Feb 23, 2011

[Call Centers] Two Major Career Paths - Operations or Support

The call center outsourcing has grown significantly in recent years, especially here in the Philippines. Whether you want to attribute this the advancement of globalization or a drive to reduce costs as much as possible in all industries, it's clear that the industry is here to stay.


Flickr: [2]rokbot[2]y - DSC01741
DSC01741
by Marvin Maning / [2]rokbot[2]y via Flickr.


While a lot of people don't look too highly upon the call center industry as a feasible job opportunity, those of us who have crossed the threshold and realized there's a lot more to life in the industry than the stories that tend to circulate amongst parents concerned about their kids or whatever you see on sitcoms like Outsourced. It's quite the thriving industry now that's changed lot about how things work including the advent of more 24/7 businesses especially in the fast food arena and other improvements to nighttime safety and public transportation.

I've often remarked that the goal of every call center agent is to stop taking calls, as ironic as that sounds. But it's true in the general sense that everyone wants to move up and really make a name for themselves, career-wise. And the call center world is still a corporate environment with the added benefit of foreign sensibilities when it comes to organization structures and hierarchy flows, which means a number of career options for your average telephone monkey, as a friend of mine likes to refer to himself.

A very large collections call centre in Lakela...Image via WikipediaI've been working in the call center industry for almost eight years now and in this period of time I've worn a lot of hats, to be a little metaphorical about things. I've been on both sides of the proverbial call center fence - that being the line between Support and Operations related functions, and that's probably why people have often come to me for career advice. While I'm not necessarily claiming to be an expert, I'd like to think that I have enough experience to provide a generally well-informed opinion on the subject and hence the reason for this post.

So as you consider a career in the industry or perhaps consider your next move for those of you already on the phones, here are a few things to remember or at the very least consider.


Operations


Most people enter the call center world as agents and this pretty much opens the door to nearly all other career options within the company. It's not often that I've seen people from outside the industry enter a call center company first as members of the Support Team them enter at management-level positions in Operations. There are just some things that are best learned "on the ground" as it were and thus the benefit of trying it out for yourself.


Flickr: TruckPR - PACCAR Parts-CustomerCenterSpecialist
PACCAR Parts-CustomerCenterSpecialist
by Stephen Petit / TruckPR via Flickr.


If your primary goal is compensation, that you really can't go wrong with Operations. Almost all call center benefits are aligned in favor of the Operations group including higher night differential rates above the government-mandated 10%, attendance bonuses and performance incentive bonuses / commissions. It makes sense since it's the Operations group that really drives revenue for the company and thus they should get the lion's share of compensation. Of course, the benefits are largely in the form of added benefits to variable income and not necessarily your base pay, thus the potential for high gross returns but not quite as much stability as you remain closer to the frontline agent level. As you get promoted, your base pay will increase but your variable benefits tend to go away, especially once you hit supervisory levels.

Many complain about how stressful the Operations world is, but then any job is that way. It just feels "more" stressful since it's a lot easier to define numeric goals / metrics for you to aim for in terms of CSAT scores, sales number and hours spent active on the phone. But that at least means your amount of effort results in a generally similar amount of increase in your performance-related pay, depending on how your commission structure is designed in your company.


Flickr: BP America - Tammy Davenport at the Houston Call Center
Tammy Davenport at the Houston Call Center
by BP America via Flickr.


The long term potential for the Operations track in terms of career is pretty diverse. Apart from the option to shift to support, agents can make their way up the ranks as SMEs, team leaders, group / shift managers, operations managers and ultimately directors. there's also the slight tangent path that leads to client services / relationship management that has a lot of the Operations mindset in a somewhat support role.

Keys to success in Operations are definitely going to be your interpersonal skills since you will be managing increasing numbers of people as you move up the ranks. Invest in books that give tips on coaching and people development and work on different strategies in terms of dealing with different types of people. As much as your numbers mean your success, your numbers are handled by an different group of people entirely once you move up, hence the burden to work on your people skills. Don't expect people to follow you the moment you get a supervisory title - respect is always earned and this means a lot of personal growth on your part.

