Call centers are widely used in numerous industries, from airlines to computer tech support. In the self-storage business, call centers are used to ensure incoming calls are never missed, giving facility operators the opportunity to close more sales. Advancements in technology are rapidly changing how operators interact with call centers, and the vital information they can obtain from calls to garner more business.
If you haven’t visited a call center lately or if you’ve never been inside one, you might be surprised by what you see. Although we don’t get many visitors at our call center in Columbia, Mo., when people do stop by, they’re often taken aback by how much technology it takes to answer a phone call. Our facility is a small boutique center with some really neat gear, but the technology infrastructure pales in comparison to some of the major centers I’ve toured.
I typically tour a few big operations every year to see firsthand the many new innovations working within the call-center industry. One of the most impressive operations I’ve seen was the New York City 311 call center in lower Manhattan. This facility answers about 90 percent of non-emergency calls to city agencies for the entire city of New York. At my call center, we jokingly complain about taking a large number of storage-auction inquiry calls on the third week of every month. Can you imagine the number of calls the NYC 311 center gets during inclement weather when everyone in the city wants to know if there are transit delays, school closings or street-parking rule changes? This center sometimes gets more calls in an hour than we receive in a month.
I’ve also toured the American Airlines call center near Dallas, and you can’t imagine what it takes in space, people and technology to book seats and provide service to passengers for the thousands of flights American dispatches each day. The size and depth of the airline’s commitment to customer contact is really impressive.
Even in a boutique center, you need a wide and deep technology foundation to provide the services that make your clients and stakeholders money. It all starts with Internet and telephony connections. These communications connections must have tremendous bandwidth. Then you need server capacity to handle the layers of software that power the phones, the lead-management systems and the integration systems. Whether the center uses internal software, cloud software or a combination, the power and capacity drain on servers is tremendous.
How They Work
Phone systems can take many shapes and formats, but they all require bandwidth and power. Work stations require powerful and reliable phone-set and PC equipment. When centers run on a cloud and use less-powerful PCs, they still need top-quality equipment to handle the workload.
Redundant systems are in place to provide a “plan B” for loss of power, Internet and servers. The backup systems need to be powerful and dynamic. If American Airlines’ call center was out of action for even one hour, it would incur a tremendous loss of income and reputation. Customers in most businesses generally have tolerance for about five minutes of downtime once they’re in a relationship with a company. The CEOs and CFOs of these companies have tolerance for about five seconds of downtime once a year.
One big expense often overlooked is sound management. Most centers invest tens of thousands of dollars in sound-proofing and sound-dampening systems to prevent sound waves from bouncing all over the room and ensure the conversations with callers sound personal.
Today’s call centers are no longer just call centers. In fact, most now call themselves “contact centers.” This is because many also handle e-mail responses, live chat, social-media responses or posting and text responses. Depending on the types of contacts and customers being served, a contact center may have as much automated communication as it has personal communication.
The New York City 311 center uses dynamic recorded messages for the most popular message of the day to avoid caller wait times and avert having too many employees on the phone. For example, on a snowy day that promises only a dusting, callers might hear an automated message telling them alternate parking rules are still in effect, transit is running on a regular schedule and all city schools are open. It takes a huge machine to handle 50,000 calls an hour.
American Airlines has a sophisticated voice- and call-recognition system that allows frequent fliers to do much of their planning and re-planning without ever talking to a real person. You might think talking to a machine is a terrible experience, but it shouldn’t be when done for the right reason at the right time.
As an American Airlines frequent flier, I can tell you it’s a great experience to call the customer-service number after a flight has been cancelled at the last minute to hear the automated machine say, “Hello Tron Jordheim, I see you were on flight 123, which was just cancelled. You are already automatically rebooked on flight 789, which departs out of gate B6 at 2 p.m.” I didn’t need to talk to a human to appreciate the good service I received.