Interview with Dr. Jon Anton

Dr. Jon Anton (also known as ‘Dr. Jon’) is the director of benchmark research at Purdue University’s Center for Customer-Driven Quality. He specializes in enhancing customer service strategy through inbound call center and e-business centers, using the latest in telecommunications (voice) and computer (digital) technology. Since 1995, Dr. Jon has been the principal investigator of the annual Purdue University Call Center Benchmark Research. This data is now collected at the BenchmarkPortal.com website, where it is placed into a data warehouse that currently contains over ten million data points on call center performance.

Dr. Jon has assisted over 400 companies in improving their customer service strategy. He has published 75 papers on customer service and call center methods as well as 18 books. Here is what Dr. Jon had to share with us:

Connections Magazine (CM): Dr. Jon, you have been involved in call center benchmarking for a long time. Please share with our readers how it all started.

Dr. Jon (JA): Over a beer at Lafayette Brewery, several students and I were trying to be creative about how to raise money to support our call center educational program at Purdue University. One student pointed out that the call center is loaded with easily accessible performance data, another student noted that the University has powerful computers for storing and analyzing data, and finally, another student pointed out that outbound telemarketing of the benchmark reports would be a good practical experience for students in the call center program. Before you knew it, we had invented call center performance benchmarking and that semester we launched our first benchmark research sponsored by IBM. It was very successful.

CM: Please clarify the connection between Purdue

JA: As the call center benchmarking research grew, it became too much for a small crew of students to do professionally. BenchmarkPortal was founded as a joint-venture with the University and to this day is still populated with Purdue graduates.

CM: What were some of the obstacles that you needed to overcome in those early years?

JA: The early obstacles included: 100 percent turnover of student participants each semester, developing a mailing list of call center managers, gaining industry acceptance of benchmarking as a worthwhile endeavor, and developing a logical method of presenting the benchmark data (such as by industry, by call type, by size, and the like).

CM: In those nine years, how many call centers submitted data?

JA: It seems hard to believe, but we have had over 50,000 call centers submit data to our database. We only keep a “rolling” 24 month period to maintain the currency of the data.

CM: How many are currently in your database?

JA:  We currently have about 20,000 members of our International Benchmarking Community.

CM: That’s a lot of data. I suppose that with so many call centers covered, you could find a good peer group with which to benchmark any call center.

JA:  We greatly encourage participants to pinpoint a peer group of call centers that have their same profile. This is quite possible with the size of our database.

CM: A question that we are frequently asked at Connections Magazine is, “How many call centers are there?”

JA: First of all, we must define call center. For years, I have defined a call center as “any group of telephone professionals whose inbound calls are received through an automatic call distributor (i.e., next available agent gets the inbound call), or through an automatic outbound dialer (i.e., next available agent gets the connected call). With this definition, we went to all the manufacturers of this equipment and ask them to tell us the number of call centers in their “installed base” of customers. The number we came up with in 2003 was close to 200,000 call centers worldwide. This number includes inbound and outbound customers service centers as well as internal help desks handling calls from employees. As long as they fit the definition, they were counted for the tally.

CM: I assume that most of those are in-house call centers. How many outsource call centers do you think there are?

JA:  Our research shows that there are approximately 2,500 outsource centers.

CM: Dr. Jon, what are some of the services that are offered to call centers?

JA: We offer six major services to call centers:

1) A customized peer group benchmarking report.

2) Industry benchmark reports covering 43 industries.

3) Call center certification.

4) Post-call IVR surveys to measure caller satisfaction.

5) Agent satisfaction and feedback.

6) Call center manager training.

CM: Which one is the most popular?

JA:  We sell many, many benchmark reports worldwide.

CM: I understand that a new service is being unveiled, what is it?

JA:  In 2004, we launched “Reality Check” as a quick and free benchmark to give a call center manager a painless and seamless peek at reality regarding their performance as compared to others in their industry. The new service is Web-based and the results are available instantaneously on our website.

CM: There is currently much talk about offshore outsourcing. What is your take on that?

JA: We live in a competitive world. Finding and keeping agents in U.S.-based call centers is the industry’s top challenge. Americans apparently do not especially like the telephone work of a call center and turnover is very high and very expensive. In my experience, when these factors are a problem, there quickly comes a solution. offshore outsourcing is a solution to the painful staffing problem in the States.

CM: Thank you for your time and insight, Dr. Jon. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

JA:  I am very impressed with your journal and read it cover to cover. It is a great educational tool for professionals in our field of work.

CM: Thank you!

[From Connection Magazine Jul/Aug 2004]

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