A Position of Tremendous Potential

Danger! Beware! Proceed with caution! You have entered one of the fastest growing, rewarding, and most difficult jobs in the world! If you are considering a job in this industry, come on in. The water’s a little turbulent, but fine! If you are already a call center agent, then take heart; you are not alone. Three percent of the U.S. working population is currently employed in call centers, for a total of 1.55 million agents.

Call centers provide great opportunities for entry-level positions into great companies. In addition, they offer tremendous opportunities to arrange your schedule and make effective use of your work time. Due to the extensive number of companies that run call centers, you can work in virtually any type of business or industry, including technology, retail, medical, education, military, government—you name it. Did you know that at Nintendo every call center agent gets games and toys right at his or her station? 

A call center is a wonderful place to get started. Many people work in call centers and also go to school. Part-time work will always be in vogue in a call center. Part-time workers help strong call centers staff appropriately for busy hours and off-peak times. The availability of part-time employment also helps attract many people who cannot put in 40-hour weeks. Being a call center agent can be a rewarding and exciting job. It is also one of the most demanding.

One of the hardest parts of a call center agent’s job is the ever-changing nature of the position. Agents in most companies can expect one continued trend: more responsibility. While other jobs inevitably get broken down into smaller tasks, this one tends to keep growing.

Being a call center agent can be a rewarding and exciting job. It is also one of the most demanding.

The Changing Demands of the Call Center Agent

No job in the entire country has changed faster than that of the call center agent. The requirements and demands of this job continue to rise at an alarming rate. History serves as a reminder of the changes that have taken place.

Emphasis on Speed

Between 15 to 20 years ago, the process was restricted to a telephone and a very simple requirement: “Get ’em on the phone and get ’em off!” That was it. The job was simple and direct. Early call centers were set up for simple transactions. Anonymous callers were routed to a homogenous group of agents. The talk time was kept to the absolute minimum. Service was strictly a cost item. Speed was the key to success in early call centers.

Focus on Quality of Service

After a number of years, a very simple yet dramatic change took place. Competition entered the arena. Having a call center began to give companies a competitive advantage. As a result, companies became more focused on quality of service. The motto changed to “Get ’em on the phone and get ’em off, and while you have them let’s ask, ‘Is there anything else I can help you with?" Today, it sounds kind of simple, but it was a major change in the centers at the time. Asking a question could prompt the customer to take you up on it! This increased talk times, which, in turn, affected calling queues and, ultimately, the cost of servicing a customer.

After a number of years, a very simple yet dramatic change took place. Companies became more focused on quality of service. One non-call center example of improving quality of service by trying to fulfill the customer’s full needs is the growing number of people who take you all the way to where you need to go rather than just point you to your destination when you ask for help in a store or restaurant. This used to be one of the really early exclusive service benefits of the Ritz Carlton Hotel. Ritz Carlton would never send you anywhere without taking you. Now you see it in many different areas of business, from restaurants to department stores.

Attempts to Exceed Expectations                             

The next evolution of the customer service process was a new demand to “exceed their expectations.” This concept came from the fact that the call center had finally made the transition from being a part of the service delivery solution to being, in many instances, the entire service delivery solution in much of mainstream corporate America. All of a sudden, we weren’t going to get another chance with the client, or maybe this was our first and only chance. Voice response systems and the Internet changed our relationship with our customers. We used to consider it a burden to have to service them and talk with them.

Now, if you’re in marketing and have developed and implemented a sophisticated electronic service offering, it’s probably a privilege to actually get to talk with them. IVR's don’t exceed expectations. Web sites rarely exceed expectations. You, the agent, make the difference. If you have ever had your expectations exceeded, then you know how valuable it can be. I always have my expectations exceeded at Walt Disney World, Rainforest Café, The Cheesecake Factory restaurant and The Four Seasons Hotel, to give you a small list of companies that include this idea as part of their corporate culture. 

