Lip Service

Jun 01, 2001 9:30 PM  By

If your contact center doesn’t look like the control room of a spaceship, don’t despair — you’re not alone. Although we’ve been bludgeoned to death with all the technology we must have, from VOIP to Web chat, virtual reality to CRM, and multimedia to wireless, few contact centers have any idea what these things are, let alone any significant investment in them. As Operations & Fulfillment’s exclusive research shows, most companies today have a Web presence and conduct customer transactions online. The contact centers through which they do this, however, are hardly the futuristic technological marvels that vendor hysteria has led us to expect. You’ll see the basics, but not the bells and whistles.

As the dot-coms vanish, they leave us with seductive technology that we don’t really understand but must learn to distill profits from. Now that you can no longer wow anyone with cool-looking sites, the theory goes, you must do it through sensational customer service. By Web-enabling your call center, you will reach your customer more efficiently, reduce costs by enabling a greater level of self-service, and integrate your various business channels (see related stories on pages 26 and 38). In practice, it doesn’t always work that way. What’s appropriate for a particular type and size of company may not be suitable for another; the costs of bleeding-edge Web technology are often prohibitive for all but the largest firms; and some customers, especially in the business-to-business arena, may actually choose face-to-face contact over online transactions.

Small talk

Operations & Fulfillment’s material handling benchmarks study (January 2001) showed that the average distribution center is far less automated than media hype would have us believe. Our contact center findings are similar in that much-vaunted interactive Web technologies have yet to make a major appearance in the majority of contact centers in the direct-to-customer fulfillment business. Most respondents use such traditional call center applications as automatic call distributors (82.3%) and CSR monitoring software (46.3%), and about a third use skill-based routing (31.7%) and workforce management programs (30.5%). But then the numbers drop sharply. Considering that interactive voice response (IVR) technology has been around for a while, it’s rather surprising that only 26.2% of respondents use it. Cutting-edge technologies show up even less often — 12.8% of respondents use computer-telephony integration, 9.8% employ Web chat, 7.9% feature automatic Web site callback, and a mere 2.4% have invested in voice-over Internet protocol applications.

Web Lag

Technologies in Use*

Respondents (%)

<$10 million
(n=40)

$10-49.9 million
(n=48)

$50 million or more
(n=57)

No answer
(n=19)

Total
(n=164)

ACD (automatic call distributor)

67.5%

91.7%

86.0%

78.9%

82.3%

Customer service representative (CSR) monitoring software

40.0%

47.9%

52.6%

36.8%

46.3%

Skill-based routing

7.5%

29.2%

52.6%

26.3%

31.7%

Workforce management software

10.0%

33.3%

43.9%

26.3%

30.5%

IVR (interactive voice response)/VRU (voice response unit)

7.5%

29.2%

35.1%

31.6%

26.2%

Customer service personalization software

12.5%

14.6%

15.8%

15.8%

14.6%

CTI (computer-telephony integration)

2.5%

10.4%

22.8%

10.5%

12.8%

Wireless headsets

10.0%

10.4%

15.8%

10.5%

12.2%

Web chat

7.5%

8.3%

14.0%

5.3%

9.8%

Automatic Web site callback

10.0%

4.2%

10.5%

5.3%

7.9%

VOIP (voice-over Internet protocol)

0.0%

4.2%

3.5%

0.0%

2.4%

No answer

7.5%

2.1%

1.8%

15.8%

4.9%

Total Sample

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

*Multiple answers

However, the smallest firms in the sample are on par with the largest in terms of online customer service capabilities. Ten percent of the companies in the under-$10 million group offer automatic Web site callback, compared to 10.5% in the over-$50 million category and only 4.2% of the medium-sized firms. A relatively large proportion of small merchants — 12.5%, compared to 14.6% and 15.8% of the medium-sized and large companies — use customer service personalization software. One reason for this is that small companies have more to gain by using the Internet to reduce labor and other costs, as well as legacy systems that are manageable enough to integrate with online applications quickly and easily (see sidebars on pages 20 and 63).

