The new contact center Featured

8:00pm EDT March 26, 2007
Today’s contact centers have undergone, and continue to experience, revolutionary changes,” says Waymon Bryant, Spherion partnership director for several contact centers in Atlanta. “Most are known as multi-channel contact centers rather than call centers due to the diverse communications tools they now employ, and those tools are the product of enormous advances in technology. It’s a very exciting workplace these days.”

Smart Business asked Bryant to share some of his insights into the evolution of the contact center, why companies choose to outsource their centers, how center performance is measured, and new trends.

What type of contact centers do you manage for clients?

I’m responsible for both types of centers: the inbound center that provides customer service and support, order-taking, appointment-setting and other passive transactions, and the outbound center that performs active sales and telemarketing functions, whose agents work on a base-pay-plus-commission basis.

What are some of the current trends you’re seeing?

I’ve seen an increased demand for multi-lingual agents, especially in the residential or consumer market. The incidence of multi-purpose inbound calls is growing as well, which entails marketing additional services to a customer during an inbound call.

Shift work remains commonplace in contact centers and is a very important consideration. You have to put a shift schedule in place, hire to the schedule and then train to the schedule. For example, you should not hire night-shift staff and expect them to come in during the day for a week of training.

Creative solutions are key to operating a first-rate contact center that’s firing on all cylinders. For example, if you’re looking for ‘soccer moms’ to work in a center, consider offering a part-time shift from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. so they can have their work time and still be there for their kids after school.

The trend is to provide on-site, on-staff training expertise as a standard part of the cost of operating a contact center. This enables you to develop quick refresher training as needed to fill gaps, respond to emergency needs, introduce new programs or offers, and turn on a dime to stay out ahead of the competition.

Finally, the trend in outsourcing contact center operations continues to grow, on both the inbound and outbound side.

What are some of the reasons companies outsource their contact centers?

There are lots of good reasons. We’re able to staff outbound and inbound centers quickly and less expensively than most clients can. Outsourcing offers flexibility through the ability to staff for peaks and valleys and seasonal demands, and then ‘un-staff’ when the demand spike is gone without having to layoff the client’s permanent employees.

Outsourcing can also enable a client to avoid having to build facilities, purchase equipment, develop training, manage advertising and outreach programs and so on. Many companies that have been operating successful inbound centers find that trying to add an outbound operation, dedicated to acquiring new business by phone, is just too large and different an initiative for them to take on.

We’ve seen how important it is to be flexible. Using an outsourcing staffing provider can enable flexibility, whereas sometimes the policies that an in-house company center might have to follow could actually inhibit flexibility.

How can you tell how a contact center is doing?

The basics for an inbound contact center include ASA (average speed of answer), as measured in seconds or minutes; abandoned calls, when the hold time has become unacceptable to the caller; and blocked calls, or how many times a call reaches a busy signal due to call volumes.

The appropriate metrics would also include how many contacts are required to resolve an issue. There should be a requirement for acknowledging receipt of an e-mail or online Web contact within a specified period of time, and a standard for resolving that inquiry. Other standards include forecast contacts versus actual contacts and occupancy rate, which is the number of incoming calls versus the number of agents to handle them.

In the outbound sales and marketing contact center we measure revenue, the number of decision-makers we touch, number of calls per day, and average talk time, for example.

Finally, we like to look at agent turnover and customer survey ratings to round out the picture and enable us to constantly improve the contact center experience.

WAYMON BRYANT is partnership director for Spherion Corporation in the Atlanta area. Reach him at (404) 829-7102 or