What is a call center?

A call center is a department that manages inbound and outbound customer telephone calls with support from telecommunication infrastructure and tools.

When you strip away everything else associated with business, one primary purpose remains: to help customers. But while having an excellent product or service is a major step towards fulfilling that goal, the fact is that helping customers goes beyond just giving them something worth spending money on. The customer experience—whether positive or otherwise—extends through every interaction your customer has with your business. This includes all the touchpoints throughout the customer journey as well as any post-sale interactions that may occur.

Helping your customers means being available to guide and support them whenever they need your help. Unfortunately, this can become a difficult prospect as your business grows and customer call volume expands. To keep up with customer needs and provide a satisfying service for all current and future buyers at scale, successful organizations deploy call center solutions.

The main purpose of a call center is to simply be available. Today’s customers have many different options for finding answers to questions and getting solutions to service inquiries. Websites, chatbots, social media, email, and even online self-service portals offer a range of opportunities for connecting. But even with so many options, telephones are still the most widely used channel for reaching out to service teams.

After all, the telephone is a well-known, comfortable technology, and many customers and prospects feel as though their concerns are more likely to be resolved satisfactorily if there is a living service agent on the other end of the line. It’s direct. It’s easy. And it doesn’t require as much effort as meeting in person. As such, an effective call center plays to those customer needs while also optimizing the various processes and tasks associated with managing calls.

In terms of in-bound calls, service and support agents can directly communicate with customers in real time to understand the purpose of the call and offer information and guidance to help them resolve their problems. Call centers are also used in outbound strategies, soliciting direct feedback regarding the customer experience, and allowing for a more meaningful connection with sales prospects.

Of course, in small businesses these basic tasks can be accomplished with little more than a single employee and a telephone. A true call center makes the entire operation more efficient, making it possible for a finite number of trained call center agents to handle the entire customer-call volume of their organization as it grows, and to do so in a way that provides the best possible service at the lowest possible cost.

Call centers have existed since the 1960s and continue to play a leading role in the customer service and support infrastructure of businesses across every industry. But not every call center exists to fulfill the exact same functions. Call centers may offer many different services, working closely with other departments and fulfilling responsibilities unique to the organization. With this in mind, it can be difficult to draw a definitive dividing line for classifying the different kinds of call centers.

Call centers are categorized based on how they are structured and what kinds of calls they are designed to handle. And although there may be some overlap between these categories, most call centers can be grouped into one or more of the following types:

Inbound call centers

Possibly the most common type of call center, inbound call centers allow customers and others to contact service agents directly. These calls are often unfiltered—the representative may have no idea who is calling or what they are calling about before beginning the conversation. Call center representatives must be knowledgeable about the product or service, capable of communicating clearly and patiently, and have an in-depth knowledge of any support tools they may need to access to help the customer resolve potential problems.

Outbound call centers

Where an inbound call center relies on customers initiating contact, outbound call centers offer a more proactive approach. Outbound call center agents are tasked with reaching out to customers and leads. This can include ‘cold calling’ potential customers to attempt to interest them in making a purchase, or it may be more focused on following up with customers to survey them about their experience, collect market research, or offer further support.

Virtual call centers

Not every call center is centralized in a single location. As communication technologies continue to advance, virtual call centers are becoming ever more common. Virtual call centers use software platforms to coordinate call center operations across agents operating remotely. Virtual call centers may allow for more diversity in the support team while empowering organizations to outsource call center responsibilities

Automated call center

The most efficient call centers are those that allow their agents to do more and connect with a larger number of customers. Automated call centers augment the capabilities of their representatives through computer systems, platforms, and smart automation technology. This may include everything from using tools to schedule appointments or access customer histories, to connecting callers with AI-powered virtual agents capable of handling basic requests without involving a human representative.

Omnichannel call centers

Although the telephone may be the most used channel for customer service and support, other channels continue to gain momentum. Even more relevant is that many customers prefer to move through multiple channels during their customer journey. Omnichannel call centers allow customers and agents to retain the thread of a customer's various conversations and touchpoints, regardless of which channels they occur on.