9 to 5

Full-Time Employees at Peak

Respondents (%)

<$10 million
(n=40)

$10-49.9 million
(n=46)

$50 million or more
(n=51)

No answer
(n=15)

Total
(n=152)

Less than 5

32.5%

4.3%

2.0%

0.0%

10.5%

5 to 9

40.0%

15.2%

3.9%

26.7%

19.1%

10 to 19

17.5%

30.4%

15.7%

13.3%

20.4%

20 to 49

7.5%

26.1%

27.5%

13.3%

20.4%

50 to 99

2.5%

15.2%

17.6%

20.0%

13.2%

100 or more

0.0%

8.7%

33.3%

26.7%

16.4%

Total Sample

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

5 to 9

Part-Time Employees at Peak

Respondents with
Part-time Employees (%)

<$10 million
(n=27)

$10-49.9 million
(n=34)

$50 million or more
(n=42)

No answer
(n=11)

Total
(n=114)

1 to 4

55.6%

23.5%

14.3%

27.3%

28.1%

5 to 19

29.6%

52.9%

16.7%

18.2%

30.7%

20 to 99

14.8%

8.8%

31.0%

36.4%

21.1%

100 or more

0.0%

14.7%

38.1%

18.2%

20.2%

Total Sample

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

Pay, Period

CSR Compensation Methods

Respondents (%)

<$10 million
(n=40)

$10-49.9 million
(n=48)

$50 million or more
(n=57)

No answer
(n=19)

Total
(n=164)

Per-hour only

42.5%

54.2%

52.6%

36.8%

48.8%

Base salary + performance incentive

35.0%

22.9%

33.3%

21.1%

29.3%

Base salary only

22.5%

20.8%

7.0%

26.3%

17.1%

Commission only

0.0%

0.0%

1.8%

0.0%

0.6%

No answer

0.0%

2.1%

5.3%

15.8%

4.3%

Total Sample

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

Warm Bodies

CSR Measures*

Respondents
Measuring CSRs(%)

<$10 million
(n=26)

$10-49.9 million
(n=42)

$50 million or more
(n=53)

No answer
(n=17)

Total
(n=138)

Attendance

92.3%

92.9%

86.8%

88.2%

89.9%

Call quality/monitoring

76.9%

81.0%

90.6%

94.1%

85.5%

Accuracy

61.5%

78.6%

75.5%

70.6%

73.2%

Call handle time

42.3%

71.4%

64.2%

64.7%

62.3%

Sales volume/conversions

57.7%

35.7%

45.3%

5.9%

39.9%

Customer satisfaction surveys

38.5%

42.9%

30.2%

23.5%

34.8%

Occupancy factor

0.0%

35.7%

28.3%

17.6%

23.9%

Other**

15.4%

7.1%

15.1%

5.9%

11.6%

No answer

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

Total Sample

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

*Multiple answers

**Includes call volume, idle time, product knowledge, reports, and upsell rate.

Size counts

Respondents were almost equally divided in their answers to the question of whether they handle incoming calls or orders for multiple companies — 47.6% say yes, 51.8% say no. Companies with annual sales of less than $10 million are more likely to not handle transactions for multiple companies, with 62.5% reporting that they do not.

The majority of respondents (64.6%) operate one contact center, while 13.4% operate two, 8.5% run three, and 11.6% operate four or more. Of the companies with annual revenue of $10 million or less, 85% operate only one contact center, compared to 68.8% of medium-sized firms and 52.6% of companies pulling in $50 million or more. Contact center size varies widely, and responses are not reliable because of the large number of people who did not answer the question relating to facility square footage. Of the 97 who did, 25.8% report that their contact center measures 2,000 to 4,999 square feet; 18.6%, 1,000 to 1,999 square feet; and 4.4%, 5,000 to 9,999 square feet. As can be expected, large companies are much more likely to operate a contact center spanning 15,000 square feet or more — 26.7% of companies with $50 million or more in sales and 18.8% of the middle group, compared to only 6.7% of the under-$10 million category. Of the respondents from the smallest companies, 33.3% have contact center facilities measuring 1,000 to 1,999 square feet, compared to only 3.3% of the $50 million-plus group.

Warp Speed

Service Level Statistics

Annual Sales Volume
(in millions)

<$10
(n=40)

$10-$49.9
(n=48)

$50+
(n=57)

Total
(n=164)

ASA in seconds

Mean

16.4

17.7

19.7

4.3

Median

15.0

18.0

20.0

18.0

ATT in minutes

Mean

3.2

3.4

3.9

3.5

Median

2.5

3.5

3.6

3.4

ATQ in seconds

Mean

31.5

30.4

24.5

28.3

Median

26.5

30.0

20.0

20.0

Agent occupancy

Mean

NA

70.0%

73.1%

69.8%

rate (%)

Median

NA

74.0%

76.5%

74.5%

ASA = average speed of answer; ATT = average talk time; ATQ = average time in queue; agent occupancy rate = average time agent handles calls as opposed to waiting for them to arrive

Note:

In the “under $10 million” category, results are based on fewer than 30 responses and must be used with caution.

