Call centre

A call centre (British English, Canadian English) or call center (American English; see spelling differences) is a centralised office used for receiving or transmitting a large volume of enquiries by telephone. An inbound call center is operated by a company to administer incoming product or service support or information enquiries from consumers. Outbound call centers are operated for telemarketing, for solicitation of charitable or political donations, debt collection, market research, emergency notifications, and urgent/critical needs blood banks. A contact center, further extension to call centers administers centralized handling of individual communications, including letters, faxes, live support software, social media, instant message, and e-mail.[1]

A call center has an open workspace for call centre agents, with work stations that include a computer and display for each agent, a telephone set/headset connected to a telecom switch or to an inbound/outbound call management system, and one or more supervisor stations. It can be independently operated or networked with additional centres, often linked to a corporate computer network, including mainframes, microcomputer/servers and LANs. Increasingly, the voice and data pathways into the centre are linked through a set of new technologies called computer telephony integration.

The contact centre is a central point from which all customer contacts are managed. Through contact centres, valuable information about company are routed to appropriate people, contacts to be tracked and data to be gathered. It is generally a part of company's customer relationship management infrastructure. The majority of large companies use contact centres as a means of managing their customer interactions. These centres can be operated by either an in house department responsible or outsourcing customer interaction to a third party agency (known as Outsourcing Call Centres).


The origins of call centres dates back to the 1960s with the UK-based Birmingham Press and Mail, which installed Private Automated Business Exchanges (PABX) to have rows of agents handling customer contacts.[2][3] By 1973, call centres received mainstream attention after Rockwell International patented its Galaxy Automatic Call Distributor (GACD) for a telephone booking system as well as the popularization of telephone headsets as seen on televised NASA Mission Control Center events.[4][5]

During the late 1970s, call centre technology expanded to include telephone sales, airline reservations and banking systems. The term "call centre" was first published and recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1983. The 1980s experienced the development of toll-free telephone numbers to increase the efficiency of agents and overall call volume. Call centres increased with the deregulation of long-distance calling and growth in information dependent industries.[6]

As call centres expanded, unionisation occurred in North America to gain members[7] including the Communications Workers of America[8] and the United Steelworkers. In Australia, the National Union of Workers represents unionised workers; their activities form part of the Australian labour movement.[9] In Europe, Uni Global Union of Switzerland is involved in assisting unionisation in this realm[10] and in Germany Vereinte Dienstleistungsgewerkschaft represents call centre workers.

During the 1990s, call centres expanded internationally and developed into two additional subsets of communication, contact centres and outsourced bureau centres. A contact centre is defined as a coordinated system of people, processes, technologies and strategies that provides access to information, resources, and expertise, through appropriate channels of communication, enabling interactions that create value for the customer and organisation.[11][12] In contrast to in-house management, outsourced bureau contact centres are a model of contact centre that provide services on a "pay per use" model. The overheads of the contact centre are shared by many clients, thereby supporting a very cost effective model, especially for low volumes of calls. The modern contact center includes automated call blending of inbound and outbound calls as well as predictive dialing capabilities dramatically increasing agents productivity. Latest implementations with more complex systems, require highly skilled operational and management staff that can use multichannel online and offline tools to improve customer interactions.[13][14][15]


A typical call centre telephone. Note: no handset; phone is for headset use only
Call-centre technology circa 2005

Call centre technologies include: "Caller ID" (US Patent: 4,797,911, Claim 42 - Customer Account Online Servicing) a method that instantly displays caller's identity including customer information (assuming their phone number was present in the database) and speech recognition software which allowed Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems to handle first levels of customer support, text mining, natural language processing to allow better customer handling, agent training via interactive scripting and automatic mining using best practices from past interactions, support automation and many other technologies to improve agent productivity and customer satisfaction. Automatic lead selection or lead steering is also intended to improve efficiencies,[16] both for inbound and outbound campaigns. This allows inbound calls to be directly routed to the appropriate agent for the task, whilst minimising wait times and long lists of irrelevant options for people calling in. Outbound Predictive Dialing introduced in mid 80's (US Patents: 4,797, 911 - Customer account online servicing system,[17] revolutionized call center industry. Agents no longer waste time looking up and dialing customers, listening to; busy, no answer, disconnected number, answering machines type conditions. Agents only speak with customers who answered their phones (US Patent: 4,540,855 - Detecting signals within a passband on a telephone line). By deploying outbound predictive dialing, agent productivity has tripled, i.e., a single agent can perform the work of three.

For outbound calls, lead selection allows management to designate what type of leads go to which agent based on factors including skill, socioeconomic factors, past performance, and percentage likelihood of closing a sale per lead.

