How to start a call centre

If you're a hard worker with impeccable customer service skills, then setting up a call centre is a very accessible business opportunity - here's what you need to know about call center setup

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Setting up a call centre gives you the opportunity to join an industry with a huge range of work to choose from. Whether you want to help customers, generate sales, provide technical support, or conduct research or offer a combination of these, or something else entirely you'll be entering a broad and exciting sector where no two days (or calls) are the same.

Although it has experienced some decline in recent years, the UK call centre industry still has a market size of £3bn, according to data published by IbisWorld. And with over 900 businesses employing more than 67,000 people, it’s clearly an established sector.

But how do you find your niche and launch a new business in this naturally bustling industry? We’ll guide you through the key steps you need to take to start your own call centre, including practical advice that can help you get started straight away. We’ve also included an expert comment from an industry professional to offer you real-world insight.

Note that we’ll be focusing specifically on call centres in this guide, which only manage phone communication. This is in contrast to contact centres, which can include multiple forms of communication, such as phone calls, email, messaging, and more.

COVID-19 and call centres

While a floor full of agents might be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about a traditional call centre, having home-based agents is another option.

Even though this was the case before the pandemic hit, COVID-19 has only further highlighted the possibilities of remote working, with impacts likely to be felt in the industry for the long-term.

In fact, 35% of contact centre leaders thought their centres would be primarily home-based by 2021. 58% said they thought working from home would be in part voluntary, and in part mandatory.

What's more, 89% of contact centre leaders in the UK said the industry had been changed forever by the pandemic, according to research published by The HR Director.

Although this information relates to contact centres rather than call centres specifically, we expect call centres to also experience similar changes.

Types of call centre

The purpose of your call centre is a driving force in how it operates, influencing everything from how many agents to recruit (and the skills they’ll need) to how you'll measure performance, along with how you’ll generate income.

Outbound or inbound

Generally, your call centre will be handling either inbound or outbound calls.

Inbound call centre

An inbound call centre will predominantly handle calls that are initiated by the customer. These calls will usually be for the purposes of customer service.

As an inbound call centre can manage customer queries and technical support, as well as processing and dispatching orders, it works well for those who are focused on helping people, and are less concerned with seeing a strong connection between performance and income.

Outbound call centre

In an outbound call centre, the call centre agent or employee will make calls to a customer. This will typically be for the purposes of telemarketing, sales, surveys, or fundraising.

These calls could be cold calls (an unsolicited call to a potential client or customer who has not expressed an interest in your service), or warm calls (a call to someone whom you’ve had prior contact with and has expressed an interest in your service).

This type of call centre is ideal if you’ve worked in sales before, or are particularly motivated by setting and reaching commercial targets, as there’s often a particular focus on maximising operations to drive revenue.

Here, we highlight some examples of what an outbound call centre could do.

Pay per lead telemarketing

Pay per lead telemarketing is a form of affiliate marketing where a third party (the call centre) places calls to potential customers to generate leads for a client. A lead is just another name for a potential customer who has expressed an interest in the kinds of product or service you’re selling.

Whilst it can involve cold calling, most of the calls made in pay per lead telemarketing are warm leads, meaning the recipient is usually receptive to the call and a high number of calls are successful.

Outsourcing the lead generation stage can remove a lot of the hassle for smaller businesses who don’t have the time or resources to do it themselves.

Telemarketing appointment setting

Telemarketing appointment setting involves arranging for the team selling the product or service to meet with the client that is intending to buy that service.

This allows the team to demonstrate a complicated product to a potential customer in person, therefore increasing the chances of a sale.

This is often outsourced to a call centre to save time for the sales team. Find out more about small business telemarketing here.

Inbound and outbound

It’s also possible to handle both inbound and outbound calls, provided that you have the relevant capacity and staffing to do so.

Offering a combination of inbound and outbound services is particularly useful if you want to cater to all stages of a customer’s journey, and work with a wider range of clients.

In-person or virtual

Aside from the location, the key difference between in-person and virtual call centres is the type of phone system used.

Virtual call centres use the internet, and often cloud-based software, so that agents can call out and customers can call in. In contrast, in-person call centres can use hardware to perform these tasks. But which is the best option for you?

In-person call centres

ProsCons
Not reliant on the internet to make/answer calls

Often easier and quicker to relay information and conduct training with staff all in the same location

Managing tech updates and roll-outs can be more efficient
Phone hardware and office premises can be expensive

More limited talent pool for hiring

Operations are restricted to a certain timezone

Virtual call centres

ProsCons
Cheaper operating costs, e.g. no premises to pay for; only minimal technology required

Possibility of hiring staff from around theworld, providing the ability to work in multiple languages and timezones

Staff volumes can be increased or decreased more easily depending on business requirements
If your internet connection fails, it’s not possible to make/answer calls

Hiring internationally can be more complicated

Potential for internal communication delays

Note that it’s also possible to run your call centre with both in-person and virtual operations, with some staff located on site and others working remotely.

Remote call centre worker

How do call centres make money?

