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What's an Inbound Call Center? Should You Consider Using One?

By Adam Uzialko,
business.com writer
|
Mar 26, 2020
Image Credit: Kritchanut / Getty Images
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Inbound call centers or contact centers specialize in customer experience and engagement. How could a contact center help your small business grow?

  • 90% of consumers consider customer service reviews when deciding which vendor to buy from.
  • Inbound call center services can field incoming calls from customers and other businesses, providing a simple message-taking service or comprehensive customer support.
  • Look out for incremental billing policies and hidden fees when researching call center partners.

For small businesses, customer service is critical. However, many small business owners are already stretched thin, and manning the phone lines isn't always the top priority. In a country where 90% of consumers use customer service reviews as a factor in their decision to buy from a company, though, entrepreneurs cannot allow customer satisfaction to decline.

If you're concerned that your customer service is falling by the wayside, there are always inbound call centers to pick up the slack. What exactly is an inbound call center, though, and how might it improve your customer service? Read on to learn more.

What is an inbound call center?

A call center is a versatile team designed to man the phone lines of businesses, government agencies, nonprofits or any other organization that needs support. Call center agents are trained to deliver exceptional customer service, buoying your brand's customer satisfaction while freeing up your team to focus on operations.

Call centers can be divided into two major categories based on the types of service they provide: inbound call centers and outbound call centers.

"The ultimate difference is that inbound is the interaction engaged by the consumer or business trying to connect with you, while outbound is you going outwards towards them," said Marshall Ogen, vice president of business strategy for a family of companies that includes Concentra Solutions, CannabisBPO and PharmaCentra.

Some call centers provide both inbound and outbound services based on the client's needs.

 

Editor's note: Looking for a call center service? We can help you choose the one that's right for you. Use the questionnaire below to have our vendor partners provide you with free information:

 

What services can an inbound call center provide?

Call centers do more than just manage the phone lines, which is why many have rebranded as "contact centers." Today, many call centers also handle email, social media, live web chat and even text message marketing. Through a variety of services ranging from basic message taking to full-scale customer service, inbound call centers aim to improve the overall customer experience.

"What outsourcing to a call center does for a small business is helps them in areas they might not have proficiency in," Ogen said. "It expands your hours of operation; it gives you a redundancy if something happens – vis-a-vis coronavirus – [which means] you have a backup plan, so your business has continuity."

Many call centers are flexible in the services they offer, working with each client to determine their goals and the best strategy to achieve them. However, several services are common across call centers:

  • Message taking: Taking messages is the tip of the call center iceberg. Typically, a call center agent will field an incoming call and capture the caller's name, contact information and any pertinent info, such as the organization they work with and their reason for calling. The agent will inform the caller that their message has been received and will be passed on to you. This service is commonly used in doctors' offices, law firms and accounting firms, for example. 
  • Call patching: Call patching allows an agent to take down similar information as they would in the message-taking service, but then immediately forward the call to the relevant party on your team. This service helps filter calls through to an available person who can handle the inquiry properly. If no one is available, the agent will usually take a message. 
  • Order taking: Call centers often offer order-taking services, helping customers make purchases through an online store. The agent will manage the customer's digital cart as requested. Some call center services also offer upselling and cross-selling as part of the order-taking service.

  • Customer service: Full-scale customer service is generally performed by a dedicated agent who only works on your account and is highly familiar with your products, services and brand messaging. While outsourced customer service agents will follow the guidelines you set for dealing with customers, they have more latitude to solve problems and answer questions than shared agents assigned to take messages.

  • Complaint hotline: Inbound call centers can also handle complaints, working to retain customers for you when something has gone wrong. With your permission, agents can sometimes even offer dissatisfied customers discounts to resolve an issue amicably.

  • Technical support: Many inbound call centers offer technical support or helpdesk services. If you offer a complex or high-tech product, customers might often have questions or run into issues that need repairing. Call centers can help dispatch technicians through ticket systems, streamlining your client response.

The best inbound call center services offer bilingual or multilingual support, improving your ability to connect with customers who speak languages other than English. Many also offer mobile applications, so you can stay connected to your outsourced customer service team at all times and monitor their performance.

When should your small business outsource to an inbound call center?

To take full advantage of the services a call center provides, you need to know when the time is right to outsource your customer service. If you already have a high customer satisfaction rate and it isn't burdensome for your staff to manage the phone lines and your other communications channels, you could probably save the money. However, if you're concerned about maintaining that level of customer satisfaction as your business scales up, you might consider outsourcing. Here are some signs you should think about hiring an inbound call center:

  • You are losing customers. If you are losing customers, it could be for lack of engagement or frequent negative interactions. Call centers can help with customer retention in both cases, staying in touch with your one-time customers to encourage them to be recurring customers and mollifying dissatisfied customers.

