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Buffalo Niagara host to growing call center opportunities

With well over 4,000 positions in local call centers, job and career opportunities abound for Western New Yorkers with the right attitude and the right set of skills, executives say.

"If you really want to work in a call center, there are opportunities," said Larry Costa, executive vice president of business development for Capital Management Services. "It truly is an opportunity for any age group or demographic. There's no one type of person that fits into this role."

Compensation for entry-level positions starts as high $32,000 -- on the night shift at GEICO -- for new hires with at least a high school diploma.

"The No. 1 thing I look for is attitude. It's a simple thing -- people have it or they don't have it," said Steve Cunningham, regional vice president for GEICO. "You get up in the morning and say, 'I'm going to have a good day and make the most of things' or say, 'I'm going to have a lousy day.' "

In a little over five years, GEICO's Getzville office has grown to employ about 2,200 people. The company has been successful in finding people with that positive attitude Cunningham says is so important.

"We're here to service our customers," he said. "If you bring that attitude to every call, customers feel appreciated. People pay a lot for insurance, so they want to feel appreciated."

GEICO hires people from all types of backgrounds, he said, but generally looks for applicants with some type of customer service or retail background.

"Most people can do this job. They have the intelligence to do it," Cunningham said. "Not everybody, though, likes to work on the phone. Not everybody likes to deal with customers. It's getting that associate who likes to deal with people, who likes to spend their time helping them."

There are three main types of call center positions: customer service, sales and collections, noted Costa, whose company employs about 800 people locally.

A positive attitude and good listening skills are essential in all those positions. But each one also calls for particular skills.

"In the customer service arena, you certainly want people who have solid listening skills. They need to be patient and reasonably articulate," Costa said.

The work is very structured and can be somewhat repetitive, he said. Successful employees need to be disciplined and dedicated.

Call center employees who work in sales need to be more assertive and more persistent, as with people who hold any type of sales position. At the same time, Costa said, sales associates need to maintain their professionalism and recognize that people they're calling may not be receptive to getting a sales call.

People who work in collections, Costa said, need to demonstrate a high level of empathy for the people they are calling.

"You want to make it a positive customer experience," he said. "You want to show people there are paths out of these situations. There are options open to them. It's not a phone call people like to receive. But it's a reality. You owe a debt -- you have an obligation to work through it."

Many companies provide employees with significant training to prepare them for the work they will be doing.

At GEICO, for instance, new hires receive six to eight weeks of training. That includes everything from role-playing conversations with customers to learning about insurance contracts and learning to work with the computer system.

While many people view call center work as a job, Costa and Cunningham said it is a field that easily lends itself to more.

"You can have a career at a call center," Costa said. "It's rewarding. There are economic benefits, and you're really assisting people."

"The call center, to me, is how you get your foot in the door at GEICO," Cunningham said. "We say to our employees, come to GEICO, not for a job, but for a career."

Some employees can get three or four promotions in the first few years, he said, moving into positions as trainers, supervisors, claims examiners and more.

Cunningham will celebrate his 34th anniversary with the company in March, he said. He started out working 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and his wife started her shift at 5 p.m. Since those early days, which enabled them to juggle child care, he has advanced through the ranks.

"The idea is to stay in a job for a while and move up," he said. "We ask people to work very hard and we expect that. At the same time, we give them a career opportunity and a nice benefits package."