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The Six Stages of Call Center Development

It’s hard, when confronting the day to day managerial headaches of running a call center, to stay focused on the long term or to see the big picture of where a center fits into the corporate structure.

The success or failure of a company’s customer relationships depends on more than whether that center varies from preset service level targets today, tomorrow and next week. It depends on how well the call center management team coordinates all the technologies available in service to the company’s goals.

It also depends on how well the managers articulate to the rest of the company (including upper management, financial analysts, marketers and product development) a strategy for integrating the call center and the customer into the company’s daily operations.

Over time, I have seen that call centers tend to follow very similar trajectories in developing their approaches to customer relations. Not every one follows the same path, obviously, and with as many call centers globally as there are now, where there is room for a trend there is also room for many countertrends.

But, I have identified a rough six-stage model for the development of customer service through call centers. As you will see, it has less to do with the deployment of particular technologies than it does with the company’s changing philosophy of service and customer relations.

1. Start-up. This stage typically is in a smaller company that has just released its first product or a major upgrade. The phone is ringing off the hook, and there are few or no people whose job or training involves dealing with customer problems. And yet the phone needs to be answered, so someone is assigned the task of receiving those calls and logging them, but often not dealing with them.

This stage is characterized by a somewhat desperate and surprised recognition that all calls must somehow, eventually be answered (never mind when).

Typical technology at this stage is a standard business PBX with no integration between the PC application that the CSR is using and the phone system. (It’s even premature at this stage to call the person a CSR – he or she is probably an entry-level person whose unlucky task is to handle the phones.)

2. Triage. Someone at the company recognizes something has to be done. Customers that don’t get a response to their queries call their sales reps, who may or may not be equipped to handle post-sale followup. The volume of calls, coupled with the need for a smoother work flow process, drives the company to respond with a more formalized call-answering system. The call center is born.

Typical technology is a departmental ACD spun off the PBX, or in some cases a full ACD with rudimentary reporting features. There is sales force automation software coordinated with the outbound side for the salespeople, and some version of that data routed to the inbound reps’ desks, but not automatically.

At this stage, technology is added reactively. There are problems that can be remedied by a quick application of some very simple technology (a switch, some software, maybe an outbound dialer). It’s an easy cost justification, but only on the cost-control side. It isn’t until a later stage that the people running the center begin to think beyond cost control and focus on the revenue possibilities.

One type of center that typically functions at this level is the small-scale outbound center, the type used for local collections, telemarketing or surveys. (Note that we exclude outsourcers from these six stages. They run on a completely different course.)

3. The organized center. The realization sets in, usually as call volume escalates and the costs of labor escalate along with it, that some kind of organized structure needs to be imposed on what had been a reactive, ad hoc function.

The typical response in stage three is to implement what we now think of as “traditional” call center tools. That includes real ACDs for call routing, and some more formalized grouping structure to go along with it. Division of personnel into first-line sales qualifiers and service reps might also happen late in this stage.

Some sort of front end is also often implemented, first as part of the auto attendant system if it is still running its center on a PBX/ACD. An IVR system might make an appearance as it gains sophistication. In short, this stage sees the center become formal, with its own management structure and some basic call-handling automation.

It’s at this stage, interestingly, that most of the call center industry’s vendors start their sales process, because this is where most centers appear on the radar screens. It’s only when a center reaches this point that the manager starts reading about call center technologies and may go to a trade show or seminar to learn more.

As the market becomes more competitive on the vendor side, with more attention paid to the small and developing informal centers, vendors may seek a way to identify centers while they are still at stages one and two.

4. Continuous improvement. Triage recedes into the background and the center chugs along for a while, responding to periodic peaks and valleys and identifying the company’s base-line service level. This gets factored into the costs of running the center, and a paradox is reached. The center, analyzed from outside by managers in other departments, is asked to do two things at once – improve service and cut costs.

It is at this point that the call center management hierarchy begins to look outward for other methods of improvement. This can mean searching for more automation technology in an attempt to cut down on call volume or call duration. Sometimes CTI is contemplated at this stage.

Or, it can mean bringing in training and manpower assessors to determine whether the work force can be managed better at a higher level of efficiency. Sometimes this is seen as a quick route to solving both ends of the paradox – but quick it ain’t.

Also, work force management software is sometimes seen as a way to wring some efficiency from an unpredictable ebb and flow of volume.

All of these choices are subject to rigorous cost justification, and often they don’t pass muster with the managers outside the center. At this stage of development there has not yet developed an understanding of the mutual interdependency between the company and the center.

5. Corporate asset. As the company matures, select people within it begin to realize that the relationship between the company and its customers is of paramount importance. Where this realization sets in differs from company to company: Sometimes it’s inside the call center, sometimes it comes from upper management, sometimes elsewhere.

What results, though, is that the company starts to look to the center as a place of opportunity, as a tool to assist other company strategies such as cross-selling or upselling callers on featured products. To a company in this stage, the call center looks less like a way to triage a flood of calls and more like a corporate asset.

Typical technologies at this stage include a screen pop and perhaps other basic CTI applications and industry-specific verticals built for the call center. On the service side there may be basic stabs at alternate inputs, such as an e-mail or Web interaction system. More likely, though, is that the company is integrating call-center systems with existing companywide data systems, such as transaction processing, order fulfillment, and tracking and work flow.

6. Mass customization of service. Ultimately, the company and its call center become a tightly integrated whole; so whole, in fact, that it might be difficult to tell exactly where to draw the line between the two. Front-end data about the customer is captured automatically, processed and integrated with the data residing in back-end databases, wherever they might live.

Agents have, at the ready, all the information they need to process that call, and at this stage when we say call we mean voice, fax, e-mail, chat session or whatever. They also have the power to resolve any questions or difficulties that might come up without transferring the call to another department. Each call is customized to the precise needs of the customer and can be measured many ways: in terms of agent performance, cost of the call, or best of all, by the relationship between the cost of processing and the value of the customer.

At stage six we have reached the theoretical end point of call centers as a customer service delivery tool because, beyond that point, the center ceases to exist as separate from the company.

As companies move from stage to stage, they may acquire or cast off certain technologies that are common in one stage or another. However, it’s my sense that adoption of a particular technology is driven more by industry-specific and market-specific concerns than by passage through these stages.

It’s important to note that this six-stage model was not derived from a scientific study or survey of centers. It’s an observational model that will not fit all or even most centers all or most of the time. But it’s useful as a way to peg your own center’s philosophy of service delivery and try to improve by moving to the next stage. n

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