How I built a call center from scratch

Profiles on building Jan 31, 2020

By Steven Lin, CEO @ Wonders Corporation

When I was growing up, my family ran a restaurant. Online ordering wasn’t a thing yet, so when people wanted delivery, they called. And phones don’t wait. During the rush times, our phone rang off the hook. All through high school, my dad would tag me into the phone tree. I’d take food orders over the phone, and relay them to the kitchen.

A semester before I was supposed to graduate from Harvard College, my brother and I decided to act on an insight that we’ve had for a long time — that dealing with phone orders must also be a problem for thousands of other small restaurants. I dropped out of college and he left his career as a CPA to tackle this problem. Wonders Corporation was born.

When we first began, we didn’t know the first thing about call center operations. We didn’t even think of ourselves as a “call center”. Today, if you have ever ordered Chinese food over the phone, there’s a good chance you’ve spoken with a Wonders Corporation call center agent. We employ over 400 employees now and will have more than 1,000 within the next three years.

It has not been a straight or easy road, but we’ve learned an incredible amount in the last seven years and our company has added many products and services for our restaurant clients including online ordering, digital marketing, social media management, and data analytics.  Below we will share our learnings specifically on building a successful in-house call center.

Here’s how we did it.

Step 1: Doing it ourselves

Our first reps, of course, were me and my brother. Even after we hired our first two agents, I stayed on the phone as a backup. One might question whether a CEO should be taking restaurant orders himself, but this experience was vital in shaping my convictions about how to run our business.

For example, when you call a local restaurant, you would never expect to hear long hold music, right? So we set a goal: customers should never wait on the line for more than 10 seconds. We later learned that this is 6x faster than any industry benchmark. We simply didn’t know any better.

While this phase didn’t last too long, it was vital in shaping our convictions about how to run our business.

Step 2: Building a a call center within our headquarters

Wonders Corporation HQ is in New York City. And for our first three and a half years of operations, our call center was there, too.  It may seem crazy to site a call center in one of the most expensive places in the world. But building our own call center team right next to our engineering, and sales & marketing teams turned out to be a great decision. Whatever we paid extra in New York City wages, we more than made up in learning and the shorter feedback loop among the teams.

After our first two hires, our agent team kept growing. We sourced most of our applicants from Craigslist and came from all different backgrounds. Most had never been agents before, so we developed training for them. New York City is a competitive labor market, and it was hard to get people to stick around. A lot of our first employees were students working part-time.

When we got to 15 agents, I promoted our best one to supervisor. As the team grew from 15 to 50, we developed supervisor specialists: Training, Operations, and Quality Assurance. We trained supervisors as switch-hitters who could oversee multiple functions.

By the time the team reached 50 people, we were a well-oiled machine. We knew how to hire, train, and retain reps. We knew how to forecast load and make shift schedules. We knew the customer experience we wanted to create, and how to achieve it. We had a Standard Operating Procedure for everything, and could easily have scaled from 50 to 80 or even 100 reps.

By building our call center right in HQ, we were able to do it our own way, focusing on our needs without being biased by outside advice. This led to us unwittingly match or surpass many industry standards. For example:

  • We published our staffing schedule weekly, instead of every 2 weeks or every month. This was better for our employees, and helped us more closely match staffing to our forecasts.
  • We maintained high utilization: our agents spent 80% of each hour answering calls, with only 20% downtime.
  • We trained our agents to talk like authentic human beings, eschewing the painted-on politeness you get at most call centers. This became a big part of our brand.
  • We maintained extremely tight call wait times, even as we grew.

Overall, building our own call center first provided incredibly valuable learnings that helped us succeed in our next phase of growth.

Step 3: Hiring for long-term success

Eventually, we outgrew our New York-based team and had to open call centers elsewhere. The moment you start having remote offices can be a frightening one because you suddenly lose a lot of visibility and control. Whereas before, I could walk across the hall and talk to my agents directly, now they were miles, time zones, and layers of management distant.

Once you’ve made the leap to remote call centers, the most important factor to success is the quality of your management team. Full stop.

At first, we shied away from the idea of hiring veteran managers. Much of the industry’s top managerial talent works at enormous corporate call centers, where they manage hundreds or even thousands of employees. We were concerned about what would happen if we tried to hire these kinds of folks — would they be a good cultural fit? Could we afford them? Would they be willing to roll up their sleeves and learn the details of our business?

In hindsight, I only wish we’d taken the leap earlier. Our first few managers helped shoulder a lot of my day to day operational responsibilities and allowed me to focus on the more strategic initiatives for the company.

Now, we know what a great manager looks like. When we enter the hiring process, we look for three specific qualities:

First —they have to be obsessive-compulsive. If something is not being done properly, it has to bother them on a personal level. In operations, you’re always putting out fires — and at scale, small fires quickly turn to conflagrations. A good call center leader has to be an expert at spotting small problems and minor deviations from our SOPs, and snapping them back into line.  Someone with this quality usually has no problem rolling up his/her sleeves and learning the details of the business.

Second — they have to be intelligent. Whether it is our top-level strategy or the fine details of our financials, it is much easier to talk to an intelligent call center leader about the needs of the business. They can also translate these needs into actions without oversight. The call center industry is not so sexy, so finding such keen managers can feel a bit like finding a needle in a haystack, but it’s worth the effort.

Third, and most importantly — they must be good with people. The call center business is fundamentally about people. When trying to scale, it’s easy to forget that agents are just humans trying to perform a taxing, repetitive job. A great manager will make sure your employees feel appreciation, compassion and respect when they come into work each day, and that they have the time to make friends and connections. If you can build loyalty and longevity with your staff, you can deliver a superlative experience for your customers. If you can’t — you won’t.

The business landscape is always shifting under our feet. And while we can’t predict the future, having a high-calibre team of managers is what has allowed us to adapt, and survive.

Final thoughts

We’ve learned a lot along our journey. Here’s what I would share with anyone looking to embark on building their own call center for the first time.

Build yourself first, but hire soon after. We reaped tremendous benefits from building our call center within our headquarters. But we also waited too long to hire managers and open remote sites.  Once you know the formula for scale, don’t try to do it yourself. Hire talented, experienced managers and work with them to achieve your goals.

Don’t sound like a call center. Most call center agents are trained to speak like obsequious robots. No customer actually likes this. Yet time and again, the outside experts we hired tried to convince us we should adopt the bubbly, artificial patois of the industry. We never caved to the pressure, and neither should you.

Ask “why” early and often. “Why” is the best question in operations. Say you get slammed with calls on a random Tuesday night. Ask: why? It’s easy to shrug off anomalies as unpredictable and unavoidable. But if you don’t get to the bottom of why they’re happening, your anomalies will scale with you. What may have been a blip with 5 agents may be catastrophic with 500. Tugging on the thread of “why” can be frustrating and exhausting, but is almost always worth it.