Building a call center for an online travel company

Read advice from Donna Fluss on starting a call center for an online travel company, including what call center software to acquire and how to best design the call center to meet the organization's needs.

We are a midsized, online travel company, and we are considering transforming our customer service and support department into a call center. Do you know where I could find statistics regarding the percentage of completed travel reservations against the total number of call-to-book calls for travel-related call centers? Can you offer other suggestions for starting up this type of call center?
Excellent question -- but unfortunately, I do not know a good source for statistical information regarding travel-related call centers. You may want to contact some of the call center infrastructure vendors. As they all have clients in the travel business, it is likely that they may have this data.

I can provide suggestions for transforming your customer service and support department into a call center. I'd like to refer you to my book, The Real-Time Contact Center, available on Amazon. It provides a detailed guide for building a call center, addresses call center management and call center agent issues, various types of technology and different ways to acquire them, and gives you lots of best practices and checklists.

Since you have a customer service and support department, you are already on your way to building a call center. You have the people, which is one of the most challenging aspects of building a call center. It's also likely that you have some procedures and some components of a training program. To evolve your customer service and support department into a formal call center, you'll need technology, organization, procedures and best practices.

While some call centers use as many as fifty different systems and applications, to get started you'll need to acquire routing and queuing capabilities, which are referred to as basic automatic call distribution (ACD) functionality or call center infrastructure. Depending on where you are based, you can acquire this technology from a vendor that sells call center systems or you can "rent" it from a hosting company. Many network service providers all over the world now offer hosted call center solutions and there are stand-alone call center hosting companies that will be happy to sell you an application.

You may also want to invest in online customer service technology to automate transactions that do not require the assistance of live agents. Because you are a travel agency, I suggest that you invest in speech-enabled interactive voice response (IVR). You may also want to investigate Web self-service. And, if you are going to handle email, you will want to automate the process using an email response management application. Many of the call center solutions available today are suites that include ACD, IVR, email response management and Web self-service functionality. There are many more systems that you will want to acquire eventually, but I suggest that you take your time and implement applications slowly to be sure that you have an opportunity to learn how to use each system to its fullest in order to optimize its performance.

If you do not have the resources to build the environment yourself, you may want to hire a consulting firm or systems integration firm to assist you in building your environment. They can also help you select the right call center software for your customer service and support department. They may also be able to assist you in setting up a call center organization structure and drafting job descriptions and operational procedures and guidelines. (Chapter 10 in The Real-Time Contact Center discusses staffing and management issues. This chapter provides a call center organization chart and job descriptions and explains how to structure your organization.)

Another important factor for building a travel-related call center involves the salary and commission structure for reservation agents. A few of the travel call centers I've worked with found that paying commissions was a great motivator for their staff, but could be quite expensive.

Lastly, I suggest that you build a detailed project plan that addresses people, process and technology. This plan can help you stay on track as you build your new environment.

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