How I went from being a Contact Centre amateur to a Contact Centre professional
I’ve been on a nearly 30 year journey to become a Contact Centre professional. And in this very personal article I share some of the highlights of that journey.
My purpose in writing this is two-fold:
- To share what I’ve learned that may be of help to others
- To answer questions that I get from Participants & Clients about my background
I hope you find something helpful in my story.
I entered the industry completely by accident – didn’t you?
By education I’m a Management Accountant (from the University of California) and after graduation I began running accounting functions within organizations.
I loved the work.
In the early 90s I ended up managing the accounting function for a large direct marketing firm that operated both Call Centre & Distribution operations.
We were based in Los Angeles, California.
The VP, Operations, Janice – who came with some experience – developed and led the Centre & the Distribution Operations.
For myself, in addition to the normal financial duties (such as statement preparation), I got to do things like design Cost per Order, Cost per Call and various Financial models for her and the Marketing Team.
I was lucky – Janice was a sharer.
She taught me a lot about how to run an operation. And for me it was motivating to feel so deeply involved with Customer Service & Operations.
We got along famously.
After a couple of years she tendered her resignation to join another firm.
Two hours after her resignation was announced, I got a call from the CEO.
The conversation went along the lines of “Dan, you know the numbers. You’ve helped refine our operation from that side of things. You’re also well liked and respected. What do you think about taking up the position that Janice just vacated?”
Now I’m not sure where I learned this – but I always say yes to opportunity (thanks Mom & Dad).
So, without any specific operations background, I moved horizontally from VP, Finance to VP, Operations.
A famous Richard Branson quote comes up at this point of telling the story.
Saying yes transformed my life.
And in my work around the world, most Contact Center leaders tell me that they too – through circumstance and happenstance – ended up in the industry by accident.
When you step back and think about it – that’s quite a unique scenario for an industry that demands mastery across many important and varied responsibilities.
And one of its Achilles’ Heels as you’ll see.
I loved my Operations career
The most obvious difference between Finance & Operations, was the ability to impact the lives of so many more people.
All of a sudden I had a large staff of Team Leaders and Agents in the Contact Centre and Warehousing folks in Distribution Centre (not to mention millions of Customers).
Fortunately, I wasn’t a stranger to these folks and I believe they were rooting for me to succeed.
And over the next years I did.
We grew and grew and I was part of two acquisitions to the company that tapped on both my finance & operations sides.
As I look back now, I attribute most of my success in my ‘operations’ jobs to the talent & calibre of the Team Leaders and Managers who handled the day in and day out work.
I always say that life gets easier as you go up the ladder.
Because they did their jobs so well, I could spend more time with IT, with Finance, with Marketing. I could travel and do acquisitions. I could help plan for the future.
And in our business, I never experienced ‘silos’ or silo mentality.
Our Marketing folks spent days in the Call Centre each month listening to calls and learning what worked – and didn’t work – for the Customers who bought our products.
The entire management team believed in ‘Voice of Customer’ and grabbing hold of ‘unsolicited feedback’ even before those terms had been coined.
Admittedly our survey process was light to non-existent. But codifying and actioning Customer feedback was a norm.
We kept growing and growing up until we were acquired.
The story of that acquisition by a larger firm, having my job eliminated and then figuring out what to do next is for another post.
In 1998 I ended up in Singapore – in 2001 I opened my Contact Centre & Service consultancy
After years of working in inbound, outbound and outsourced Centres, I took the leap and set up my own company at the ripe old age of 39.
OmniTouch opened in Singapore in 2001 and we began work with our two first Clients – The Economist Magazine, Singapore and Maxis Mobile, Malaysia.
Over the months, word of our work spread quickly and we were packed doing a lot of Frontline training for Contact Centre Agents across many organizations.
We were also running a number of regional Mystery Shopper programs as well. That was by design.
When I set up the company we had intentionally diversified our offerings so that Clients could choose between training or Mystery Shopper research.
But despite our growth, I realized that doing what was essentially Customer Service training – even with a solid Contact Centre background – was not sustainable in the long run.
Clients had started asking questions further up the value chain.
What can you teach our Managers? How do we set up a Centre? How do we know if we are operating based on the right KPIs? What’s the right way to forecast? To coach? How do I prepare an accurate budget? How do I explain all of this to my boss?
So despite our early success in our first couple of years, I admit that I still felt like a Contact Centre amateur.
My years of senior experience – though valuable and rewarding – had not equipped me to confidently answer these questions.
I think that’s part of the downside of falling into an industry by accident. I lacked the formal education around the Contact Centre eco-system.
This situation is more common than people care to admit.
So I decided to do something about it – to equip myself with Contact Centre expertise – not just experience
I think it was in early 2003 that we found an ad in the back of a Contact Centre industry magazine.
A new industry certification had been set up in the U.S. It looked promising.
