The Essentials Call centres - Setting up a successful phone service

Call centres receive a lot of criticism, and the path to creating a successful operation is beset with difficulties. Alex Coxon offers a guide on avoiding the major pitfalls.

When it comes to call centres, no sector is safe from rebuke. A report published by the Scottish Executive at the beginning of this month criticised the way public sector helpline NHS 24 handles calls and employees.

Managers, it said, need to spend more time listening to front-line staff.

The excessive number of shift patterns - more than 300 in total - also has to be reviewed as a matter of urgency, alongside the reasons why call-backs are not being made effectively.

The voluntary sector is not free from negative publicity either. The Department of Health's well-publicised decision not to renew its two-year contract with Sane to provide the telephone helpline Saneline has come as a serious blow to the mental health charity. Meanwhile, the National Missing Persons Helpline hit the headlines in March, having narrowly avoided insolvency thanks to £300,000 of emergency funding from the Home Office.

Setting up a call centre in a climate such as this could give even the most well-resourced voluntary organisations cause for concern. But there are things you can do to ensure that the process runs smoothly and cost-effectively. This step-by-step guide will take you through the critical phases.

1. Work out what you want from your call centre It might seem obvious, but start by considering what type of call centre you want to operate and the level of sophistication you hope to achieve. Are you intending to use your phone lines to provide support for callers? If so, will your staff need to be trained as health professionals? While fundraisers may not demand as much coaching as health professionals, they tend to have very different personal attributes. Do you have people already available in-house to fulfil this kind of work?

The key is to ensure that you match those aspirations with what your callers want. "Ensure that what you're intending to do has value for potential users," advises Belinda Haden, consultant with customer management specialist CM Insight. "Use data to see what services have been requested and how effectively queries have been handled."

2. Calculate the basic cost Once you have determined what kind of call centre you want to operate, work out whether you can achieve your goals in a cost-effective way. Haden recommends that organisations work backwards from the analysis covered in step 1. For example, if you want to run a simple 9am-5pm helpline and know that, historically, your organisation has not been inundated with calls, it will probably be cost-effective for you to run your call centre in-house.

"If your aspirations are more complex, you need to be thorough with your calculations," says Haden. "For instance, if you are intending to fundraise, you will need to ascertain how much funding you have to produce and determine conversion rates versus call times, based on any historical data that you have available."

Crucially, organisations must take the cost of staff cover into account.

Consider what salary you are intending to pay workers, multiply it by the number of staff you expect to employ - bearing in mind the number of hours per week you propose to staff the lines - and do not forget to build in overheads and downtime for sickness, training and 'wrapping up' of calls.

Think, too, about the longevity of your operation. If you plan to run a call centre indefinitely - particularly a helpline, which will not offset its own costs by raising money for the organisation - be sure that you have the requisite funding in place.

3. Establish your technology needs Decent technology need not come with a hefty price tag. As Colin Sharp, IT manager at the Scottish Society for Autism, reveals: "Our Mitel system makes the old network seem like tin cans on a piece of string, yet it cost us nothing." With 10 sites and 144 handsets, Sharp wanted to bring all staff on to one platform. With the new system, the organisation now has a centralised address book and all internal calls are free of charge.

"We have also been able to implement centralised 0845 numbers with specific mailboxes, call queuing and a range of hotlines, including a donations hotline," he says. "The results have been fantastic. Calls are dealt with more efficiently, we can take credit card donations over the phone and we have a back-up phone system in case any of the lines go down. We can even let people work remotely."

For those organisations with serious concerns about the cost of call-centre technology, there are other options. Hosted solutions, for example, allow organisations to 'rent' sophisticated - and usually expensive - hardware from a third party.

"In terms of call-centre capability, hosted technology is almost as good as a full-scale hardware solution," says Andrew Young, product marketing manager at Yac Call Centres.

"For £200-£300 a month, systems can hunt for available agents and provide customised routing, queuing of calls, interactive voice response and reporting."

Because the hardware is run off site by the host, users do not have to worry about maintenance or repair bills. At the same time, they can scale up or down in size according to call volumes - without the extra expenditure that comes with buying new kit.

At the other end of the spectrum, anyone wanting a more basic system should investigate those offered by organisations such as Direct Telecommunications London, which donates refurbished second-hand phone systems to north London charities. DTLL's only fee is for installation, which costs about £300 and is inclusive of one year's on-site servicing and parts.

4. Plan your staffing needs Voluntary organisations may have similar recruitment processes to the private sector for call-centre staff, but the skills needed by employees are often different.

"Charities go for more mature people on the phone, and the sort of skills they look for are more to do with empathy and less target-related," says CM Insight's Belinda Haden.

"It is important not to isolate these people's role within the organisation," she adds. "Voluntary organisations often benefit from better morale and lower attrition because people have more altruistic reasons for being there - but goodwill should not be taken for granted."

This last point is especially true for voluntary staff members. According to Haden, creating a culture of appreciation and reward will help endear an organisation to potential volunteers. Feeding back the call centre's success stories to the rest of the organisation, for instance, will show that staff are valued for their contributions right from the start.

5. Understand your options If you have taken into consideration the cost of running your call centre - including people and technology - and the figures still do not add up, do not panic. Many charities outsource their call-centre activities to third parties, a number of which have specialised knowledge of the voluntary sector. Catering for anything from a single, month-long, targeted fundraising campaign through to a full 24/7 support line, outsourcers tend to charge on a sliding scale, depending on the volume of work they are undertaking.

"Going into a contract with an outsourcer is about getting it to pay in terms of results," explains David Walwin, managing director of telephone fundraising agency NTT, which works exclusively in the not-for-profit sector. "Charities' expectations of outsourcing fundraising activity, for example, are broadly that they are looking for a return of two to one on their investment."

The advantage of outsourcing, aside from operational cost savings, is that staff usually have a much higher level of expertise and training.

However, the downside is that they tend to lose some of the cultural affinity.

"It's important to go for an outsourcer that is compatible and one that shares your passion for what you do," says Walwin. "For instance, we build on the generic fundraising and inbound training that we give our agents by adding at least three hours' solid coaching on the specific client and campaign. As part of that, we encourage the client to come along and participate."

6. Do not flout the law At the moment, 7.7 million UK households are registered on the consumer Telephone Preference Service and more than 250,000 businesses on the Corporate TPS. This means that, unless you have a relationship with potential donors or have received express permission to call by asking them to tick or not untick a form, you will be breaking the law if you contact someone registered on either service. Moreover, the burden lies with you, whether you run your call centre in-house or through an outsourcer.

The good news is that, from 1 May this year, the licence fee for both the TPS and CTPS was reduced by 15 per cent, although these still amount to more than £6,000 and £3,000 apiece - no small undertaking when the licences have to be renewed annually.

However, it is possible to register in a number of ways. For example, if you are planning to undertake geographical calling to a particular city that only represents 5 per cent of the database, then you only have to pay 5 per cent of the fee.

For information on TPS and CTPS visit http://corporate.tpsonline.org.uk.

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