Call Centers HR Managers Unplug

April 1, 1997
Nothing is more frustrating than a deadline you can't meet. You'd like to polish up that proposal for a leadership seminar. But the phone keeps ringing. Bill wants to enroll in the 401(k) plan. Tamara is clamoring for her overdue evaluation. And Larry insists he deserves a parking space. Three hours have passed, and you haven't even sipped your cup of java. Can't these employees leave you alone?

They can. Human resources managers can be liberated from repetitive requests. Although call centers have been around for several years, the industry still is relatively new, according to Houston, Texas-based American Productivity & Quality Center (APQC). Many of us think of call centers as toll-free numbers we can dial for automated banking information, online technical assistance and airplane arrivals. In recent years, however, companies such as Intel Corp., Texas Utilities Co. and Aetna Inc. have established in-house HR call centers with live human beings. These representatives' sole function is to answer any HR question posed by an employee. In many cases, the call center is an employee's next destination after attempting to find an answer via the company's interactive voice-response (IVR) service or intranet Web site. Initially staffed by human resources specialists, call centers can eventually be anchored by a combination of specialists and entry-level agents trained to provide answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs) such as those mentioned previously.

Companies achieving positive results, such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based AMP Incorporated, recently calculated its HR managers have saved nearly 3,000 hours in one year after establishing HR Connecting Point. Before the call center was set up, HR generalists were spending 7.3 minutes per call. Afterward, call-center reps were spending only 2.3 minutes per call. Break down such figures on a weekly or daily basis, and one can well imagine the increased capacity for HR managers to plan next year's budget or get involved in a company's recently announced merger.

If you're salivating at the thought of saving more time and money—and providing employees with more accurate, efficient and accessible HR services—read on. These FAQs are answered by those who've benchmarked and benefited from such innovations.

Q: What are HR call centers?
A: They're a low-cost means of providing information to employees about any human resources issue. Staffed by call-center representatives, they complement the use of self-service technologies, such as IVR and intranets. A team of trained staff answer some of the most common HR questions. Companies as small as Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Nets Inc. (250 employees) and those as large as Santa Clara, California-based Intel (50,000 employees) have staffed their call centers with three and 12 agents, respectively. Many of the answers are scripted. But the beauty of the service is that complicated questions can be fielded by a team of live agents during an employee's one-stop shopping pursuit.

Q: How did they evolve-and why?
A: According to John Sullivan, a professor of human resources at San Francisco State University, call centers have become hot items for human resources vice presidents. The concept was ranked No. 8 in importance on the California Strategic Human Resource Partnership (CSHRP) annual issue survey. And it wasn't even mentioned a year before. (CSHRP is a Bay-area network of 30 senior vice presidents of HR at Fortune 500 companies such as Hewlett-Packard, Levi Strauss, Wells Fargo, Clorox and Silicon Graphics.) "The basic concept of call centers comes from the attempt to be a strategic business partner. But how can you do that when you're mired in the transactional burden of day-to-day HR activities?" asks Sullivan. The shift, he adds, began with companies, such as IBM, Apple, Hewlett-Packard and Kaiser Permanente, to name a few. The old paradigm of transaction/information flow was person/phone/desk. In other words, an employee would try to reach a person first and go back to one's desk as a last resort.With call centers, the paradigm flips to desk/phone/person: desk (using one's computer), phone (accessing call centers), people (visiting an HR specialist—when all else fails). Because individuals differ in their needs and how they prefer to receive information, call centers expand employees' options. More importantly, they add another shield against unwelcome disruptions.

Q: How does a call center benefit HR managers?
A: Think of all the hours a day you spend sounding like a broken record. By transferring knowledge about benefits, recruitment, training and relocation to a team of other HR representatives, you can spend more time thinking about the big picture. Time is money—and if you can inherit at least two hours per day, multiply that by your hourly salary—and then by five—to calculate your weekly savings. Also, by tracking the types of calls your center receives, HR can use the data to assess employee awareness, interest and morale; gauge the popularity of specific benefits and programs; and identify additional material to put on the company's intranet or IVR system.

Q: How do they benefit employees?
A: Sullivan says that HR call centers can provide instant, people-friendly answers—particularly to those without computers or computer skills. They also increase employee productivity and lower frustration levels by providing seamless service. "Employees don't waste company time by calling different HR numbers. They can get the answers all in one place." If a call-center representative can't answer all of the employee's questions, the agent can immediately defer to or seek assistance from another agent seated nearby.

Q: What kinds of services can an HR call center provide?
A: There's no one right model. According to New York City-based Towers Perrin, a management consulting firm, companies have implemented a variety of service-delivery models. They all vary by: scope of services provided (benefits, payroll, relocation, expatriate administration, executive compensation); insourced vs. outsourced components; employee populations served (rank-and-file employees, executives, domestic, global); and the level of technology employed. For example, service centers can include anything from IVR to imaging, computer-telephone integration, an automated call distributor, hypertext links in electronic documents and call prompters. Depending on your company's needs, financial resources and trained personnel, HR can set up a call center either in one grandiose swoop or in stages.

Q: Who should be part of the planning team?
A: At Dallas-based Texas Utilities Co., managers created a service-center team. Bobby Arrington, employee-services manager, was part of the group that included representatives from information services and specialists in workflow and benefits. "We asked ourselves 'What are our processes?' We mapped all of this and put it down on flow charts and then into a three-ring binder. Then we were able to sit down with our managers and show them how the service center would handle various requests."

