Article | 15 min read

The ultimate guide to call centers

Whether you want to become a call center agent or start your own call center, here's everything you need to know before you get started.

By Whitney Rhodes

Published April 6, 2021
Last updated May 3, 2022

You might envision a call center as a warehouse jammed with tiny desks where tired agents switch endlessly from one call to the next. While you wouldn’t be wrong in some cases—the stereotypical call center still exists for several legacy organizations—that reality is thankfully more of a rarity today.

Modern call centers are much better places to work. More companies are realizing that improvements in customer service training and work satisfaction have a big impact on reducing call center burnout and improving customer retention and satisfaction. And, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, call center agents and managers now benefit from better technology and more flexible work options.

This is great news for anyone eyeing a call center job, but it’s not the extent of what you should anticipate. From what it’s like to work at different types of call centers to what to look for in an employer, here’s everything you need to know about embarking on a call center career.

What is a call center?

Call center definition: A call center is an organization of sales and customer service agents and managers who handle incoming and outgoing communications from prospective and existing customers.

Many call centers focus on customer satisfaction and offering better overall support. Some may also aim to increase lead generation and get new customers or streamline payment and order processing. Regardless, call centers play an integral role in creating a great customer experience, so they must maintain a high level of service at all times to nurture relationships. This means call center representatives need to be knowledgeable, patient, and helpful when interacting with customers.

Today, many call center employees work from home and benefit from enhanced training. They also aren’t necessarily confined to the phone—agents may use more advanced call center software to communicate with customers via email, social media, chat, and other messaging apps with ease.

Best of all, modern call centers offer stability and opportunity for job seekers. While companies around the world are experiencing higher call volumes due to COVID-19, this uptick was occurring well before the pandemic. In early 2019, call centers were already showing stable growth, with 285 new and expanding call centers creating over 133,200 new jobs.

What’s the difference between a call center and a contact center?

During your job search or interviews, you may see or hear “call center” and “contact center” used interchangeably—that’s because the terms are synonymous today. That wasn’t always the case, though.

The phone used to be the primary way customers contacted companies, but over the last decade, customers increasingly started choosing other channels to connect with sales and support teams. During this transition, companies used the term “contact center” to indicate more contemporary operations where teams communicated with customers over email, chat, messaging, or other advanced technology.

While the contact center model was considered “forward-thinking” a few years ago, it’s now the status quo. Today, customers demand a seamless, omnichannel experience, so there isn’t really a distinction between call and contact centers anymore. When people do insist there’s a difference between a call center and a contact center, it’s the call center that gets the bad rap.

“A lot of organizations shy away from the term ‘call center’ because it comes with those legacy perceptions that they would like to get away from,” says Sarah Reed, former contact center leader and now senior director of global strategic events at Zendesk. “Now, leaders are looking at what alternatives they want to use to refer to that service organization.”

What are the different types of call centers?

Modern call centers have grown to address a variety of customer and company needs. They can be inbound or outbound, in-house or outsourced, proactive or reactive, or a mix of the options.

  • Outbound vs. inbound call centers

    At an outbound call center, agents reach out to prospective and existing customers. These organizations usually run off an automatic dialer that rings a list of numbers and routes the call to an agent the second someone picks up the phone. The outbound approach is primarily used for sales, telemarketing, fundraising, and market research.

    An inbound call center, on the other hand, fields incoming calls from existing customers. Agents at this type of call center usually handle customer questions, problems, technical support, payments, renewals, etc.

    You may also find job listings for hybrid call centers that manage both outgoing and incoming calls.

    [Related read: Inbound vs. outbound call centers: What’s the difference?]

  • Outsourced vs. in-house call centers

    Sometimes, businesses don’t have the resources or the desire to run their own call centers, so they’ll hire an outsourced call center or a business process outsourcing (BPO). In these cases, a separate organization operates the call center and even hires, trains, and manages the support staff. Agents who work at outsourced call centers or BPOs may handle inbound calls, outbound calls, or both.

    When a company does manage its own call center, it’s known as an in-house call center. Agents working here deal with that same company’s customers and answer questions about that specific company’s products or services. In-house agents often get to specialize in a certain product or customer base and typically have opportunities to advance within the company. It’s not uncommon for agents to start in the call center and then transition to the product or sales team.

    Some companies prefer a hybrid approach—they hire, train, and cultivate a team that manages part of their customer support needs while outsourcing the rest.

  • Reactive vs. proactive call centers

    These two types of call centers differ in their approach to customer service.