Among respondents who answered questions about full- and part-time staffing practices, 20.4% employ between 10 and 19 full-time contact center workers during peak season; another 20.4% employ 20 to 49 (note, however, that a large number of non-responses makes these figures unreliable). Predictably, firms with under $10 million in sales have the fewest full-time workers — a full 40% employ only five to nine full-time people. By contrast, a third of the $50 million-plus companies have 100 or more full-time contact center workers on staff. Small companies also hire fewer part-time workers, with 55.6% employing between one and four and 29.6% bringing on five to 19 (52.9% of the mid-sized firms also hire this number). Again, the companies with funds to spare have the most personnel: 38.1% of the $50 million or more category hire 100 or more part-time employees.

Across the board, though, most everyone stints on pay. Almost half of the respondents pay their customer service representatives only an hourly wage. Of the remainder, 29.3% offer a base salary along with performance incentives, and 17.1% pay a base salary only. Small companies prove unexpectedly competitive, with 35% of the under-$10 million group providing salary plus incentives, compared to 22.9% of companies in the $10 million to $49.9 million sales range and 33.3% of the largest firms.

The personal touch

Although 84.1% of all respondents formally measure CSR performance, only 65% of the smallest companies do so. Just showing up appears to be a crucial standard — among respondents who assess rep performance, the vast majority (89.9%) evaluate attendance, followed by call quality (85.5%), accuracy (73.2%), call handle time (62.3%), and sales volume/conversions (39.9%). A strikingly high proportion — 38.5% — of the under-$10 million companies do not monitor accuracy.

Training practices reveal the absence of widespread use of computer technology, favoring a combination of on-the-job instruction and supervisory and peer mentoring. On-the-job training is most commonly used, cited by 85.4% of all respondents and an overwhelming 93.8% of medium-sized companies. Over 90% of large companies provide on-site classroom instruction, but even among this group, only 33.3% offer computer-based training. Less than a third of the total sample uses CBT.

Miss Lonelyhearts

Average Call Abandonment Rate

Respondents (%)

Under $10 million
(n=40)

$10-49.9 million
(n=48)

$50 million or more
(n=57)

No answer
(n=19)

Total
(n=164)

Less than 1%

20.0%

8.3%

8.8%

15.8%

12.2%

1% to 2%

22.5%

31.3%

33.3%

21.1%

28.7%

3% to 4%

10.0%

29.2%

33.3%

21.1%

25.0%

5% to 6%

7.5%

12.5%

10.5%

5.3%

9.8%

7% to 10%

10.0%

4.2%

7.0%

5.3%

6.7%

11% to 15%

2.5%

1%

0.0%

5.3%

1.8%

21% to 25%

0.0%

2.1%

0.0%

0.0%

0.6%

No answer

27.5%

10.4%

7.0%

26.3%

15.2%

Total Sample

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

Industry analysts tell us that a 24/7 customer contact center is imperative for success; apparently, the respondents to our survey don’t think so. Only 21.3% of the contact centers surveyed are open around the clock. A sizeable 40.9% operate between 11 and 18 hours daily, and 29.3% (47.5% of the smallest firms) are available for eight to ten hours a day. The annual volume of inbound calls they handle traverses an enormous range, from fewer than 10,000 to over 5 million, and again, a non-response bias makes these statistics suspect. Based on respondents who indicate their annual call volume, 22.7% handle between a quarter of a million and a million calls; 18% deal with 100,000 to 249,000; and a large number, 28.9%, handle 10,000 to 99,999. Forty percent of the largest companies report annual call volume of 1 million to 5 million or more. In the under-$10 million group, 37.9% of the respondents handle between 10,000 and 49,999 calls a year; among medium-sized businesses, 50% experience annual call volume of 100,000 to almost a million.

Hit or Miss

Service Goals
(% of calls answered in X seconds)

Annual Sales Volume (in millions)

< $10

$10-49.9

$50 or more

Total
(n=164)

Calls
(%)

Answer
(seconds)

Calls
(%)

Answer
(seconds)

Calls
(%)

Answer
(seconds)

Calls
(%)

Answer
(seconds)

Target service level

Mean

92.9

17.7

86.6

21.4

88.5

24.0

88.7

22.3

Median

90.0

16.0

82.5

20.0

87.5

20.0

90.0

20.0

Actual service level

Mean

NA

NA

83.2

24.0

84.4

25.0

83.6

24.8

Median

NA

NA

85.0

20.0

85.0

20.0

85.0

20.0

Note:

In the “Under $10 million” category, results are based on fewer then 30 responses and must be used with caution.

