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Best Practices

What Is a Call Center? A Detailed Guide

16 minute read
Lesley Harrison  avatar
Today, almost all organizations handle both email and telephone queries. This means the call center and contact center labels are often used interchangeably.

Customer service is an essential part of running a modern business. Organizations with a large customer base often have a centralized call center for customers to contact for common customer service issues.

Paul Weald of Call Center Helper defined in this CallCentreHelper article, a call center as "A department or an office in which incoming and outgoing telephone calls from both new and existing customers are handled by a team of advisors, otherwise known as agents."

Call centers are used for a variety of purposes, including:

  • Customer service and support
  • Market research
  • Telemarketing

A call center may also handle billing, account management or other day-to-day functions of dealing with customers.

Related Article: Call Center Leadership: Looking to the New Year

Call Centers vs. Contact Centers

Typically, call centers deal exclusively with voice calls. Meanwhile, contact centers handle other queries, such as emails, support tickets or live chats, as well as voice calls. Weald notes, "As soon as your call center handles queries from another channel of contact, whether that's email, live chat, messaging, etc., it becomes a contact center."

Weald admits this definition is quite an old one, however. Today, almost all organizations handle both email and telephone queries. This means the call center and contact center labels are often used interchangeably.

What Do Call Centers Do?

Call centers serve as a hub for customer service. They allow customers to interact with companies without having to travel to a store, branch or office. This means if a customer has a query, wants to pay a bill or wants to make a complaint, they can do so at their own convenience.

Today, customers have many options for interacting with brands, not just in-person or over the telephone. That does not mean call centers have fallen out of favor, however. According to data from Oberlo's blog, the telephone is still the communication method of choice for 76% of Americans when it comes to interacting with brands.

Phone support offers customers a chance to talk to a human and have their questions answered in real time. It also means customers can call a company when they have some spare time, instead of having to book an appointment.

Call centers can vary in size from large offices with banks of cubicles to a couple of desks in a smaller property. Some centers have multiple departments with advisors handling different types of calls, while others simply have a few dedicated call handlers who take on anything that comes their way.

Related Guide (Free Registration): Cloud-Based Contact Center Solutions

Types of Call Centers

John Yarbrough of contact center solutions provider LifeSize described three different types of call centers. These are inbound, outbound and automated.

Inbound Call Centers

An inbound call center is one that primarily (or exclusively) handles incoming calls. A customer calls a telephone number and is connected to an agent who handles their request.

To ensure the customer's call is handled by the right agent, the customer may be asked a series of questions via an interactive voice response (IVR) system. This system may rely on keywords, such as "pay a bill" or "track a delivery," or ask for account numbers or other information.

Yarbrough explains, "Inbound contact centers are commonly used by businesses that have a need to offer technical, product and billing support at scale." Agents working in these contact centers are trained to deal with the most common requests quickly and accurately to ensure maximum customer satisfaction.

Outbound Call Centers

Outbound call centers are typically used for promotional campaigns, sales or market research. These call centers make outgoing calls to qualified calling lists. The list of numbers to call is usually pulled from a company's customer relationship management (CRM) system and filtered to ensure only those who have opted in to receive calls are contacted.

Yarbrough says, "Organizations automate the calling process using specialized software, such as a predictive dialer, which makes it possible for agents to make a significant number of calls quickly."

In many parts of the world, outbound call centers are subject to regulations that dictate how and when agents can call residential phone numbers. For this reason, Yarbrough notes, "Modern contact centers can perform outbound communication via a customer's preferred methods, such as email and text." These alternative communication methods are often seen as less intrusive than phone calls.

Automated Call Centers

Many modern contact centers rely on IVR systems to automate call routing. Today, it's possible for these systems to handle some common call types without agent intervention.

For example, a customer can call a phone number and then enter their account number and payment details to pay a bill. Alternatively, they can state their address and a tracking number to get updates about a package.

Contact centers can take this automation a step further, using chatbots to answer slightly more complex queries. These self-service options save time for customers and businesses alike. A customer need only speak to a human agent if their query is too complex for the AI system to resolve.

Related Article: Six Strategies for an Effective Call Center Culture

Virtual vs. Office-Based Call Centers

Historically, call centers were located in physical offices. Today, thanks to the wide availability of fast, reliable internet connections, it's possible for people to work from home.

Weald explains, "Virtual call centers consist of individual advisors working from home or smaller groups of advisors working in quieter branch offices." These offices are powered by the same technology as a traditional contact center and function as if they're one bigger center. The end-user experience remains the same, whether the contact center is virtual or otherwise.

Virtual agents can be an affordable way for a midsized company to improve their customer service offerings. There are some outsourcing providers that offer virtual customer service provision, training home workers to handle calls for multiple companies.

