New Academic Center Studies Call Center Industry

With recent regulatory developments in the industry and routine call center functions moving to offshore teleservices vendors, there is no time like the present for the Call Center Research Laboratory established at the University of Southern Mississippi a few weeks ago.

The CCRL, led by USM professor David Butler, aims to be the first international research facility dedicated to the collection of trend data, technology development and call center education with the application of an academic, scientific methodology.

This isn’t a marketing spin factory — in other words, politicizing the push of low-paying, low value call center jobs to vendors in India and the Philippines. The laboratory’s mission ties it to all stakeholders in various parts of the world and expects to arm them with data from vendor partners, industry associations such as the National Association of Call Centers and academic experts worldwide.

“In short, we want to be the repository for solid research-based and valid data for the industry,” Butler told CRM Buyer.

Call Center Shifts

Historically, the call centers employed by U.S. companies have handled routine customer transactions — address changes, membership or subscription renewals, product orders inspired by catalogs or television ads and complaint collection.

These tasks required nothing but the simplest training, often with a focus more on attitude than expertise.

With the advent of reliable call center automation, an increasingly global marketplace and greater corporate interest in retaining existing customers rather than spending to acquire new ones, the traditional functions of call centers have gone to automated teleservices systems and foreign call centers where labor is less expensive. Traditional call centers, in turn, have adapted to these changes by nurturing higher value customer service representatives.

“What I see is the creation of a blended contact center,” said Elizabeth Herrell, a Gartner analyst. “Routine functions, like help desks, can be easily outsourced. But in the cases where companies need to add value, increase revenues or position call centers for thriving customer retention, they don’t want to give those functions to offshore call centers.”

Growing at Home

Vendors and the clients they serve have begun applying new strategies to on-shore contact centers, segmenting calls by importance and value, and keeping cross-sell and upsell opportunities in-house. High-priority calls are thus answered by higher paid reps who tend to stay in their jobs longer than their minimum-wage earning predecessors.

As a result, industry activity is growing not only overseas but also here in the United States, as contact centers position themselves as strategic business tools. “There is not singular growth in one or the other,” Herrell said.

Reinvented call centers here in the U.S. also benefit from technological advances that loop call transactions into CRM, enterprise resource planning and other corporate systems that optimize operations and profitability, said Herrell.

Change in Mindset

The USM’s Butler agreed. “The call center industry is growing both domestically and overseas. It is also evolving from a neophyte industry into a more mature industry.”

Take the example of direct-response TV marketers. When these popular merchandisers began, they often instructed their phone center representatives to take orders and rush customers off the phones to open up the lines for new calls.

Now, however, they seek to extend the transactions, suggesting to callers interested in a necklace just featured that they also consider the matching earrings and bracelet. These representatives may position themselves as stylists, for instance, rather than simply order-takers or accessory salespersons. In this way, they may build relationships and revenue, not just process transactions.

“The use of the telephone for service is growing, and that’s good,” Herrell said. The growth comes from better tools, better call center software and better marketing programs to understand consumer behavior, she said. The industry changes take responsibility for call centers out of IT and enhance it with marketing intelligence. “Maybe the best role of our business is not to get rid of the customer as quickly as possible,” she concluded. “It’s a whole change in mindset.”

CCRL Answers Call

Butler said this evolution of the industry requires solid data and information that will enable stakeholders “to make well-informed and educated decisions about the direction and trajectory of this industry.”

The CCRL, he said, will provide this data and analysis. Butler insists the laboratory will also remain objective.

“Because we are an academic institution and produce academic-quality research, we do not enter research projects with a bias toward keeping call centers on shore or moving them offshore,” he said.

The center will leverage the resources of University of Southern Mississippi, including faculty, staff and graduate students, as well as reach out to the industry — and other academic institutions — at home and abroad. Butler says the CCRL will grow to accommodate projects as they come.

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