IVRs don’t exceed expectations. Web sites rarely exceed expectations. You, the agent, make the difference.

Pursuits to Delight the Customer

Finally, we ratcheted up “exceed their expectations” one more level to “delight them.” My best example of the experience of delighting someone is when I go to the movies. If I see a great movie, I know that I am at the “delight” stage when sometime during the movie I look at my watch. This means that I really like the movie, and I don’t want it to end. You intuitively know what it is like to be delighted in a customer service or sales experience. Nordstrom’s is known for delighting its customers. It may sound strange, but Starbucks comes pretty close to delighting me when I leave there after having a decaf mocha frappe with whipped cream and a little chocolate syrup on top!

A company can delight its customers by really treating them special and making them feel important and valued.
What is fascinating about delighting someone in a call center is that it can be done every day over and over again! You have the opportunity to do that with each and every call. It’s not easy, but it can be done!

Requirements To Be Versatile

Other factors are also adding to the increasing responsibilities of agents. Pressure continues to build with the onset of the universal agent. The Web is here. The result is more complicated calls, more competition, more speed, and higher expectations. The term universal agent used to mean that you would take on more tasks. This was sometimes intermixed with a “blended” agent, which meant that sometimes you took inbound calls and sometimes you made outbound calls. This is further confused by the fact that you could be considered blended if you did sales and service at the same time. Today, a universal agent can also mean someone who takes voice calls, Web chat, and perhaps e-mail as well. Confused? Simply put, from high on up there in the executive offices: “We know you, the call center agent, can do more.  We need you to do more, and we expect you to do more! Get the picture?” Sounds like a lot of other positions in companies today.

Three Strategies

Now that you know what is expected of you, you need to know how you can do these things well. What can you do to improve your performance? You can enhance your skills by following these three strategies:

1.     Recognize that you are an entrepreneur; this is your business and your clients. You should treat it as such.
2.     Measure yourself, and then find ways to improve and compete.
3.     Learn all you can from your contact with the customers.

Be an Entrepreneur

Call center jobs are available everywhere. You have a choice in the type of company you work for. Pick a company that is serious about its center. Choose one that views its customer center as a strategic asset. Pick a company that has a sound quality program. Ask to see the company’s review forms and gather information on how the business does its reviews. Find out everything you can about the type and frequency of education and awards.
Make a decision to be great. Set goals and go after them. Set the right kind. David Boenker of Bana Box, Fort Worth, Texas, states that there are two types of goals; cringe goals and real goals. Cringe goals are the ones that you make and then cringe when you think about them. Real goals are goals you can get excited about and make happen. How many of the goals in your call center are cringe goals? Odds are pretty good if they are cringe goals you aren’t reaching them and you never will.

Every time you work with a customer, treat him or her as if you were operating your own business. Make a difference each and every time you take a call or conduct a Web chat.

Taking pride in your individual work will make you stand out and shine. That is what entrepreneurs do in their businesses. They work hard, take pride in their effort, and really make a difference to their customers. Call center representatives have a unique work product that can be measured independently for its impact on the company. You can view yourself as a business owner and see just how successful you can be.

The True Nature of Call Centers

The call center industry is like no other. This market is built on a premise that a company usually has less than 240 seconds to solve a problem or gain an opportunity, either over the phone, on the Web, or with e-mail, using for the most part entry-level people in a situation with a 30 percent turnover rate. We have to create, delight, and retain customers in less time that it takes to boil an egg. We have to do it millions of times a year and with quality. In this industry, one extra second with a customer or client could be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

The Contact Center Garden

No matter how much we automate, transfer to self-support, or re-engineer, we are always going to have the privilege of working with customer service representatives. If you are a manager or agent today in a call center, then I am sure you are relieved to hear this. Every time some new form of automation is added, the benefits are usually substantial. In every instance where we automate or eliminate calls we are always left with a group of more complicated calls. This consistently makes the job of supporting, motivating, and training our call center staff more challenging.