When a worker receives a call, they'll see an alert on their computer screen advising them which company the call is for. This allows them to greet the caller appropriately and follow any desired script or protocols set by that client.

Call Center Technology

Established businesses may have large office-based call centers with their own call routing and telephony infrastructure. Setting up this infrastructure will take a significant investment. It can take months of planning and many man-hours to make changes to these legacy systems. This means it's hard for businesses that rely on those systems to adapt to changing customer needs and expectations.

Cloud based call center solutions offer a more flexible and adaptable solution for growing businesses. Kaia Roman of communications specialists Twilio described these solutions in their blog as "Enabling companies to build the exact solution they need, when they need it."

Call center software, such as an automatic call distributor (ACD), can route any task from any source, recognizing calls and scanning them for information that might help better route the call. Combining this with APIs helps companies build a better customer experience.

Metrics Used to Measure Call Center Performance

Call centers serve an important role since they deal with customers at various stages of their journeys, from inbound sales to billing and account cancellation. Depending on the size of an organization, a call center could deal with a high volume of calls.

This makes it important to keep track of the performance of the center and individual agents. Weald explains that call center metrics can be broken down into three categories:

  • Historical
  • Real-time
  • Customer-focused

Historical metrics help managers understand the historical demand of the call center. This helps the team to better forecast, schedule and plan for the future.

Real-time metrics show the current demand the call center is facing, helping managers understand intraday demand and better handle staffing levels.

Customer-focused metrics give an idea of the quality of customer service that callers receive, both on an overall and per-agent level.

Individual KPIs Used in Call Centers

The broader list of metrics above can be further divided into Key Performance Indicators (KPIs). These are individual measures that help contact center managers identify potential areas for improvement in their call center.

KPIs can show how well the contact center is performing overall or give an idea of an individual agent's performance.

Some important metrics for customer satisfaction in a call center include:

  • Average Time to Answer
  • First Call Resolution Rate
  • Average Handling Time
  • Transfer Rate
  • Customer Satisfaction (CSAT)

Average Time to Answer

The Average Time to Answer is a measure of how long it takes for an inbound call to be answered by an agent. Lori Mankin, Integrated Marketing Manager for LifeSize, explained in their blog, "This measurement hinges on agents being available to answer calls in a specific time frame, and while it includes time spent waiting in the queue, it does not factor in the time it takes for a call to navigate through an IVR system."

Mankin cites an industry standard of 80/30, or 80% of calls being answered within 30 seconds as a common target for this KPI. Reducing the average time to answer can help improve other metrics, including customer satisfaction and call abandonment rates.

Slow answer times could be attributed to a variety of issues. If a company is under-staffed during peak times, this may lead to callers having to wait for a long time in the queue. Poor call routing or a lack of agents skilled in handling a specific type of call could also lead to longer-than-desired average times to answer.

First Call Resolution Rate

The First Call Resolution Rate is the percentage of calls that are resolved on the first attempt, with no need for the customer to call back or otherwise follow up on their query. This metric is one that is often considered on a per-agent level. Mankin explains, "The better an agent is, the higher their personal first-call resolution rate will be."

Learning Opportunities

First Call Resolution Rate is not a metric that should be considered in isolation, however. If an agent frequently deals with complex queries that require external action, call backs may be out of their control.

Managers must strive to find a balance between having acceptable average handling times and keeping the first call resolution rate as high as possible. One way to manage this is by using an IVR to properly screen and route calls.

Average Handling Time

The Average Handling Time is the total length of time a customer is on the phone. This metric gives an idea of how long it takes for a customer's problems to be resolved. If calls are handled quickly and efficiently while still keeping a good First Call Resolution Rate, this is likely to increase customer satisfaction.

Mankin explains, "Favorable handle times are directly linked to caller satisfaction, customer loyalty and, most importantly, customer retention." One challenge with Average Handling Times is working out what a favorable time is for a specific type of call. Tech support queries, for example, may have longer target times than simpler billing queries.

Transfer Rate

The Transfer Rate is a measure of how many calls an agent can correctly handle without having to pass the caller through to another department. The percentage of calls an agent can handle themselves should be as high as possible. Ideally, the first call resolution rate should be higher than the transfer rate.

A high transfer rate could be a sign of one of many issues and would need to be examined on a case-by-case basis. Mankin says, "The reasons for transfers certainly vary, but it may be the fault of the agent or representative, a specific request made by the caller or an incorrect routing of the initial call." Improving the transfer rate should help improve customer satisfaction.

Customer Satisfaction (CSAT)

The Customer Satisfaction score is a rating that shows how satisfied customers are with a company's products or services. Unlike other metrics, which can be collected immediately through the call center's software, the CSAT requires the customer to provide feedback.

