Make Call Center Careers Meaningful

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It's no secret that call center representatives are hard to find - and keep - in this white-hot labor market. What's not so widely known is that competition also is fierce for call center management professionals.

Though there are no data right now on this, this scarcity extends downward into the realm of middle managers.

As far as reps go, it's not difficult to see why they're hard to hire and to keep. Frankly, in most cases the job leads nowhere. It's low paying and has little chance of becoming more than a way for entry-level or transient workers to pick up basic technological and customer contact skills.

There is always discussion in this industry of the causes and effects of turnover. Call centers traditionally deal with agents as aggregates, as figures plugged into equations of profit and productivity, and always measured against that most dreaded and misused yardstick: the call.

The industry needs more managers and more staff. There are two broad things that the contact center business must do to have a better future. But first, a bit of history.

The further back you go (up to about a quarter century), the call center looks less like a single industry with a coherent structure, and more like a collection of isolated and varied ways of performing certain customer-related tasks for companies in well-defined vertical industry sectors. A call center for a bank, for example, would be run by someone who had experience with banking tools. He would consider himself (in those days it was usually a he) a bank professional. If he went looking for another job, it probably wouldn't be managing a center for a cataloger or a healthcare firm. It would be for another bank. The job would have less to do with running the center than with managing the technology, especially the data.

Knowledge of either the company's proprietary information technology structures and data models, or the ability to oversee raw telecom, was the criterion for success as a manager in most corporate call centers of that day.

Over time, the many isolated islands of call center activity began to recognize common features across industries. Now, it's taken as an article of faith that a catalog retailer is not much different from a bank or a software company, insofar as the call center will look pretty much the same in form and function. This was the revolution that took place in the 1990s: the recognition that there was such a thing as a call center industry and that it had less to do with telemarketing, which nobody liked, and everything to do with customer contact, which excited everybody.

Once a call center professional class was recognized, ideas and managers could flow freely across sector boundaries, and the result is the huge business we have today. But the nagging question remains: What makes a manager? How do you determine criteria for success so that you can write it into a job description and hire the best person?

The first thing that should happen to ensure continued success: We need to admit, once and for all, that knowledge of technology and its structures is an imperfect and outdated selection criterion for a call center manager. Admit it: It's all about people skills.

Not only being able to corral enough people into seats today, but also having the vision of how to ensure a steady base of motivated workers for the entire five- to 10-year life cycle of a call center, anticipating how changing technologies will affect the mix of ways customers will be dealt with, and ensuring that the call center remains the nexus for contact, are of continuous value to the organization. The old way of hiring a manager was to make sure the person had experience and knew his way around the switch and the computer telephony integration software. This ensures that a center will remain a static place where triage mentality lasts until a center is rendered irrelevant by a shifting customer base and different organizational needs.

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