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Firms Put More Focus on Call Centers

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Aaron J. Hand

Plenty of people who have had to call a customer service number for support can relate to Dilbert's pointy-haired boss when he says that the way to improve customer service is to get rid of the service people. That situation may be changing, however, according to a recent study by Purdue University's Center for Customer-Driven Quality.
A study of 442 US corporate, in-house call centers (the hubs of phone- and Internet-based customer service) found that call-center budgets are growing by 12 percent a year, salaries are rising and turnover is down. Recognizing that good service helps maintain customer loyalty, businesses are doing more to keep those call centers running well.
Photonics businesses also can differentiate themselves from competitors by improving electronically based customer service. While this can mean spending more money on salaries and technology, it will pay off in the long run, according to Jon Anton, a researcher at the Purdue center and principal investigator for the 1998 Call Center Benchmark Report.
Decreasing service representative turnover has a great deal to do with improving customer service. "Caller satisfaction goes up with lower agent turnover," Anton said. "And, of course, caller satisfaction is the main reason for improving the call center in the first place."
Decreasing turnover also allows companies to spend less on agent recruitment and training. The average cost to bring on a new telephone service representative is $6572, according to the report.
This year's study found that the average base salary of call center agents was more than $32,000, up 11 percent from last year. Nonetheless, high salaries are not enough to create an effective call center and keep competent employees. Technology also is attracting people to call-center jobs and keeping them there, Anton said.
"We have seen a fascinating correlation between technology and turnover -- it's much lower when you have robust technology," he said. Agents can get answers more quickly with the right technology. If customers think the agents are smart, the agents are more likely to be satisfied with their jobs.
Some 87 percent of the survey's respondents have a call center Web site, a figure that is up almost 50 percent from last year. "The budgets have shifted from a call paradigm to a Web paradigm," Anton said. "Everyone is looking at Web-enabling their call centers."
The idea is to get customers to conduct their own customer service on the Internet before resorting to the company's toll-free number.

Photonics Spectra
May 1998
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