What I very much liked about the certification was that it didn’t just cover operations – though that was critical.
It addressed the people aspects, the leadership aspects and even the customer relationship aspects – a complete ecosystem approach.
That appealed to me. And I believed it would appeal to Clients in the markets where I worked as well.
I rang up the Director of the Association based in Nashville and she pointed me to 3 possible Business Partners in the U.S. who could assist us in our quest.
One firm, headed up by a University Professor, was based in California and after chatting with him on the phone, I booked myself and a colleague from Singapore to California.
For 3 weeks we lived at his large hilltop home.
Mondays – Fridays we had private full day sessions with him (just we two).
First we went through a vast array of material as Students – with required exams. Then we went through the material again from the perspective of Facilitators.
It was a terrific self-development experience. We would sit around his kitchen table at night and debate things like how to measure Agent performance.
The investment I made – which I saw as very strategic – was about USD$40,000. But I knew we were on the right track.
By the time I got back to Singapore I felt much less like an amateur.
Eventually we shifted over to working with ICMI
After we got back to Singapore a weakness began to show up in our Professor.
He was so busy with his teaching and other responsibilities that he was unable to carry on and finish all the courses we were after.
On our side we didn’t have the luxury to wait after our initial investment. USD$40,000 had been spent – so we had to move forward.
I went back to the Director of the Association in Nashville, explained our situation and she then put us in touch with ICMI.
That was a fortuitous move.
I flew back to the U.S., concluded the discussions with the ICMI Team, signed the agreements and began an inspiring journey into becoming part of a global team of what were called ICMI Certified Associates and Global Partners.
To achieve this distinction involved passing various examinations and having my facilitation style videoed and analyzed to ensure that the appropriate standards of delivery and mastery were in place.
This wasn’t a one off activity. It took place over multiple conferences and events – many in the U.S. – some outside the U.S.
I think that first check I wrote – of the many that we wrote over the years – was for USD$80,000 or so. I saw this as an investment in myself, our Team and our company.
If you’re in the knowledge business you have to be at the top of your game.
Our relationship deepened
As our relationship with ICMI deepened we began co-creating courses. One of my favorite projects was developing a complete Frontline Certification program for a telecoms Client in India.
I found I loved to write courseware – something that I have a passion for to this day.
As consulting jobs came up, Certified Associate resources would be deployed from the geographical locations that made the most sense.
I traveled and did onsite training and consulting for a number of Contact Centres across the US, Europe and the Middle East. My company back in Singapore was flourishing and growing.
I let my colleagues also pursue their certifications regardless of cost. It was the right thing to do.
Finally, in 2006, after a particularly successful engagement – and after nearly 15 years in the industry – I looked into a hotel mirror (in New Delhi I think) and said to myself – yes, now you’re a Contact Centre professional.
You’ve got to keep your eye on what’s next
Writing now, after that pivotal moment in New Delhi when I gave myself the permission to call myself a Contact Centre professional, I’ve continued to adapt and grow with the industry.
For many years we brought experts from the U.S. over to Asia to share on survey design, Customer experience, workforce management and more.
I was able to attend some of their courses 5 or even 6 times over the years which was always an honor. I picked up something new each time.
We also listen carefully to Clients – at the end of the day they bring you in to solve problems or to create opportunities – whether those are ‘evergreen’ or new.
From this listening we developed and launched courses for both Live Chat and Social Media because channel preferences were changing.
We launched a complete middle management series specifically for Contact Centres because we found that the job role was underserved,
Judging industry Awards around the world has also been a terrific way to keep up with what’s happening out there.
In 2007, after years of focusing exclusively on Contact Centres we pivoted our work into Customer Experience.
That year, we changed our mission to what remains today – “We help & inspire Participants and the Organizations they work for to create great experiences”.
And we backed that up by moving heavily into the Customer Experience space – including offering CX & CX certification courses along with our Customer Service & Contact Centre offerings.
At the end of the day, you need experience – and you need formal know how
Someone at a senior level wrote to me recently and said – “Oh Dan, the industry is already very mature…”
But that comment made me a bit sad. I don’t think it’s true.
Years of experience do not equal mastery – much less maturity. Practice doesn’t make perfect – it makes permanent.
You’ve got to make the investment to learn how to navigate complex eco-systems – whether that’s the Contact Centre or Customer Experience (which is clearly much bigger).
Especially if you fell into the industry by accident, or have worked for only one or two organizations.
Maybe you don’t have to spend as much money as I have. But you need to make a solid effort.
Attend the conferences, go to the trainings, read the books, watch the videos. Enter Awards.
In a world that’s ever changing – I’ve found that continually saying yes to myself and investing in myself and the people I work with – has never let me down.
Thank you for reading this very personal article.
firstname.lastname@example.org / www.omnitouchinternational.com