    A reactive call center fixes problems as they arise. Agents at a reactive call center spend more time de-escalating angry customers and resolving issues.

    The proactive call center engages customers before there’s a problem. Agents here spend more time upselling and cross-selling as well as identifying and reaching out to at-risk customers.

What jobs are available at a call center?

People who want to work at a call center have several roles to choose from. Call centers hire agents and managers in addition to personnel for QA, training, and workforce management.

Call center agent

Also known as the customer service representative, virtual support agent, or call center specialist, this entry-level role often doesn’t require prior customer service experience. But it does demand a certain mindset and skill set to manage a variety of tasks, which range from providing omnichannel support to troubleshooting customer issues.

While agents may have access to call center scripts for certain situations, they don’t need to rely on them. Today’s call center agents are empowered to think for themselves, gather the context they need, and make decisions about how best to interact with each customer. Hiring managers look for candidates who demonstrate strong communication and problem-solving abilities, among other call center skills.

Call center agents should also be prepared to navigate charged customer conversations. While customers were willing to cut companies some slack in the early days of COVID-19, they now expect a normal—if not better—level of customer service. So it’s critical to have proper call center etiquette.

“I refer to it as the ‘Pandemic Pass,’ ” says Reed. “In March, April, and into the summer of 2020, customers recognized that the companies they were dealing with were going through the same things they were. So everybody was a bit more patient and empathetic. But the Pandemic Pass is over now, and customers want support that’s on par or better than what they got before.”

In response, hiring managers are looking for agents who can stay calm and think clearly when dealing with angry customers. Empathy is now just as important as communication skills.

[Related read: Want to be a call center representative? Here’s what you need to know.]

Call center manager

A call center manager—also known as a customer service manager, business operations manager, or customer experience manager—usually has three or more years of experience in customer service, according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2020.

Call center managers keep agents engaged, trained, and performing. They step in to help with more complex problems and de-escalations. They also evaluate processes and technology to keep everyone productive.

With COVID-19, managers have to be confident in monitoring, directing, and coaching agents from afar. Since they aren’t able to walk into an office for a quick face-to-face chat with an agent, managers must create virtual touchpoints to regularly connect with their team. They also heavily rely on data to track how their agents are performing, so call center managers should be comfortable using analytical tools and reviewing metrics.

Specialties and other roles in customer service

There are opportunities to move out of call center agent and manager roles but stay in customer service. If you’d rather focus on the employee experience, consider working in QA, training, or workforce management. Modern call centers are expanding these teams to deal with increasingly complex organizational structures and needs.

If you want to continue working as an agent or manager but within a more specific role, look for a company like Zendesk that invests in specialties. We assign product specialists to our teams who focus on either the support side or the sales side of Zendesk Suite. These specialists have a direct line to the corresponding product team to ensure they’re getting up-to-date and accurate information. Instead of expecting each of our agents to know the ins and outs of every Zendesk product, the team collaborates with the specialists to get the information they need.

As a specialist, you may focus on a particular product, channel, or type of customer interaction. Some teams cultivate roles dedicated to dealing with escalations alone.

2021 Employee Experience Trends Report

In this free report, we cover how companies are finding ways to work smarter, attract top talent, and harness the collective power of their people to get ahead.

4 questions to ask a call center employer

Ready to create your call center resume and apply for roles? During your job search, look for companies that invest in their people. You want to make sure your prospective employer provides everything you need to thrive in your new role. Ask these questions in interviews to suss out your potential employer’s commitment to advocating for its customer service team.

  1. What equipment do you provide for employees who work from home?

    Expect your employer to mail you the essentials or give you a stipend to purchase them your own. Push for flexible technology like a laptop, wireless headphones, and other items that meet your unique needs.

  2. What hours would I work, and how do you encourage your team to take breaks throughout the day?

    Look for an employer who offers not only flexible hours, but also regular workday breaks and personal/mental health days.

  3. What are the opportunities for advancement? Is it possible to move to other roles within the company outside of customer service?

    You can get a feel for how much the company values its support staff while also getting a sense of your options down the road. After all, you want to ensure a potential employer will encourage your career growth.

    Smart employers realize that call center agents can talk about the product or service better than anyone, making them excellent additions to product and sales teams. So look for companies that provide a path for agents to get there.

  4. What channels will I use to communicate with customers?

    The ideal answer here depends on your preference. You may want to dedicate most of your work hours to the channel you want to specialize in. Or you might feel more comfortable sticking with the channel you have the most experience with as you get to know the product, the customers, and the new role.

