The on-going discontent with working conditions amongst call centre staff and the emergence of call centre rage have been much the focus of attention. The national newspapers have recently suggested that call centres have done little to cast off their image as places where disaffected people with a poor grasp of what they are talking about handle complaints badly. Is it, then, a coincidence that the UK's Health and Safety Executive has just issued guidelines to call centre employers as part of its drive to curb work-related stress?
This current topical focus on working conditions in the call centre is in fact just the latest twist in an on-going debate on the recruitment, training, motivation, management and retention of contact centre staff. It is a debate that has been quietly raging within the minds of the industry's employers, not least because the nature of the business is changing, and because adverse working conditions are undermining profitable business.
Average yearly staff attrition rates run very high – at some 35-40% according to recent estimates. This compares with full-time retail staff attrition averaging some 15% per annum. More importantly, the bulk of call centre staff attrition takes place in the first 60-90 days of employment, meaning that there is little hope in these cases of recouping virtually any of the average recruitment and early training costs, which can be up to £10,000. Reasons for leaving are consistently cited, in virtually all research, as boredom, lack of training and lack of opportunity.
Noetica has carried out research in this field, conducted amongst the UK's top 100 call centres, which adds a more revealing twist to the situation. The majority of respondents did in fact acknowledge staff recruitment, management and retention as the greatest current problem, but interestingly saw the resolution of this situation being achieved over the next few years by the implementation of new technology. This is not to say that people will be replaced with machines, but that the technology will play a fundamental role in the management initiatives that will seek to overcome the problem.
Until recently, working in a call centre was, frankly, a dull job. Mothers returning to work would put up with the boredom because the shifts fitted in with the available childcare facilities. Being in a part-time employment pool also made it easy to accommodate school holidays. Young people just out of education look upon call centre work as something to do while they make up their mind what they really intended to follow as a career. Traditional call centre functions were handling brochure requests, store location queries, and so on.
As in so many aspects of direct marketing, the financial sector pioneered some major call centre developments, and in so doing, set a pattern for other industries as they embraced the power of 'direct response by telephone'. One such development was making it possible for people to apply for an insurance policy over the phone. Workflow technology had already been developed to allow the lowliest of clerks to successfully process an application received by post. Expert decision making rules were incorporated into the underwriter's systems, and the workflow told the clerk what to do at each point of processing the application. Naturally, when applications started coming in over the phone, those systems were transferred and upgraded to the live environment. Workflow, in this context, de-skills the call management process.
This idea of de-skilling very much flavoured the attitude of many marketers and call centre managers to what they perceived their systems requirements should be. In other words, don't invest in staff, invest in systems. After all, your system wouldn't walk out of the door in the first 60-90 days of employment! Certainly, with the bulk of revenue still being derived from simple types of call handling, this approach certainly made staff recruitment easier.
Now, however, the marketplace is rapidly turning on its head. We are seeing a decided division, in the minds of call centre service purchasers, between commodity calls and added-value call handling.
Commodity calls are those which require little skill in the handling – brochure requests being a prime example. There is now huge competition for such contracts. Large call centres have to keep up their critical call volumes to stay in business. In-house call centres are launching their services on the open market to try and recoup cost. And an increasingly popular option is to push commodity calls down the automated call-handling route where a machine literally does replace a person at the end of the phone. This last point is even more of a factor now that caller line identification (CLI) allows the system to track who has called, what they have called for, and can trigger an appropriate set of further follow-up actions.
The result of these many competitive pressures is to make such call handling extremely price-sensitive. As a result, the clever bureaux are moving their businesses to specifically concentrate on handling calls where added value skills are required. Complaint handling, customer service calls and up/cross-selling calls are prime examples. In fact, we hear more and more cases of bureaux actively recommending that commodity calls are diverted to an automated call handling facility, even if they themselves don't offer that service. The reason is, of course, that commodity call handling is unprofitable for all but the biggest call centres. Interestingly, it is in precisely these very large call centres where an impersonal, factory-like environment most often seems to create staff dissatisfaction and churn.
