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Listening Ahead

Call Center News

More call center headsets and amplifiers came to market in 2002 than in recent years. Are these products harbingers of things to come? Here's what we're hearing.

Benjamin Franklin wrote that "in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes." If he were living today and writing about call centers, he would have added headsets to his list.

Headsets are essential in any call center. And unless agents have phone sets with built-in headset jacks, so, too, are amplifiers. (Some amplifiers are themselves phones, as we describe in a sidebar on-line.)

When an agent connects an amplifier to a phone set and then plugs a headset into the amplifier, all three items must function properly right away. With headsets, as with most call center products, utility is more important than innovation.

Nevertheless, headset manufacturers launched a number of innovative products in 2002. We describe our experiences with using some of these products in this article. Still, the question to ask is: What innovations matter to you?

An ongoing innovation is increasing interoperability among headsets and amplifiers from different manufacturers.

How can an amplifier from one vendor accommodate headsets from various vendors? Every call center headset includes a Quick Disconnect cord, which plugs into the headset at one end and into an amplifier at the other end. One manufacturer, GN Netcom (Nashua, NH), provides Quick Disconnect cords that allow its competitors' headsets to plug into its amplifiers' headset jacks. More typically, manufacturers offer amplifiers whose jacks work with their own Quick Disconnect cords and headsets, plus those of their competitors.

The More Things Change...

Mixing headsets and amplifiers sounds appealing, but is it a good idea? And what impact do headset makers' innovations have on call centers? We sought opinions from individuals who sell headsets and amplifiers from at least three different manufacturers.

One question that we've asked distributors in recent years is whether call centers are using wireless headsets.

"We're seeing more growth with wireless headsets in offices than in call centers," says Mike Faith, founder, president and CEO of Headsets.com. Based in San Francisco, CA, Headsets.com sells headsets, amplifiers, headphones and audio-conferencing equipment on-line. The company also offers its own line of amplifiers and headsets.

Faith has a theory about why call centers prefer headsets with wires. "I suspect they want bodies in their seats," he says.

Dana Ahern, who heads up Quincy, MA-based distributor Ahern Communications, agrees.

"It makes sense for [an agent] to be as close to the workstation as possible," he says, especially since agents have to look up information about callers from their workstations to help them.

Faith observes that call centers that do purchase wireless headsets tend to be small in size. His explanation? The range of most wireless headsets, between 150 and 200 feet from the amplifier, is sufficient for a center thattakes up little space.

When choosing corded headsets, Faith says, most call centers use headsets and amplifiers from the same manufacturers. He advises that unless a combination of a headset and amplifier from different manufacturers produces much better sound, or costs a lot less, a call center is better off with a package from the same manufacturer. In his view, the risk of incompatibility isn't worth it.

Ahern and Faith are also skeptical about bone conduction headsets. Both have tried them in their respective outfits; neither sells them.

Ahern says he "does not see a future for bone conduction headsets." His company has found that the sound from these types of headsets is neither clear nor easy to adjust.

Moreover, Ahern questions whether vendors can provide bone conduction models that work as well and fall within the same price range as most wired call center headsets. In his view, makers of these types of headsets simply take "hearing-aid technology and try to mass-market it."

LaMar Hunt, a vice president with Dowumi (Santa Clara, CA), agrees that bone conduction headsets don't achieve the same quality of sound as traditional air conduction models. But he points out that bone conduction headsets aren't for the mass market.

"What we're seeing in call centers is 10% or 12% [of agents] are suffering from discomfort or hearing loss," Hunt says. "These are the people [we're] trying to reach."

Hunt argues that the very design of air conduction headsets that enables them to produce clear sound is also causing discomfort among agents, notably headaches and earaches.

An air conduction headset, he explains, irritates the follicles near the middle ear. "As those things erode, your hearing goes," says Hunt.

...The More They Stay the Same

Despite the tremendous variation among models, the best attribute of call center headsets and amplifiers is their consistency.

With amplifiers, consistency is most apparent in their design. An amplifier usually has a button or switch on top to mute an agent's voice. Another common feature on an amplifier is a button or switch, also at the top, that lets the agent toggle between a handset and a headset. Most amplifiers run on batteries, or if you prefer, on AC/DC adapters. Many battery-powered amplifiers have lights to indicate whether they're receiving enough electricity.

Headsets may look different, but the choices among models are often similar, regardless of who makes the headsets. An agent can select between a monaural headset, which has one speaker for either ear, or a binaural headset, which has speakers for both ears.

Another consideration with a headset is the microphone. We recommend noise-canceling microphones because they filter out background sounds, including those from an agent's colleagues, so that an agent's voice comes through most clearly.

Among monaural headsets, manufacturers generally include convertible models with removable headbands, ear loops and ear hooks. These accessories enable agents to wear convertible headsets over or in an ear.

Herd of New Headsets

We've talked in general about what's new and what's constant. But what about actual products?

If you're interested in new models - those that debuted in 2002 - you'll like the answer. (For descriptions of headsets that came out before 2002, and to learn more about caring for headsets, we invite you to read headset features from prior January issues.)

Compared to last year at this time, more new headsets and amplifiers are on the market. Among the latest headsets and amplifiers we evaluated, those from Andrea Electronics (Melville, NY) offer the best combination of quality sound, ease of use and comfort.

In their own right, Plantronics' (Santa Cruz, CA) latest variations of its DuoPro headsets still sound as good as previous DuoPro models. And they now feature comfortable, stylish neckbands.

Other than Danacom (Petaluma, CA) and Pro Tech Communications (Fort Pierce, FL), whose headsets and amplifiers we covered in a feature from the previous January issue, the companies we include in our vendor list introduced new headsets last year.

Let Us Help You Sometimes it's easier to talk through your headset decision with a real person. We'd be glad to help.

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