CSAT is measured by sending out a simple, single-question survey to customers at the end of the call. Qualtrics offered this example in their blog of a common CSAT question:

"How would you rate your overall satisfaction with the service you received?"

Customers are asked to respond to that question with a rating of between one and five, where one means very unsatisfied, and five means very satisfied. Higher CSAT Scores mean better overall performance.

CSAT scores can be used to evaluate performance both at an organization level and on a per-agent level.

Working in a Call Center

Call center agents are in high demand. Weald notes, "Working in a call center can be a great first job to provide staff with experience or flexibility in working hours." Some people consider working in call centers a challenge because of the unpredictable nature of dealing with customers. However, a well-run center that prioritizes good customer service can be a pleasant place to work, with good camaraderie between customers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that employment of customer service agents is likely to remain relatively stable between 2020 and 2030. There are expected to be around 361,700 job openings per year.

The average salary earned by customer service agents is $17.23 per hour, or $35,830 per year. This is lower than the national median across all jobs. However, call center jobs are often open to those with a high school diploma or equivalent, while many other jobs require a greater level of education.

The Job of the Customer Service Advisor

Call center agents have several duties. According to HubSpot, customer service agents are both brand representatives and tenacious problem solvers. HubSpot's Neha Saboo describes the job of a customer service advisor in detail, noting that most call center agents will actually deal with more than just telephone calls, so they need the skills to offer a good omnichannel experience.

Saboo also stresses the importance of an agent taking the time to offer personalized solutions, noting that agents should "Never assume you know more about the customer's needs than they do." The best call center reps are ones who are patient and come up with well-thought-out, detailed solutions.

The Customer Always Comes First

Call center agents can sometimes face the temptation to find easy solutions. This is particularly true in fast-moving environments where an agent is subject to difficult or intensive targets. Saboo stresses, "It's tempting to provide a customer with an easy, short-term solution; however, it's important to solve for the customer's long-term needs and not for your own convenience."

Agents that can offer quality service will be recognized by customers and help build loyalty for the brand they serve.

Key Skills for Call Center Agents

Because call center agents are the 'front line' for a company, they have to be ready to deal with a variety of queries. Saboo lists five key skills that agents should have:

  1. Knowledge retention
  2. Flexibility
  3. Attention to detail
  4. Creativity
  5. Organization

Individual call centers will have their own focus areas, and therefore need more or less emphasis on each of those key skills. For example, a tech support hotline is likely to require agents to have extensive product knowledge. A call center where agents are handling a wide variety of call types (billing, complaints and sales, etc) will need agents who are flexible and can provide good attention to detail.

Whatever call types agents are dealing with, being personable and having good organization skills is essential. Call center agents are expected to keep records of their calls to help other agents should a customer need to call to follow up on a query.

The Pros and Cons of Working in a Call Center

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics highlights, the barrier to entry for call center jobs is low. Many agents are people who are entering the world of work for the first time, and jobs are open to people with just a high school diploma.

Call center jobs offer valuable experience and help agents gain transferable skills, including communication skills, product knowledge and office skills.

Those who remain in a call center job for an extended time may have the option to be promoted to team leader or other more senior roles. Sales managers, for example, can often earn $132,290 per year, which is almost four times the salary of a customer service representative. Even those at a more junior level may have the opportunity to earn bonuses or take advantage of extra perks.

Call Center Jobs Can Be Challenging

There are some challenges to working in a call center. These jobs are sedentary, and long shifts can take their toll on agents. It's important that people who are sitting at a desk for most of the day take some time to get up and walk around, drink water and take breaks. Saboo suggests advisors look into a standing desk if their employer is willing to offer one.

Contact Center Jobs Can Have a High Turnover

The low barrier to entry of contact center jobs means some teams have high turnovers. Avoxi lists turnover rates of 17% to 44%. There are several potential contributing factors to this high attrition rate.

Many customer service jobs are taken by students, who may leave if they drop out of their course. Those who aren't students are likely to be people early in their careers who are looking for promotion or other opportunities.

According to Avoxi, the average age of call center agents is 30. Younger workers, aged 20 to 24 have an average working tenure of just 1.1 years, while older workers have an average tenure of 2.4 years.

A high attrition rate is just one of the issues managers face. Absenteeism in contact centers can also be high, with Avoxi citing several reasons for missed time at work, including "Personal emergencies, elder and child care, on-the-job harassment, routine health or lifestyle appointments, transportation access and disengagement."

These challenges mean it can be difficult for agents to form long-term bonds with their colleagues. However, those who are fortunate enough to find a job in a call center that offers good training and a positive working environment could find themselves at the start of a good career.