Call Center Articles

Hiding Behind the EBR

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

If your call center is only making EBR (existing business relationship) calls, you may think you have nothing to worry about, right? No. Just because it is legal to dial a number, doesn’t mean you should. Calling too often or for the wrong reasons could turn an EBR into a former EBR. This happened when I retaliated against a company that overcalled me.

I used to have a weekend newspaper subscription. Since I only had time to read it on the weekends, this was a splendid arrangement — one which I would have gladly continued if not for overzealous telemarketing. One evening I received a call from an enthusiastic employee of the paper. They had a special upgrade price so that I could enjoy the paper all week long. I explained that I only wanted the paper on weekends.

A few months later, I received another call for the same offer from a different rep. I assumed that turnover had occurred and my preference for weekend-only delivery had not been noted in my account (so much for an effective CRM). I repeated my penchant for weekend-only delivery.

These calls became a regular occurrence — and I grew increasingly annoyed. Sometimes the interval was two or three months, other times only a couple of weeks; once it was two days. No one seemed to realize that regardless of how often it was offered, I was not going to capitulate to their plea to expand my subscription. Even when it was offered at no additional cost, I declined. I asked that they stop calling, but my request was disregarded.

My exasperation over the persistent phone calls grew until it exceeded my satisfaction in reading the paper. I realized that by cancelling my subscription, the EBR provision would soon cease to be a factor and eventually I would have legal recourse should the calls continue.

I expected the effort to end my subscription would provide one final opportunity to stop the phone calls — and continue receiving the paper, sans telemarketing. I was mistaken.  Incredibly, when I called to cancel my subscription, no one asked why.

They didn’t say they were sorry. Most surprising — especially given their proclivity for phoning me — no one made a follow-up call. Even though there was a window of opportunity for them to call to win me back, that never occurred. The unwanted calls stopped.

The paper thought they were safe by placing calls that complied with legal requirements, but they were wrong. Their unrestrained calling turned a happy subscriber into an irritated ex-subscriber. I wonder how much other business they lost because of their legal, but unrestrained calling practices?

Are your calling practices hurting your call center?

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.

Call Center Articles

Bombay Calling

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

The TV special, Bombay Calling, provides a compelling exposé of an India-based outsourcing call center and the people who work there. In documentary style, it shows both the good and the bad in offshore call centers. Just as proponents of offshoring would find plenty to celebrate, opponents would likewise be encouraged. I was both mesmerized and saddened by what I saw.

Through the eye of the camera, I was pleasantly surprised to see many of the same call center conventions repeated in this overseas operation (with only a few adaptations to accommodate culture). I was encouraged with the bright-eyed, enthusiastic workforce, their can-do spirit, and an optimistic outlook.

The show begins by introducing us to Kaz Lalani. Not only does he outsource calls to Bombay, India, but he also “operates call centers in other countries to spread the risk.” Kaz boasts that his Indian reps have a strong work ethic. There is an air of joyous excitement and capable confidence among the agents.

The call center is filled with hard-working, fun-loving staff who enjoy their co-workers, their jobs, and the work they do.  Staff interviews reveal why. “It’s a great job, for good pay,” states one agent, “even for an undergrad.” Another boasts that he makes more than his girlfriend — even though she has a graduate degree. A third employee dropped out of engineering school for the express purpose of pursuing a call center career.

The average starting pay for a call center agent in Bombay was reported to be more that four times the average Indian income. This is why young people leave rural areas for call center work in Bombay.

This does cause some angst, both for parents — who lament a loss of tradition — and their children — who must adapt to city life without the nearby help of family. Nevertheless, there is a general acquiescence to the situation. Many agents send money home, pay bills for their parents, or do things to increase the standard of living for their family; all of which is made possible by their call center jobs.

With even more call centers opening in Bombay, these agents are acutely aware of the great demand for their English-speaking skills. They perceive this ability as their unrestricted ticket to opportunity and success. (A humorous aside is that the show’s producers occasionally resort to subtitles for some of their English-speaking interviewees.)

Eight months later, the call center is hurriedly expanding. They are calling Australia (first shift) and the U.K. (second shift). Some reps have been promoted to training, supervisory, and QA positions. However, the dark-side of their sharp rise in income is beginning to show.

