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November 1999

Headset Selection Tips: Considering The Basics For Agent Comfort And Productivity


Espresso bars, pool tables, free Internet access, free phone calls…sounds a little like a cyber caf´┐Ż or a college hangout. But in reality, it's today's call center. Call centers have undergone major transformations in the past few years. With the advent of the Internet and voice recognition applications, the rise of e-commerce and the continued demand for better customer service, call centers are continuing to pop up throughout the country, employing an increasing number of people. To combat the reality of high turnover rates within the industry, call center managers are catering to agents' desires for interesting and fun work environments. It is not unusual to find call centers that offer cappuccinos and croissants for respite from a demanding job.

While incorporating trendy nuances will help to attract and retain key staff, call center managers need to examine agent equipment from an ergonomic perspective, striving to make the call center work experience as comfortable and streamlined as possible. A fundamental accessory to take into regard is the headset — its quality and comfort, its versatility and style and its importance as a prime piece of equipment in the productivity puzzle.

Whether you are upgrading, just starting out or adding to your inventory, here are a few headset selection tips to help guide you in making the best choice for your call center environment.

Sounds Around The Call Center
Everyone knows that headsets are great tools for making telephone communication easier, but for call centers, clear and comfortable communications are imperative for success. To have the most appropriate headsets for your call center, you should consider the many aspects of sound in your environment, as well as what type of microphone will be the most appropriate for your space.

The noise level of a call center is, surprisingly, not determined by how many people are working there. To test your center’s noise level, try this simple test. Stand in the middle of your environment and clap your hands. What sort of sound do you hear? Is it a dull thud or an echoing clap?

If you hear a dull thud, it probably signifies that your environment is “absorbent.” Most call centers have absorbent environments, now that managers are adding acoustical improvements, such as partitions between cubicles, carpet, drapes and acoustic ceiling tiles. If the clap echoes, the environment is “live.” A live environment is one in which noise bounces around, off walls and floors, and tends to travel further than in an absorbent environment. Of course, this is a simple test. For better accuracy, have your headset sales rep bring in a decibel reader to measure the exact amount of ambient sound in your call center.

Choosing the right microphone is key. Headset microphones can generally be divided into two categories: directional and omni-directional. Directional, as the name implies, is designed to pick up sound from only one direction. Omni-directional microphones are designed to pick up sound equally from all directions.

Because directional microphones are designed to “prefer” to pick up sound coming from only one direction, they reject sound coming from other directions. They are also widely known as “noise-canceling” microphones. These microphones are very helpful in noisy or “live” environments since they can focus on the most important sound — your agent’s voice. Listeners do not hear unwanted and distracting background noise. Some environments have hard walls and windows, with lots of noise bouncing around. In these environments, microphones with a noise-canceling feature can reduce unwanted sounds by 75 percent. If your environment is noisy and you don’t have noise-canceling microphones, think of all the information your agents must repeat because of intrusive background noise. More calls mean higher staff and equipment requirements.

But many environments can get along just fine without noise cancelation. In this type of situation, you probably want to opt for an omni-directional headset. With an omni-directional headset, you have a voice tube, or rather, a simple tube that protrudes from the headset capsule and rests in front of the mouth. One of the advantages of this design is that the microphone is protected and enclosed in the capsule. Since the microphone is protected and not located on the end of the boom, wires are not bent when the agent adjusts the microphone. Because of the simplicity of the omni-directional design, it is very lightweight, good for long hours of use and very unobtrusive, improving the overall comfort. It is generally more rugged and more easily replaced than other styles. Plus, voice tubes perform well no matter what their position, so they can better optimize the wearer’s ability to transmit clearly without having to worry about the boom position. When noise cancelation is not required — such as in small call centers or offices where workers sit far apart from each other, this is a good choice.

Another important consideration is the adapter, or amplifier. Just as the noise cancelation microphone blocks out unwanted sounds during conversations, adapters will reduce background noise when no one is speaking. Not all amplifiers are the same. Make sure the adapter you buy has the components that will reduce unwanted line noise.

The Comfort Equation
Ergonomically speaking, headsets are a boon to anyone who communicates over the phone for more than two hours at a time. Without headsets, it is a known fact that incorrect handset usage can compress tissues and blood vessels, reducing blood flow in the neck. This, over time, can contribute to significant discomfort and ultimately a cumulative trauma disorder of the upper body. According to the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), headsets provide greater comfort and the benefit of a safer, healthier and more productive working environment. “Many people attempt to cradle the telephone handset with the shoulder and ear, causing strain to the neck, shoulder, back and arm. This tension can be greatly reduced with a headset,” said APTA president Jan K. Richardson, PT, Ph.D., OCS.

For a call center headset to be effective, it needs to be able to be worn for hours at a time. Essentially, it must fit as if it were part of the body, so the wearer does not notice it or feel obstructed by its presence.

Headsets come in a variety of styles — choice generally depends on personal preference and individual fit. Manufacturers spend years developing headsets for comfort. Studies have been conducted which researched hundreds of ear sizes and how headsets fit these different sizes.

Headsets come in styles such as over the ear, over the head and in the ear. You will also have a choice of monaural or binaural; that is, respectively, sound in one ear or sound in both ears. Binaural headsets are typically recommended for very noisy environments. Monaural headsets can be worn in a quieter space and will allow those who wear them to listen to sounds and conversations that surround them, which can often be an aid rather than a distraction.

Some headsets come with interchangeable parts, allowing the users to adjust the headsets to different styles whenever they choose. If agents share headsets, it is best to choose the over the head or over the ear styles. Over the ear and in the ear styles are popular for the “no hairdo intrusion” aspect. Many call centers invest in several different styles of headsets to provide their agents with the best headset for each individual’s choice.

New, wireless headsets are becoming popular in the call center now, making freedom of movement easier because the wearer does not have to struggle with cords. The agent can get up and attend to tasks away from the workstation, such as going to the printer or sending a fax, while still carrying on a conversation. Wireless headsets are often more reasonably priced, as well, since the adapter is already built into the headset.

Special Features
Other features you may want to consider for your headsets include:

  • Quick disconnect. This feature allows the wearer to disconnect the headset from the phone line in one quick and easy movement. This eliminates the time and trouble of taking off and putting on the headset when the headset user needs to go away from the workstation, and saves on wear and tear on the headset itself.
  • Mute switch. Another nice feature is the mute switch, which allows the agent to briefly mute the call if he or she must speak to someone in the call center during the call.
  • Volume and tone control. These features allow the wearers to adjust the headset volume to the desire level. Similarly, tone control can adjust the sound quality so the wearer can emphasize treble or bass tones, depending on personal preference.

What Happens Next?
A very important issue to consider is, what happens after you purchase the headsets? Is the manufacturer there for you when you have a problem? Is the company there to answer your questions? What about a replacement policy?

Make sure you inquire about the nature of the manufacturer’s help desks. How many operators are kept on staff? Is the help desk available the same hours your agents will be working? What about warranty considerations? Are headsets repaired or are they replaced when there is breakage? There is a difference. Also, inquire how quickly your headsets will be replaced or repaired. This will help you determine how many extra units to keep on hand.

As call centers continue to grow into the 21st century, the demands for the modern call center will continue to evolve. Keep in mind that headsets are the last important link between what your agent says and what your customer hears, and the quality, not only of the products, but of the manufacturer, can add to your overall success.

Joe McGrogan is marketing manager for Plantronics’ call center division. Plantronics, Inc. is a provider of communications headsets and is a player in the telephony, computer and wireless phone applications market.

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