Today’s call centers are sophisticated, high tech showcases of service, support and sales. The look and layout of call centers is changing due to the new demands being placed on them. Call centers were once the necessary evil operated in the backroom on a shoe-string budget. Nowadays, executives are seeing their call centers as one of their most important assets and treating them accordingly.
Most companies interact with their customers primarily through their call center. The call center isn’t just another department; it is the front door, often the only opportunity companies have to build a relationship with customers they will never see. This trend is predicted to continue as technology becomes more sophisticated and our economy becomes more reliant on information and services.
Call centers were once used mainly for reservations and telemarketing. Today they are also used for technical support, customer service, telephone banking, catalog sales, surveys, collections and even crisis intervention. In fact, many companies are now calling “call centers” their contact center, customer care center or even the help desk.
As the role of call centers expands, so does the understanding of how they should be set up to best fulfill their potential. Here are a few examples of expectations according to research done by Herman Miller:
Provider of dazzling service
The rationale here is simple: The better agents are treated, the better they’ll treat customers. Put agents in a pleasant environment with comfortable furnishings and they’re more likely to maintain a patient, friendly attitude than if their workplace is hot, cramped, and depressing.
A showcase for the corporate image
No department expected to serve as an organization’s front door can operate out of a back room. As call centers become central to business strategy—witness the number of ads and billboards featuring a smiling agent wearing a headset—companies are eager to show them off. Today, the impromptu corporate tour often winds through the call center—and it better look good.
A collector of strategic data
Many companies use the information collected in their call centers to build databases that can be mined to improve products, strengthen customer relationships, develop advertising campaigns, uncover problems, and make better decisions. Chrysler, for instance, fields calls from mechanics seeking guidance on repairs, then electronically transfers the data to engineers who review it with an eye toward building better cars. By not skimping design and furnishings, companies can send a clear message to agents about how highly their work is valued.
Keeping agents comfortable and content
Aside from customers and the corporation at large, there’s another audience call centers need to serve—the people who work in them. Employees may well be the most demanding audience of all and unquestionably the one most influenced by how their workplace looks, fits, functions, and feels.
Call center agents vary greatly in income and skills. Years ago, call centers were staffed almost exclusively by low-paid workers required only to take orders, pitch products, or answer simple questions. Today, call centers are just as likely to need highly educated workers with a command of both technology and interpersonal communications.
Agents are tethered to a workstation for hours at a time, obliged to stare at a computer virtually nonstop, and required to address repetitive—often negative—issues without losing their cool. And, they can expect their performance to be strictly monitored through systems that time their calls, count their keystrokes, and allow supervisors to listen in. Is it any wonder working in a call center isn’t everyone’s idea of a coveted career?
A comfortable, well-designed workplace won’t eliminate staffing problems, but it can go a long way toward attracting agents and keeping them happy and on the job. Without one, top performers will have one more reason to go elsewhere. If times are bad and they have no choice but to stick around, they may unconsciously vent their discomfort on customers, which will end up costing far more than any investment in space planning and furnishings would have in the first place.
According to research done by Herman Miller, one of the most striking trends in call center design is the movement away from rows of “ice cube trays” and toward a team-based work model that groups agents in small clusters. Clusters of teams can have many configurations. These depend on the role of the supervisor, the level of technology used, and provisions for handling expansion.
Organic design is becoming a popular way to arrange clusters. It departs from a rectilinear grid to create free-flowing layouts inspired by nature. (Think a path that wanders through a forest as opposed to a paved street.) Besides the interest this approach provides, it can also allow a higher density of workstations without sacrificing comfort.
Whatever the configuration, a team-based approach offers multiple benefits: 1) they help agents feel like they’re part of an intimate group, not one of a thousand; 2) they eliminate the maze effect that screams “call center”; 3) they make it possible to pair rookie agents with veterans to accelerate their development; and 4) they encourage the collaborative sharing of ideas and resources that is becoming so important as the complexity of agent responsibilities increases.