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Ten Things Senior Level Managers Should Know About Call Centers

To fulfill their potential, customer contact centers need commitment and involvement from the top. And a prerequisite to getting necessary support is that senior level managers understand the unique call center environment – what they do and how they operate. Here's a list of ten "must knows" we believe make a great starting place for taking stock of your own team's awareness; we encourage you to take inventory and look for ways to boost the understanding of them from top to bottom:

1. Call centers—and contacts themselves—are becoming more complex. Traditional transaction centers have evolved into more dynamic and holistic operations that contribute to and require the support of departments across the organization. Social media, multimedia, multi-generational customers, economic pressures and other trends are upping the ante.

2. Contacts "bunch up." In any center that handles at least some inbound work, the workflow dynamics are unique. Customers decide when and how they will contact the organization, and the resulting work will not arrive in a nice, even flow. Staffing and productivity issues must be considered in that context.

3. There's generally no industry standard for accessibility. No single service level or response time objective makes sense for every call center. Different organizations will have different costs, callers and brand objectives. However, there are objectives that will make sense for your organization – ones that fit your customers' needs and your organization's brand.

4. There's a direct link between resources and results. You may need 36 people handling contacts to achieve a service level of 90 percent of calls answered in 20 seconds, given your customer workload. If you have 25 people and are told to hit 90/20, that's not going to work. And "staffing on the cheap" is expensive, leading to high agent occupancy, burnout and turnover, unhappy customers, poor word of mouth and other negative results.

5. When service level improves, "productivity" declines. Productivity is often measured as occupancy (time spent handling calls versus waiting for calls), and when service level goes up, occupancy goes down, as do the average number of contacts handled per agent.

6. You will need to schedule more staff than base staff required. Schedules should realistically reflect the many things that can keep agents from handling contacts (e.g., training, breaks, holidays, collateral work and others). In many organizations, these factors are becoming more prevalent as the increasingly complex environment requires more training and research/development time.

7. Summary reports often don't give an accurate picture of what's really happening. Reports that average activity may suggest that performance is just fine, and yet conceal serious problem areas. Those producing and interpreting data must know what they're really looking at.

8. Quality and service level work together. Though they are often presented as tradeoffs, service level is a prerequisite to getting contacts in and done. And better quality is the key to a better service level, by upping first call resolution, reducing repeat contacts and picking up intelligence that helps improve processes, products and services across the organization.

9. Call centers are becoming go-to engines of communication, with the systems, staff and planning know-how required to handle new internal and external communication workloads – e.g., social media conversations, support for self-serve and peer-to-peer interactions and other emerging requirements.

10. Call centers are increasingly important to the organization's success. They have become increasingly vital to the organization's ability to understand and serve diverse customers, capture marketplace intelligence and work across departments to improve products and services.

I am convinced that the only way to really understand the unique customer contact environment is to spend some time in it. These are issues you'll need to continually reinforce - but they tend to come to life when experienced first hand. Senior level executives who have made the effort to understand call center issues and processes invariably come away with better insight into evolving customer requirements and interdependencies across the larger organization.