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Teleservice Call Centers Emerge as New Source of Middle-Class Jobs

But many firms are not prepared to operate toll-free numbers well

IN a cavernous office filled with cubicles, Leo Crossfield sits peering into a computer screen as he scrolls through data bases and listens to a customer on the telephone.

Mr. Crossfield is a teleservice representative (TSR) who works for MCI in a service center outside Atlanta. Part counselor and part information analyst, teleservice jobs are one of the fastest-growing occupations in America.

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Gene Swyston, a teleservice consultant and former vice president of engineering for Northern Telecom, estimates there are 600,000 teleservice representatives at work in the United States and 700,000 toll-free numbers in operation.

Teleservice is an outgrowth of the toll-free 800 number, an invention of the late 1960s. Studies by the American Telemarketing Association have found that more than half of the nation's 91 million households called an 800 number in the past year.

John Gerdelman, vice president for marketing at MCI, says that MCI customer service representatives received 2.7 million calls in a recent month. New kind of worker

Teleservice representatives field 800-number calls at ``in-bound call centers'' such as the MCI facility in Ravinia, an upscale office park north of Atlanta. The Ravinia center employs 400 TSRs.

Three-fourths of them have college degrees. Salaries range from $19,000 a year to $35,000. About 70 percent of the TSRs here are African-Americans.

Ravinia, one of the 15 MCI service centers around the country, represents an industry that some analysts hope could be a new source of high-quality, middle- class jobs.

But not all teleservice jobs pay as well as those at Ravinia, and not all call centers are as posh. The average customer service representative makes $7.50 an hour, or less than $15,000 a year, says Lyn Kramer, a teleservice consultant.

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Rachel Hernandez, a reservation agent for Southwest Airlines in San Antonio, testified before Congress recently. She described her workplace this way:

``Simply stated, it is loud and congested. Hundreds of agents work in spaces that are not much bigger than the size of most hearing rooms. Rows and rows of computer terminals fill most of the space. Noise is constant and it is everywhere.''

Mr. Swyston says that some of the problems in call centers stem from a lack of strategic planning. ``Many organizations don't understand what they're getting into when they take out an 800 number,'' he says.

``They may never have heard of an `inbound call center' until they've created one, '' Swyston says.

``It's simply not possible to plan for handling the workload in an incoming call center the way you would plan work in most other parts of your business,'' says Gordon MacPherson, who heads the Incoming Calls Management Institute in Annapolis, Md.

``You don't know when the work will arrive, and you also don't know at what rate the work will arrive,'' he says. ``That's why some of the work environments are so chaotic.''

Mr. MacPherson, Ms. Kramer, and Swyston are among those attempting to train call center managers in a job most of them never heard of until they were in it.

Much of the training is in new technology, such as Automatic Call Distributors (ACDs), an expensive device that routes calls to an available representative and keeps track of incoming calls so that managers can deploy their staffs properly. Range of management data

``The problem is that most supervisors who run the ACDs don't know how to read the printouts,'' Swyston says. ``Those machines can measure everything in sight. They can turn out 100 different reports every morning. But most of the reports are simply stacked up and then shelved in storage.''

For several years MacPherson and consultant Ian Angus have sponsored an annual conference to help call center managers master their jobs. Four years ago a conference in Toronto drew 80 participants. This year's gathering in Atlanta attracted a crowd of 600 who paid $1,000 each to attend seminars and examine new technologies. Another 100 registrants were turned away.

``We don't know how many fingers and toes call center management is going to have on it,'' says Paul Raskin, a marketing manager for MCI. ``This field is just beginning to take shape.''

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