Highlights from an in-depth study of Contact Centers in catalog, retail, and e-commerce operations

Business conditions have changed considerably in the two years since we conducted our last study of contact centers, but the latter have been slow to alter operating practices despite marked increases in sales volume. Perhaps the only significant change is in new technology adoption.

As in our 2002 survey, ACDs and agent monitoring software remain the most common technologies in contact centers, but new programs are coming into use. About a fifth (20.8%) of the respondents have installed CRM apps, and voice XML, voice over Internet protocol, Web chat, and wireless are more prevalent. The use of workforce management software has surged, from 27.2% in 2002 to 36.1% this year.


The median speed of answer remains more or less the same, at about 15 seconds. Average talk time, however, has gone up from 3.9 to 4.6 minutes, although the median talk time remains 3.5 minutes. Maximum talk time has soared to a half hour from 20 minutes three years ago, perhaps a reflection of the increasing complexity of the products and services that agents now confront. Customers’ median time in queue has dropped somewhat, from 20 to 18 seconds. The occupancy rate — the amount of time agents are available to take calls — remains the same, at 75%.

Fewer calls are abandoned now than two years ago. In 2002, nearly ten percent of the respondents reported abandonment rates of 7% to 10%; this year, only 3.3% of the respondents experience that level of call abandonment. Sixty-five percent of the respondents have moved up into the 1%-4% abandonment category, compared to 54.9% in that group in 2002.


More contact centers are hitting their target service levels. In 2002, respondents had set a median goal of 90% of calls answered in 20 seconds; the actual service level was 87% of calls answered in that time. This year, the target was less ambitious — 85% of calls answered in 20 seconds — and has been surpassed, with 85.5% of calls meeting that objective.

The number of contact centers paying agents just a base salary, with no performance incentives, has increased to 22.4% from 15.2% two years ago. Over 40 percent of the respondents still compensate reps solely on a per-hour basis.

Surprisingly, the performance measurement yardstick has inched down, not up. At 82.5%, the number of respondents who formally measure CSR performance is a fraction lower than the 82.8% recorded in 2002. Accuracy seems to be less important as well: 71.5% measure it, down from 80% in our previous study.

As they were in 2002, attendance, call quality monitoring, and call handle time continue to be the top three performance measures. Interest in agent occupancy has increased somewhat, with 26.5% of the respondents measuring it now as opposed to 18.4% two years ago.

Training remains a throwback to yesteryear. The percentage of respondents using traditional methods such as on-the-job and classroom training remains noticeably high. Peer mentoring has increased in popularity, with 69.9% of the respondents using it this year, compared to 55.6% in 2002.

Typically, our three annual sales volume categories have had a roughly equal number of respondents in each group, but this year, 52.5% place themselves in the $50 million-plus category; in 2002, only 34.4% were in this group. The mid-sized companies, those with annual sales of $10 million to $49.9 million, have declined from 33.1% of the sample to 21.3%.


This year, we added a question about the controversial topic of offshore outsourcing. Twenty-nine percent of our respondents outsource call center functions. Of this group, 71.7% outsource inbound order taking, and 20.8% farm out customer service. Among the respondents who outsource, 28.3% hand off after-hours calls, catalog requests, mail orders, monitoring, order entry, and fax support.

Among the respondents who use outside contractors, 86.8% are satisfied with their service providers. The same percentage of respondents outsource within the United States. Of the 11.3% who go offshore, two-thirds send work to India, and the rest to the Philippines.

Rama Ramaswami is editorial director of O+F. Primedia Business research director Lynn Adelmund conducted the research for this report. To purchase a copy of the full study, visit www.opsandfulfillment.com.