By the late 1970s and early 1980s, call centres deployed PABX and or ACD phone systems with designated agents handling either incoming or outgoing calls. Many agents handling incoming calls would sit idle awaiting calls. In late 1980 'Call Blending' technology was introduced to enable designated agents to handle both inbound and outbound calls, thus eliminating agent idle time (US Patent: 5,214,688 - Method and apparatus for dynamic and interdependent processing of inbound calls and outbound calls.)[18]

The universal queue standardises the processing of communications across multiple technologies such as fax, phone, and email. The virtual queue provides callers with an alternative to waiting on hold when no agents are available to handle inbound call demand.

Premises-based technology

Historically, call centres have been built on Private branch exchange (PBX) equipment that is owned, hosted, and maintained by the call centre operator. The PBX can provide functions such as automatic call distribution, interactive voice response, and skills-based routing.

Virtual call centre

In a virtual call centre model, the call centre operator (business) pays a monthly or annual fee to a vendor that hosts the call centre telephony and data equipment in their own facility - Cloud based. In this model, the operator does not own, operate or host the equipment on which the call centre runs. Agents connect to the vendor's equipment through traditional PSTN telephone lines, or over voice over IP. Calls to and from prospects or contacts originate from or terminate at the vendor's data centre, rather than at the call centre operator's premises. The vendor's telephony equipment (at times data servers) then connects the calls to the call centre operator's agents.[19]

Virtual call centre technology allows people to work from home or any other location instead of in a traditional, centralised, call centre location, which increasingly allows people 'on the go' or with physical or other disabilities to work from desired locations - i.e. not leaving their house. The only required equipment is Internet access and a workstation.[20] The companies are preferring Virtual Call Centre services due to cost advantage. Companies can start their call centre business immediately without installing the basic infrastructure like Dialer, ACD and IVRS.[21]

Cloud computing

Through the use of application programming interfaces (APIs), hosted and on-demand call centres that are built on cloud-based software as a service (SaaS) platforms can integrate their functionality with cloud-based applications for customer relationship management (CRM), lead management and more.

Developers use APIs to enhance cloud-based call center platform functionality—including Computer telephony integration (CTI) APIs which provide basic telephony controls and sophisticated call handling from a separate application, and configuration APIs which enable graphical user interface (GUI) controls of administrative functions.


Outsourced call centres are often located in developing countries, where wages are significantly lower. These include the call centre industries in the Philippines, Bangladesh, and India.

Companies that regularly utilise outsourced contact centre services include British Sky Broadcasting and Orange[22] in the telecommunications industry, Adidas in the sports and leisure sector,[23] Audi in car manufacturing[24] and charities such as the RSPCA.



The healthcare industry has used outbound call centre programmes for years to help manage billing, collections, and patient communication.[25] The inbound call centre is a new and increasingly popular service for many types of healthcare facilities, including large hospitals. Inbound call centres can be outsourced or managed in-house.

These healthcare call centres are designed to help streamline communications, enhance patient retention and satisfaction, reduce expenses and improve operational efficiencies.


Many large hospitality companies such as the Hilton Hotels Corporation and Marriott International make use of call centres to manage reservations. These are known in the industry as "central reservations offices". Staff members at these call centres take calls from clients wishing to make reservations or other inquiries via a public number, usually a 1-800 number. These centres may operate as many as 24 hours per day, seven days a week, depending on the call volume the chain receives.[26]


Mathematical theory

Queueing theory is a branch of mathematics in which models of service systems have been developed. A call centre can be seen as a queueing network and results from queueing theory such as the probability an arriving customer needs to wait before starting service useful for provisioning capacity.[27] (Erlang's C formula is such a result for an M/M/c queue and approximations exist for an M/G/k queue.) Statistical analysis of call centre data has suggested arrivals are governed by an inhomogeneous Poisson process and jobs have a log-normal service time distribution.[28] Simulation algorithms are increasingly being used to model call arrival, queueing and service levels.[29]

Call centre operations have been supported by mathematical models beyond queueing, with operations research, which considers a wide range of optimisation problems seeking to reduce waiting times while keeping server utilisation and therefore efficiency high.[30]


Call centres have received criticism for low pay rates and restrictive working practices for employees, which have been deemed as a dehumanising environment.[31][32][33] Other research illustrates how call centre workers develop ways to counter or resist this environment by integrating local cultural sensibilities or embracing a vision of a new life.[34] Most call centres provide electronic reports that outline performance metrics, quarterly highlights and other information about the calls made and received. This has the benefit[35] of helping the company to plan the workload and time of its employees. However, it has also been argued that such close monitoring breaches the human right to privacy.[36]

Complaints are often logged by callers who find the staff do not have enough skill or authority to resolve problems,[37] as well as appearing apathetic.[38] These concerns are due to a business process that exhibits levels of variability because the experience a customer gets and results a company achieves on a given call are dependent upon the quality of the agent.[39] Call centres are beginning to address this by using agent-assisted automation to standardise the process all agents use.[40][41][42] However, more popular alternatives are using personality and skill based approaches.[43][44] The various challenges encountered by call operators are discussed by several authors.[45][46][47][48][49]