One rep proudly admits that he has become materialistic; another longs for more time to spend with his wife and child; a third wants to leave the call center, but can’t — he has become accustomed to his new standard of living. Many of the reps are now complaining about the stress of the job — and they turn to partying and alcohol — every night — to dull their angst.

With the rapid expansion, not all of the new hires are ideal and some do not work out; sales numbers plummet. Some reps aren’t concerned — they’ll just go to another center; others are worried, but at a loss what to do. One once confident rep has lost his swagger — he has gone two days without a sale — and has a shell-shocked glaze.

This call center is no longer producing like it used to — or like the other ones in the network. An ultimatum is given. Some agents are sent to retraining, others are terminated. The call center is now a somber and dreary place. A pall hangs over the cubicles; the optimism is gone. Eventually the operation is scaled back to 25 agents. Kaz turns his concentration to other call centers.

In Bombay, call center work is truly changing the lives of its agents — for better and for worse.

[I watched “Bombay Calling” on FSTV (Free Speech Television). It has since run several more times, so if you are interested,  you might be able to watch it yourself in the future.]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.

Call Center Articles

Outbound Calling: Past, Present, and Future

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

The most buffeted segment of call center work has been the outbound arena, specifically, consumer calling. With the combined effects of a public outcry against intrusion, political expediency, and the enactment of state and ultimately a national do not call (DNC) law, outbound calling to consumers has, by most all accounts, been devastated. 

Some outsource call centers elected to cease all outbound work, migrating to inbound (thereby diverting work from existing inbound centers, resulting in a smaller slice of the market for inbound centers). Other outbound call centers elected to switch from consumer campaigns to business calling, something to which I can personally attest. 

I am sad to report that these call centers have learned nothing from the motivation behind the DNC legislation. They are employing the same tactics with business calling that caused the downfall of consumer calling.

This includes inadequately compiled lists, poorly screened and trained agents, badly written scripts, and overly aggressively dialer settings.  I’m all for a smartly targeted call, dispensing useful and relevant information –- but in my experience, it’s just not happening. 

Too often, I receive inept B2B telemarketing calls. To make matters worse, often the dialing rate is set too tight and I get dead air or am disconnected. It is one thing to be interrupted by a useless phone call, but it is infuriating to be interrupted so that a machine can hang up on me.

Outbound call centers need to be careful. The same lackadaisical business practices that resulted in the government regulation and legal restrictions on residential calling could easily be extended to include business numbers.

It appears that these centers are still stuck the old numbers game: if you make enough calls, you are going to get some sales. Their focus is on quantity over quality. I would much rather have an agent who made four quality contacts an hour and close 25%, than an agent who cranked out 20 mediocre calls an hour and closed 5%.

The sales number would be the same, but the in the first situation, the agent would be less stressed, the caller parties less frustrated, the quality of the interaction much greater, and fewer people interrupted. Plus, the 75% who didn’t buy would most likely be left with a positive impression of that company, leaving the door open for future sales and referrals.

To personalize George Santayana’s advice, if we don’t learn from history, we will be doomed to repeat it.

[Posted by Peter Lyle DeHaan for Connections Magazine, a contact center publication from Peter DeHaan Publishing Inc.]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.

Call Center Articles

I Predict…

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

It seems that seldom a week goes by when I don’t receive a call from someone wanting to interview me. Sometimes it is a local newspaper, other times a specialty magazine. I was quite unnerved at my first interview request. I envisioned it being a hard-hitting, muckraking interrogation, intent on getting me to say something I didn’t mean. That was the best-case scenario. Worst-case, I feared a tabloid style grilling, twisting the truth, obliterating the context of my comments, or generating all out fabrications. As such, it is not surprising that I viewed each question with suspicion, searching to ascertain its hidden agenda, carefully constructing my response, and guardedly protecting my words. It took me a while, but I eventually came to realize that the vast majority of reporters merely want to get enough useful information to complete their piece. So now, I just answer their questions, as openly and honestly as possible — and then get back to the work in front of me.

Over time, I realized that the tenor of these interview requests fall into three categories. The first group is those who were trying to better comprehend the call center industry. I’ve tried, with only partial success, to educate the uninitiated in the distinction between inbound and outbound. I’ve tried to help them understand the call center industry is not necessarily synonymous with telemarketing (specifically, being interrupted during dinner), and the differences between in-house call centers and their outsourcing cousins. All too often, they want to skip this rudimentary instruction and go right to the main lesson – one that they are not yet prepared to adequately grasp.