Different types of call centres generate revenue in different ways.

A call centre contracted to generate sales will make their money off commission from successful sales.

Alternatively, if your call centre is handling the customer service side of an organisation, your business and your agents may be paid by the minute, hour, or call when fielding any inbound calls.

As an outsourced call centre, you will usually agree with a client on a custom solution for services, before providing services for them.

Call centre costs and equipment

The type of call centre that you plan to launch will strongly influence your startup costs. Here, we give you a rough guide to the costs associated with each.

CostIn-personVirtual
Premises £35,000 per year/£6 - £9 per square foot, per year £0
Hard and software£2,600+ per year£36 - £218 per agent, per month for VoIP software (plus call costs)
Workstation setup£900+ per workstationVariable, depending on if/how much agents provide their own equipment

Around £20 per headset, per agent
Call centre agents£18,000 - £21,000 per agent, per yearVariable, depending on location
Operational charges £4 per square foot, per yearVariable depending on location, e.g. employers’ liability insurance for UK staff

Select equipment

There are a few key pieces of equipment that you’ll need to get your call centre started. These include:

  • Headsets – for each agent to make and answer calls
  • Telephone hardware/software – to be able to host phone call services, as well as to dial, route, and record calls, plus manage data and complete associated tasks
  • Computers/laptops – to support and use the hardware/software
  • Internet connection – a necessity for all call centres, but particularly those operating virtually that require internet-based calling systems
  • Workstations, e.g. ergonomic desks, chairs etc. – for the safety and comfort of your staff

Check out our guide to the best call centre phones and software for more detailed information.

While the above offers a general guide, the equipment that you’ll specifically need will depend largely on the type of call centre you want to run.

For example, high quality internet is essential for call centres that use cloud-based phone software to operate, whereas in-person call centres with hardware phone systems don’t need the internet for calling (but would still need it for daily business duties).

Even though it’s possible to find the potential systems yourself, why not let us do the hard work for you? To compare quotes for call centre phone systems based on your specific business requirements, use our quote comparison tool at the top of the page – it’s quick and easy!

Recruit staff

Agents

Candidates for this type of role should be great communicators who can quickly and easily talk with a range of people on the phone.

Agents also need to work through calls in order to meet targets. They must also be able to input information accurately, such as when updating customer details or transferring calls to other team members.

If you're unsure where to start, you can use an Erlang Calculator to help you find out how many agents your call centre will need.

Supervisors/team leaders

Depending on the size of your call centre, you may need roles that act as an intermediary between agents and more senior managers. This is where supervisors or team leaders can step in, demonstrating best practice for calls, as well as motivating and supporting agents to reach their goals and targets.

For these roles, you should hire staff who have previous call centre management experience. And since they’ll be interacting with a range of team members, strong people skills are especially important.

Managers

Managers are required to oversee the day-to-day operations of the call centre, as well as the actions of any supervisors or team leaders. This includes being responsible for achieving (and potentially even creating) the targets that the call centre works towards.

Other responsibilities include hiring staff, as well as possibly managing budgets and other resources, depending on the seniority of the role.

So, along with the necessary strong communication skills, managers should also possess some understanding of business operations. When hiring for this role, candidates with previous experience in managing supervisors in call centres are ideal.

Other roles

  • Analysts – roles that are dedicated to collecting and analysing call centre data and resources, including in terms of staffing requirements, quality levels, overall performance, and technological assistance
  • Trainer – provides training for agents, both when they’re new to the company and on an ad hoc basis
  • HR – whether it’s recruiting team members, helping with training, or ensuring employment documentation is correct, HR is a key part of running a call centre. Learn more with our ‘what is HR?’ guide

man in call centre

Craig Sample, call centre supervisor at MVF Global, says: “We make sure that everybody is trained correctly in the first place to have great conversations, and that they can access this information at any time should they need to refer back to it on a call. If everybody starts equipped with knowledge of what the best calls sound like, then it’s much easier to recreate.

“We also have a quality assurance (QA) team that will monitor a percentage of calls to ensure the team are following the process, and are given feedback on a regular basis. Depending on their QA score for the month, an agent’s bonus may be adjusted by 20% depending on how high (or low) their score is.

“We also celebrate our top QA performers every month with the rest of the team. Too often, QA is seen as a negative thing – in reality, it’s a tool to help everybody keep getting better.”

Call centre staff training

Call centre scripts

When agents are on a call, they’re usually working from a script. While this will mainly consist of standard statements or phrases they must say (such as letting someone know that the conversation will be recorded, if applicable), there’s often room for agents to tailor what they say on each call, to make it feel more natural and specific to each customer.

This is especially important as the overall journey of each call will be determined by the customer and their responses, with scripts needing to take into account a variety of replies and directions that a call might involve.