Total respondents = 181

Percentage of Respondents
Less than 10,000 12.0%
10,000-49,999 16.9%
50,000-99,999 8.2%
100,000-249,999 13.1%
250,000-999,999 24.6%
1.0-4.9 million 20.2%
5.0 million or more 3.8%
No answer 1.1%


Total respondents = 171

Percentage of Respondents
Less than 1% 18.0%
1% to 2% 34.4%
3% to 4% 30.6%
5% to 6% 4.4%
7% to 10% 3.3%
11% to 15% 0%
16% to 20% 1.1%
More than 20% 1.6%
No answer 6.6%
Note: Base = respondents handling order fulfillment


Total respondents = 183

Percentage of Respondents
ACD 85.2%
CSR monitoring software 47.0%
Skill-based routing 36.6%
Workforce management software 36.1%
IVR/VRU 30.1%
CRM applications 20.8%
CTI 16.9%
Web chat 16.4%
Wireless headsets 12.6%
Voice XML 7.7%
Voice over Internet protocol 7.7%
Personalization software 6.6%
Automatic Web site callback 1.1%
Wi-fi telephony 0.5%
No answer 4.4%
Note: Multiple answers


Total respondents = 183

Percentage of Respondents
On-the-job training 84.2%
On-site classroom training 76.0%
Peer monitoring 69.9%
Supervisory training 67.8%
Computer-based training 32.2%
Other* 1.6%
No answer 0.5%
Note: Multiple answers
*Includes off-site training and vendor classes


Total respondents = 53

Percentage of Respondents
Inbound order taking 71.7%
Other* 28.3%
Customer service 20.8%
E-mail support 7.5%
Live chat support 1.9%
Information and reservation services 1.9%
Note: Base = respondents who outsource call center functions; multiple answers
*Includes mail orders, overflow calls, fax support, outbound calls, and after-hours calls


Total respondents = 151

Percentage of Respondents
Attendance 86.8%
Call quality monitoring 85.4%
Accuracy 71.5%
Call handle time 57.6%
Call volume 41.7%
Customer satisfaction surveys 35.1%
Sales volume/conversions 36.4%
Occupancy factor 26.5%
Other* 7.9%
No answer 0.7%
Note: Base = respondents measuring CSR performance; multiple answers
*Includes peer surveys, teamwork, upsells, and first-call resolution


Average Speed of Answer Seconds Average Talk Time Minutes
Mean 19.8 Mean 4.6
Median 15.0 Median 3.5
Maximum 71.0 Maximum 30.0
Minimum 1.0 Minimum 1.4
(n = 156) (n = 164)


On Jan. 2, 2004, Primedia Business Marketing Research mailed cover letters and two-page questionnaires (each containing 18 questions) to 1,000 domestic O+F subscribers selected by call center, contact center, and customer service management job functions on an nth name basis. A $1 incentive was included in the mailing. By end-February, 183 usable surveys were received, for a response rate of 18.4%. Means and medians were calculated according to standard statistical practices. Totals may not add up to 100% because of rounding. Results were reported in three categories: companies with annual sales under $10 million (17.5%), between $10 million and $49.9 million (21.3%), and $50 million or more (52.5%); 8.7% did not provide sales information. The majority of respondents (72.6%) hold positions in call center or customer service management. In the “Other” category, 8.2% of respondents cite jobs in direct commerce, fulfillment, IT, design, sales, or marketing management.

Partner Content

Hincapie Sportswear Finds Omnichannel Success in the Cloud - Netsuite
For more and more companies, a cloud-based unified data solution is the way to make this happen. Custom cycling apparel maker Hincapie Sportswear has leveraged this capability to gain greater visibility into revenue streams, turning opportunities into sales more quickly while gaining overall operating efficiency. Download this ecommerce special report from Multichannel Merchant to more.
The Gift of Wow: Preparing your store for the holiday season - Netsuite
Being prepared for the holiday rush used to mean stocking shelves and making sure your associates were ready for the long hours. But the digital revolution has changed everything, most importantly, customer expectations. Retailers with a physical store presence should be asking themselves—what am I doing to wow the customer?
3 Critical Components to Achieving the Perfect Order - NetSuite
Explore the 3 critical components to delivering the perfect order.
Streamlining Unified Commerce Complexity - NetSuite
Explore how consolidating multiple systems through a cloud-based commerce platform provides a seamless experience for both you, and your customer.