News : Now a Course to Back Call Centre Careers
London, UK, Oct 9, 2015 — Excitable teens and twentysomethings are in a training room decorated with yellow, pink and green Post-it notes in Cardiff. Order of the day?
Good conversational skills. This is the new crop of call-centre workers, or to use today’s terminology: contact centre workers. They are learning how to deal with angry, perplexed or despondent customers.
Call centres suffer from a perception that it is the workplace where dreams come to die. However, if this group decides to make a career of it, rather than see it as a fill-in job, they could take a new degree in Contact Centre Management.
It is hoped that the course, will help raise the status of a role that is often seen as a "McJob". This new degree is sponsored by their Indian employer, Firstsource Solutions, a business outsourcing company, and it is taught by Ulster University.
According to the Contact Centre Association, a trade body, about 1 million people are employed in the industry in the UK. The majority work in-house for financial services, retailers or mobile phone operators, while up to 20 per cent are employed by outsources such as Capita.
Firstsource employs more than 1,000 people in the Cardiff office. The Welsh capital, once a manufacturing base and hub for coal exports, is now a service economy.
Tim Moruzzi, who oversees the programme at Ulster University, sees the degree — mostly funded by employers with a 600 pound student contribution — as a way to formalise knowledge and retain staff in an industry that has suffered high turnover and a poor reputation.
It has been seen as employing a dehumanised workforce, who are ticked off for taking too long to go to the toilet, closely monitored by supervisors and blasted by customers. At Firstsource, one employee reported a customer to the police for racial abuse.
Last year, Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon spoke out about a constituent who worked for an unnamed call centre, losing 50 pounds from his month’s pay for "toilet visits".
A thoughtful blog by an anonymous call-centre worker, The Secret Diary of a Call Centre, sets out the problem. The author writes that managers’ expectations are so low they become self-fulfilling.
"Even among the senior managers you’d get the impression that the expectation is that you will leave ... because of their attitude, there was no chance to progress, or to develop in any way."
The churn and poor morale in the sector is part of the rationale behind the degree. "We want to get people to see a future in the industry," Moruzzi says. "I doubt many people see call centres as a long-term career. They mainly see it as a way to earn money."
The course is offered part-time over three years and is taught through distance learning, face-to-face sessions and personal study.
At 7 per cent, the attrition rate for Firstsource’s workers is relatively low, according to the company. The atmosphere at the Cardiff office seems cheery. In a room filled with more than 100 desks and orange and yellow partitions, a woman is pacing and gesticulating wildly as she chats to a customer.
One male employee — who, a colleague whispers, was once painfully shy but has been transformed by singing in the company choir — is bustling about chatting to his peers. Nonetheless, on Glassdoor, the jobs review site, the comments are dispiriting.
One commenter compares the place to a "young offenders’ unit" and another writes: "You will regret working in this place!"
Deborah Ashley, a team leader in the Cardiff office, has been working in call centres for five years and is about to start the contact centre management degree. The 27-year-old, dressed in a flowery shirt, with blue polish on her nails and a stud piercing her tongue, never envisaged a career in call centres.
Her first degree was in sports coaching. She got a job on the phones because "I needed somewhere I could get regular hours and regular income and be able to pay my rent".
Ashley insists the reputation of call centres is undeserved.
"There’s a warmth that I wasn’t anticipating when I first started working with call centres. I thought it would be very isolating, robotic, non-stop, not a lot of time to get to know people but the people make the job."
The industry has changed, says Kath Chivers, vice-president overseeing sales and operations. She started in call centres 21 years ago, juggling the job with three small children. The change of name from call centre to contact centre, she says, reflects that the job is more than only answering the phone or cold-calling.
As technology has evolved, so has the job. A contact centre worker may be required to man a social media account and answer questions on web forums. Complaints online spread rapidly and besmirch reputations, after all.
"Now it’s engaging with your customer," she says. "When I first came into this business it was all about the length of the call ... That’s gone."
Anne Marie Forsyth, CCA chief executive, takes issue with the idea of a contact centre worker as low-skilled. "There is no typical call-centre worker. You get retired actors, students, doctors."
In Cardiff, I meet a neuroscientist who left research due to sickness, a psychologist and a computer science graduate. Forsyth says: "The jobs require complex skills such as complaints management, empathy, IT training."
Peter Cappelli, author of ‘Will College Pay Off?’, is sceptical of the merit of such a degree. He questions whether its skills are any different from those required in other industries.
More pertinently, he worries about its transferability, should the graduate want to work elsewhere.
Yet the degree reflects a wider trend, says Charlie Ball, graduate labour market specialist at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit: a shortage of skilled managers. Retail is one sector where graduate schemes have driven improvements in quality, he adds.
Keith Osborne, operational change manager, is taking the degree and says he would be proud if his son followed him into the trade. "He’s a real people person. If you enjoy talking, you’ll get something out of it."
Posted by Veronica Silva Cusi, news correspondent
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About Firstsource Solutions:
Firstsource employs nearly 27,000 worldwide at 46 centers in the U.S., United Kingdom, India, the Philippines and Sri Lanka, serving more than 100 clients in the banking, insurance, health care, media and telecommunications industries, including 21 companies in the Fortune 500.
Published: Tuesday, October 13, 2015