We call them looking to get some information, some service, a little help. Instead, we get hold music, and much worse — push-button hell, call-transfer purgatory, or simply a click . . . disconnected. And yet call centers are one of the country's fastest-growing industries: 3% of Americans now work for a call center, and Gartner Research predicts that the industry could nearly double in size by 2010. That could mean twice as many people to help you. Or twice as many opportunities to press 7 and pray that someone, someone vaguely competent even, will pick up.
More than 4,000 call-center managers and sales representatives arrive in Chicago looking for ways to negotiate a problematic future: how to alienate fewer callers while cutting costs and expanding. They crowd McCormick Place, a Death Star of windowless meeting rooms on a wide stretch of Lake Michigan shoreline, for this year's International Call Center Management conference and exposition. Fourteen years old now, ICCM's convention is the industry's biggest event of the year, three days of panels like "How Do Customers Feel About Being Upsold?" or "Tired? So Are Your Agents! Get Relief With Voice Self-Service," plus an exhibition floor the size of a football field, where representatives from nearly 200 companies hawk new technology and services.
Bad employees are the call-center industry's most famous problem. "Absenteeism is a huge issue," says Tiffany Riley, of Blue Pumpkin Software, which markets scheduling software that, in a call center with 2,000 ringing telephones, might be used to make sure that enough Spanish-speaking agents are on duty during the hours when Spanish speakers tend to call. "Or they know how to trick the phone switch, so they get fewer calls."
And "turnover in the contact centers is worse than in the fast-food industry," says Matt McConnell, founder of e-learning firm Knowlagent. In most call centers, that means anywhere from 50% to 150% turnover per year.
As a result, many firms are looking at call centers in far-flung and typically struggling economies. This year's gathering was the first to devote an entire corner of the convention floor to "offshore outsourcing," with 52 countries represented in some fashion. Many executives and foreign-investment-promotion types talk in predictable, cheap-labor terms. "I started a call center in the United States in a women's prison," says Ronald Bell, whose small firm, Bell Systems, now operates four facilities in India. He grins. "There are a lot of similarities, in terms of having a captive workforce."
Other companies are pushing high-tech fixes. Two firms, Nuance Communications and SpeechWorks International, have rolled out a new generation of voice-recognition software that handles mundane requests as well as any live operator would — really, it does! — without the wait and at a fraction of the cost. Take "Claire," an alternative to touch-tone menus that Nuance developed for Sprint PCS. "She's about 33, attractive, loves her job, and you never have to worry about her. She works 24-7," says Lynda Kate Smith, Nuance's chief marketing officer.
The best customer service at ICCM, however, turns out to be about massage, not message. At NEC's pavilion, conference goers get personalized solutions to whatever ails them: an aching back, stiff shoulders, a crick in the neck. There are no empty apologies at the massage station, no scripted conversations, just a live, trained professional for every problem — escape from call-center hell! But here's the rub: "There will be a 40-minute wait." We're on hold.
Sidebar: IBM: Manager Jam
With 319,000 employees scattered across six continents, IBM is one of the world's largest businesses. For the company's 32,000 managers, it can also be a confusing place. The shift to an increasingly mobile workforce means that many managers supervise employees they rarely see face-to-face. Some joke that IBM now stands for "I'm By Myself." To address these issues, Samuel Palmisano, IBM's new CEO, launched one of his first big initiatives: a two-year program exploring the role of the manager in the 21st century. The project's first event was "Manager Jam," a 48-hour real-time Web event in which managers from 50 different countries swapped ideas and strategies for dealing with problems shared by all of them, regardless of geography. Some 8,100 managers logged on to the company's intranet to participate in discussion forums. John Rooney, head of a development team in Cambridge, Massachusetts, says he got some great suggestions on fostering innovation from managers in India and the Asia Pacific region. "This was a really nice global watercooler," Rooney says.
By Linda Tischler
A version of this article appeared in the October 2002 issue of Fast Company magazine.