An interesting research report showed up at our offices recently: a State of the Industry Report from a relatively new group called the National Association of Call Centers (NACC).
In two large volumes, the research attempts to codify the anecdotal data that floats out there on the Internet about where call centers are located, and how many people they are hiring/firing along the way.
It started me thinking down a couple of avenues. For one thing, what is the state of the industry? How would we even define such a thing as the industry? Aren't we really all a part of a gigantic and diverse spectrum of related industries? And second, how do we really take a snapshot of an "industry" that's such a hard target to pin down? There is, after all, no authoritative association that speaks for the business as a whole. Despite the good intentions of the NACC, they are not quite the voice of the call center industry.
But they make a pretty game effort at gathering the available information. The problems that emerge from a look at their research are problems that are endemic to the industry as a whole.
First, the methodology. They counted. Literally. They gathered information from public sources, i.e., the Internet, and counted articles and press releases that told the story of various call centers opening, closing, hiring and firing. I've long thought that this is a dramatically underused method of determining the trends in the industry. After all, having a call center come to your town and drop hundreds of jobs is a big, happy deal for the local authorities. The West Podunk Daily Record will surely do a short piece on the good job Councilman Smith did wooing the company that's opening the center. And as a result, the public record bursts with these telling examples of locations that open and close.
The problem with the anecdotal methodology is that you're cherry-picking the data. The researchers know this, and I applaud the transparency with which they approach the problem. They know you can't count all the call centers in America, or the world, so they count the ones they can find and then extrapolate. Fair enough. That kind of rigorous anecdotal counting serves us best, I think, when it tells us that what we know in our gut is either really right or really wrong.
For example, the data the NACC presents says that over the period from 2002 through 2005, outsourcers moved their call center populations decidedly south in the U.S. Virginia and North Carolina has net gains of 2,160 and 1,735 jobs, respectively. New Mexico gained 760, Arizona gained 1,200 and Kansas lost 1,435 jobs.
Don't pay attention to the specifics -- those numbers may be what NACC counted, but they are again just a snapshot of what they found by counting what was announced. They don't include what wasn't announced, what was done quietly, what went unnoticed, which was probably the majority of the activity.
For example, the data shows that overall (not just including the outsourcers) call center jobs increased the most in two states, Virginia and Kentucky. The problem with anecdotal info is that we all know in our guts that Arizona and Nevada have hugely grown over the past three years. The NACC shows Arizona netting just under 2,000 jobs, and Nevada a net loser of 150.
Clearly, there are limits to the usefulness of this approach.
One thing the report does very well is identify ten separate and definable sectors within the call center industry. We -- all of us -- may want to adopt those ten definitions as a common vocabulary for describing the types of centers out there.
The report also alerted me to something I hadn't been aware of: that there was a spike in the number of outsourcers opening call centers at the end of 2004 and the first half of 2005. They found 24 centers opened by outsourcers in that nine month period, accounting for a net gain in the industry of about 6,000 jobs.
I'm glad to see different approaches to counting and questioning who we are as an industry, and where we are located. The next step should be quantifying the economic effect that centers have on locations where they are found, and on the business impact they have as units within companies.