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November 1999

Call Center Headsets: Designed For The Customer By The Customer


Telephone headsets in the call center drive productivity. In a true partnership between customer and headset manufacturer, headset innovations and enhancements can make a significant improvement to the call center's performance because they are a result of a customer-focused research and development process.

Whether improving current products or developing new ones, the first step in any product development process is gathering, understanding and validating customer needs. Call centers can be proactive in this stage by making use of their relationships with both sales representatives and product marketing managers to provide feedback and new ideas. Market-driven manufacturers welcome feedback on their headset systems in order to design and develop new products. They manage the research and development process by concentrating on three key elements: a clear customer focus, a documented development process and skillful engineering integration. In headset system development, the successful integration of these three elements creates headsets that provide call centers with increased employee performance and morale and give superior sound quality, durability and comfort.

A Strong Customer Focus Creates Continuous Innovation
The highest quality, most useful product developments and enhancements are the result of a true partnership between customer and manufacturer. Both call center managers and individual agents have suggested changes as simple as a longer cord on the headset, as complicated as the ability to pick up and hang up a telephone handset from a remote location, or as surprising as colored headsets.

While call centers may not realize it, they are also delivering a very specific message whenever they return products. By carefully monitoring returns and analyzing failures, research and development can direct their research efforts to eliminate the top return issues. Achieving a return rate of one percent or less over the life of a headset is a goal of a good, continuous improvement process.

One of the clearest examples of a true partnership between call center and manufacturer occurs when an application is so specialized a headset or headset system just doesn’t exist for it. Workstation configuration constraints or headsets for disabled agents are two examples that might require custom headset system development. In these instances, creating a proprietary product becomes the best solution.

Within the call center environment, managers consistently try to increase efficiency, reduce operating costs and identify opportunities to improve performance. The headset manufacturer research and development team has the same goal and is constantly working to find a better solution. Often times, a recent technology innovation can solve a customer-identified need. For instance, developments in materials have made pliable earhooks for over-the-ear wearing styles possible and allowed colored plastics to be made into headsets. Knowing that outbound call centers wanted new ways to increase productivity was the starting point for development of an analog headset telephone system. This particular headset system replaces two pieces of equipment and achieves the dual objectives of greater productivity and more desk space.

Before a new development process begins, product marketing explores the need in detail with the user in order to understand the opportunity. Discussing the particular application ensures that the project turned over to engineering is the right one. If the headset cord is going to be lengthened, should it be increased by two feet or three feet? Or is there another way to find a solution that would be more generally applicable across other headset users? How and where would customers be using remote hookswitch operation? Why are colored headsets important? Without this crucial step of understanding what the real need is, weeks and months of effort may result in a project that misses the mark.

Documented Development Produces The Right Headset
Listening to customers or following a research and development process only occasionally does not produce consistent results. Call centers want — and need — to be sure that a new headset product will give them the promised benefits. Experience with a particular manufacturer is a key indicator. Another is ISO 9001 certification, the accepted and desired benchmark in any manufacturing environment. The certification process establishes procedures for all company disciplines, including manufacturing and research and development. The research and development effort is focused on turning the marketing vision into a tangible product. And the effect of continuous product improvement is evident in the introduction of breakthrough, standard-setting, hands-free communication products.

Customers can send engineers back to the drawing board at any time. In a series of focus groups during the alpha and beta testing, different user groups have the opportunity to tweak and fine-tune the headset concept and prototype. Their input on whether the headset system works well, stands up in actual use and provides a real solution assists engineering in the adjustments and production throughout the process.

In the final testing step before production and launch, a new group of users field-test final prototypes as well as the user guide. It is possible, even in these final stages, for feedback to result in product changes. In one instance, the color of the flexible portion of the pliable earhook was changed to distinguish it from the pieces that cannot be bent.

Skillful Engineering Integration Creates Superior Headsets
Industrial, mechanical and electrical engineers all play key roles in headset research and development. From measuring ears to understanding compression algorithms and protocols, engineers use a breadth and depth of knowledge to create the best solution available given current technology.

An extensive and continually expanded database of ear measurements is the basis for deciding what headset shapes and flexibility will work from an ergonomic perspective. When designing the flexible earhook, engineers could calculate which part of the earhook needed to be firm around the top of the ear for wearing security and which could be pliable for a more comfortable, custom fit around the back of the ear.

Superior sound quality is the result of a good understanding of intricacies of microphones and speakers and rapid advances in acoustics. Even materials such as smaller circuit boards and lighter plastics play a part in improving performance and comfort for the headset user.

Headset systems should help call centers reduce costs, decrease time per call and improve employee performance and morale. That happens only when a good partnership exists and when all three components of research and development — customer focus, development processes and engineering — work seamlessly together.

Roland Nutter, product marketing manager for GN Netcom, Inc., is responsible for development of product programs for the ACS, GN Netcom and UNEX brands of headsets. GN Netcom, Inc., headquartered in Nashua, New Hampshire, designs, manufactures and markets hands-free communications products including telephone headsets, accessories and specialty products for the telecommunications industry.

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