By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
I recently had the privilege of attending the 2007 ATA Convention & Expo. Although my primary purpose was playing the role of photojournalist, documenting the conference in pictorial form, I also had an opportunity to hear dozens of call center experts and industry thought leaders, as well as interact with hundreds of call center compatriots from around the world.
The combined results of the keynote addresses, breakout sessions, vendor offerings, and attendee insights produced one of the most insightful events that I have been to. It allowed one of those moments of clarity, in which the persistent pull of the present gave way to fluency for the future.
I share these thoughts from a United States perspective. However, in most regards, what happens to call centers in the U.S. has worldwide ramifications. I can’t say when this future will be fully realized, but I do see it happening. Here are the upcoming developments that we can reasonably anticipate:
Outbound Is Dying: I heard more than once that “outbound is dead”; the Do Not Call (DNC) laws killed it. I’m not quite ready to declare that outbound is dead, but the deathwatch has begun.
Expect Additional Regulations: Politicians have found it expedient to regulate outbound calling; expect more of the same. However, now their sights are set on inbound. Many are seeking reelection, and regulating telephone practices is popular legislation and a safe strategy; it doesn’t really matter if it is justified or makes sense.
On top of this are pending efforts for Do Not Mail and Do Not Email. As noted by Tim Searcy, ATA’s CEO, mail, and to a lesser extent email, drives incoming calls to call centers. Expect these legislative efforts – and they will succeed – to further limit the scope and type of work that a call center can do.
Increased Agent Scarcity: It is no news that the demographic group that has historically staffed our call centers is shrinking. Compounding the problem is that those in this group, the Millennial Generation, increasingly do not want to work in call centers. This was poignantly brought to our attention when one speaker asked, “How many of your children want to work in call centers?” A hush fell over the room and nary a hand was raised. Decidedly, the hiring pain that we feel now is only going to increase.
For the short-term, we can look to increase our labor pool. One strategy is to open “branch” locations in geographic areas with qualified people in need of jobs. A second, more flexible approach, is to embrace home-based agents. Both these options are now technically viable using VoIP technology; the only issue is the different management skill set required to oversee and supervise a dispersed workforce.
The third idea is to pursue the opposite end of the demographic spectrum. As the baby boom generation begins to reach retirement age, some (perhaps many) will realize that they can’t afford to do so. They will seek part-time employment in order to supplement their social security checks and any meager retirement funds they have set aside. The call center might be an ideal place for them since it requires little physical expectations and offers flexible hours and schedules. Now is the time to consider and implement these options.
Offshoring Is Inevitable: None of the above solutions will result in a permanent staffing resolution, and the problems that precipitated it will only exacerbate over time. At some point, the arguments against offshoring will become secondary, as an increasing agent shortage in the U.S. will force call centers to look offshore to find qualified and willing agents.
We will likely have some time to prepare and respond to this, but call center offshoring is an eventual inevitability. Forget about the horror stories of failed attempts and the antidotal accounts of a consumer backlash, there are plenty of success stories, and more will abound in the future. Just because offshoring hasn’t worked in the past for some doesn’t mean it will never work for anybody. Offshoring is most likely the future of the call center industry. Ironically, many foreign governments are seeking to attract the same call center work that the U.S. Congress is trying to legislate out of existence.
Computer Agents: Many companies are excited to expand into technology-intensive businesses, but few are willing to dive into labor-intensive endeavors. I have often said that the cost of staffing a call center offers a barrier to entry; as long as our staffs make us distinctive, we will have an advantage, but when they can be replaced by technology, then virtually anyone can open a call center. This is still true, but the labor intensive nature of a call center will increasing become a barrier to our own growth and future viability. In this regard, it now makes sense to introduce technology to reduce our reliance on labor.
With advances in computer technology, we are rapidly approaching the point where some agent interactions can be transparently handed off to computers. There will come a time when live agents will merely backup to computer agents, and as computer agents advance, the need for live agents could be completely eliminated. The time will come when the measure for call center size will not be the number of seats, but the number of computer agents. Of course, then we will need staff to install, configure, and maintain these computer agents – but that might go offshore as well.
The Tremendous Opportunity: To many, this future focus is discouraging, or even overwhelming. I sympathize with your angst, but I do not apologize for my prediction. The call center glass is not half empty, but rather half full, for this list represents a series of tremendous and exciting opportunities to redefine our call centers, to reinvent processes, to diversify, to expand, and to grow.
During the convention, I was regaled by one vendor who shared the exciting twists and turns his business had taken over the years. What exists today bares little resemblance to what he launched years ago. Along the way he made some false starts, had a bit of good fortune, but mostly he invested heavily and worked hard to guide his enterprise through industry changes.
An attendee (a longtime friend) has experienced exciting growth in her call center, outgrowing one location and filling a second. The next phase for her operation is to pursue home-based agents – and she will be the first. Likewise, I talked with a consultant friend who saw clarity on a long-desired service to aggregate his knowledge and data-gathering abilities into a new line of business; I suspect his plans will soon be set in motion.
Although I no longer have a call center in which to apply my musings, I am embarking on this same forward-thinking, future-focused effort in the ever-changing climate of the publishing industry.
For those who can adapt to changes, the future is good; to those who can capitalize on them, the future is bright; but to those who choose to ignore them and insist on continuing to do the same things in the same ways, there is no future.
Let’s embrace these opportunities; the future is ours for the taking.