The second category of questions revolves around outsourcing. Again, their level of understanding is simplistic. They assume that all call center outsourcing takes place offshore. They are surprised to learn that there are many viable outsource call centers onshore. They are incredulous when I tell them, in fact, that the majority of call center outsourcing occurs to call centers that are located, not at some third-world locale, but rather within the confines of their country’s borders. Then they go on to rant about accents and uncomprehending agents – as if accents equaled offshore. Yes, there may be a correlation, but there are plenty of local agents with accents and, indeed, offshore agents without accents. This, they cannot comprehend. Surely, they reason, if an agent has an accent, they must be offshore, won’t be able to effectively communicate, and must have a substandard intelligence. Such stereotypical attitudes will not easily be overcome.

The third group of questions revolves around the future. “What are the major call center trends that you see developing over the next 12 months?” Or, “How will technology impact the call center?” Other questions are less informed, such as “Will the Internet affect the call center industry?” Or “Do you think computers will ever be used in call centers?”

Sometimes the questions are nonsensical, along the lines of, “With the documented increase in demand for left-handed widgets in the Pacific Rim, how will the ongoing viability of the home-based agent in rural America be assured?” Okay, maybe I am being dense or perhaps they have an agenda, so I ignore the question and give a benign and generic reply, such as “We can be assured that technology will play an increasingly important role in tomorrow’s call center infrastructure.” That seems to make them happy. Plus, it is a valid, yet innocuous quote that they can slip anywhere into their article without me having any real concerns of being misrepresented.

In truth, I am reticent in making future prognostications. The reality is that sometimes my words come back to haunt me. In 1990, I wrote an article, proclaiming that advanced call forwarding features and stutter dial tone would be the “dynamic duo” of the decade for the telemessaging industry. As it turned out, advanced call-forwarding features did afford more connection opportunities and stutter dial tone could have been a powerfully effective message-waiting indicator, yet I failed to realize that telcos had no real interest or incentive to let call centers access their switches to turn on and off the stutter dial tone. At best, I batted 500.

Five years later, I gave a speech about home-based agents. My words about HR issues, training, and management are as relevant today as they were nine years ago. Yet I missed the mark on timing, as I envisioned this opportunity fully developing within a year or two. It wasn’t until the Internet became ubiquitous, that technology allowed home-based agents to become viable, practical, and cost-effective.

At another meeting around that time, I gave an informative primer on the Internet and impassionately urged attendees to begin learning and experiencing the Internet; indeed, their call centers’ future viability was at stake. My words were accurate and my advice was astute, but it almost didn’t happen. Some 12 years prior, in the early 1980s, I first heard about the Internet. I learned that it had limited accessibility (you needed to be at a major university or work for a defense contractor) and therefore I deemed it an anomaly with no practical business application. My understanding of the Internet remained frozen in a 1982 perspective until circumstances forced me to reexamine it. My how things had changed – and I almost missed it.

So, it is with great trepidation that I stick my neck out; I predict…

Offshore outsourcing will continue, grow, and succeed. True, there may be unaddressed quality issues and political ramifications today, but those will diminish. My good friend, Mike Leibowitz, succinctly summarized the situation, “Remember when ‘Made in China’ meant the products were of low quality? For that matter, ‘Made in Japan’ had the same stigma a generation ago. But they learned and improved and now Japan and China produce the highest quality items. So, don’t discount the Indians and Pakistanis just because they are having some issues with call center performance today. They are smart, they are motivated, and they will get better – much better.”

The Internet will become even more important. Lack of Internet acumen will relegate call centers to second-class existence – or worse. First, there are the basics.

  • Call centers must have a website. At minimum, it should be professional, be an effective marketing piece, and contain complete contact information. Too many small outsourcing call centers have put this off.
  • Key staff (preferably all staff) need to have their own business email address. Having one email address that everyone uses is, well, appalling and second rate.
  • Your email addresses must convey professionalism.  Is an email address that your call center can be proud to use?
  • Make sure that you actually test and check your email. In sending messages to the “contact us” email addresses on websites, I have found that about 15 percent are rejected and that about 65 percent are never answered.
  • Beyond these essentials, you need to be thinking about client services on your website, “talk-to-me” and chat options, remote agents, high-speed Internet access, VoIP, and hosted services. These are our future differentiators.

