Call centers are getting more sophisticated every year. Five years ago, a call center would be described as a building bulging with phone banks staffed by customer support representatives (CSRs) answering calls round the clock.

But that workplace scenario is changing as companies transform call centers into “contact” centers.

“The contact center is a call center with customer communication occurring through telephone, Web chat, e-mail, or Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP), which is simply voice delivered over the Internet,” said Valerie Peck, a partner at Peppers and Rogers Group, a CRM consulting firm in San Mateo, CA.

“CSRs who exclusively field telephone calls from customers are soon to be regarded as dinosaurs,” Peck added. “High-tech call centers deliver faster customer response times that dramatically cut, and even eliminate, customer frustration, reduce the length of CSR-customer sessions, and enable higher productivity.”

Now that technology has opened new communication channels for customer and user support, CSRs must learn new skills for these contact points. In this article, I’ll explain how this skill shift is changing the CSR role, and I’ll share insight from support staff working in this industry today. I’ll also talk about how these new skill sets are improving retention levels, information that could prove useful to CIOs when planning training and skillbuilding programs.

The new role requires new skills
For CSRs, today’s call-center CRM approach requires a new skill set. “It also means the CSR’s job has become more challenging, because the rep has to field inquiries from three channels, which is no simple feat when you have to instantly switch from one to another,” noted Peck.

While most skill requirements remain the same, such as strong interpersonal skills, an ability to work quickly, and an understanding of typical problems, the new critical requirement is computer and Web technology knowledge.

Though a CSR position is still considered to be a stepping-stone to another job, or a last-resort job when nothing else is available, CSRs are finding their work more enjoyable these days. Hiring managers say CSRs are not so quick to jump ship, and a growing number are now building professional careers within the contact-center industry.

Paul Birdseye, director of St. Louis call-center operations for Los Angeles-based customer contact center PeopleSupport, said that although 60 percent of CSRs do eventually leave those positions, 40 percent are working to build careers.

Reps like new role diversity
Tina Jackels, 26, a production supervisor who joined PeopleSupport 18 months ago, is on the new contact-center career path. When she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in MIS, she wasn’t sure whether to concentrate on technology or management, so she took an intermediate job as a CSR to help figure it out. She now likes her role as a CSR because it has allowed her to gain experience in both of her areas of interest—technology and management.

Jackels worked as a CSR for a year, concentrating on handling technical inquiries. She was later promoted to her present position and now has no intention of leaving.

As a supervisor, she takes questions from frustrated customers who want to speak with a manager. In this role, she often has to “multitask,” which is call-center jargon for answering several customer questions through different channels. “It means working under extremely tense conditions,” she said.

Brian Daniels, 35, joined PeopleSupport as a CSR a year ago and was bumped up to subject-matter expert a few months later. Daniels, who holds an associate’s degree in computer programming, hopes to land a job as a graphics animator, but it’s a tough field to break into these days. Right now, he enjoys “having [his] hands in different aspects of technology” and answering the difficult questions that entry-level CSRs can’t answer.

Shichan Ju, 23, is also a subject-matter expert who has been with PeopleSupport for about a year. He holds an associate’s degree in IT and Internet development. When he couldn’t find a job as a network administrator, he took the PeopleSupport position and was quickly promoted. He said he was surprised to find he liked the job and has put his network administrator job hunt on hold. “I have no plans to leave,” he said. “I’m flexible and want to see where this job leads.”

If any of these PeopleSupport staffers do decide to leave, however, prospective employers will likely deem their contact-center experience as impressive. Job experience still ranks as a job candidate’s most valuable selling point—especially in today’s job market.

Has this shift in staff’s skill set changed management’s role as well?

When staff jobs change, the manager’s role often must follow suit. What’s been your experience? Tell us about it.