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Get IT Done: Call center certifications offer a new way to prove expertise

Examine the benefits of call center certification

By Ruby Bayan

In most areas of IT, techs rage in debates about the value of certifications. It turns out that IT management certs aren't an exception to the rule. A new set of certifications for call center managers has been designed by the Call Center Industry Advisory Council (CIAC), a non-profit organization established by the call center industry to provide standardized, competency-based professional certification for people who work in call center, help desk, or customer service positions. Those in the industry have greeted the arrival of the certifications with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

"The dynamic nature of call centers and customer care is a highly complex endeavor, and anyone in the industry who wants to be viewed as a professional should seek certification," advised Michael Elliott, regional customer service manager of DHL Express and one of the first CIAC-certified strategic leaders in the contact center industry.

On the other hand, Bob Gills, president of Boulder Valley Partners and executive recruiter for the call center market, said that what's most important to his clients is a candidate's demonstrated track record of meeting specific qualifications through accomplishments in the workplace.

"The CIAC certification is good to have—I just haven't seen it as a requirement for consideration as of yet," he said.

We talked to Fredia Barry, president of the CIAC, and to Penny Reynolds and Maggie Klenke, senior partners of The Call Center School (TCCS), regarding the merits and the process of call center manager certification. They agree that it's a relatively new concept, but it certainly puts the certified professional at the top of his game.

If distinction in the call center management profession is among your career goals, read on to find out how to acquire CIAC's four certifications to add value to your portfolio.

About the certifications
At this point, the CIAC's first and only certification track is Management. Within the Management track, there are four options for certification:
  • CIAC Certified Strategic Leader (CCSL)—This cert is for senior executives who set strategic direction. Typical job titles for this role are vice president, director, or senior-manager.
  • CIAC Certified Operations Manager (CCOM)—People seeking this cert are generally those responsible for the day-to-day call center operations, including staffing, budgeting, and customer care. Typically, those in this role are titled as manager, although supervisors may also be included in this group.
  • CIAC Certified Management Apprentice (CCMA)—This cert is for those pursuing a career in call center management. After one year as a call center manager, those certified as an apprentice may complete their CIAC certification in the appropriate designation.
  • CIAC Certified Management Consultant (CCMC)—People interested in this cert are veteran call center consultants with hands-on management experience. CCMCs must prove they have the required knowledge in call center management, but CIAC's site warns "it does not certify or verify the consultant's expertise or effectiveness in other areas of consultancy."

CIAC certification was released in September 2002. There are approximately 30 CIAC-certified professionals to date and more than 200 additional call center managers and executives currently engaged in the certification process. The average time for most to complete the certification process has been six to eight months.

Assess your knowledge and competence
The first step in acquiring certification is the assessment of your current competencies against the industry-established competencies for your job role. To begin the assessment, Barry recommended the self-assessments, which are free and downloadable from the CIAC site.

"Successful completion of the CIAC certification process requires that a professional have a comprehensive understanding of all the functional areas of call center management," Barry said. "This is typically acquired by a combination of on-the-job experience and some form of training or education."

Barry explained that while CIAC certification is not a difficult process for those properly prepared, it should not be undertaken without sufficient and thorough preparation, because it is designed to assure that only those with a mastery level can obtain the credential.

Fill your knowledge gaps through training
After you've honestly assessed your capabilities and expertise, which should expose your knowledge and skill gaps in the various aspects of call center management, you proceed to fill these gaps by enrolling in the relevant training sessions. One of the leading call center education providers is TCCS.

"In 2001, TCSS began offering a 26-session Web seminar series called The Masters Series in Call Center Management, which covers both people management and operations management topics and includes a test on each session and a comprehensive final exam to achieve certification," said Klenke, TCSS senior partner and CIAC-certified management consultant.

Reynolds, also a TCCS senior partner and CIAC-certified management consultant, said that the school served in the initial Board for the CIAC, and helped define the competencies and write the test questions associated with call center management certifications.

"We provide several programs to help call center professionals prepare for the CIAC certification exam, through both seminars and books," Reynolds added.

Aside from TCCS, there is The Resource Center, which provides "one-stop shopping for call center and help desk education," and Call Center Learning Solutions, which offers "a total call center training solution." Their course offerings, fees, resources, and the types of learning solutions and support they provide are outlined on their Web sites.

Take the certification exam
Once you've patched up your knowledge gaps, you can proceed to the actual process of getting certified. Some schools, like TCCS, certify you for graduating from their courses. Barry said that while other companies offer their own certification to promote their courses, CIAC certification is the only industry-recognized program for call center executives. Nevertheless, the Council discourages that it be mandated. Instead, consider it "a tool to advance one's professional development and career growth and to assure organizations that have a CIAC-certified management team that their centers are being managed according to industry best practices."

As to the CIAC certification process itself, CIAC allows up to two years "from the time the first assessment is taken" to complete the program.

Potential value of certification
"I highly recommend this certification program to all call center professionals," said Elliot, who is now using his skills to successfully integrate the customer service operations of DHL Express and Airborne Express. According to Elliot, the certification program helped him validate and codify what they're currently doing in their call centers.

"It gave our processes more structure and clarity," he said. "It also strengthened my focus on the strategic use of call centers to impact the overall corporate vision and strategy."

Klenkesaid that there has been much progress in the certification arena. "There are likely to be more certification programs as the call center moves out of the realm of a job and into the world of a profession," she added.

"Pick the type of certification that makes most sense to you and your organization, but, no matter what you do, additional education will enhance your skills, capabilities, and your value to your current and any future employers."
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