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Create a Call Center in 6 Hours

Everything has changed... just in the past few weeks because of the COVID-19 Virus. Centers are closed for members, most programs have stopped, staff is working remote or not at all. Our entire structure has been uprooted in just a few weeks.

In this article I will lay out how we (a team of two) setup the infrastructure for a make-shift call center to support our members and program participants in half a day. I will also highlight some mistakes that we made that you should avoid.

1. Map Things Out

How many staff are you going to have and where? What we did was do a network access audit in the room in which we were going to layout the call center. We then laid out the seating arrangements around where we had existing cable drops and where we could easily pull lines. Each staff would need a computer and phone line. Since the phones run off POE and have internet pass through, one data drop would suffice for the phone and PC.

2. Build the network

Break out the ladder and the cable and run your drops. We wanted to add 5 new staff into this room but we only had three existing drops so we needed 2 additional lines. We were able to piggyback one off of an existing cable drop and the other we were able to run down a column through an existing but empty conduit. Now a case can be made for just stringing the cables in the easiest fashion but how much longer would it really take to do it the right way. Ultimately you don't want cables on the floor being stepped on or getting ruined. It maybe took us an extra hour to do it the right way. AND, it gives things a cleaner and less chaotic feel.

3. Install the hardware

There are only two of us on the IT team here so once the cable was run we split up tasks. One person unboxed and assembled the work station and the other added the computers to the domain, installed the appropriate Office licenses and our remote agents, etc. This process went pretty quickly.

Luckily, I had ordered some additional PCs and laptops as soon as the crisis broke out in preparation of having a modified operation so we had the inventory to deploy new machines. If you don't have new machines, re-purpose machines from centers that are not in use.

We then set the phones up with generic user accounts (Help Desk User 1, 2, etc.)

4. Configure the Phones

If you have a hosted VOIP provider like a lot of large organizations you need to submit a request for them to create a new hunt group (with all the extensions of the call center in it), if you cannot do it yourself. We created a group called Membership Experience Center, gave it a DID (direct inbound dial) number and an internal extension. This allowed us to post the number on our website for members to be able to call directly into our Membership Experience Center and bypass our front desk staff. The internal extension also allows staff at centers to easily transfer calls into the center for membership questions and change requests. Here is how we setup our system (and some lessons learned)...

Phone system layout:

  • All main numbers, for all centers, are routed to the extension of the call center (we had two locations that were actually being forwarded to another number so they were not coming into the center). Be sure to check each number after making this change for the correct call path.

  • Determine the best ring policy for the group. We tried ring all phones which drove everyone crazy so we settled with longest idle time. This worked really well until we had unattended stations. The phone would ring at a desk with no one there. Be sure to enable Do Not Disturb on each phone so you can handle unattended stations.

  • All calls end at the same extension. That one extension had voicemail set up on it. That voicemail was then set to send the message via email to a shared mailbox that was monitored by the staff.

5. Shared Mailbox

The last order of business was to setup a shared mailbox. We created a generic mailbox named membershipexperience@... that we then added the staff to. This allowed them to all check the mailbox and send from that account within Outlook. You also have a lot of options as far as auto-response, etc.

We routed all the voicemails and any online forms to this same mailbox. We also added this email address to all of our digital communication (website or emails) to members.

That's about it.

Up and Running

This all took us about half a day to configure. Now, granted we had to work out some kinks as noted above with the DND on phones and a few DID numbers being forwarded but overall it was a pretty smooth implementation. If you are looking at doing something like this in your organization I strongly recommend drawing out a plan for how you want your call paths to work before implementing anything.

The next step, if we decide to keep this arrangement, will be getting the right software system in place to truly manage and track calls, etc. However, a layout similar to the one I described should be able to be configured using systems that are already in place within your organization.

Let me know if you have any questions. Best of luck!

- Nate

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