How to start a call center and scale your customer service team

How to Start a Call Center From Scratch: Your Guide to Scaling a Wildly Successful Customer Service Team

If you’re wondering how to start a call center, chances are, what you’re really looking for is an action plan to scale your customer service team. 

You see, modern call centers don’t have to look like the inundated image we’re all too familiar with. You know the one: agents packed in gray cubicles with headsets glued to their ears from 8-5, hating their jobs, delivering bad service.  

Sure, plenty of organizations still opt for cubicle-lined offices where the call center lives separately from much of the business. But others use the technology, business plans, and efficiencies learned through operating call centers to scale modern customer service teams. 

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You can scale up from 15 agents to 30 and not consider your service organization a “call center” but still need the reporting, routing, leadership and training that’s typical in call centers. 

So when I say “How to start a call center from scratch,” I’m not funneling you down a path that doesn’t meet your needs. What I’m really addressing is how any company can scale quality customer service and deliver positive business outcomes. 

Let’s dive in and tackle how to start a call center, distilled down to 6 steps for growing wildly successful service teams. 

Step 1: Identify the business need 

Ask yourself: why do I need to scale my service team and start a call center? 

As your company grows and more customers come aboard, it means more issues pop up for your customers, too. Eventually, you’ll reach the milestone where customer needs overburden your current service teams. 

For some, the solution might be hiring one or two more agents. But when companies live in scale-up mode, it might mean re-evaluating current service models and team structures entirely. So, as you look to grow your department and start a call center, identify the “why” behind your decision. 

Here are five example business needs to make you rethink your current service model:

  1. I need to improve customer service levels and offer 24/7 service for my customers.
  2. My current service reps are overwhelmed, so I need to support them and lighten their workload. 
  3. I need to reduce customer complaints and my customers’ overall satisfaction.
  4. My customers churn at a high rate, so I need to offer better support to retain them.
  5. I need to build efficiency into my customer service operations without sacrificing service quality. 

Name the core problems you’re facing with your customer service team and your customer experience. From there, you’ll ID your most pressing business needs and those needs will dictate the long-term goals of scaling your service team (the “why” behind starting a call center). 

Step 2: Choose your leaders

Once you’ve named your business needs and decided to start a call center or scale your service org, it’s time to tap the right leaders. 

Decide what your organizational structure looks like for your newly-scaled service team. Will you have managers and supervisors? What about trainers and WFM managers? Turn to your budget and HR to determine if there’s room to hire new folks, or if you want current team members to own the new roles.

A sample call center org chart to inform your hiring

And, after you establish key leadership roles, address ownership. What do the responsibilities of each role look like? Think about the tasks and job responsibilities that make a call center and service team successful. Then, draw distinct lines between roles, so every leader knows the part they play in the team’s success. 

Think through who will own core responsibilities like: 

  • Creating agent schedules 
  • Reporting on call center metrics 
  • Regular agent coaching and training 
  • Hiring and onboarding new agents
  • Handling escalations 
  • Performance reviews

Choosing leaders up front helps you collaborate and delineate responsibilities, so every employee can stay aligned on the right expectations.

[Read Next] How to implement 2021 call center trends

Step 3. Make a list of requirements and create a budget

Creating a sound budget as you scale your service team is a necessary evil. It gives you operating bounds, so you know your limits. 

Your budget will dictate if you can hire new agents in a physical location, or if you’ll need to opt for a virtual call center, so you save money on new infrastructure and desk space. It will determine how many new agents you can hire and what technology you can afford, too. Keep in mind, most call centers typically spend 60-70% of their budgets on FTE costs, covering wages and salaries for employees.

With those costs set aside, decide what else are “must-haves” in your call center. Do you need omnichannel technology to support all the different ways your customers communicate? Do you need softphones and cloud platforms for work from home agents? What about laptops and desktops for your team members? 

With input from leaders, make a checklist of requirements based on the business needs you IDed in step one. What’s non-negotiable to reach the goals you addressed upfront in your business proposal? Start there. 

