Maximizing Your Role in the Call Center Growth Market

Call centers continue to proliferate as corporate America continues to make the customer the central focus of its business strategy. In fact, many call centers are becoming the physical manifestation of a corporate philosophy know as customer relationship management (CRM).But does the physical structure of such a facility affect how all employees deal with customers? Are there ways buildi...

By Michael K. Kuppinger, P.E., R.C.D.D., Senior Vice President, Environmental Systems Design, Chicago August 1, 2001

Call centers continue to proliferate as corporate America continues to make the customer the central focus of its business strategy. In fact, many call centers are becoming the physical manifestation of a corporate philosophy know as customer relationship management (CRM).

But does the physical structure of such a facility affect how all employees deal with customers? Are there ways buildings can be designed to have the flexibility required for this type of operation? Does an owner need to have a call center to practice CRM, or can traditional businesses be subject to similar engineering solutions? Does the integration of hardware and software affect traditional M/E/P notions surrounding these facilities? And finally, how does all this affect the consulting engineering business?

There are eight key factors that consulting engineers must address when examining these questions. Engineers should:

  • Comprehensively understand the function and engineering of the call center and its role as a data source.

  • Keep pace with or ahead of the call center software technology curve.

  • Understand and develop a vision for cable management.

  • Realize the role of redundant power.

  • Utilize a completely different set of lighting needs.

  • Balance environmental control between man and machine.

  • Deal with noise reduction.

  • Plan, on an ongoing basis, for all contingencies.

What engineers need to know

Call centers are facilities that house groups of employees who serve customers via telephones, facsimiles, e-mail, the Internet or video to provide sales, service or billing. Increasingly, engineers work with call center managers, who find their facilities to be the focus of the CRM movement. If designed and managed well, these centers can serve customers quickly, efficiently and cost effectively. The engineer must, therefore, understand both the call center and CRM, the goal of which is to retain customers through personalized, fast and efficient response.

Typically, CRM offers customers a way to easily transact business. A CRM-type operation like a call center delivers customized service to a customer’s preference, responds to requests with proper information and continually monitors and improves the company’s process for delivering an exceptional customer experience. The first step in designing such a facility is understanding the software and the system it will employ to achieve this end.

Call center management must coordinate staffing, call costs and facility costs with the data requirements of their particular operation. That means the type of building, number of employees and type of data must be part of the design equation. For example, an insurance claim center will have many requirements that are different from a bank credit center, even though they may begin with the same building type.

Call centers are actually divided into two types: customer service centers and profit centers. The former does not directly produce revenue, whereas profit-type centers—such as catalog and telemarketing operations—generate revenue. Both may be automatic call-distribution (ACD) environments where software routes incoming calls to groups of representatives, also called a queue, based on first-in, first-answered criteria. The guiding principle of an ACD is that the caller waiting the longest will be the first routed to the next available representative. The employee who receives the call will be either the first available or the one who has been available the longest. This all sounds simple until one realizes that all call centers are somewhat unique because of the software that drives them.

Centers depend on data—and an enormous array of equipment and technology—to handle data and calling. Software has much to do with the success or failure of these activities. It generates the ability to handle each customer’s previous call experiences; gives special handling to help save and build customer loyalty by personalizing the routing of inbound calls; combines voice, data and video transport capabilities of voice over internet protocol (VOIP); and allows switching with advanced call control, network services and management capabilities.

All of this can be quite overwhelming for managers, and it is the consulting engineer who can come to the rescue. Consider that the amount of data traffic in these facilities doubles every three to six months, often outstripping available technology to handle it. Who else but the consulting engineer can keep up? Since hundreds of system programming decisions must be made, it is the engineer’s responsibility to wade through the comprehensive software offerings and match what exists to the needs of the client.

Hitting the technology curve

Staying current on technology is perhaps the greatest challenge, as evidenced by the latest development: the convergence of telephone-related functionality into the computer. Called computer-telephony integration, CTI is the ability of a computing application to take control of a telephone system, which can be a telephone handset or terminal, or a whole telephone switch. CTI is divided into three services: call control, call-event information and feature control. Call control enables a computer application to take control of a telephone or a telephone switch. In call event information, the computer understands and interprets what to do with the call as it monitors the calls in progress on the telephone system. Finally, feature control allows the host computing application to take control of a specific PBX (private branch exchange) feature of a terminal.

CTI requires close examination of the computing environment to be connected. The customer’s computing hardware, operating system and business application must be examined to determine which is the best architecture or vendor-specific approach.

Software itself is more and more related to the physical design of the center, and therein lies the essential problem the engineer must solve: software changes daily. For example, building a call center with conventional PCs on desktops invites a maintenance burden that has sparked an ongoing debate on PC-enterprise economics. One school of thought suggests the installation of large-scale application servers and the use of the legacy PC base to run remote thin clients. Another faction recommends running applications served from premise boxes or centralized application service provider (ASP)racks. The latest thinking is called concentrated computing, and brings 96 PCs into a single 19-inch rack. What differentiates one approach from the other is the client’s needs.