The impact of today's call centre technology is therefore providing a very different type of support, directly contrasting with the de-skilling objective of workflow and earlier call centre systems. Now the technology has to act almost as the assistant to expert call handlers. It is their researcher and helpmate. It spots who the caller is (using CLI), allowing the system to pick up caller details from the database so that the operator can use that information intelligently during the call. It uses third party data (such as lifestyle information or geodemographics) to estimate the caller's likely areas of product interest. It automatically updates the database after (or even during) the call, and it reminds the operator to take further actions if the query has not yet been satisfactorily resolved. In effect, it does all the admin, leaving the call handler free to concentrate on exercising their interpersonal and sales skills.
The fact that current technology is really delivering this kind of support fundamentally changes the nature of the operator's job. It also opens up much more interesting career development prospects. Skill levels can now be developed, from junior to 'super-operator', just as happens within a sales team. Areas of expertise or specialism open up, defined either by client industry or by call type (sales, complaint, query, service, etc). To take full advantage of these industry developments, management roles have to be created which relate directly to the new skill sets acquired by the operators. Not only does this allow management to focus the skills of their operators more precisely, it also results in tighter teams (and hence closer control). These improved skills are doubly advantageous when the nature of the product is 'added value' rather than 'commodity', because improved profit margins fund this new management infrastructure. We all know that the greatest productivity comes from a well-managed and well-motivated workforce, so surely it is in managers' interests to encourage their people to develop these new skills and areas of expertise. When staff are actively encouraged to improve their skill sets, and they feel their company is interested in their future, the almost inevitable result is higher productivity through greater motivation and lower levels of staff churn.
So call centres are transforming themselves into outsourcing providers by selling the experience and skills of their people. They are becoming 'virtual customer management departments' – acting as an extension of their clients' companies. In the process they are forging relationships with their clients, which are far more like partnerships than simple supplier-buyer affairs.
This is an important point. With the current enthusiasm for Customer Relationship Management (CRM), we are seeing the first few genuine Customer Management Centres, where all the 'touch points' with customers – sales, product service, customer service, marketing, billing, and more – are handled within the single unit. This introduces the possibility of even more variety of work, even for junior operators, covering calls, e-mails, postal response, and so on. Of course, training is required to instil written as well as verbal skills. Moreover, not all staff will be the ambitious fast risers, and so managers have to look to relieve the potential tedium of the ordinary worker's day by varying the type of work.
However, this combination of different types of work brings its own organisational challenges, and it is only because of today's software capabilities that it can be economically and measurably implemented. Systems automatically 'blend' different types of work according to the manager's analysis of each operator's skills. At the same time, the system will monitor performance and deliver metrics to the manager, which allow him or her to manage team dynamics on the basis of solid statistics.
Finally, perhaps we should return to one of the global issues which call centre industry growth, working conditions and training requirements raise. Call centres tend to be concentrated in certain UK locations, examples being Sunderland in Tyne and Wear, and Bristol where the current controversy started. This cannot be healthy. They have ostensibly sprung up en masse in these areas because there is a large available workforce. In truth, recent growth has been more because these areas have a large poachable workforce of mobile, skilled operators. This is very short-termist. If you are a new entrant who poaches staff from an existing player, your employees will probably only remain with you until another, higher paying call centre is set up.
There is a strong argument that financial incentives should be put in place by Government to encourage the establishment of call centres in locations other than the current concentrations. Centre owners themselves also have a responsibility to protect their own workforce from being poached.
In short, it is our view that although working conditions and career development are a burning issue in some call centres, the nature of a call centre's work will naturally lead to the demise of these issues. Far from de-skilling the workforce, technological support is now firmly focused on empowering operators as we move towards the multimedia Customer Management Centre of the near future.
About Keith Symondon:
Published: Monday, April 7, 2003
Mpathy Plus transform service, improve performance and provide operational support. We work in all areas of customer service and contact centres from initial strategy, feasibility studies, business cases, project management through to operational reviews, resource planning etc. We are independent and have vast experience of implementing, managing and changing contact centres and the customer experience.
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