Answering the Call

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineA few weeks ago, I did something outrageous. I stopped answering my phone. Although that is a bold, foolhardy step for anyone in business, it is heretical for someone whose entire professional career has revolved around the telephone. However, before you plan an intervention on my behalf, let me assure you that this was a short term situation and I am once again totally accountable to my phone, dutifully answering its ringing with Pavlovian consistency. Here’s what happened.

Over the past few years I have noticed what many of you have experienced in your call centers; I was not getting as many phone calls as I used to. In fact, there are days when I only get one or two calls; occasionally, no one calls!

I am fortunate to be in a unique position in that I am privileged to communicate with a wide range of CEOs, directors, and managers at outsource call centers. About five years ago, the overwhelming concern of inbound centers was that call volume had dropped off and revenue was down, way down. It seemed to happen unexpectedly and no one was sure why, but most had their theories. Interestingly, this information was always shared with me confidently. Seemingly, each person was seeking confirmation that this was an industry wide dilemma, while at the same time declining to publicly acknowledge that they had been affected in like manner.

Since then, at each hint that a rebound was eminent, something would happen to squelch it – bad economic news, a terrorist attack, a war, and more than a few natural disasters. However, there has now become some divergence in the empirical feedback that I receive. Although most reports continue to confirm that call traffic is languishing, some indicate that it has leveled off, and a few claim to be experiencing a robust rebound, asserting that business has never been as good or more promising. Although a skeptic might maintain that such grandiose statements are nothing more than an attempt to talk oneself into prosperity, I prefer to believe that some call centers have indeed successfully navigated these troubled waters.

Perhaps the most buffeted segment of call center outsourcing work has been the outbound arena, specifically, consumer calling. With the combined effects of a public outcry, political expediency, and the enactment of state and ultimately a national do not call (DNC) law, outbound calling to consumers has, by most accounts, been devastated. Some call centers elected to cease all outbound work, migrating to inbound (thereby diverting work from existing inbound centers, resulting in a smaller slice of the pie for everyone – compounding the issue of lower call volume).

Other outbound call centers elected to make the switch from consumer campaigns to business calling, something that I can personally attest to. Before the national DNC law, I would only occasionally receive a sales call, from the Fraternal Order of Police or a high school student selling an ad in their organization’s program. That has changed. Now I receive all manner of telemarketing calls. I am sad to report that these call centers have learned nothing from the motivation behind the DNC legislation. They are employing the same tactics with business calling that caused the demise in consumer calling such as inadequately compiled lists, poorly trained agents, badly written scripts, and overly aggressively programmed predictive dialers. I’m all for a smartly targeted call, dispensing useful and relevant information – but that’s not happening. These firms still insist on employing the old numbers game, quantity over quality.

On all too many days, I receive more inept telemarketing calls than “real” business calls. To make matters worse, often the dialing rate is seemingly set too tight and I get dead air or am disconnected. It is one thing to get interrupted by a useless phone call, but it is even more infuriating to be interrupted so that a machine can hang up on you. Outbound call centers need to be careful. The same lackadaisical business practices that resulted in the government regulation and legal restrictions of making calls to residential numbers could easily be extended to include business numbers.

Even more troublesome is that the political fodder gained by enacting laws limiting outbound calling has emboldened legislators to turn their attention to inbound calling. The spate of these various proposed restrictions would be laughable, if not for the seriousness of the politicians proposing them. These laws could end up regulating how you staff your call center, what technology is used and how it is programmed, the location of your office and staff, and your hours of operation. Furthermore, they could mandate statistical response rates, customer satisfaction levels, and even invoke penalties for long hold time. The offshore outsourcing of call center service is often a prime target in these proposed bills, but the wording is often vague or general enough to include outsourcing within the United States.

However, I am digressing; let’s go back to my story. My phone had rung for the fourth time that morning and thrice in 15 minutes. Each time I was met with silence; there was no one there! I was working on last month’s column – you remember, “The Ripple Effect” – and wanted to write without needless interruption. In frustration, I did something that I had never considered before. I decided to stop answering the phone and let voicemail handle it. Although I received many more phone calls throughout the day, no one left a message. There were some hang ups and dead air messages, but no people, not even breathing. It wasn’t until the afternoon the next day that someone left a message. After three days of letting voicemail screen my calls, I had amassed only three messages. What about the rest? Were they all telemarketing calls? Were some from people who didn’t feel their call was important enough to leave a message? If so, why were they calling? Frankly, it makes me wonder if I even need to have a business phone line! (Forgive me for my academic musings – yes, I do need a phone.)

Even with this spike of telemarketing calls that I have received, my overall incoming call volume is still down. At the same time, email communication has soared. The increased quantity of email is attributable to both spam and “real” messages. It is not uncommon for me to spend an hour or more each morning responding to the email messages that came in during the night. On Mondays, it sometimes takes all morning to handle the weekend’s deluge.

So where does this leave the outsourcing call center? Call volume is down, regulation is present, and more is looming. There is an apparent shift from telephone to email. Some possible solutions have already been alluded to. Many outbound centers have switched from consumer calling to business calling (just make sure you do it right). Those who are opting to continue doing consumer calling are needing to navigate regulatory restrictions, spending increasing amounts of money to ensure compliance, and take measures to protect themselves from increasingly large fines and damages if mistakes occur. These facts favor larger call centers (think economies of scale) plus they produce a nice barrier to entry, thereby reducing competition.

It is counterintuitive, but now may be the right time for some call centers to get into consumer calling. Interestingly, in the past few years, some inbound centers have successfully begun outbound work. Their key, seemingly, is focused around carefully selected and crafted niches, the details of which they are reluctant to share.

Another switch, or diversification strategy, is for outbound centers to move to inbound work. Many have done this and although it is presently a much safer arena in which to operate, this advantage may not last for much longer.

The real call center opportunity, however, may reside in the Internet. More on that next month.

[See part two of this article, entitled “Growing Your Call Center.]

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of  Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection Magazine June 2006]