Speed demons

The days when ACD manuals posited an 80/20 service level (80% of calls answered in 20 seconds) as an “industry standard” are long gone. Today’s highly customized contact centers set service level objectives based on a hugely complex analysis of caller needs, forecast and revenue data, external benchmarks, and other factors. In our survey sample, inbound service levels are remarkably consistent across all revenue categories. Average speed of answer, for instance, varies by only three seconds between the smallest and the largest companies, with the mean for all respondents coming in at 18.3 seconds. Talk time is even more consistent, with the three categories (under $10 million, $10 million to $49.9 million, and $50 million or more) posting means of 3.2, 3.4, and 3.9 minutes. Average time in queue varies somewhat more: Callers wait 31.5 seconds at the smallest firms and 30.4 seconds at medium-sized companies, but only 24.5 seconds at companies in the $50 million or more category.

By and large, service goals remain unmet. Respondents with annual sales of $10 million to $49.9 million report a target service level of 86.6% of calls answered in 21.4 seconds, but fall short of that goal with 83.2% of calls answered in 24 seconds. The largest firms aim to answer 88.5% of calls within 24 seconds; their actual service level, however, is a more modest 84.4% of calls answered in 25 seconds. Responses in the under-$10 million category were too few to be meaningful. A fourth of all respondents report an average call abandonment rate of 3% to 4%, and close to a third report a rate of 1% to 2%. Small companies perform surprisingly well, with 20% citing an abandonment rate of less than 1%; only 8.3% of the medium-sized firms and 8.8% of the largest businesses report this rate. About a tenth of all respondents experience abandonment rates of 5% to 6%.

Rama Ramaswami is editorial director of Operations & Fulfillment. Rick Lowe, Marketing Division research manager at Intertec Publishing, contributed to this report.

METHODOLOGY

On Feb. 27, 2001, Intertec Publishing Corp.’s planning and research department mailed cover letters and one-page questionnaires (each containing 15 questions) to 1,000 domestic O&F subscribers selected on an nth name basis by contact center job functions. A $1 incentive was included in the mailing. By March 30, 169 surveys were received. Five of these were incomplete, resulting in a total of 164 usable surveys, for a response rate of 16.6%. Means and medians were calculated according to standard statistical practices. Results were reported in three categories: companies with annual sales under $10 million, between $10 million and $49.9 million, and $50 million or more. These firms are referred to as “small,” “medium-sized,” and “large” in the article.

Respondents hold positions in call center management (37.2%), executive management (26.8%), and customer service management (22.6%), as well as jobs in distribution, fulfillment, marketing, information technology, and other areas (9.1%). The proportion of executive management is highest in the under $10-million category, with 42.5% of respondents specifying it as their primary job function. Among the medium-sized businesses, call center management predominates, accounting for 41.7% of responses. Call center management is also the main job for more than a third (35.1%) of respondents from the largest companies. Seven respondents did not answer the question related to primary job function. Sales volume is fairly evenly divided among the three categories: 24.4% of the responding companies sell under $10 million in merchandise annually; 29.3%, $10 million to $49.9 million; and 34.8%, $50 million or more. Non-respondents to this question total 11.6%.
— RR

Boot Camp

CSR Training Methods Methods*

Respondents (%)

<$10 million
(n=40)

$10-49.9 million
(n=48)

$50 or more
(n=57)

No answer
(n=19)

Total
(n=164)

On-the-job training

87.5%

93.8%

80.7%

73.7%

85.4%

Supervisory training

65.0%

79.2%

73.7%

47.4%

70.1%

On-site classroom training

45.0%

64.6%

91.2%

63.2%

68.9%

Peer mentoring

52.5%

66.7%

70.2%

47.4%

62.2%

Computer-based training

22.5%

31.3%

33.3%

31.6%

29.9%

Other**

0.0%

4.2%

1.8%

0.0%

1.8%

No answer

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

0.0%

Total Sample

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

100.0%

*Multiple answers

**Includes in-house and outside seminars

Time Warp

Daily Contact Center Availability

Respondents (%)

<$10 million
(n=40)

$10-49.9 million
(n=48)

$50 or more
(n=57)

No answer
(n=19)

Total
(n=164)

Less than 8 hours

10.0%

2.1%

3.5%

0.0%

4.3%

8 to 10 hours

47.5%

22.9%

21.1%

31.6%

29.3%

11 to 18 hours

32.5%

47.9%

45.6%

26.3