The evolution of the call center
Call centers have not always had an exceptional reputation. Some still believe that they are the perfect incarnation of Taylorism, emphasizing productivity and efficiency at the expense of employee engagement. This however is a very simplistic and rather obsolete point-of-view considering that a revolution is underway in this increasingly specialized and internationalized sector.
Its gradual shift towards the broader domain of outsourcing, and the offering of an ever-higher level of expertise capable of boosting added value for customers, has brought about a profound change in practices and, ultimately, in the very identity of the call center. Here we take the plunge into a world that stands at a junction: clichés on one side, success stories on the other.
The call center market has grown rapidly over the course of the past twenty years. It is now evolving towards greater maturity and sophistication. The Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector is now worth approximately $150 billion a year, and continues to boast an annual growth rate of 5%, according to the BPO index established by Cushman & Wakefield.
For all that, call centers still bring to mind uniform lines of computers and telephones operated by batteries of agents responding to calls. Or in the case of outgoing calls, unscrupulous employees mechanically and relentlessly trying to sell us some product or service.
Also included in the negative image of call centers is the pace of work itself. With an endless supply of customers, operators have to take as many calls as possible each day. Many still believe that; call centers base their working days on a well-worn model; whether it be lunch breaks (a mere twenty minutes), bathroom breaks, or the time spent on the phone with each and every customer, everything is carefully timed. The slightest interruption is noted to the minute. And there's no way around it, other than to face a penalty. The consequence? Turnover in this sector has long been a problem. Depending on the company, attrition rates range from 40 to 60%.
But these negative connotations associated with the call center are very much a thing of the past. Today's managers are becoming aware that improving their financial results hinges on the respect of their employees, the quality of the tasks entrusted to these employees, and profound changes to their managerial practices. However, all of this would not go very far without a radical repositioning, and without implementing innovative, tailored and high value-added services.
Well-being at work: how did call centers get there?
Modern outsourcing centers have little in common with early call centers. Moreover, the expertise that today's outsourcers deliver requires continuous investment in innovation and technology. In keeping with the times, modern large-scale call centers bring together a broad palette of skills, along with proficiency in dozens of languages.
Like their employers, these centers are becoming cultural mosaics. For example, Southeast Europe is a region that stands out from other nearshore outsourcing countries thanks to its large number of multilingual individuals. Students from all over Europe are now choosing to pursue their studies in these countries. In particular, Romania and Bulgaria are considered two of the world's top outsourcing destinations, according to Cushman & Wakefield's BPO index. Young graduates establish strong ties with the country, and many have no intention of returning to their country of origin, at least not right away.
Adding to the appeal is the opportunity for young workers to gain experience in the professional world. Here, the argument of high unemployment rates forcing young graduates to undersell themselves by accepting work in a call center is irrelevant. In Bucharest, Romania, the unemployment rate stands at a mere 1.8% according to the European Commission. Young people do not choose to work in a call center for want of anything better, but because the wages and working environment now represent undeniable benefits. The same goes for social advancement opportunities. In Romania, as in other Eastern European countries, working in a call center is perceived as being a rewarding career choice.
Satisfaction surveys show that more and more people are content working in call centers. In the 2013 world ranking of the best places to work, Atento, a Spanish call center with 150,000 employees across 16 countries, came in 21st place. In well-managed call centers, the turnover rate stands at 20%, and is altogether comparable with other service sector fields.
Many young people, especially French, dare to opt for the Eastern European adventure. In addition to the attractive salary/cost of living ratio, there are plenty of other benefits, especially in terms of settling in. Often the company takes care of everything including air transportation, accommodations, health care, a mobile phone and even a bank account.
Of the 2,500 employees in Europe working for TELUS International, 381 are non-nationals. In Bulgaria alone, the company employs 21 different nationalities. There you will find Azeri, German, Dutch, Turkish, Lithuanian, Swedish and Russian employees, with their French counterparts representing the biggest share, at close to 50.