Media portrayals

Indian call centres have been the focus of several documentary films, the 2004 film Thomas L. Friedman Reporting: The Other Side of Outsourcing, the 2005 films John and Jane, Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night, and 1-800-India: Importing a White-Collar Economy, and the 2006 film Bombay Calling, among others.[50] An Indian call centre is also the subject of the 2006 film Outsourced and a key location in the 2008 film, Slumdog Millionaire. The 2014 BBC fly on the wall documentary series The Call Centre gave an often distorted although humorous view of life in a Welsh call centre.[51]

See also


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  2. Science and invention in Birmingham#cite note-45
  3. "The history of the call centre". Call Centre Helper Magazine. 19 January 2011. Retrieved 29 November 2014.
  4. Smith, Ernie (5 August 2016). "The History of the Call Center Explains How Customer Service Got So Annoying".
  5. "The History of Call Centers Timeline".
  6. Butler, David L. Bottom-Line Call Center Management. Butterworth-Heinemann.
  7. Kumar, Pradeep; Schenk, Christopher Robert (2006). Paths to Union Renewal. Broadview Press. ISBN 1-55193-058-7.
  8. "Improving Call Center Jobs a Top Priority for CWA Customer Service". Communication Workers of America. Retrieved 2011-02-23.
  9. "Call Centre Union Busters Get Wake-Up Call". Workers Online. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
  10. "Uni Global Union's call centre organising campaigns". Uni Global Union. Archived from the original on 2008-06-15. Retrieved 2008-07-08.
  11. Cleveland, Brad, "Call Center Management on Fast Forward (Third Edition)", ICMI Press, 2012
  12. "Cactus Search - List of Call Centre Management Roles We Recruit". Cactus Search. Archived from the original on 2014-11-29.
  13. Viswanathan, Ravi; Sandell, Scott (21 June 2016). "Reinventing customer service: the modern contact center".
  14. Staff (2016). "Contact Center Modernization".
  15. Bernier, Paula (3 August 2012). "The History and Advancement of the Contact Center and the Customer Experience".
  16. "US Patent 7035699 - Qualified and targeted lead selection and delivery system". Patent Storm. 2006-04-25. Archived from the original on 2009-01-25. Retrieved 2008-05-29.
  17. United States Patent: 4797911 - Customer account online servicing system, retrieved 2019-04-24
  18. United States Patent: 5214688 - Method and apparatus for dynamic and interdependent processing of inbound calls and outbound calls, retrieved 2019-04-24
  19. M. Popovic and V. Kovacevic. "An Approach to Internet-Based Virtual Call Center Implementation". University of Novi Sad, Yugoslavia.
  20. David S. Joachim. "Computer Technology Opens a World of Work to Disabled People". New York Times.
  21. Kumar, Harish (2016). "Hosted Contact / Call Center Services in Indian Telecommunications Licensing and Regulation". Researchgate: 6. doi:10.13140/RG.2.1.2931.9445.
  22. "Orange currently outsources work to Indian units of Convergys Corp". The Wall Street Journal.
  23. "adidas setup a dedicated customer care centre". Adidas.
  24. "Audi chose Confero as an outsourced contact centre". Confero.
  25. "Billing and Collections". Modern Healthcare.
  26. Kasavana, Michael L.; Brooks, Richard M. (1998). Managing Front Office Operations. Educational Institute of the American Hotel & Motel Association. ISBN 9780866121798.
  27. Gans, N.; Koole, G.; Mandelbaum, A. (2003). "Telephone Call Centers: Tutorial, Review, and Research Prospects" (PDF). Manufacturing & Service Operations Management. 5 (2): 79–141. doi:10.1287/msom.
  28. Brown, L.; Gans, N.; Mandelbaum, A.; Sakov, A.; Shen, H.; Zeltyn, S.; Zhao, L. (2005). "Statistical Analysis of a Telephone Call Center" (PDF). Journal of the American Statistical Association. 100 (469): 36–50. doi:10.1198/016214504000001808.
  29. "A Primer On Two Call Center Staffing Methods for Call Center Workforce Management". Portage Communications. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
  30. Borst, S.; Mandelbaum, A.; Reiman, M. I. (2004). "Dimensioning Large Call Centers" (PDF). Operations Research. 52 (1): 17–34. doi:10.1287/opre.1030.0081. JSTOR 30036558.
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  32. "Hourly Rate Survey Report for Industry: Call Center". PayScale. Retrieved 2008-06-05.