Often, companies and individuals will refer to any type of department that manages customer communications as a ‘call center.’ However, there is a distinction between call centers and contact centers. A call center is designed primarily to manage customer telephone calls—both outbound and inbound. Contact centers, on the other hand, incorporate all different types of customer communications across every available channel, such as email, social media, live web chats, messenger apps, text messaging, video chat, and virtual agents and chatbots.

As omnichannel call centers become more common, the distinction between call centers and contact centers is becoming less obvious. Many organizations now use the two terms interchangeably.

Regardless of focus or type, most call centers follow a similar team structure. In most cases, the people who make up the call center include the following:

Call center agents

These are the people who handle most of the customer-facing tasks within the call center. Also called ‘representatives,’ call center agents answer telephone calls and assist customers in any way they can, including retrieving information, troubleshooting solutions, and logging complaints. Outbound call center agents call customers and prospects directly.

Because these front-line points of contact are often the primary personal interactions a customer will have with the company, having knowledgeable and friendly agents in your call center can be a significant competitive advantage.

Team leaders

Where call center agents are responsible for connecting with customers, team leaders need to be able to connect with agents to motivate and manage. Team leaders take the lead in establishing and tracking metrics, measuring the success of their team, and training their agents on how best to deal with specific situations.

Leaders may also occasionally be called upon to speak directly with customers, such as in the event of an escalated call.

Call center supervisors

Supervisors are responsible for the overall operations of the call center. Supervisors help establish call center goals, ensure that teams and leaders are being trained effectively, and that everyone has the tools and resources they need to do their jobs.

In many cases, the duties of the call center supervisor may overlap with the duties of team leaders. Alternatively, some businesses will be structured to eliminate one position or the other and instead fold both sets of responsibilities into a single manager.

At its most basic, a call center is a communication channel. Customers contact the call center to resolve various issues or otherwise interact with the company, or the company contacts the customers or leads to encourage them to take specific action. In many cases, achieving the desired outcome requires multiple interactions or following up via alternative channels (such as email).

When compared to many other business processes, call center operations are straightforward and tend to follow something like the steps outlined below:

Graphic showing how call centers work.

1. The call is made

The entire call center process begins with the call itself. In most cases, this will involve a customer or potential customer using a telephone to contact the call center to help resolve some kind of issue. Outbound call centers reverse this, and instead reach out to customers. In either case, once the call is initiated, the customer may be transferred to other agents or specialists to better meet their needs. Contact software, CRM capabilities, and virtual agents can provide added support.

2. A call center agent works to resolve issues

Once the purpose of the call has been defined and the correct representative is in place, they can now begin to address any issues the customer may have. This is relevant for outbound call centers as much as inbound ones; even when the business initiates contact, there must be someone in place to follow through. Ideally, any issues should be resolved during the initial interaction—first-call resolutions demonstrate capability and good intentions on the part of the business. That said, some issues may require multiple calls or other interaction to sort through effectively.

3. The agent or another representative follows up with the customer

Following up with the customer after the first call is over is vital in those situations where the agent needs more time to resolve the issue. Even when a first-call resolution is possible, some businesses prefer to follow up with their customers anyway to check in on the situation at a later date and confirm that the customer is happy with the results.

Your business exists to help your customers, and many of your customers are most comfortable seeking that help over the phone. Having a reliable call center in place to effectively manage those interactions as your company grows can be a major deciding factor in customer satisfaction. But handling customer calls and interactions on other customer-facing channels at scale demands the right tools. Customer Service Management (CSM) is the solution. Built on the award-winning Now Platform®, ServiceNow CSM empowers businesses with the technologies and resources they need to optimize their call centers and help reduce costs while delivering seamless customer experiences for every contact.

Manage interactions on any channel. Access and update customer information at the push of a button. Employ powerful self-service options. Deploy detailed playbooks to ensure that agents always know exactly what to do next. Incorporate advanced workflows to route important requests directly to relevant departments. Integrate seamlessly with other tools and systems. And through it all, maintain data privacy and process consistency by bringing your remote agents together on a single, secure platform.

Learn more about how ServiceNow is revolutionizing the modern call center. Get CSM today!

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