Call Centers

The Professional Call Center Agent

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the on-demand call center, and about how the new technology model is driving business model change. With so much happening in the call center, you might be led to believe that being a call center agent is the best job in the world. Well, maybe not the best job, I have that, but you get my meaning.

A reader, who is also an at-home call center agent, wrote to complain that the brave new world of the at-home agent has a few rough edges. He said that some agents have to buy their own equipment, and that call volume is never predictable, and that has consequences for the pay check. He has several other issues with the OD call center; however, my point is not to enumerate all of them, but to shine a little light on a job position and an industry, both of which are in flux.

Tracking the Data

About a year ago I did some research into the trend of generating revenue in the call center. As I am sure you are aware, call centers got most of their reputation from outbound calling during dinner time which most people despised to the point that we now have legislation that prevents most of the abuses we associate with the call center.

In contrast, responsible call centers have been trying to find the right formula for enabling selling to take place as a natural part of the in-bound call. For example, a customer calls in for service and the agent discovers that the customer’s problem could be best solved with a specific product or service and so an offer is made.

Not to get too far off track from my friend, what I discovered in my research was that call center agents don’t have the best of work lives. In my opinion, and I acknowledge that this varies quite a bit from place to place, many are micro managed and their actions are tracked to a high degree, taking most of the fun out of the job. There are metrics and tracking software to analyze all aspects of a call including the time it takes to resolve a problem, the time it takes to pick up a call, how long a customer waits in a queue, and much, much more.

The conventional call center collects data on every agent and every call to determine how each compares to industry and in-house norms. Some of this is necessary and some of it, to my mind, is over the top.

Sales Necessities

When I did my research I discovered that many of the call center executives I was surveying had little idea about what it meant to sell in a call center, which was interesting because so many of them said selling was on their radar. High numbers of them had no concept that in order to sell you needed at least a few of the following: a sales methodology, clear goals, a sales manager, and most importantly — incentive compensation. Most call centers I studied did not offer incentive compensation and they did not provide any kind of goals either. They just expected that if you hire right and train well you could get the desired outcomes. I am not kidding.

That got me thinking and, it also brings me to the point of this piece — the position of call center agent needs to be professionalized. Greater reliance on incentives, goal setting, training, and methodology can do more than a lot of tracking software, and the position needs to have more of a growth or career path.

If you go back a generation or two, you might recall the position of mail room clerk that was common in many companies. The clerk was an entry level job and its practitioners received, sorted, opened (and often read), and delivered mail throughout the enterprise in the days before email.

Clerks, with their access to all incoming information, often knew more about the business than many department heads, and they leveraged that information on the career path. The clerk’s job was a stepping stone up the ladder that brought more than one clerk to the corner office.

Creating a Career Path

If this was a story about mail clerks it would not be worth reading, and I use it only as an illustration. Today there are lots of jobs that are considered professional, or at least semi-professional, that we hardly give a second thought to, but many had humble origins. For example, the paralegal profession grew out of a secretarial job and many of the diagnostic testing jobs in healthcare, such as x-ray technician and medical laboratory technologist, got their origins when someone had to perform the testing because the doctor was too busy.

So here’s the thing: Rather than being a dead end job that corporations frequently send off shore, business ought to be thinking about where the next generation of mid-level or higher managers are going to come from. The business schools do a good job of churning out really smart CEO wannabes, but I have heard too many horror stories about how some of them wouldn’t lick a stamp if their lives depended on it.

I think there’s a lot of pent up wisdom in the ranks of the call center agent. Those are the people who, like the mail clerks of old, have their ears to the ground by virtue of spending their days listening to customers. Corporations would be wise to acknowledge that contribution more by professionalizing the position and giving it a growth path.

Denis Pombriant runs the Beagle Research Group, LLC, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s research concentrates on evolving product ideas and emerging companies in the sales, marketing, and call center disciplines. His research is freely distributed through a blog and Web site. He is working on a book and can be reached at [email protected]

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