Telecom Recipes - Building A Professional Quality Customer Service Call Center on a Shoestring Budget

by Brian McConnell


Your small business is growing quickly. Your customer service department consisted of a couple people who would answer incoming calls. Now you have a half dozen support personel, and often more calls than they can handle at once. You'd like to have incoming support calls queued up and handed off to your support staff in a more orderly manner.


You need an automated call distribution system, or ACD. This was once an expensive piece of dedicated hardware or software that would be integrated with an equally expensive PBX (private branch exchange). These systems make great economic sense for larger businesses, where the capital costs can be spread across an entire organization and over many years. For less well capitalized small businesses they can be prohibitively expensive.

Fortunately ACD technology has been integrated into many small business telephone systems. Better still, hosted communication services eliminate the need for an on-site telephone system altogether.

In this article, I'll assume that you already have a telephone system, and don't want to replace it just yet. So without throwing your old system in the trash, how can you create a slick and efficient customer contact center?

Poor Man's ACD

If you only have a handful of customer service people, all of whom work a predictable schedule, you can build a poor man's ACD by exploiting your phone system's busy/no answer forwarding settings.

Let's say you have four extensions, 201, 202, 203 and 204 for your customer service reps. Every decent telephone system, including entry-level systems, allows you to set forwarding settings for extensions. What you want to do is to set up a hunt group with a rule such as:

  • if 201=busy, forward to 202

  • if 201=no answer, forward to voice mail for 201

  • if 202=busy, forward to 203

  • if 202=no answer, forward to voice mail for 201

  • if 203=busy, forward to 204

  • if 203=no answer, forward to voice mail for 201

  • if 204=busy, forward to voice mail for 201

  • if 204=no answer, forward to voice mail for 201

NOTE: this works best if the sales reps have two extensions on their desks, one for the call center, and one for their direct dial extension for person-to-person calling. This way people calling a specific rep do not get transferred to someone else if the rep is not available.

This approach works, but it has its weaknesses, one of which is there is no good way to do queueing, where calls will automatically be put on hold if all extensions are busy. The other problem is that the forwarding rules are static, so this doesn't work well in an ad hoc environment where people jump in and out of this workgroup. Every time the membership of the group changes, you have to change the forwarding rules, which are also easy to break. Nonetheless, if you're stuck with a cheap phone system, and you have fairly light call traffic to your service department, this will work well enough.

Hosted Communication Services

A better option, especially if your customer service reps work from multiple locations, telecommute, etc, is to subscribe to a hosted communication service. Some of these services offer ACD as part of their packages.

One company in particular has an especially good small business ACD solution. Virtual PBX is a completely outsourced small business telephone system that emulates virtually all of the features found in high-end PBX/ACD systems. (While Virtual PBX is not the only company offering hosted communication services, they've paid particular attention to ACD features). I often recommend Virtual PBX as a way for small companies to build their customer support queues (they can still use their existing office telephone system for basic dial tone, voice mail, etc). Here's how this works.

Virtual PBX assigns you a toll-free number. Each employee is assigned an extension number on the virtual telephone system. Each extension number can be pointed to one or more direct-dial telephone numbers (e.g. home phone, cell phone, office phone). So it is not necessary for all of the employees to be co-located. The system has several workgroups (ACDs) which the employees can join or leave via a web interface. When someone wants to answer sales calls, they simply go to the ACD page, join the sales group, and begin receiving calls.

If all of the employees in a given workgroup are busy, calls will be queued in FIFO (first in, first out) order, and will hear music or a recorded message while holding, just like a high-end system will do.

Additionally, the service allows you to rank different employees by priority. This is a way of weighting the queue so that some employees will be first in line to answer calls, and then if all employees of a certain rank are busy, the system will begin calling out to lower ranked employees. This is a great feature because it enables you to send calls to front-line support people first, and then to other people when the phones get really busy.


Hosted communication services generally charge a nominal monthly fee plus incoming toll charges for the toll-free telephone number. Rates vary from provider to provider, but are generally well under 10 cents per minute. So how much does this really cost? Less than you would think.

You probably want to answer customer service calls on an 800 number anyway, since this is standard practice in almost every industry. This means you'll be paying for 800 toll charges anyway. A "dumb" 800 number, with no ACD capability, just rings into your existing phone system. It's a dumb pipe that delivers voice calls from point A to point B. So you still need a phone system to answer and route the calls on your end. This type of toll-free service generally costs 3 to 5 cents per minute depending on the carrier, monthly commitment, and duration of the agreement you sign.

A smart 800 number that rings through a virtual telephone system eliminates the need for you to have a hardware based ACD at your office. All you need are telephones to answer the calls with. This type of service costs more than a dumb pipe, but not much more. Market rates these days seem to be about 7 to 10 cents per minute, less if you're doing a fair amount of call traffic. So, the actual cost of the service is the difference between a smart 800 number and a dumb toll-free number, probably about 2 to 5 cents per minute extra, and most likely about 2 or 3 cents per minute (or a couple dollars per hour).

Another benefit of a hosted communication system is that no on-site hardware is required, just basic telephones. Because there is no equipment to install, you can be up and running in a matter of hours. This is also a great way to prototype a new customer contact center before you make a big commitment to a vendor. You can test drive a hosted communication system for a few hundred dollars, sometimes less.

So if you have a bean counter mentality, you might see that as an unnecessary expense, but it helps to put this in context of what you're paying people to answer the calls (as well as the back office people who support them in their jobs). Unless you're running a sweatshop, a couple dollars per hour is noise level stuff, especially if the ACD improves customer service levels, allows you to turn over more sales per hour, or keeps customers from switching to other vendors.

For most customers, the telephone customer service department is their primary point of contact with your business. It's worth paying a bit to present a good image to the outside world. So now that you have a fancy telephone system, don't make the same mistake that big companies make by understaffing their call centers and letting robots tell customers how important their business is to you.

Do you know other hosted communication service providers that offer great ACD and customer contact center features? Post your recommendations and links here....