Call Centres don’t have to be hugely complex, massively staffed affairs, with warehouses full of rows of people at desks. Think about your own internal IT help desk, or your company’s customer service department, with a few hunt groups programmed into the PBX.

Call Centre — or Contact Centre, if you include communication via email, or the Web — technology can be scaled down enough in both complexity and cost to be useful in a wide range of scenarios. Here we’ll look at the sorts of things you can get so you can decide if it would benefit your business.

Call Centre attributes
If you want a full-blown ‘multi-channel’ system whereby people can get in touch via email or web front ends, as well as speech, then you’re looking at the more expensive Contact Centre systems. But if you’re happy to work through phone calls, then a Call Centre can still offer a pretty wide choice of options.

The two main parts to a Call Centre are its ACD (Automatic Call Distribution) and IVR (Intelligent Voice Recognition — although in this instant that can be a bit of a misnomer since it tends to be DTMF tones from your keypad rather than your voice that is recognised in many of the smaller Call Centres) functions. There will also be some form of CTI, though again this is more limited than in the larger Contact Centres.

ACD handles how calls are routed to Call Centre agents — typically you’d have workflow scripts that tell the system which group of people to direct the call to, based on certain information. This could include Caller ID (you might have different people handling internal and external calls, for instance), called number (so you can publish different numbers for different product ranges you’re selling, maybe), time of day and information that has been entered via the telephone keypad.

Skills-based routing isn’t something you used to get with smaller systems, but it’s now becoming more common. This can be used in conjunction with the other routing information to get the call to the best person first time, to save having to transfer a caller round various agents. If you have international sites, you could use the CLI to direct calls to someone who speaks the same language as the caller, for instance.

You should also be able to choose, within a group of agents, who gets the next calls, whether it’s a circular hunt group arrangement, or new calls go to the person who’s been idle longest. And a useful option, if you can get it, is the ability to allow for a call wrap-up time, so that the agent has a few moments to finish writing up any notes once a call’s completed before being connected to a new caller.

The IVR part allows you to collect information from callers to use to direct calls, so that a caller can select whether they’re an existing customer querying the status of an order, or a new customer wishing to place one. You can also use this to provide recorded announcements. These can be the usual static ‘please hold’ type messages, or, better, a dynamic message that advises of your place in a queue, for instance, or the estimated waiting time, to improve customer satisfaction.

Agent features
When a call is passed to an agent, they should be presented with any information that has been collected along the way, such as caller ID, anything entered by the keypad, how long the call has been waiting, and whether this call has already been dealt with by anyone else —and any notes that might have been made already. Links to back end databases will be variable in their levels of integration, but some form of CTI will be essential.

Typical features you should be looking for are the ability for agents to communicate via instant messaging while on a call, if they need assistance (this is particularly useful for the training of new staff), being able to record calls, easily log into and out of the system, and also temporarily make themselves unavailable for new calls if required without having to actually log out.

Usually, the agent software will be PC-based, but you may be able to use phone handsets, albeit with a probable reduced functionality. It’s important that the software is usable — you should involve a representative from what will be your Call Centre to tell you if the fancy software that seems to do everything you think they need will actually work in their environment without them having to change too many processes.

Supervisor features should include the ability to monitor calls silently or barge in. Being able to broadcast messages to a group of agents can also be important. The main focus for the supervisors, though, will be the statistics they can get — reporting on wait times, call durations and agent activity is the one big ‘must have’ for a Call Centre and the easiest way for you to manage it is to allow supervisors to customise their own reports, so they don’t have to ask you to do it.

If this isn’t to be particularly large Call Centre, you don’t want to be spending a lot of time getting it up and running and looking after it. Scripts for routing calls should be easy to set up, with lots of samples provided.

Of course you also have to consider the size of system you need, both in terms of concurrent agents and call volumes, and whether you need a multi-site system. It can be much more cost-effective to have agents at remote sites — some banks do this, using branch staff as Call Centre agents during non-busy times at the branches — or even working from home. Resilience will be important, and where calls will fail to in effect of a major problem — or even just an unusually heavy call volume.

Whether you’re dealing with outside customers, or just need to make your internal systems more efficient, it’s well worth having a look at this lower end of the Contact Centre market, to see how a Call Centre can help your organisation.