Behind the scenes

All this equipment, of course, requires an extensive amount of cabling and effective cable management. Used to transmit the information, cabling has changed dramatically over the past 20 years. During the 1980s, as phone signals became digital, local-area networks (LANs) proliferated and new cables and cabling architectures were created. By the early 1990s, a structured cabling plan was standardized by technical committees of the Electronic Industries Association and Telecommunications Industry Association (EIA/TIA). This standard is referred to by the number of the primary standard, EIA/TIA 568-B, although there are actually a number of standards, technical advisories, etc., that cover all aspects of structured cabling. The standard is not mandatory. It is a voluntary guideline developed by manufacturers of cabling components and networking equipment with the intention of standardizing the equipment used for any 568-B-compliant system.

EIA/TIA 568-B calls for connecting the desktop work area to a telecommunications closet—the “horizontal” run—with up to 100 meters of cable, including no more than 10 meters total of patch cords. The telecom closet houses the hubs—which are interconnected—for the computers in the work areas. The main cross-connect (MXC) or equipment room contains the network and telecom hardware. The cable discussed in 568-B is unshielded twisted-pair (UTP) cable, comprised of four twisted pairs of copper wire and insulated with material to provide high bandwidth, low attenuation and low crosstalk. The cable is terminated in jacks—connector receptacles with punchdown terminations.

For CTI applications, the engineer must look further to Category 5E or Category 6 (which is still in the proposal stage). These standards add requirements that support Gigabit Ethernet. Category 5E, for example, added performance requirements to permit higher speed network operation. In addition to improvements in attenuation, crosstalk and return loss, Category 6 will provide greater bandwidth—up to at least 200 megahertz. When it is available and when the standard is ratified, Category 6 cable will also be able to handle more data and be more reliable than Category 5E.

“When” is the dilemma. Since technology shifts constantly, not all solutions remain stable. Consequently, client requirements must be weighed against what is and what will be available.

As their cabling requirements demonstrate, call centers are very wire intensive and have to be protected against unplanned power events. The best attack is redundancy, which allows the facility manager to reroute power during site outages or support traffic due to remote site failures. Power conditioning devices and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) are available for everything from a single PC to the sensitive equipment housed in a call center. As can be expected, a complex power configuration is needed. Typically, the UPS is designed to eliminate a wide range of potential problems such as spikes and surges—including the voltage and frequency variations common with standby generator operations.

Mean time between failure (MTBF) has become an industry-wide measurement of product reliability and helps establish redundancy objectives. The central question is how much protection is needed. Redundancy means providing additional components that can instantly become operational, or one or more components that are continuously operational so that the failure of any single item will not result in mission failure. There are several levels of redundancy and each call center will have a different tolerance for failure. For example, “n+1” means that the number of components required to do the job is “n” and that the system has one more than is needed. If, on the other hand, the center needs “n” components, and in order to maintain those components the facility has to shut down for maintenance periodically, n+2 may be required. Yet another level is “2n”—an entirely different and independent system—which goes active when the primary system is down for maintenance. Redundancy should be based on the particular needs of the center, i.e., how important it is that calls must get through.

The human condition

To this point, the discussion has focused on specific needs of call center equipment. But the needs of those who work in such facilities must also be factored. According to real estate experts, the top three complaints by call center employees are as follows: the space is too hot or cold, there are not enough restrooms and there is not enough parking. These grievances have nothing to do with hardware and software, but certainly fall into the realm of M/E/P design. But in addressing these issues, the consulting engineer has to carefully balance human needs vs. the needs and functions of the facility as a whole. For example, even in northern locations, call center HVAC systems will spend most of the time cooling, as a constant temperature must be maintained to counter the heat generated by people, lighting and computers.

When planning HVAC systems, engineers strive to balance energy efficiencies with air quality. But a high density of people and computers often obsolesce any HVAC “best practices” incorporated prior to the 1989 revision of ASHRAE Code 90.1. In addition, a poorly designed ventilating system actually has a negative effect on the ambient speech levels in the office.

The most logical solution is in-floor, or underfloor, systems. In-floor systems are energy efficient and reach people faster than ceiling systems that struggle in the large open areas typical of call centers. Raised floors also provide cable management solutions, but cost is an issue and center functionality will ultimately dictate which wins out.


Another environmental condition that should be addressed to create greater employee comfort is lighting. Call centers are frequently over lit, because they actually need less than the 70 to 80 foot-candles required in a typical office. For example, at 60 foot-candles, agents can work comfortably with reference books and paper. On the other hand, if the center is primarily a computer environment, like in graphic design studios, 40 to 50 foot-candles may be adequate. Additionally, indirect lighting should be used to add a non-glare glow to rooms and hallways.

In general, call centers require two separate, but complementary lighting systems: uniform ambient lighting for monitors, and task lighting for reading and writing. Terminals act as mirrors that reflect ceiling glare and may cause eyestrain. Therefore, designing uniform light levels at the ceiling is important.

Monitors also produce their own illumination, making the level of illumination for comfortable viewing only 25 to 30 foot-candles.

