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What is a call center? Definition, types, and how they work

A call center is a team of customer service specialists who field customer calls. Learn what it takes to build a productive call center that provides great customer experiences.

By Hannah Wren, Staff Writer

Last updated May 15, 2024

You might envision a call center as a warehouse jammed with tiny desks where tired agents switch endlessly from one call to the next. However, today’s call centers are evolving. Many now operate as hybrid or fully remote workplaces, with agents efficiently managing support requests via both traditional phone lines and various digital channels.

More companies are realizing that improvements in call center training and work satisfaction greatly reduce call center burnout and increase customer retention and satisfaction. In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about how call centers operate and what you need to make yours successful.

More in this guide:

What is a call center?

A call center is a team of customer service specialists who field phone calls from prospects or customers who have questions about a company’s services or products.

Many call centers focus on customer satisfaction and offer support, while others concentrate on boosting sales, increasing lead generation, and acquiring new customers.

Regardless, call centers play an integral role in creating a great customer experience (CX), so they must maintain a high level of service at all times to nurture relationships. This means call center representatives need to be knowledgeable, patient, and helpful when interacting with customers.

How do contact centers and call centers differ?

The main difference between a call center and a contact center lies in the communication channels they handle. While traditional call centers tend to specialize in phone calls, contact centers embrace a wider range of communication channels.

In addition to phone calls, they can manage emails, text messages, social media interactions, and even web chats. This approach caters to the evolving customer preference for contacting businesses through their preferred methods.

Overview of how call centers work

Here’s a brief overview of the fundamental call center process.

  1. The customer makes a call: The interaction begins once a customer calls your business. They can make a call directly to the call center or through a connected app or product.
  2. The customer interacts with an IVR system: After contacting the call center, an interactive voice response (IVR) system prompts them with a menu of options. Then, it instructs them to make a selection using their voice or their phone’s touch-tone pad.
  3. The call center software routes the caller to the right agent: Once the customer gets routed to the right agent, the software provides the rep with customer context. This includes who is calling and any relevant information that may help them solve the problem faster.
  4. The customer service agent resolves the issue: Next, the rep addresses the request or issue. Throughout the interaction, reps should follow call center etiquette and communicate in a way that makes customers feel valued.
  5. The customer service agent records the interaction and follows up: If a rep can’t solve a problem in one call, they must follow up with more information. If they resolve the issue during the first call, the support agent should follow up with a customer survey. The agent can also ensure that they store the call information in their customer service solution for future reference.

Ultimately, your call center software and internal requirements will determine your business’s process. Successful call centers enhance their operations by integrating advanced features such as AI and self-service options.

Benefits of call centers

A laptop and flower vase sit beside a stat about using digital channels for first contact and the phone for complex issues.

Call centers equip businesses to tackle high-stakes customer issues more effectively. These centers provide a dedicated space with trained agents who can delve deeper into complex problems. In fact, 71 percent of organizations are using digital channels primarily for first contact and the phone as the primary channel for resolving complex customer issues or escalations, according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2024.

Despite customers preferring to use digital channels for faster solutions, they still expect voice options when they require tailored support. By facilitating live conversations, call centers allow agents to build rapport, gather details, and tailor solutions that can resolve these significant concerns, ultimately leading to increased customer loyalty and satisfaction.

Types of call centers

Modern call centers address a variety of company and customer needs:

  • Inbound call centers field incoming calls. Agents at this type of call center usually handle many different services, including customer questions, problems, payments, and renewals.
  • Outbound call centers have agents reach out to prospective and existing customers. Outbound call centers differ from inbound by primarily being used for sales, telemarketing, fundraising, and market research.
  • AI call centers use intelligent technology to optimize agent workflows, deflect calls, and cut operational costs.
  • Virtual call centers are cloud-based operations that run in remote locations, giving employees the flexibility to work from anywhere. Instead of landlines, customer service reps typically use call center software that gives them access to cloud messaging, email, and calling.
  • Omnichannel call centers connect interactions across multiple channels, including voice, email, social media, live chat, and SMS. Customer context moves with the customer from channel to channel so that agents can personalize requests without making the customer repeat information.

While some call centers may only qualify as one of the above types, many call centers have evolved to encompass a mix of these capabilities.

Call center team roles and necessary skills

People who want to work at a call center have several roles to choose from. Call centers hire agents and managers in addition to personnel for quality assurance (QA), training, and workforce management. Learn more about the different roles needed to operate a call center team.

