. I mean, now that you've got them sold on something as basic as computer telephony integration, and got them to understand the payback cycles and return on investment of screen pop, you have to sell them on e-mail management. More likely, you have to explain to them what e-mail management is and how it relates to call volume. Or even more likely yet, someone has to explain it to the call center manager. And that's the last thing he wants to hear.

So you see where that leaves us. It leaves us no better off understanding the dynamic of call centers than we were in 1995 (before the Internet sea change).

This is a sign of the changes in the call center industry, if we should still call it that. We were a little ahead of ourselves in the early '90s when we started referring to it as the call center industry. Back then, it was an article of faith that call centers had certain core qualities - no matter what vertical industry they were in.

Now, I'm not so certain that there is enough commonality between centers to make assumptions about how the industry as a whole operates. The line between inbound and outbound, for example, seems to have grown larger, not smaller. Despite the addition of call blending (technology that allows a single agent station to be used for either inbound or outbound calls, dynamically), few centers use it. It seems that the same dynamic is evolving with some of these extra-center technologies, too. Traditional reps aren't the ones answering e-mails during slow times.

Likewise, we've not detected a groundswell of movement toward having telephony agents handling Internet protocol-based text chat sessions.

The technology does make it possible to have the same agent perform multiple tasks - handle a variety of different kinds of interactions. I don't doubt that some time in the future all the interfaces will converge. But right now, all these various channels require different skills. The technology might be right, and surely the reps are smart enough to handle it, but the "industry" isn't doing much to educate the call center management community about the human issues involved in training and retaining the smart reps. And the managers are, so far, not willing to commit their most valuable resources, their reps, to the chancy proposition that they can both answer calls, respond to e-mails and all the rest.

I think we're looking at developing specialty reps for handling the different interaction channels with the divergent technical and people skills necessary.

And I think that as that happens, the call center will be augmented by e-mail centers, Web centers and so on. Eventually they'll all come back together; but first we have to blow them apart.

This is going to necessitate divergent training systems and management structures. And, eventually, when it all comes back together, there's no guarantee that it's going to be under the authority of the call center manager. For all we know, call centering could be controlled by the equivalent of IT people, or by some new customer service coordinator who is independent of the channel or the technology. (This is where I'd put my money.) And the traditional telecom background necessary for life in a call center won't be worth much.

What this means is that we're going to have an increasingly fragmented world when we talk about the call center industry. Part of the time we'll be talking about traditional call centering and part of the time the newfangled, Internet-enabled, automated contact world. Already we're seeing companies (especially these pesky dot-com companies) building what they say are call centers to handle e-mail and chat that have little or no traditional telephony component.

The trouble is, down the road some of them will have to backtrack when they realize the Internet can't handle all their needs, and they will need someone to answer pure voice calls. It's a messed up world.

So to answer my initial question, it looks from here that, although we have a strong and robust industry, we have something that's morphing fast into something with visible outlines but a hazy structure. Stay tuned.

Keith Dawson is a technology writer and editor of the Call Center News Service, New York (

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