The days of the exclusively French-speaking small-scale call center established in Morocco, or the English-speaking center in India, are over. Office spaces with major outsourcing operators are located in class-A offices, where high levels of education and multilingualism take precedence. This situation is similar to the boom in the Netherlands that occurred in the 1990's and 2000's, when many operators set up their centers in a country that speaks two or even three foreign languages. In the Netherlands, as in Eastern Europe, the social climate is calm, with social conflicts and strikes being uncommon. In the case of Romania, the country's strong economic growth – one of the highest in Europe with more than 3.5% in 2015 – is playing a significant part in this respect.
There are a number of other interesting parallels between a reputedly wealthy country such as the Netherlands, and developing countries such as Romania or Bulgaria. In both cases the people who work there are used to being flexible. Late work shifts and stand-by duties are commonplace. In fact, working nights is often necessary in order to serve North American customers, due to the time difference. Flexibility is accepted as being inherent in this sector of activity.
This view on flexibility also extends to the work itself, undermining the repetitive task argument people have mistakenly associated with the call center. Today, people use customer service because they require expertise, and because they are confronted with a complex problem that only a qualified operator – usually one who is perfectly trilingual and with an average 3 to 4 years of higher education (source: ABSL) – is able to resolve. We are clearly dealing with value-added, services. This is no longer about robotic operators repeating the same script all day long.
Call centers as strategic partners
Generation Y, born between 1980 and 2000, can account for as much as 80% of the agents working in any given call center. It is therefore important to grasp that multitasking comes naturally to these individuals. Moreover, call centers now recognize the value of their agents' self-sufficiency. Generation Y has grown-up surrounded by technology, computers, mobile phones and game consoles. Consequently, they are perfectly at ease with the internet and its huge potential of online resources. Another characteristic of Generation Y is that decision-making often goes hand-in-hand with decision-sharing on social networks.
Customers' increasing familiarity with new tools means they are now using other channels to solve their problems, such as chat or text, rather than just a hotline. Call centers are therefore adopting these new modern means of communication, now managed by multilingual individuals perfectly at ease with multitasking. In this day and age, versatility is key. Call centers owe it to themselves to offer a multi-channel (phone, email, and social media), ultra-efficient service, and to have the workforce capable of delivering these additional offerings. The days of the exclusive outgoing calls are well behind us.
Contact centers are now viewed as hubs of strategic best practices when it comes to customer procedures (processes, scripts, training, FAQs, CRMs, etc.) – all backed by diagnostics and action plans. The emphasis on the customer experience means that we have moved on from the former quantitative model, focused on metrics such as the number of calls taken, to a much more qualitative approach.
The former model was based almost exclusively on the cost of the service, i.e. doing the same thing as the competitor but for less. Through this industrialized, short-term vision, the call center was perceived as a mere executant, rather than as a partner for creating added-value. Today, the tendency is for tailor-made solutions. This primarily involves know-how, expertise and constant innovation.
This new experience means that operators must have in-depth knowledge of the client's products and services. Contact centers have thus become "brand ambassadors" with trusted advisors who are knowledgeable about market trends. They must have a perfect understanding of their client's processes, and make the effort to evaluate and improve them. Otherwise they are destined to be overshadowed by competitors willing to provide more added value.
Integrating new services is another way in which contact center practices have evolved. Some centers now offer expertise in e-commerce, financial services, and gaming. Another example is the fight against fraud. With internet fraud increasing, fraud detection represents a particularly high value-added activity when it comes to consumer protection. Outsourcing operators must be able to detect fraud efficiently using safe, ultra-perfected tools. And, it must be done quickly, since fraud detection is all about speed of execution. Many e-merchants gladly entrust fraud management to contact centers with the necessary resources, expertise, tools and experience.
The old call center model, much reviled, is a thing of the past. Outsourcing is now seen as a factor for innovation that is essential for achieving growth. Big Data, and the opportunities it entails, has become a priority. And effective control over all this data will open up extraordinary opportunities for the future of call centers.
Ultimately, the call center has a new identity and continues to be a source of customer innovation today. It is hardly a coincidence that the name too is evolving from "call center" to the all-encompassing term "contact center" – and for those that need additional expertise, the term "contact center outsourcing" or "CCO" can offer even more strategic options.
Related articles and research:
- TELUS International Europe
- TELUS International