From the November 1999 issue of Startups

Are you toying with the idea of making the phone a bigger part of your business? Setting up an effective call center requires careful planning and management. Whether you plan to start with two or 20 teleservice representatives (TSRs), here are a few questions to consider before you begin:

1. Have you established specific goals and guidelines for the center? Know exactly what function you expect your call center to perform--whether it's a receptionist, service or sales role. Do you expect TSRs to be proficient in everything from technical support and service issues to basic information such as store hours and driving directions? Will the TSRs handle both incoming and outgoing calls? Without specific goals, you'll doom the center with conflicting functions and expectations.

2. Will your TSRs be comfortable? Minor discomforts are magnified in a call center where employees sit for eight hours a day. The 1998 Call Center Management Survey cited ergonomics as a "very valuable" human resources issue. Absolutely essential for TSRs are headsets. Also, the initial cost of providing high-quality chairs, adjustable monitors and footrests is minimal when compared to the high price of absent or injured workers.

3. Is your phone system adequate? Contact your phone representative, explain what type of center you're setting up and take an inventory of your phone lines and their capabilities. You may find that what you have is adequate for now, but once you intend to expand, you'll need to install more lines.

Also essential is an automatic call distributor (ACD) with a management-information system. The ACD answers the phone, puts callers on hold and distributes the calls to TSRs in the order received. It also outputs reports measuring factors such as calls answered, average talk and hold time, and abandoned calls (those who hung up).

Gail Stillwell, manager of the call center at Sierra Center Credit Union in Yuba City, California, says an ACD is the one piece of equipment you need no matter how small your center. "Without it," says Stillwell, who built her center from two to 14 TSRs, "you have no clue as to your productivity or service levels." Systems are available with various degrees of complexity and costs, but since technology in the field is changing rapidly, Stillwell warns not to think too long-term when investing in equipment: "Get what will suffice for two to five years."

4. Have your TSRs received proper training? Nothing is more frustrating for a customer than calling a hot line and talking to an untrained TSR. Your needs will determine whether it's best to hire unskilled workers and train them yourselves or get workers with experience in your industry. Regardless, set up a phone-training schedule where TSRs first observe calls and then are monitored before going on their own. In addition, be sure TSRs have the tools they need, such as product and procedure manuals, the latest sales literature and envelopes.

5. Are you paying enough? Phone service is a highly stressful job with a high turnover rate. Keep your staff happy and working for you by paying slightly more than you'd pay for the equivalent job in a face-to-face environment. Or offer regular bonuses based on measurements that are important to your service or sales goals.

When it comes to call centers, starting with a clear picture of your expectations and understanding the challenges TSRs face will increase the odds of a successful venture for all.


Carrie Schmeck (carrie@tech-line.com), who once established and managed a call center, is a freelance reporter who writes marketing copy for businesses.

Here's The Buzz

Before you jump into the world of call centers, you need to know the following terms:

  • TSR: teleservice representative
  • Universal agent: a TSR who is proficient in everything from technical to basic information
  • Y-cord: a headset device that allows two TSRs to monitor one call; useful for training
  • "Done in one": handling a call at the point of origin

In addition, check these Web sites for useful tips and industry information:

  • ACD Call Center Online Learning Center (http://www.call-center.net)
  • Call Center Network Group (http://www.ccng.com)
  • Call Center magazine (http://www.callcentermagazine.com)