Headset Management: An Oft Untapped Savings Source

By Dr. Jon Anton and Cory Gideon Gunderson

While the cost of even the highest quality headsets is low when compared with call center staff salaries and technology, the mismanagement of headsets can contribute to poor customer service, increased agent stress, and unnecessary expenses. And, yet, organizational accountability for this essential piece of equipment and its related parts is sometimes loose in the fast-paced, pressure cooker environment of today’s call center.

For this reason, BenchmarkPortal, Inc. in association with the Purdue University Center for Customer-Driven Quality conducted a Best Practice in Headset Management Study sponsored by Plantronics. A primary driver of this study was the conviction that there is much more money at stake when headset management is neglected than most call center managers realize.

The purpose of the study was to document current best practices in headset management in call centers. We focused specifically on the following issues: headset accountability, selection, purchase, budget, training for agents, and theft deterrence.

Survey Methodology: Call centers that have been determined to be Centers of Excellence – both effective and efficient – were invited into this study. A variety of headset brand manufacturers were also asked to provide us with the names of their most advanced users for invitation into the study.

Twenty-five call centers accepted our invitation, completed the survey, and returned their responses to us via email. Ten in-depth follow-up telephone interviews were conducted to explore the specifics related to the survey’s open-ended questions. Three on-site visits were conducted to observe and discover unique and effective processes as they pertained to headset management.

Best Practice Recommendations: Our study revealed the following best practice recommendations:

Accountability for Headset Management: It is considered best practice to centralize headset management accountability. In smaller call centers, this responsibility is typically a portion of a manager’s role. Some larger centers (500+ agents) that participated in this study made headset management a job in and of itself. The goal in centralizing headset management is to eliminate the all too common practice of having headsets and parts crammed in boxes, stuffed under desks, or scrapped in cabinets at the end of the hall. In these less-than-ideal scenarios, whenever a headset breaks, someone has to leave the floor in hopes of retrieving a working unit. The result is lost time and a negative impact on performance metrics. The team member responsible for inventory should ensure that working headsets are always available and those that are not are quickly turned around for repair and/or return.

Those centers that currently centralize headset management typically track inventory, either electronically or on paper, via three separate spreadsheets: 1) headsets in stock/available, 2) headsets waiting for repair, and 3) headsets out for repair.

Headset Selection Process: Business interactions rely on clear, effective communications with customers, and the headset is the most important link between an organization’s agents and their customers. The brand selected will largely determine the quality of the connection between the two.

It makes sense then, that of the call centers we surveyed, 50 percent cited quality, performance, reliability, warranty, and service, rather than price, as the primary reasons for selection of the headset brand that they purchased for their call centers.

When selecting new headsets, best practices include a thorough comparison of headset brands and models. This comparison should address the following questions, to guide managers in making the best selection choice for their centers’ needs and budget:

  • What is the noise level in your call center? We advise you to invest in features that will ensure the strongest, clearest connection with callers.
  • What is the vendor’s reputation in the industry? Consider your headset vendor as you would any other critical business partner. Can they support you throughout the sales and support process?
  • Does the vendor offer a full range of products? Remember that no headset meets all individual needs.
  • Does the vendor offer inventory management solutions that can help you maximize your headset budget?
  • Can the vendor provide you with 24/7 support? Having headsets that work around the clock is essential.
  • Does the vendor provide headset training? Some provide onsite, computer-based training videos and interactive tutorials.

Budgeting: The average price for a wired headset is typically between $50 and $150. Wireless headsets, not yet as common in call centers as compared to the traditional wired units, typically cost between $100 and $200.

Analyze headset expenses over a two to four year period, not just the upfront purchase price. The purchase price accounts for only half of the costs over time. Repairs, spare parts, shrinkage, mismanaged inventories, and warranties comprise the remainder of the expenses. Identify all costs up front so you have a complete analysis of your financial investment.

Most call centers consider headset and related purchases expense items, rather than capitalized items. Rather than spending money to repair damaged headsets, many call centers opt to replace them.

It is considered best practice to maintain a separate budget for whatever headset repair and replacements are necessary in your call center. Expenses are more easily monitored and managed this way.

Agent Training in Headset Usage: Perhaps the most surprising finding in our study is illustrated by the following chart:

Over one-half of the call centers surveyed offer training to their agents on proper headset usage. Only a few offer training on the proper storage, cleaning, and hygiene management of their headsets.

When it comes to room for improvement in headset management, call center managers would be wise to look at their current training practices. Without training in the headset management areas noted in the chart, it is difficult, if not impossible, to properly manage headsets and costs associated with their upkeep and maintenance. Clearly, this mismanagement inevitably leads to higher breakdown and failure of headsets, increased risk of agent illness, and greater headset management costs.

Best practice centers provide headset education during initial agent training. Furthermore, during the cold and flu season, these centers offer agents email refreshers on headset cleaning and hygiene.

Theft Deterrence: While the majority of centers in our study did not report issues with headset theft, this was more of an issue in large call centers where multiple shifts of agents shared the same workspace. One center deals effectively with this issue by mounting large, self-designed platforms (16″ wide by 24″ long) with curved tops, which hang over the top of workstation walls. The ACD phone base, headset interface amplifier, and headset jack are attached by screws and fastened to the platform. The agent simply affixes her own earmuff and microphone cover or voice tube to set up for work. While few, if any, theft deterrents are 100 percent effective, this platform is large enough to make carrying it out of the building difficult.

Another practice is to have agents purchase their own headsets. This agent-centered accountability is one way some centers choose to manage costs. When headsets require repair, the call center provides the agent with a loaner.

Conclusion: Imagine the results your center can realize when headset management is given the attention it deserves. An effective headset management system, including money spent on high-quality headsets, is an investment in agent productivity, customer satisfaction, and the all-important bottom line.

BenchmarkPortal is the custodian of the Purdue University Center for Customer-Driven Quality database of contact center metrics, the largest in the world. It provides contact center leaders with reports, products, and services in the areas of operational metrics, customer satisfaction measurement, and agent satisfaction measurement.  For more information, call 805-614-0123, ext.10.

[From Connection Magazine March 2005]