  • Executive-level complaints have increased. If you are receiving a significant number of complaints regarding your customer service, something is wrong. Customers should be coming away from communications with your company feeling informed and positive about the interaction. Complaints are a major red flag that your customer service team needs assistance.

  • Your brand voice is inconsistent. If you or your team are answering the phone in different ways or without regard to brand voice, an inbound call center could help you develop a more unified appearance. In customer-facing communications, your brand should appear consistent and professional. Call center agents are well versed in maintaining brand voice and friendly engagement.

  • Customers contact you when you are closed. Inbound call centers can give you professional availability after hours, even if it's just a simple message-taking service. If you frequently get calls after hours, consider hiring an inbound call center to handle them.

  • Your team is stretched too thin. Remember, call centers aren't just about the phones. If your team is having trouble focusing on operations along with your many communication channels – phone, email, social media and live chat – you might benefit from outsourcing to an inbound call center.

"I would say to a small business owner that it's really simple," Ogen said. "You need to make sure that your customer experience and customer journey are just as important to your business as whatever you're actually selling. [Call centers] are skilled in the art of making sure you have positive customer experiences to drive your business forward."

Inbound call center pricing models

So, what does an inbound call center typically cost? The simple answer is that it depends on your service needs and expected call volumes. However, that doesn't illuminate what you can expect from the industry very much. When investigating call centers, keep the following factors in mind:

Shared vs. dedicated agents

Based on the services you require, a call center will use either shared agents or dedicated agents. Shared agents handle incoming calls for all the call center's clients. They are generally reserved for simpler, scripted tasks like taking messages or patching calls. Shared agents typically have a per-minute rate. Some call centers charge a monthly fee for a package of minutes, while others bill as needed. 

Dedicated agents work solely for you. They are more familiar with your business and can handle complex services, such as customer support and sales. These agents are more expensive than shared agents and generally billed at an hourly rate.

Some call centers also offer semi-dedicated agents. This model is also billed at an hourly rate and available for more complex services. Semi-dedicated agents usually have two or three other companies to manage as well and are slightly less costly than fully dedicated agents.

Incremental billing

It's important to watch out for incremental billing in the call center industry. Many call centers round up the time spent on a call to the nearest sixth second. That means a call that lasts 61 seconds would be rounded up to 66 seconds. Six seconds represents 0.1 minutes, so a 66-second call would appear on your bill as "1.1 minutes."

While it is common for companies to round up to the nearest sixth second, the best call centers don't round up at all, instead billing second to second. On the other hand, some companies round up even higher than the nearest sixth second, in some cases rounding to the nearest minute. Consider a company's incremental billing policies when comparing rates; the difference in price could be significant.

Fees

Some call centers charge setup fees, incidental fees (such as holiday fees) and recurring fees on top of usage rates. You should always thoroughly examine any contracts before signing. Also ask the sales representative for a detailed breakdown of any and all costs, including fees.

"To give an honest rate, you really need to understand the goals of a program, the reporting technology required, training, etc.," said Ogen. "Rates can fluctuate all over the place. My warning or caution is if anybody just throws out a rate, they're not a partner; they're just transactional."

You can pay call centers for as many or as few services as you need. For example, a business that only needs agents to take after-hours messages can keep costs low. If you want to outsource your entire customer service department, from handling inquiries to placing orders to managing complaints, your bill is naturally going to be higher. Discuss your goals and strategy with multiple companies to make sure you're getting the best deal for your budget.

Call centers can help small businesses improve customer experience

Inbound call centers can do a great deal to help small businesses improve their customer service. While big businesses have an advantage when it comes to manpower, small businesses can still offer a polished, professional consumer-facing brand with the help of call centers. Whether you just need someone to capture caller information after your business has closed for the day or you want a comprehensive customer service partner, inbound call centers can meet your needs. Take your time, do your homework, and find an inbound call center that will grow with your business as a partner. It might just help you grow your customer base in ways you never thought possible.

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Adam Uzialko
Adam Uzialko
See Adam Uzialko's Profile
Freelance editor at business.com. Responsible for managing freelance budget, editing freelance and contributor content, and drafting original articles. Also creates product and service reviews to assist business.com readers in buying decisions for their businesses. VP and co-founder of CannaContent, a digital marketing company dedicated to the cannabis, hemp, and CBD industries. Focused specifically on the content marketing arm of the company, creating blogs, press releases, and website copy for clients spanning the entire supply chain. Avid fan and indispensable ally of the feline species. Music lover, middling guitarist, and unprompted vocalist. Miniature painter who loves sci-fi and fantasy. Armchair political philosopher with a tendency to read old books written by men with unusually large beards. Ask me about all things writing!
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