It's an exciting world that rewards performance above all else. So don't expect to get promoted just because you've been at the company for X amount of time. Instead, review your performance numbers and if you haven't been hitting most if not all of your metrics, then don't expect to go far. So no, it's not politics holding you back but more realistically you.



Support


While my fellows in Support departments such as myself might argue against my grouping all these different groups under a single banner, there's a point to this description. Support groups, whether we want to admit it or not, are typically viewed as cost centers. Roles such as Quality Assurance, Workforce Management and Training are essential functions that don't generate additional revenue for the company. While some services become billable to the client (depending on the negotiated contract), these would only help the company break even at best.

Thus compensation in support teams tends to be only slightly higher compared to the gross pay of their Operations counterparts with little to no variable income. Any additional benefits such as night differential are set to their government mandated minimums or more people in related positions get tagged as being "supervisory" in level in order to drop those benefits entirely.

A lot of the support roles provide stability in terms of your daily workload and hours and very little volatility. Good examples of this include quality analysts who perform the same reports daily or workforce analysts who either watch the call queues or generate schedules regularly. Support functions tend to reward people who like doing the same thing every day and aren't overly upset over the lack of variable income. If you are the kind of support person who whines about his pay all the time, then maybe you're in the wrong job. It's easier to cut away support numbers in order to meet budget goals compared to revenue-generating agents and Operations folks.


Flickr: irisgodd3ss - Relic of a Past Life in Lomo 2
Relic of a Past Life in Lomo 2
by Iris Young / irisgodd3ss via Flickr.


In my experience, Support functions get a lot more budget scrutiny compared to their Operations counterparts. Hiring ratios are always been checked and re-calculated and retrenchments or department restructuring is fairly common in an effort to ensure that the numbers are aligned right. And every time there's a measured ramp up or ramp down in Operations, it directly affects the Support headcount numbers.

Additional compensation is always a bit more difficult to negotiate in these departments since executives have a harder time to understand the precise value these people provide, especially when robust quantitative scorecards have not been developed. As long as you cannot explain your performance in a manner that is similar to what Operations can do, then don't expect money to come pouring down your way.


Flickr: noodlepie - Media training room at SAE Institute in Amman, Jordan
Media training room at SAE Institute in Amman, Jordan
by Graham Holliday / noodlepie by Flickr.


Thus motivation in such positions relies a lot more on job fulfillment rather than compensation. If you really have a passion for training or providing feedback via QA, then that's a great thing. If you just want to move to support to get off the phones while not sacrificing pay, then I doubt you'll survive in the field for long.

The key to getting into Support functions is definitely more technical skills that you can bring to the table. Average to advance knowledge of MS Office and equivalent programs is a must if you hope to stand a chance of breaking in. Invest in training or at the very least books related to the skills of your ideal department. This can include public speaking for trainers, statistical analysis for QA practioners and background in psychology and the local labor code for HR professionals. Don't just tell the interviewer that this is your life's dream and just promise that you're a fast learner. That totally won't get you anywhere.

In my opinion, there is no "ideal" career to explore in the call center industry - that's something you have to decide for yourself as an individual. In my time with the company, I've been an agent, a QA analyst, a team leader, a training supervisor, a training manager, an audit & compliance manager and now a marketing manager. It's been a wild ride and I have to admit that I've appreciated everything I've learned along the way. With luck and a lot of hard work, I hope you too get to achieve your personal development goals and figure out which track works for you. I hope this little article helped give you a better idea of what you're getting into and ultimately provided a basic framework for getting to where you want to go.
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2 comments:

M.T. said...

Nice post

rOckY said...

Glad you enjoyed it, Marl! I feel there are too many people who don't really think about their career options in the industry.

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