Cornell University

Global Call Center Project

169 Ives Faculty Building, 607-254-4437

United StatesCornell ILR School

National Country Report

Batt, Rosemary, Virginia Doellgast, and Hyunji Kwon. 2005. The US Call Center Industry: Strategy, HR Practices, and Performance. National Benchmarking Report.

Highlights of the National Report

The US Call Center Report is based on a stratified, nationally random sample of call centers drawn from the Dun and Bradstreet listing and Call Center Magazine’s subscriber list.  The results are based on the responses of top managers in 473 call centers covering all states and regions in the US.

Markets, Strategies, and Organizational Characteristics

The typical call center in this study serves the national market, rather than a local, regional, or international one.  In-house call centers constitute 86% of the market while subcontractor centers comprise 14%.  Customer segmentation strategies have continued to grow as the predominant approach to organizing call center distribution channels.  Eighty percent of call centers in this study target a particular customer segment.  The remainder takes a universal approach of serving multiple segments through the same channel.  Call centers have been consolidating in recent years into larger and larger operations.  The average size of call centers in this study is 289 employees.  However, the size of the typical center in this study (that is, half are larger and half are smaller) is much smaller – 120 employees.

Workforce Skills, Training, and Work Design

Call center jobs are often viewed as low skilled and clerical, and the workforce is portrayed as young and unattached to the labor market.  According to our survey, however, the age and education profile of call center workers is considerably higher: the typical worker is 30 years old and has one and a half years of college education.  Call centers provide an average of 4.2 weeks of training for new hires, and about 2 weeks of on-going training for experienced employees each year.  In general, call center employees have quite low levels of discretion over daily tasks and the pace of work; and the use of problem-solving groups and teams is infrequent.

Investment in Human Resources

Providing quality professional service can be accomplished through the adoption of ‘high involvement’ work practices in call centers.  These practices include investing in skills and training, designing work that provides employees with discretion to meet customer needs, using problem-solving groups and self-directed teams, and adopting incentives such as high relative pay and employment security through permanent full-time staffing strategies.  In-house centers targeting higher value added business customers and those providing business and IT services are most likely to take this high involvement approach.  Subcontractor centers and those in the retail industry are the least likely to take a high involvement approach.

Turnover and Absenteeism

Total annual turnover (including quits, layoffs, dismissals, and retirements) averages 33% among call centers in this study.  Subcontractor call centers have the highest turnover rates (averaging 51%), followed by retail call centers (47%).  Those serving large business or the telecommunications industry have the lowest total turnover, with 28% and 26% respectively.  Call centers average 6% absenteeism on a typical day, with the highest in outsourced (10%) and retail centers (9.3%) and the lowest in telecommunications call centers (4.8%).

Strategies Associated with Lower Turnover

Several strategies are associated with lower turnover rates.  Call centers with at least 30 percent of the workforce in problem-solving groups have about 50% lower quit rates than those with less than 30 percent of workers in these teams (quit rates of 16.3% vs. 11.1%). Centers with at least 30 percent of employees in self-directed work groups have 38% lower quit rates than those with less than 30 percent of workers in these teams (quit rates of 15.1% vs. 10.9%).

Those centers that use high involvement practices have significantly lower turnover, employee quit rates, and absenteeism than centers that take a more standardized, production line approach to services.   Total annual turnover averages 45 percent in centers that use a production line approach to service compared to 25 percent in centers taking a high involvement approach.  Employee quit rates average 23 percent in the production-line centers versus 9 percent in the high involvement centers.  The comparable figures for daily absenteeism are 9 percent and 5 percent respectively.

Unions, Turnover, and Absenteeism

Non-union call centers have twice the turnover rates of union centers in comparable markets: 33% compared to 17%.  Non-union centers have over 2.5 times the quit rates of union centers: 16 % compared to 5.9%.  There are no significant differences in absenteeism between union and non-union centers.

Local Economic Development Agencies

Call centers make an important contribution to the economies of the cities or towns where they are located.  Local and state governments often offer incentives to firms seeking to locate call center operations.  These incentives include site location assistance, tax incentives, loans, and incentives for locating in targeted zones.  Forty-two percent of call centers in our study have received at least one of these incentives, and 18 percent have received two or more.

Recruitment and Training Support

Call centers often find support for their staffing and training needs from public and non-profit organizations in the regions where they are located.  Economic development organizations coordinate placement and recruitment services.  Local training providers and community colleges are also sources of new recruits, screening and training residents for call center jobs.  On average, 68% of managers in our survey reported that they use public job recruitment and placement services.  Similarly, 63% of managers report that they use public training resources or programs. 

Across the industries included in our survey, 45 percent of managers cited the skills of the local workforce as the most important reason for choosing their current site, while 27 percent cited low labor or real estate costs. 

Selected Publications

Batt, Rosemary, and Lisa Moynihan.  2005.  "Human Resource Management, Service Quality, and Economic Performance in Call Centers." CAHRS working paper No. 06.01.

Batt, Rosemary.  2002.  "Managing Customer Services: Human Resource Practices, Quit Rates, and Sales Growth." Academy of Management Journal. 45(3):587-597.

Batt, Rosemary, and Lisa Moynihan.  2002.  "The Viability of Alternative Call Center Production Models," Human Resource Management Journal (HRMJ). October.

Batt, Rosemary.  2001.  "Explaining Intra-Occupational Wage Inequality in Telecommunications Services: Customer Segmentation, Human Resource Practices, and Union Decline." Industrial and Labor Relations Review 54(2A):425-49.

Batt, Rosemary.  2000.  "Strategic Segmentation and Frontline Services: Matching Customers, Employees, and Human Resource Systems." International Journal of Human Resource Management.  11(3):540-61.

Batt, Rosemary.  1999.  "Work Organization, Technology, and Performance in Customer Service and Sales." Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 52(4):539-564.

US Research Team

Rosemary Batt
Alice H. Cook Professor of Women & Work
ILR School, Cornell University
387 Ives Hall
Ithaca, NY 14853
rb41@cornell.edu

Virginia Doellgast
Lecturer in Comparative HRM
King's College London
Department of Management
150 Stamford Street
London SE1 9NH
virginia.doellgast@kcl.ac.uk

Hyunji Kwon
ILR School
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14850
hk248@cornell.edu

Co-Sponsors of the Report: Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Russell Sage Foundation, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, Cornell University.

For more information, contact Rosemary Batt at rb41@cornell.edu.