Step 4: Hire and train your agents

First up, hiring: 

Create the criteria for what makes a good agent. Is it years of experience or a go-getter attitude? Do your employees need to understand and cheer for your brand, or do they need to be highly efficient and organized? Examine your current approach to hiring to get a pulse for what’s working and what’s not. 

American Express re-evaluated its hiring process and transformed its call center experience (for employees and for customers). Rather than hiring for years of experience, American Express expanded its talent pool. Seeking employees who valued building relationships and who had the soft skills to empathize with customers. Changing up their approach improved service levels by 10% and improved CSAT, too. 

“Since we began our new approach to hiring, we’ve seen substantial improvements in customer satisfaction and the percentage of customers who say they would recommend American Express to a friend — key metrics we measure ourselves against.”

– Jim Bush, Former Executive VP of World Services, American Express 

Next, think through how many agents you need to hire to meet your projected service levels. Starting with fewer agents and getting the experience right, then scaling up as your team fully ramps is the safe approach. It ensures your customers will get quality service from the most-qualified candidates.

Next up, onboarding and training: 

As you start to bring on new agents, nail down an onboarding strategy to get agents up to speed on how to help customers. Decide how much time you’ll dedicate to upfront training, what team members will own agent training, and what kind of documentation you need to support your efforts. 

Think through how long it will take agents to ramp up and reach peak productivity, what scripts you’ll need on hand, and what the training cadence will look like for your agents after onboarding ends. Strong onboarding gives your new call center agents the resources they need to get comfortable helping customers from day one. And, continued training for seasoned employees ensures your agents stay fresh and engaged with every customer conversation.

Step 5: Align your people and your processes 

Your processes define how your agents complete tasks, from how they clock in to how many warnings they get before a pink slip. As you learn how to start a call center, defining your processes needs to take a front seat on your priority list. 

Managing a successful customer service team requires that: 

  1. You have defined processes to help your agents reach contact center goals. 
  2. You document those processes as a reference point for your team. 

The processes you choose should always link back up to your larger business and call center goals, and they should act as guardrails, not roadblocks, for agents. During this phase of starting a call center and scaling your service team, you’ll decide what metrics to measure, how often you’ll report against benchmark KPIs, what pieces of the customer journey you’ll automate and even what scheduling looks like for your team. 

Document the essentials that your agents and leaders need to know to be successful and meet expectations. 

[Read Next] Example processes to define in your call center

Once you define your processes, align your people (starting with your leaders) to your processes and larger goals. Turns out, 33% of employees in the U.S. quit their new roles within 90 days of starting. And, 43% of them leave because their expectations don’t align with the realities of the role. 

Step 6: Choose technology to support your call center

What does your ideal customer journey look like for your new call center, and what technology do you need to help you execute on that journey? Do you need a call center platform to route and handle your interactions, a ticketing system to manage and track customer requests, and a knowledge base to help your agents? 

Make a checklist of the current platforms you use to support your customer service team, and ask yourself a few key questions to evaluate your tech. 

Start with these 5 questions: 

  • Do you have the technology you need to keep up with the new behaviors of modern customers?
  • As you scale your service team, can your technology scale with you? 
  • Do you have partnerships with vendors who support you as your business needs change? 
  • Do you have technology that makes customer data accessible to your service team? 
  • Can you make easy updates to your technology, like changing a call route, without waiting 2+ weeks for IT?

Then, loop in your current service employees and ask them what they struggle with (and what they love) about their experience at work.

Here are a few questions to ask customer service agents: 

  • Do you have access to the customer information you need?
  • How many windows do you have to use to handle each interaction?
  • Can you easily transfer calls if you need to escalate?
  • Can you switch communication channels mid-interaction without disconnecting the customer?
  • How can we improve your training and coaching?

When reviewing your tools, your agents’ opinion is arguably the most important. Dig into what’s in their way and see how you can position your tools (current or future) to help. 

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