Four icons represent call center team members, including agents, managers, tech support, and specialists.
  • Call center agent: A call center agent is an entry-level role that often doesn’t require prior customer service experience but demands a certain mindset and skill set. Agents should be adept at multitasking, have good communication skills, and be empathetic.
  • Call center manager: Managers have multiple years of experience in customer service. They must use their leadership skills and call center workforce management to keep agents engaged, trained, and performing well. Managers also step in to help with more complex problems and de-escalations.
  • Technical support specialist: IT and tech support agents help customers troubleshoot problems and resolve other service or product-related issues. In addition to problem-solving skills, tech support agents must be well-versed in different software applications.
  • Quality assurance analyst: QA analysts monitor and evaluate the quality of calls and other customer interactions. Their goal is to ensure that all customer service meets the company’s quality standards. They provide feedback to agents and help develop training programs to improve service delivery.

Learning as many call center skills as possible can help you become a more effective call center representative and advance your career.

Supercharge your call center’s performance

Watch a quick demo to see the Zendesk integrated voice solution in action.

Common call center technology

Beyond basic equipment—a headset, computer, and internet connection—you’ll need call center software to manage your large volumes of calls. This software typically includes the following tools:

  • Interactive voice response (IVR): This automated phone menu uses pre-recorded messages, touch-tone options, and voice recognition to direct callers to the right department or agent. It even helps customers complete simple tasks without needing a live person.
  • Customer profiles: Customer profiles provide agents with a complete view of a customer’s history and interactions across the buyer’s journey, such as their contact information, purchase preferences, past support conversations, and more. Be sure your agents have the context they need to provide the best possible customer experience.
  • AI: AI can assist call center operations by detecting customer sentiment, transcribing calls, and intelligently routing calls to agents with the best skills or availability. AI agents, sometimes referred to as advanced chatbots, can also deflect calls to make support volume easier to manage.
  • Workforce engagement solutions: Managers use workforce management systems to monitor agent activity in real time, track contact volume and capacity, predict future coverage needs, and create schedules. This software can integrate with the central dashboard or be standalone. Meanwhile, QA software can help you review phone conversations and give you insight into your support performance.
  • Self-service options: Knowledge bases, community forums, AI chatbots, and other help center tools help customers help themselves. When customers can solve basic problems on their own, agents and managers can focus on helping other callers with more complex or urgent needs.

Call center technology can be paired with your existing tools to extend its capabilities and connect your operations.

Call center industry examples

Industries handling complex customer inquiries will often provide phone support. Here’s how call centers play a crucial role across various sectors:

  • Healthcare: In healthcare, call centers facilitate patient interactions, allowing them to schedule, modify, or confirm appointments, inquire about services and request prescription refills.
  • Finance: In the financial sector, call centers serve as a vital resource for customers seeking assistance with potential fraudulent charges, exploring loan options, or obtaining financial advice.
  • Telecommunications: Call centers in the telecommunications industry play a crucial role in managing customer relationships. They assist with service setup, troubleshooting, billing inquiries, and upgrading or changing service plans. These centers are vital for addressing customer needs quickly and efficiently, maintaining high levels of customer satisfaction in a highly competitive market.

These examples demonstrate the widespread application of call centers in enhancing customer service and operational efficiency across diverse markets.

How to measure call center success

Evaluating a call center’s success goes beyond just the number of calls handled. It’s about achieving a balance between efficiency and customer satisfaction.

Efficiency metrics focus on how well the call center manages call flow and utilizes resources. Important key performance indicators (KPIs) here include:

  • Average handle time (AHT) measures how long agents speak to customers on average.
  • First call resolution (FCR) indicates the percentage of issues resolved on the initial call.
  • Call abandonment rate measures the number of callers who hang up before speaking to an agent, highlighting potential issues with wait times or ineffective self-service options.

Customer satisfaction metrics gauge how happy customers are with their call center experience. Important KPIs include:

By tracking these call center metrics over time, call centers can identify areas for improvement and ensure they’re delivering a positive customer experience.

Give your customers the best call center support

While many customers prefer digital channels, call centers still have important applications for certain industries. With careful planning, the right technology, and a focus on building a talented team, you can start a call center that provides exceptional customer service and contributes to the success of your business.

Zendesk offers AI-powered voice technology designed for the customer experience. It’s easy to use, fast to set up, and cost effective.

See how Zendesk can enhance your phone support operations.

Net Promoter, Net Promoter Score, and NPS are trademarks of NICE Satmetrix, Inc., Bain & Company, Inc., and Fred Reichheld.

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