Data centers: operators are standing by

Quick, what city claims the distinction of processing more credit card slips than any other in the world?

Answer: Tulsa.

Tulsa has become a major center for a number of activities that can be grouped together under the general heading of data processing/telecommunications/service centers. It is the home of such operations as the national credit card processing centers for Shell Oil and Sun Company; of the Avis rental car worldwide reservations center; of the computer banks for the American Airlines' reservations system; and of the Amoco Production Company's data processing center.

When Tulsans speak of their city as a ''high-tech center,'' this is what they mean.

These centers may be the epitome of today's Information Age industries: Their lifeblood is the electronic impulses bouncing along the miles of telephone lines and flashing across the terminal screens.

There's something abstract about it all; physical location of the center is virtually meaningless. Take the Avis reservation center, for example. A salesman calling from the New York Sheraton to reserve a sedan for his trip to Germany next week; a Nebraska housewife booking a station wagon for her family's vacation at Disney World; a corporate travel agent in San Francisco calling to arrange cars for the brass when they're in Chicago on Thursday for a convention - all these calls would come through to Tulsa, where Avis has its low-key operation on a couple of floors in an office park southeast of downtown.

At Avis, a computer screen, updated every 10 seconds, displays the number of calls coming in; number being handled; number being put on hold; average length of call over the past half hour; and other vital signs.

The goal is to answer at least 85 percent of all calls within 20 seconds; the morning of this correspondent's visit, 97 percent of all calls were being answered within the target time. Operators were spending an average of 101 seconds with each customer. That's a typical rate for this time of day, an official explained, when many of the callers are travel agents who can rattle off the necessary information almost before the Avis operator asks. ''In the evening, calls take longer - you've got individuals calling in. They don't quite know what they want, they ask a lot of questions.''

For the operators, this is work that is ''totally nondeferrable,'' as a training official describes it. When they're on, they're on. It's also work done in a goldfish bowl. Operators are individually monitored for such things as exactly how much time they put in and how long they take to handle calls. Supervisors can listen in, so any operator getting flip with a customer does so at her peril.

Tulsa's data centers are generally here for some combination of the following: central location, a good labor pool to draw on, and good-quality telephone service. But some of these factors have changed over time, and some officials say frankly that if they were doing it today, they might not necessarily pick Tulsa.

Central location means Tulsa isn't more than a couple of days by mail from credit card holders sending in their monthly checks, although changes in scheduled air service mean things sometimes take longer than they once did. Central location also helps organizations make the most cost-effective use of inbound WATS (wide-area telephone service) lines. But this, too, is changing. WATS charges were once reckoned on the basis of distance of call. Now length of call figures in, too. A reservations center with much of its business from one area would be well advised to locate there.

On the other hand, flexibility of location can be a useful advantage. ''A credit card center is pretty much an island within a company,'' observes Paul Hockett, manager of the Sun facility. ''It can be anywhere.'' For the Philadelphia-based Sun, whose biggest market is New York and Pennsylvania, Tulsa is not central - it's the Far West. But when Sun merged with the Midwestern-based Sunray DX in 1968, it wanted to maintain a presence in Oklahoma , and having a central credit card facility was an easy way to do it.

These operations tend to be labor intensive, without the multiplier effect in the economy of, say, a major manufacturing plant. But they are usually noncyclical. They also don't pollute or otherwise clutter up an area's ''quality of life.'' Economic development officials love 'em.

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