    But if you prefer to break up your day, you’ll likely want to choose a call center role that enables you to switch from channel to channel. “Instead of being on the phone all day, you can talk to customers via chat for a while or slow down and answer emails,” says Reed. “You can even get into social apps where you may be able to have a little bit more fun. Change things up to break up the day and enjoy your experience more.”

What call center technology will I work with?

Beyond basic equipment—a headset, computer, and Internet connection—you’ll likely use modern call center software like Zendesk. Call routing, agent desktops, learning management systems, and other tools make work easier and more satisfying for agents and managers.

  • Intelligent call routing: This tech sends tickets to the right agents depending on their skills, channel, availability, or all three.
  • An omnichannel agent desktop: This interface provides a complete view of a customer’s history and interactions across all communication channels, giving agents the context needed to provide the best possible customer experience.
  • A learning management system: Gone are the days of in-office training sessions. Now that training happens virtually, agents and managers have more say in how, when, and where they learn. This software stands apart from the agent dashboard and provides virtual training sessions for employees.
  • A workforce management system: Managers use this type of system to monitor agent activity in real time, track contact volume and capacity, predict future coverage needs, and create schedules. This software can integrate with the central dashboard or stand alone.
  • Self-service options: Interactive voice response (IVR), knowledge bases, community forums, AI chat, and other automation help customers help themselves. When customers can solve basic problems on their own, agents and managers can focus on helping other customers with more complex needs.

[Related read: The 12 best call center software of 2021 (according to users).]

What is the future of call centers?

COVID-19 was the “great accelerator,” according to Reed. Before the pandemic, technology upgrades, work-from-home options, and change in general were slow and hard to justify at legacy call centers. The pandemic forced call centers to become more flexible for customers and staff alike.

This flexibility shows up in a few ways. Call centers now embrace more communication channels. They also offer more self-service options to ease the burden of high call volumes on their support teams. And today, agents work primarily from home, with better technology and more channels to specialize in.

We expect these changes to persist, even after the pandemic ends. In fact, we anticipate call centers will double down on self-service options and explore new co-sourcing environments.

Companies will experiment more with co-sourcing

Historically, when companies used outsourcing to manage their call centers, they split customer interactions in basic ways. Half of the customer calls might go to the outsourced team, for example, while the other half would route to the in-house team. But increasing complexity in customer journeys and interactions has companies redesigning their outsourcing models, leading to new co-sourcing environments.

Co-sourcing is a more flexible hybrid outsourcing model that connects customers to agents in a more intentional way depending on the company’s customer and team needs. Businesses might direct simple customer problems to outsourced call center agents if self-service fails. They would then keep the more complicated or product-specific customer queries in-house for their more knowledgeable agents to handle.

Another co-sourcing organization might train its in-house team to specialize in the channels its customers use most, such as email, chat, and messaging. The company would manage all customer interactions on those channels and hire an outsourced team to field phone calls.

We expect more companies to experiment with unique co-sourcing models as their customer service organizations and operations become more nuanced. This opens the door for more variety in call center roles. Agents can level up their skills by spending more time on complex inquiries or can even specialize in a specific type of customer engagement.

Self-service will continue to evolve

With call volumes spiking due to the pandemic, customer service organizations are refining their self-service options in an effort to reduce their support staff’s workload. There’s a lot to gain here—according to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report 2020, only a third of companies offer some form of self-service, representing an opportunity for these companies to pull ahead of their competition and differentiate around how they meet customers.

IVR, knowledge bases, community forums, and chatbots are just the beginning. We predict self-service technology will improve in the coming years as more companies (and customers) demand effective self-service options:

  • Automation features in call center software will become increasingly advanced, offering smarter and more “human” interactions.
  • Information in knowledge bases, help centers, and community forums will become easier to discover and take action on.
  • Customer service agents and managers will play a larger role in keeping those resources updated.
  • Teams will become more intentional about self-service, creating a strategy to follow and adjust over time.

Kick off your call center career

Ready to take the next step? Get a glimpse into what it’s like to be an agent, learn more about the technology you’ll use, and start building a stellar call center resume. You should also read about what’s important in customer service today (according to support leaders), and discover ways to grow your skills and become a CX leader yourself.

2021 Employee Experience Trends Report

In this free report, we cover how companies are finding ways to work smarter, attract top talent, and harness the collective power of their people to get ahead.

2021 Employee Experience Trends Report

In this free report, we cover how companies are finding ways to work smarter, attract top talent, and harness the collective power of their people to get ahead.

Read now