Texas Utilities opened its Employee Service Center with a staff of 12 agents that serves 10,500 employees scattered throughout the state. "Within the first four months (August to December 1996), our center received 35,000 calls through the IVR system and more than 9,000 calls that were routed to agents after the employees pressed zero," says Arrington. "It has exceeded all my expectations."

Q: Who should staff the call center?
A: Initially, the call center should be staffed by HR experts. If you're migrating your employees to an unfamiliar system, you're more likely to succeed with a team of knowledgeable professionals, says Russ Campanello, vice president of human development and organizational productivity at Nets Inc. "Answer your first calls with your best generalists," he says. "Use them to document the common-knowledge answers." By capturing the information during the first six months of operation, HR can systemize the data and lower the costs of operation by eventually training entry-level representatives to replace the majority of HR generalists.

In terms of how many personnel are required, Campanello recommends that HR think about the anticipated call volume, desired wait time, projected abandon rate and peak and valley times.

At Intel, HR designated three levels of call-center employees, according to Dorothy Moran, manager of employee information and services operation in Hillsboro, Oregon. Its 50,000 employee population is served by: agents, specialists and senior specialists or investigators. Agents, she explains, are the first-line people with whom employees interface. "They deal with 85 percent of the volume." Based on the conversation, the agent makes a decision whether the caller needs to speak to someone at another level.

Specialists, Moran adds, receive calls that are more complex. The answers usually aren't scripted and require someone with more authority and experience to clarify an issue, such as reconciling an employees' leave of absence with his or her benefits.

Senior specialists take open-door requests. Very often, an employee may feel more comfortable talking to an HR professional in person. Perhaps the employee wants to file a sexual-harassment complaint or wants to pursue an employment-discrimination lawsuit. By having different levels of call-center representatives, Intel's HR ensures all questions are handled thoroughly and appropriately.

Q: Does it matter where the call center is located?
A: Yes and no. Intel's headquarters and main facility is located in Northern California. But the call center for its entire employee population of 50,000 is located in Oregon. It isn't necessary to establish the call center near the corporate headquarters—or even where most of the employees work. But once the city is selected, make sure the actual facility is appealing to its occupants. Staffing phones and providing customer service, hours at a time, can be extremely taxing and stressful. An attractive and comfortable setting boosts your employees' morale.

Q: What hardware and software are necessary and useful?
A: In addition to the costs of assigning and hiring personnel, a company will initially need to invest in PCs, extra phones and software programs to drive the IVR system as well as to capture and share the necessary call-center data. Integrating these components can be facilitated with programs such as Lotus Notes. Some companies, for instance Iselin, New Jersey-based Engelhard Corp., use Edify software, which is an agent-based response system.

Keep in mind that automation in call centers can take two forms: interactive communications such as IVR and fax-on-demand that front the call center and eliminate call volume through automation; and Screen Pops or simultaneous transfer of voice and data so when an agent takes a call, information about the caller already is on the PC screen in front of him or her.

St. Louis-based TALX Corp.—an interactive communications provider—is able to incorporate both processes. The company provides an automated benefits enrollment solution to more than 100 large employers, including more than 25 Fortune 500 companies. It also has experience linking call centers to data that reside on Tesseract, Lawson and others.

In addition to hardware and software, companies should expect to design the facility and equip it with ergonomically-correct furniture and other call-center equipment.

Also, consider the fact that lower-cost 800 numbers now make call centers more financially feasible.

Q: What is the preferred ratio between call-center reps and employees?
A: A large call center at a 100,000-plus firm (the size of Hewlett-Packard, for example) might have 80 employees (a 1,250-1 ratio) at four different classifications, handling as many as 3,000 calls a day. But there also are options for smaller HR departments that don't have intranets or a wide dispersion of employees. A single individual with a manual, fax machine and a FAQ&A list can be a mini-call center. "The key is to get the employees to call rather than stop their local HR person in the hall," says Sullivan.

Q: Are there any drawbacks to call centers?
A: The most obvious one is that call centers require a major change in a department that often resists change. Some onsite HR generalists' positions (as many as 50 percent) can be eliminated with no loss in service. In addition, some job losses may come as a result of employees' inability to meet the new skill requirements, says Sullivan.

Q: What about employee stress?
A: The last thing HR wants is for its call-center reps to be on the phone seven hours a day without any substantial breaks. At Texas Utilities' Employee Service Center, representatives staff the phones for five to six hours. "They're encouraged to get away from the phone for two hours. They can use that time to research materials that will help them better answer questions," says Arrington. "We don't want them burned out."

Q: How should HR measure the success of a call center?
A: Call centers have been struggling for years to define a measurement system that's meaningful to an organization, according to the APQC. In a recent executive report, the center identified three measurement areas: people measures (hiring and screening practices; training and communication; quality monitoring; and rep empowerment and accountability); center performance (service level, scheduling and staffing, and technology); and linkages to corporate mission and goals.

Q: What's the next stage of HR customer service?
A: A further HR evolution will be toward higher-level service centers called "Centers of Excellence." National Semiconductor and Amoco, for example, use such centers as a form of internal think tank that pools internal HR experts in a team to solve strategic HR problems. "In the future, some companies are looking toward outsourcing or jointly operating call centers with strategic-alliance firms," says Sullivan.

Q: Are call centers worth it?
A: Yes, according to Campanello. "You're migrating your customers from a high-touch environment for low-cost transactions to low-touch environment for low-cost transactions. And that'll leave HR to do high-touch service for high-impact transactions."

Workforce, April 1997, Vol. 76, No. 4, pp. 36-43.