New Call Center Sales Focus Carries HR Challenges

December 3, 2003 ( - A shift in focus for call centers from service only to a sales generation tool are forcing employers to increasingly confront issues such as employee retention and compensation plan design, a new survey found.

The 2003 Call Center Compensation Survey , conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting, reflects the growing interest in call centers as a way to handle a range of business functions, including sales, customer service, technical support, and credit/collections. . Increasingly, organizations are looking at their call centers – and their customer service roles – as an additional distribution channel for products and services, Mercer said.

In fact, Mercer found, high turnover continues to plague call centers despite the slow economy and sluggish job market. According to Mercer’s survey, the average turnover rate within call centers is 33%, extends to all employee levels, and is a particularly problem during an employee’s first year.

Techniques judged most effective for retaining employees are:

  • recognition programs
  • a favorable work environment
  • high-quality supervision and leadership.

Then there is the issue of compensation package design. According to Mercer, with the shifting focus onto a mix of sales and service, employers struggle with finding the best balance between base and variable pay, and strengthening the link between pay and performance. According to Mercer’s survey, variable paywhich can include bonuses, commissions, and/or other incentivesis most often based on achievement of individual objectives, followed by level of service provided, and achievement of department and team objectives. Mercer’s survey indicates that call center operators are budgeting for base pay increases of 3.4% to 3.6% in 2004, compared to 3.4% to 3.5% in 2003.

In a work environment that is often 24/7, 76% of call centers use shift differentials. Shift differentials are offered for weekday second shift (differential of $0.62 per hour) and weekday third shift ($0.84 per hour), but are highest for weekend second shift ($0.89 per hour) and weekend third shift ($1.14 per hour). In addition, 84% of call centers pay a premium – typically 1.5 times hourly base pay – for employees who work on a scheduled holiday

Call center workers with language skills are particularly valuable. According to Mercer’s survey, 45% of the responding call centers pay a premium for multilingual employees. Of these, 42% indicated that the amount of the premium was dependent on the language spoken. For Spanish, the language most in demand by employers, the mean premium is $0.70 per hour.

The highest-paid positions in the call center environment include: top corporate call center executive, with median total cash compensation (includes base salary and annual incentive) of $200,000; group or regional call center executive at $136,800; and call center executive (responsible for a single call center or business segment) at $105,900.

The survey reveals differences in pay by call center type or function. For example, pay for intermediate-level representatives tends to be highest in call centers focused on full account management and technical support. Pay is lowest for the category of inbound order entry. A similar pattern occurs among team/group managers.

This year, 333 organizations – representing 386,320 employees in 1,707 call centers nationwide – provided data on 88 different call center positions.

The 2003 Call Center Compensation Survey is available for purchase online at or by calling 800-333-3070. The cost is $650 for companies that participated in the survey and $1,950 for nonparticipants.