Most call center managers want to know what other call centers are doing, what works and what doesn't. As a consultant, I often observe best practices – and sometimes not-so-good practices – as part of project work, but that experience provides only anecdotal evidence. So when my consultancy, Strategic Contact, was asked to co-sponsor a call center benchmarking and best practices study with Centerserve (a division of Prosci and sponsor of the Call Center Learning Center), we jumped at the opportunity. We talked to representatives at 250 call centers in 51 countries around the world. Most were in the U.S., but many call centers in India and other countries also participated.
The results of the study are in, and I'd like to share some of the highlights. They reveal some interesting trends and lessons learned, and point to the opportunities that remain for call centers to continue to "raise the bar" on performance.
Top key performance indicators
The report revealed that key performance indicators (KPIs) – both targets and realities – are of utmost concern. Important key performance indicators, such as service level and quality, rank near the top in importance, and most call centers and industries perform pretty well against these metrics.
Call center costs are an increasingly important consideration, and the study breaks down cost criteria by geographic region, media, and call center element. The cost breakdown (something often quoted in justifying technology or other investment business cases) is:
• Labor – 56%
• Technology – 15%
• Overhead – 14%
• Network – 6%
• Training – 6%
• Other – 3%
Voice continues to be the most expensive contact channel, at an average of $4.36 per contact. Email follows closely behind at $4.17, with interactive voice response (IVR) at $0.93 and text chat at $0.52 per contact.
Hourly call center agent wages ranged from a low of $4.63 in Central and South America, to a high of $15.50 in Canada, with the U.S. close behind at $14.44. Call centers in Asia and the Pacific Islands ($6.48), a popular call center region, had wages on a par with African call centers ($6.70).
Changes, challenges, trends and drivers
This study did not focus on call center technology, but technology certainly had an impact on the emerging changes and trends. Half of participants identified technology as the biggest change in their call center over the past two years. Tools like Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), interactive voice response, workforce management, and CRM all played a role in call center improvements.
Consolidation – often called "virtualization" – was a challenge facing call center managers. Another challenge, changing departmental structures and creating new departments, aligns with a key adjustment for many call centers – growth. More than 75% of participants in the study anticipate growth in their call centers. As call centers pursue transformations, change management is the greatest challenge.
Another business driver affecting call centers is a real desire to improve the customer experience. Cost reduction and efficiency followed close behind, with growing revenue and market presence surfacing as longer-term goals that show centers' increasingly strategic role.
What makes the "best" call centers the best
Participants in the study highlighted five key characteristics for best-in-class call centers:
• A skilled workforce supported by appropriate training and motivation
• A well-communicated and executed business strategy
• Carefully chosen and effectively applied technology
• Management with an ability to tackle the day-to-day tasks while also conducting effective planning
• A balancing of quality and quantity by routinely monitoring and coaching
Participants noted that these characteristics drive appropriate changes, improve customer satisfaction, and optimize efficiency.
Home agents and outsourced agents
Call center managers making plans today increasingly look to how other call centers use alternate staffing strategies, whether successfully or unsuccessfully. Study participants weighed in on these important options with some interesting results. Remote agents or home agents seem to be filling a need for scheduling flexibility and retention – two key issues for most call centers. More than half of participants use, plan to use, or will increase the use of home agents.
Call center outsourcing percentages doubled over past studies (from 10% to 20%), but most participants that outsourced did so in their own country. The most prevalent driver for outsourcing was cost, while the greatest tradeoff was quality. Perhaps the combination of these results points to a trend to consider "home shoring" as a way to achieve alternate staffing benefits while minimizing risks.
Leadership and agent success
A great call center manager or supervisor is essential to the success of centers and their staff. I think it is fitting to quote verbatim from the study the attributes needed for a great supervisor:
These attributes may seem simple and straightforward, but reinforcing them as goals for selecting, hiring, or developing call center supervisors could go a long way to enhancing both the customer experience and the role of the customer sales representative. Time spent on fighting fires and administrative tasks was one of the top obstacles faced by call center managers, as well as their team and center. According to the study, distractions like these take away from important work such as staff development, creating incentive and reward programs, and generating and maintaining a positive environment.
The report also notes trends in training and development, as well as keys to motivating and retaining agents. Training time averages three to four weeks, with the typical agent requiring two to four months to become "fully functioning." This realization reinforces the fact that retention is critical to agent success and cost effectiveness.
The Centerserve reports are available at www.call-center.net/ccstudy-practices.htm or by calling 970-669-6554. The three reports – Benchmarks in Call Center Operations, Improving Call Center Business Processes, and How to Be a Great Call Center Manager – can be purchased by volume or as a whole.
About the author
Lori Bocklund is President of Strategic Contact, an independent consulting firm focused on helping companies optimize the strategic value of their customer contact technology and operations. Lori is a recognized industry leader in contact center strategy, technology, and operations and frequent contributor to SearchCRM.com. www.strategiccontact.com.