VoIP cannot be ignored. Sending voice calls over the Internet (VoIP) is an opportunity that every call center must consider. It allows home-based and remote agents to be cost-effective and viable and has the promise to lower telco costs. Your next switch (maybe even your current one) will likely be based on this premise. Be sure to choose your VoIP vendor with care; many will not survive.

Telco costs will go down. It was once postulated that the rate for long distance would converge at one cent per minute; rates will continue to move in that direction. However, with the aforementioned VoIP, the incremental cost of a long distance call could become zero!

Consolidation and mergers will continue. Consolidations and mergers will continue unabated. This will occur with phone companies, with equipment and software vendors, and among call centers. Regardless of which camp you are in, you must grow (either more market share or new markets) or find a niche (preferably multiple ones) in which you focus, excel, and lead. The status quo is not an option.

Government will be an increasing force. Expect new laws and policies to affect call centers, especially relating to privacy issues and outbound calling. The degree to which the FCC does or does not regulate telephone and related services will have far-reaching ramifications in terms of service availability, feature richness, pricing, and taxation. It is hard to predict what will happen, only that something will happen!

Adopt a mobile strategy. Did you know that half of all long distance calls are placed from mobile phones? Increasing numbers of consumers are jettisoning their landline phone in favor of a mobile phone, which affords them greater flexibility, “free” long distance, more features, and often lower rates. Our society is going mobile and the call center needs to strategize around that trend.

Some predictions will be wrong. This includes not only the preceding comments but those from everyone else, as well!

[From Connection Magazine Jan/Feb 2005]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.

Call Center Articles

Are You In or Out?

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Since you are reading this column, it is highly likely that in some way or manner, you are in the call center industry. However, the question, “Are you in or out?” does not query your connection to the industry, but rather your participation within it. Those who operate call centers, classify their activity in two ways. The first is if they handle inbound traffic or outbound traffic; the second is whether they are an in-house or outsource operation. Therefore, “Are you in or out?” is two questions, each with two answers, for four possible outcomes:

1) An in-house call center, doing inbound work

2) An in-house call center, doing outbound work

3) An outsource call center, doing inbound work

4) An outsource call center, doing outbound work

Inbound or Outbound? Inbound or outbound refers to the direction of calls. That is, whether the center makes calls (outbound) or receives calls (inbound). For an outsider – or even an uninformed insider – this would seem to be a small distinction. “What’s the big difference?” They ask. “Both involve agents, use phones, and are supported by technology. If you are doing one, the other should not be a problem.” Not so fast. The differences are as profound as night and day.

Inbound: Since inbound call centers answer calls, agents are in a reactive mode. That is, they wait for the phone to ring (or for the next call to drop from the cue) and then they react to it. Inbound call centers are equipped with ACDs (Automatic Call Distributors) to efficiently send calls to the “next available agent.” Inbound operations are staffed more hours of the day than their outbound counterparts, with most operating 24×7. Agents are scheduled to work in anticipation of projected call volume based on historical data and marketing initiatives.

Outbound: For the outbound call center, agents must be proactive; that is, they need to take initiative. The successful outbound agent has a different personality than the ideal inbound agent. Even if the nature of their outbound work is not specifically in sales, they still need a sales mentality. They need to engage the called party, lead them towards a stated objective, and deal well with rejection – some of which may be personally directed. Outbound call centers rely on predictive dialers to place calls. Outbound centers have reduced hours of operation, limited by law and the demands of specific campaigns. Here agents are scheduled as needed to complete a requisite number of calls within a certain window of time.

There has been much talk about the avalanche of recent legislation to regulate (that is, limit) outbound calling, historically called telemarketing. There is a wide degree of differing opinions on how this has affected the outbound call center industry. At one extreme, the doomsayers assert that the industry has been decimated, sending millions into unemployment and leaving outbound calling as an insignificant fraction of the overall call center industry. The opportunists proclaim that this legislation has forced marginal players out of the industry, or at least pushed them to inbound work, and made outbound calling easier. This is because the 70 million or so who signed up for the Do Not Call (DNC) list weren’t buying anyway. Those remaining, who can still be called, have a higher propensity to buy. Yes, jobs have been lost and centers closed, but much of that, they assert, would have happened regardless of this legislation.