The most effective ambient lighting is upward shining—indirect lighting mounted 18 to 24 inches below the ceiling. The result produces a uniform luminance level on the ceiling, with a uniform 25- to 30-foot-candle level of illumination at the workstation. More conventional lighting solutions include ceiling-mounted fluorescent fixtures with either parabolic or prismatic lenses.

Keep in mind the most successful lighting installation is not only dependent on the design of the lighting system, but also on the harmony between the lighting solution and the architecture of the space.


A third condition that must be factored is noise. Reduction of ambient noise can mean the difference between a thriving center and one that folds within a few years.

In a typical reverberant room, sound undergoes many reflections. At some point from the source, these reflections attain a uniform level that does not vary appreciably from one part of the room to another. In contrast, sound out-of-doors decreases in level at a predictable rate as the distance from the source increases. A properly designed call center makes sound behave as if it were outdoors. Reflecting surfaces must be treated to reduce sound reflections in the range of the human voice. Acoustic privacy may be attained by introducing partial height screens, highly absorptive ceilings and walls or background noise masking. For example, individuals in an open office modulate the voice to approximately a 20dB signal-to-noise ratio at a listening distance of four feet. A screen will reduce these speech levels, preventing them from entering into adjacent workstations. Note that sound travels over, around and under a screen. Techniques for reducing sound reflections include specifying a highly absorbent ceiling, carpeted floors and absorptive walls.

By evaluating ambient noise, spillover speech can be controlled and productivity enhanced for both traditional centers and those of CRM-based companies.


Finally, even with these design strategies, no risk-management plan ever is complete. Consider the suggestions for call centers—diverse routing, alternate service providers and SONET(synchronous optical network) for incoming voice/data services. Placing all of a client’s information into one location can be dangerous, especially in light of the shifting technologies and company acquisition and mergers. Examine alternative approaches and sources, making certain to provide clients with choices. Confirm that base building infrastructure can support the electrical and mechanical load requirements of the high density of people and equipment. Call centers, like data centers, require unique support systems. A typical office has a density of four persons per 1,000 square feet. A call center’s density can be between seven and eight people per 1,000 square feet.

Knowledge of the business requirements will help shape the M/E/P design. Determine the level of redundancy required of utility service—communications and electrical—needed for the space. Ask these questions: Is redundant telecommunications service required? Should there be redundant paths or central offices? In a power failure, can the center go out of service? Is redundant electrical service acceptable or is local generation required?

On-site generators and fuel tanks may be a consideration, depending on the level of protection required. Often, call centers utilize percentage allocation for a redundant strategy, which is controlled by the call center manager. In such a strategy, the manager has the flexibility to keep the facility in operation by juggling the call activity from point to point.

In dealing with clients, consider integration of all aspects of the business as basic business sense. IBM, for example, operated as many as 60 call centers at one point, with thousands of toll-free numbers and web sites. In an effort to integrate all that activity, CRM software was placed on every salesperson’s desktop to keep a centralized customer history database of purchasing and engineer support. This resulted in a reduction to only seven toll-free numbers instead of thousands.

If more than 70 percent of business transactions take place over the telephone, and if CRM software is experiencing its explosive growth, then consulting engineers should become part of the important service to the burgeoning market. In fact, the more the engineering firm can integrate M/E/P systems with call center technology, the more valuable that the firm will become to the client. As this happens, the engineering of these facilities will encompass new methods to help call center management be more successful. And that controls the risk for owners, developers and tenants alike.

  • Direct-digital-controlled variable-air-volume system: $2 to $3 more per sq. ft. vs. a traditional single-zone continuous-volume system.

  • Raised floor, 4-inch plenum: $4 to $6 more per sq. ft. vs. an above-ceiling system. But, it can be amortized to $2 per sq. ft. when considering cable and electrical installation.

  • Cafeteria/grille: An additional $5 to $10 per sq. ft. to the overall cost.

  • Day-care: $2 to $3 per sq. ft. above the overall cost.

  • Health club: Between $2 to $4 per sq. ft. above the overall cost.

  • Truck docks: As little as 60 cents per sq. ft. This, however, factors residual use as an industrial flex building raising its appeal to a prospective financier.

So what is the bottom line? Simply that design extras are a means to an end, a corollary of the hunt for good labor. Call centers have unusually high annual turnover rates of 40 percent or more. Some of this can be attributed to the nature of the job, which has a high degree of repetition and involves long and sedentary work. Given this, raising design and comfort standards is valuable only in so far as it aids in the recruitment and retention of a quality labor force.

Call Center Costs at a Glance

A cost-component breakdown of the typical call center shows that operational labor accounts for 60 to 80 percent of the total building and operating cost. Network costs are second at 20 to 30 percent; technology is under 10 percent; and construction ends up being only 6 to 8 percent.

Although the smallest components are design and construction, they are critical as they typically must be executed in rapid fashion—as little as five months for ground-up construction. Building amenities, however, cannot be sacrificed for speed, as they play an important role in helping to attract a labor force. Recognizing this, it is instructive to consider the costs of integrating some of the new design features. All of the prices quoted are rough amortized costs for a typical 40,000- to 60,000-square-foot call center.