Some of the main points that a script will usually cover are:

  • Introducing the call – this is an opportunity for the agent to let the customer know what the call entails (e.g. how they will help the customer, plus any required statements, such as those to do with call recording), as well as to establish rapport
  • Throughout the call – depending on the customer’s answers, the agent navigates the direction of the call, offering potential solutions in a positive way
  • Closing the call – the agent sums up the call and what was achieved, along with any further action that may be required. This is also a chance for any customer questions, and for the agent to thank the customer for their time

The script should change and develop over time to reflect business updates, as well as to implement any feedback gathered from using the script on a day-to-day basis.

Call centre metrics

There are so many different types of metrics that you could measure in a call centre. They can assess everything from the individual performance of your agents to the overall performance of your organisation. Here, we’ve focused on some of the essentials.

Abandoned in queue – the overall number of people who disconnect the call while waiting to talk with an agent. Clearly, you’d want this number to be as low as possible, to ensure that your agents are actually making contact with as many customers as possible.

Average handling time (AHT) – how long a phone call with each customer takes on average. This includes time spent talking with the customer, as well as how long they’re on hold for, plus any further actions.

While you might think this figure should also be low, you should also consider call quality and customer experience – indeed a longer handling time could suggest that your agents are able to dedicate more time to each customer and their issue.

Average speed of answer (ASA) – the time it takes for a customer to get to an agent, after their call has been directed to the correct team and placed in the queue. The lower this figure is, the more customers your agents are likely to interact with; it also means you can offer your customers a better experience, as they’re not waiting on hold for too long.

Average talk time – the time (in minutes and seconds) between an agent answering and ending a call. Unlike AHT, this metric is focused specifically on the length of the call. Generally, longer talk times can suggest there are issues that need to be addressed, such as an agent needing more information about, or training on, a particular product or process.

Declined/missed calls – when an agent purposefully doesn’t answer a call/is unable to answer a call in time. Ideally, you want your agents to answer as many calls as possible to ensure good customer service and maximum productivity for your business.

Transfer rate – the percentage of inbound calls that agents direct to other colleagues or teams. Ideally, this should be a lower figure, as it would suggest that customers are quickly and easily matched with the right staff for their requirements.

First contact resolution (FCR) – the number of calls a customer needs to make in order to have an issue fixed. High FCR rates are better, as it suggests your agents are correctly trained and feel confident in managing their calls, and customers are happy with the solutions being offered.

Did you know?

The industry standard service level is that 80% of calls should be answered within 20 seconds – though some call centres aim to take just 15 seconds to answer 90% of calls.

Although the above metrics can guide your operations, it’s not always possible or efficient to measure everything. Instead, you should focus on the measurements that are the most relevant to your call centre specifically, and those that will help to optimise both productivity and income.

Paying your staff

There are a variety of ways in which agents’ earnings are calculated. Below, we look at the different models you could opt for:

  • Hourly rate – this simply involves the client paying agents at the call centre an hourly rate for their service. This rate will vary depending on the complexity of the calls being made, and the level of skill or knowledge required
  • Hourly rate + commission – agents are paid commission on top of their hourly rate as an incentive. The client and the call centre will typically agree on a fair percentage
  • Pay for performance – used for large, proven programmes, this compensates employees based on the quality of their performance
  • Pay per minute – agents are paid based on the minutes they are engaged with a customer

Developing a team culture

There’s a lot of pressure when you’re working in or running a call centre on a daily basis, often with a focus on achieving targets. But it’s possible to create a team culture that also offers growth and support. Here are some tips:

  • Ask your agents for feedback – since they have the most direct interaction with customers, they can offer valuable insights
  • Create a welcoming and caring environment – for example, having a dedicated break area for an in-person call centre, or ensuring that you have the technology in place for agents to work together in virtual call centres
  • Offer rewards – think about how you can recognise staff achievements in addition to pay and commission, such as by offering extra leave or providing other employee perks

Call centre checklist and timeline

Call centre timeline

  • Decide on the type of call centre you want
  • Look at the figures
  • Get the essential equipment and tech
  • Plan the launch process
  • Hire team members
  • Maintain a team culture

Create a timeline

It’s difficult to say exactly how long it’ll take you to set up your call centre, as there are so many variables involved – it could take anything from a few months to a couple of years.

However, it makes sense that virtual call centres would generally take less time to launch than an in-person call centre, mainly because you don’t need to search for premises.

However, here are some actions you can perform straight away to get started:

Next steps

Setting up a call centre in the UK means entering a large and established industry, so you’ll need to have a good idea of the type of call centre that you want to start, and why.

Startup costs can vary, although you’re likely to budget more for an in-person call centre and less for virtual call centres, mostly due to the costs involved in securing premises. This will also influence how long it takes to get started. Once you’ve launched, how much the call centre can make depends on the type of clients and work that you take on.

Call centres can require a lot of technology and equipment. However, the essential items include headsets, computers, and an internet connection, along with the relevant hardware or software for making and taking calls.

Agents are key hires for your call centre. Depending on its size, other roles might also be required, such as supervisors and managers, as well as analysts and trainers. HR team members are also necessary to ensure that your business follows the correct procedures for employing staff.

With all of this in mind, you can begin the process of starting your own call centre. Here are three actions that you can take next:

Henry Williams
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