Blended: Not to be overlooked, the concept of blended call centers (those doing both inbound and outbound work) has been pursued, although with varying degrees of success. Blending can occur at different levels. The first is within a call center, where some agents are answering calls while others are placing calls.

The second level of blending occurs with agents who are proficient at both calling disciplines; they can be scheduled for either activity as needed. Most agents cannot successfully make this transition from one day to the next, but for those who can, the variety is greatly appreciated.

The third level of blending occurs from call to call. If an unexpected rush of incoming calls occurs, the outbound reps are automatically removed from the agent pool of the predictive dialer and placed into the agent pool for the ACD. This continues until the rush is over, when the process reverses. Conversely, if it is a slow day for incoming calls, these agents can be automatically switched to the outbound campaign. While this type of efficiency excites upper management, it often works better on paper than in reality because reps who can successfully do this type of on-the-fly mental adjustment are rare.

In-house or Outsource? While the concepts of inbound and outbound are generally understood, the terms in-house and outsource elicit some confusion. An in-house call center is one where the work done is performed for the company itself – that is, internally – and is generally secondary to the main function of the company and the products or services they produce. Conversely, an outsource call center is in business to provide call center services to other companies. Phone work is all they do; it’s their business.

In-house: There are arguably 50 to 100,000 call centers in the United States. The range is so great, because the definition of a call center varies. Of these, roughly 90 percent are in-house call centers.

Outsource: Outsource call centers, though a minority, are increasing in number and importance. This trend is due to more and more companies looking to outsourcing as a way to increase service levels or options, return to their core competencies, save money, or all three.

At outsource call centers, processing calls is all they do. Therefore, they must do it well and cost-effectively if they are to remain viable. They also enjoy an economy-of-scale that is not feasible for the in-house operation. As such, their margins allow the client to save money and the outsource call center to make money.

Unarguably, the outsource call center industry can trace its beginnings to the post-World War I era, when enterprising telephone answering services begin popping up around the country. Even though the label would follow decades later, these entrepreneurs were, in fact, the first outsource call centers. The modern era of outsource call centers began in the 1980s, when the introduction of toll-free numbers made it cost-effectively realistic to centralize call centers. Still, it wasn’t until the last few years that the outsourcing label was applied.

Outsource call centers are very similar in design and function to their in-house counterparts. There are, however, a few important distinctions. First, while an in-house call center can be viewed as either a cost-center or a profit-center, the outsource call center must be a profit-center and is often the only source of revenue for the company. Second, the outsource call center must continually search for and find new clients to serve. Therefore, it has an external sales and marketing aspect that is not needed at in-house call centers. Lastly, in-house call centers service their company’s customers, whereas at the outsource call center it is generally their clients’ customers who are served. Therefore the agents at an outsource call center are working for their client’s, but work with their clients’ customers or prospects.

Outsource is Not Synonymous with Offshore: A recent trend has been moving call center activity to other countries which boast stable technological infrastructures and offer qualified workers who possess lower wage expectations. This is typically referred to as offshore outsourcing and is too often incorrectly shortened to outsourcing. This is incorrect shorthand, as the majority of U.S. call center outsourcing is, and will continue to be, to U.S.-based call centers. Offshore outsourcing, which is getting all the attention, is a small minority of the total call center outsource picture. Although offshore outsourcing will continue to occur and increase, it will be some time before it becomes the majority of all call center outsourcing.

Where Does Connections Magazine Fit In? At Connections, our focus is on outsource call centers. Our articles are written with outsource call centers in mind. That does not mean that we are not a great magazine for in-house call centers. In fact, more and more in-house call centers are receiving Connections then ever before; new subscriptions occur daily! As long as our in-house friends keep the caller/client distinction in mind, Connections’ articles apply as appropriately to them as they do to the outsourcing center.

Also, the content of most articles is applicable to both the inbound and the outbound operation, though occasionally content will specifically address one segment or the other.  

The bottom line is, whether you are inbound or outbound, in-house or outsource, Connections Magazine is for you!

[From Connection Magazine November 2004]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.