SHAMSUL GHANI (shams_ghani@hotmail.com)
Aug 04 - 10, 2008

Although not so timely and speedily as in India, the call center business in Pakistan is said to have flourished by our own standards. By nature and scope, essentially an outsourcing business, it is largely dependent, like any other IT business, on skilled, well-trained and abundant human resource. According to Wikipedia, "A call centre is a centralized office used for the purpose of receiving and transmitting a large volume of requests by telephone. A call center is operated by a company to administer incoming product support or information inquiries from consumers. Outgoing calls for telemarketing, clientele, and debt collection are also made. In addition to a call center, collective handling of letters, faxes and emails at one location is known as a contact center."

The concept of outsourcing is basic to call centers. An American Company having no factory or outlet in Pakistan may like to handle the Pakistani customers of its goods and services through an international call center in Pakistan to substantially save on marketing cost which will be lower in Pakistan owing to availability of cheaper facilities and labor. Similarly a Middle East bank having its presence in Pakistan would like to outsource marketing and customer service jobs to a call center. This will allow the bank management space to concentrate on other vital banking issues.

Call center operations make use of mathematical models including queuing theory, operations research etc. to handle optimizing problems besides seeking qualitative insight for example identifying of situations and proper combinations that ensure economies of scale, namely the size and location of center, number of handling agents and supervisors, nature and quality of electronic gears and gadgets, selection of most appropriate software, use of cross-selling option etc. An important decision relates to whether the center should be quality driven or efficiency driven, or both quality and efficiency driven - QED.

Call centers select from a wide variety of available technologies to handle a large volume of work. These technologies allow for queuing and processing of calls to maintain a consistent work flow, and creating positive business cost savings. A proper mix of following technologies may be at work in different call centers : ACW (After Call Work), ACD (Automatic Call Distribution), AHT (Average Handle Time), ANI (Automatic Number Identification), BTTC (Best Time To Call), CIM (Customer Interaction Management), CTI (Computer Telephony Integration), CRM (Customer Relationship Management), IVR (Interactive Voice Response), PDS (Productive Dialing System), VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol), WFM (Work Force Management) etc.

Call centers are Inbound, Outbound or a combination of both. Inbound call centers handle customer enquiries regarding product, pricing, place or mode of delivery, after-sales support and complaints etc. An outbound call center targets potential customers and indulges in telemarketing - trying to sell company's goods and services. Call center personnel are organized in different tiers. The first tier personnel are generally the operators who direct a telephonic customer enquiry to the concerned company department or division. The second tier personnel are comparatively more informed and technically sound, and handle customers that require in-depth knowledge of the company product. Still more complex inquiries are handled by the third tier personnel who have the back-up support of company's high-tech people and top executives.

One may come across terms like up-selling and cross-selling in the backdrop of call center functioning. Up-selling involves selling more profitable company products or selling in excess of the customer's initial demand. Examples are selling a 21 inch TV to the customer who initially showed interest in a 14 inch TV, or convincing a prospective bank credit card user to take out a card for his or her spouse as well, or offering a hotel party arranger a costlier exquisite menu in place of a comparatively low profile menu. The up-selling strategy not only results in increased company sales, but also provides the call center marketers an opportunity to augment their income. Cross-selling strategy aims at selling to the prospective buyer goods and services produced either by a separate company division, another group company or altogether an outsider third company. The call center service provider representing an audit firm may offer to arrange tax or inventory valuation services to a customer initially interested in getting his firm audited. Or a product buyer may be asked to get the product insured as done by most car leasing companies. The cross-selling technique needs a highly informed and subtle approach. The high revenue generation of one company may well be offset by the botched handling of a cross-sale resulting in other departments' / companies' image tarnishing. To sum up, cross-selling is like selling a boat and a river to a boat buyer!

Call center performance is measured by such attributes as accessibility and overall service quality. The accessibility factor determines the average time required to reach the call center and the agent. The Global Survey Index GSI reports a worldwide average waiting time of 155 seconds. Overall service quality factor determines the skill level of call center agents involved in interaction with the customers, and technology standard of call centers. Overall service quality is also measured by three performance standards namely courtesy standard, engagement standard and revenue generation standard. Courtesy and engagement standards are measured by call center personnel's socializing capacity and interaction finesse. Delivering resolution in first contact is the greatest challenge for the agent. A distraught customer may never return once he forms a negative opinion about call center's ability to take care of him.

A call center job is a challenging assignment that promises high rewards in return. It is a befitting job for the orange type youth rather than the grown-up blue or any other type. An orange type personality is prepared to take risks, finds new experience and interactions exciting, is not deterred by run of the mill failures and has little time for moods and blues. The above-the-line salary packages, so avidly advertised, make those not in the run feel that call center job is a cushy job in real sense. But the myth is soon exploded when the demanding side of job is revealed in detail. Like currency and stock dealers, the call center job market focuses on young blood with a gift of gab and a high spoken-English fluency level. The long, continuous job hours, the mix of soft to harsh and even abusive and racist customers, the hazard-prone constant exposure to electronic gadgets has taken away much of the publicized charm associated with the job. Certain serious health disorders have been rightly or wrongly associated with the call center job. With the lack of employment opportunities, Pakistan will take much longer to factor in the negative aspects of a call center job. In India, the awareness level has been much higher. Previously the interested companies used to make on-campus recruitment. Now, many of the educational institutions have banned such recruitments.