The broad term "call center" may refer to a variety of operations, including centers that accept incoming (inbound) or make outgoing (outbound) calls. While small call centers may have seperate groups that handle both inbound and outbound calling tasks, large call center operations may accepts dozens or even hundreds of different types of inbound calls while generating tens of thousands of outbound calls, for a wide variety of clients, every day.
In an outbound call center, representatives may be making calls for the purpose of selling products or services, collecting bills, taking surveys, or any number of other customer contact-related tasks. These calls may originate from a computer (known as a "predictive dialing system") that dials the number and hands off the call to an agent, or by allowing agents to manually dial numbers from a list. The outbound calls travel over commercial telephone lines, though long distance carriers often offer bulk discounts to call centers that generate a negotiated minimum number of calls.
An inbound call center works somewhat like an outbound call center in reverse, though there are a few important distinctions. Incoming calls to this type of center is often delivered through toll-free numbers, and may pass through an Integrated Voice Response (IVR) system where the caller makes selections based on the call type. When the call arrives at the inbound center, it is identified based on the line on which it came in or on information provided by the IVR, and placed into a system designed to deliver calls as agents become available (this system is known as an Automated Call Distribution, or ACD, system). Agents must log in to a special telephone set to indicate that they are ready for work, and the ACD automatically delivers incoming calls to the agents who have been waiting the longest. If agents are accepting multiple call types--customer information and direct sales calls, for example--the agent may receive information on a computer screen or through a short digital "whisper" in the handset to alert them to the type of call being answered. The agents assist the customer by answering questions, providing information, or completing a sale, then complete the call and wait for the ACD system to deliver another call.
Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, has helped change call center environments by providing a richer set of features at a reduced cost. An outbound call center benefits from the reduced (or even free) long distance rates charged by VoIP carriers, while inbound centers benefit from the delivery of pertinent call information over the same data connection that carries the VoIP call. As VoIP technology matures and improves, more and more call centers will likely move to this mode of operation in order to take advantage of its benefits.