The new contact center Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007
“Today’s contact centers have undergone, and continue to experience, revolutionary changes,” says Steve Wajda, Spherion’s Tampa district director. “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 work place these days.”

Smart Business asked Wajda 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 some of the trends Spherion is seeing.

What type of contact center does Spherion manage for clients?

We support 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?

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

Shift work remains commonplace in contact centers, and consistency is very important in managing shift work. After putting a shift schedule in place, you need to hire to the schedule and 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. 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.

There is also a very positive trend to provide on-site, on-staff training expertise as a standard part of the cost of operating a contact center. This enables center management 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 sides.

Why would a company outsource its contact center operation?

For one, experienced outsourcers are able to staff outbound and inbound centers quickly and less expensively than most clients can.

Two, 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 lay off the client’s permanent employees.

Three, outsourcing can also enable a client to avoid having to build facilities, purchase equipment, develop training, manage advertising and outreach programs and so on. And 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.

Finally, 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.

Can you monitor how well a contact center is performing?

Yes, and there are a number of key metrics that are central to performance. The basics for an inbound contact center include ASA, or 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. They 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 might measure revenue, the number of decision-makers contacted, number of calls per day, and average talk time.

Finally, we review agent turnover rates and customer survey ratings to round out the picture and enable us to constantly improve the contact center experience for our clients and their customers.

STEVE WAJDA is a district director at Spherion Corporation. Reach him at (813) 623-6399 or