  33. "Advice regarding call centre working practices" (PDF). Health and Safety Executive. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2009-02-20. Retrieved 2008-06-05.
  34. Pal, Mahuya; Buzzanell, Patrice (2013). "Breaking the Myth of Indian Call Centers: A Postcolonial Analysis of Resistance". Communication Monographs. 80 (2): 199–219. doi:10.1080/03637751.2013.776172.
  35. "The Call Center Answer Team reaches out to the industry for to crack a tough nut". Q&A: How Many Calls Should I Monitor. 2003-07-30. Retrieved 2008-06-05.
  36. "Who's on the Line? Women in Call Centres Project" (PDF). Atlantic Centre of Excellence for Women's Health. Health Canada. Retrieved 2008-06-05.
  37. Shaw, Russell (2006-01-30). "Tone-deaf to customer complaints, Dell opens yet another call center in India". ZDNet. Retrieved 2008-06-05.
  38. Ahmed, Zubair (2006-02-22). "Abuse rattles Indian call centre staff". BBC News. Retrieved 2008-06-05.
  39. Fleming, J., Coffman, C., Harter, J. (2005) Manage Your Human Sigma, Harvard Business Review
  40. Paprzycki, Marcin; et al. (2004). Data Mining Approach for Analyzing Call Center Performance. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. 3029. Berlin: Springer. doi:10.1007/b97304. ISBN 978-3-540-22007-7.
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  42. Srinivasan, Raj; Talim, JéRome; Wang, Jinting; et al. (2004). "Performance analysis of a call center with interactive voice response units". TOP. Springer Berlin. 12 (1): 91–110. doi:10.1007/BF02578926.
  43. Skyrme, Pamela; et al. "Using personality to predict outbound call center job performance" (PDF). Retrieved 1 July 2008.
  44. Stolletz, Raik; Stefan Helber (2004). "Performance analysis of an inbound call center with skills-based routing". OR Spectrum. 26 (3): 331–352. doi:10.1007/s00291-004-0161-y.
  45. Witt, L. A.; et al. (2004). "When Conscientiousness Isn't Enough: Emotional Exhaustion and Performance Among Call Center Customer Service Representatives". Journal of Management. 30 (1): 149–160. doi:10.1016/
  46. Aguir, Salah; Karaesmen, Fikri; Aksin, O. Zeynep; Chauvet, Fabrice; et al. (2004). "The impact of retrials on call center performance" (PDF). OR Spectrum. 26 (3): 353–376. doi:10.1007/s00291-004-0165-7.
  47. Murthy, Nagesh N.; Challagalla, G. N.; Vincent, L. H.; Shervani, T. A.; et al. (2008). "The Impact of Simulation Training on Call Center Agent Performance: A Field-Based Investigation". Management Science. 54 (2): 384–399. doi:10.1287/mnsc.1070.0818.
  48. Armony, Mor; Itay Gurvich. "When promotions meet operations: cross-selling and its effect on call-center performance" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 24 January 2009. Retrieved 1 July 2008.
  49. Goldberg, L.S.; A.A. Grandey (2007). "Display rules versus display autonomy: emotion regulation, emotional exhaustion, and task performance in a call center simulation". J Occup Health Psychol. 12 (3): 301–18. doi:10.1037/1076-8998.12.3.301. PMID 17638495.
  50. Hudson, Dale (2009). "Undesirable Bodies and Desirable Labor: Documenting the Globalization and Digitization of Transnational American Dreams in Indian Call Centers". Cinema Journal. 49 (1): 82–102. doi:10.1353/cj.0.0164.
  51. 02:00 (2013-12-10). "BBC Three - The Call Centre, Series 1". Retrieved 2017-12-10.

Further reading

  • Cusack M., "Online Customer Care", American Society for Quality (ASQ) Press, 2000.
  • Cleveland B., "Call Center Management on Fast Forward", ICMI Press, 2006.
  • Kennedy I., Call centres, School of Electrical and Information Engineering, University of the Witwatersrand, 2003.
  • Masi D.M.B., Fischer M.J., Harris C.M., Numerical Analysis of Routing Rules for Call centres, Telecommunications Review, 1998,
  • HSE website Psychosocial risk factors in call centres: An evaluation of work design and well-being.
  • Reena Patel, Working the Night Shift: Women in India's Call Center Industry (Stanford University Press; 2010) 219 pages; traces changing views of "women's work" in India under globalization.
  • Fluss, Donna, "The Real-Time Contact centre", 2005 AMACOM
  • Wegge, J., van Dick, R., Fisher, G., Wecking, C., & Moltzen, K. (2006, January). Work motivation, organisational identification, and well-being in call centre work. Work & Stress, 20(1), 60-83.
  • Legros, B. (2016). Unintended consequences of optimizing a queue discipline for a service level defined by a percentile of the waiting time. Operations Research Letters, 44(6), 839-845.
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