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Industry Research : UK Call Centre Environment Report

At Datapoint, we firmly believe in the importance of customer service to gain competitive advantage. As such, we are committed to helping companies build effective call centres as the front line of customer service, ensuring they are efficient at a commercial, operational and technical level. One of the frequently important and most overlooked aspects of this process is to ensure the call centre agents are provided with the best facilities and environment in which to provide excellent customer service.

At the beginning of this year, we commissioned this research report to explore the state of UK call centres and to highlight best practices centres in terms of environment, facilities and good operational procedures.

The research finds that in the majority of cases, call centre agents are provided with excellent working environments with measures in place to support them and help develop their skills.

Sarah Faux,

The research clearly highlights the enormous progress industry-leading call centres have made. Their emphasis on providing first-rate working conditions benefits both employees and customers alike. A positive external image can only be achieved through an equally positive and supportive internal atmosphere. This ultimately boosts customer service and reduces both customer and employee churn.

As in all business environments there is room for improvement and our research highlights one of these instances. For some call centres there is progress to be made in using technology to help serve their customers and provide their agents with the best possible information. It is imperative for organisations to understand how their technology can work for them, providing agents with all the facts about each customer and ensuring callers receive impeccable service every time they communicate with the call centre.

However, call centres are clearly ahead of the pack in terms of personnel development, and it is encouraging to see the obvious investment in training and development and the benefits this brings. Call centre agents must be properly trained and acquainted with the company's products, brand and values. If this takes place agents can be trusted to use their own judgement, making call handling slicker, more productive and customer orientated.

It is critical that companies in the UK invest in their call centres so that they can focus on delivering high value services and remain competitive in an increasingly global economy. In a few years, if the findings we have uncovered with this research spread across the rest of the industry then the customer service industry with be full of homegrown talent that understands the vital role that call centres play. Other industries should sit up and take note.

Can technology really impact upon the contact centre environment?

Clive Sawkins, vice president, Avaya UK and Ireland:

The belief that overall business success is directly linked to a positive environment that makes employees more productive, is finally gaining credence. This positive environment in a contact centre is made up of a variety of factors including company culture, strength of management, infrastructure, facilities and the empowerment of agents to do their jobs fully. An important part of the infrastructure and facilities is the technology available to the agents. Getting the technology right is critical as the contact centre agent has greater potential to influence customer behaviour - and, therefore, revenue generation - than almost any other employee.

By enabling agents to do their job better, technology can help create a more positive atmosphere in a contact centre and will also impact upon customer service. Conversely, poorly implemented or out-of-date technology can often hinder agents and, in my experience, many of the sweat shop images stem from this problem. However, simply purchasing new technology is clearly not the answer to improving the working environment. Before even considering the various solutions on the market it is essential that companies discuss the impact on the contact centre environment that the solution is likely to have. A plan for full implementation, communication of the change to agents, agent training and plotting Return on Investment from the system are all key.

Call routing
While most customers are usually well served, some experience poor service once too often. During the first crucial seconds of an interaction, when the customer is waiting to reach the agent, your automated system is in control. It is during those seconds that a sophisticated call routing system can make a huge difference. Such systems can personalise the routing of inbound calls, based on customer segmentation and experience (and corresponding agent knowledge).

Skills-based routing has been used by some contact centres for over six years. Analysts believe that more than 10,000 contact centres world-wide have benefited from improvements to customer service and performance by using this technology. As the Datapoint research shows, many UK contact centres are still not implementing call routing, at their own peril.

When skills-based routing was first introduced, the industry focused on how it would improve customer service. These days, with more sophisticated systems, we can increase productivity using the same solution. Skill-based routing can help you revitalise your contact centre by giving management more flexibility to best use agent knowledge, reduce call handling times, reduce training times, support better incentive programs and lower operating costs. Intelligently distributing calls to agents, reducing unnecessary transfers and enabling agents to become specialists gives you cumulative results that make your contact centre more effective.

Agent development
But that is only half of the picture. Skills-based routing gives contact centres the ability to recognise agents' valuable contributions and treat them as individuals. With skill-based routing, agents are no longer assigned to queues - the system recognises their unique abilities and then can match them to callers' needs. Freeing agents from queues and allowing them to develop distinctive sets of skills ultimately leads to a greater sense of value and job satisfaction and provides a distinct career path for agents, who can become experts in a particular area, eventually leading a team of other agents in this area or sharing their knowledge as a trainer.

From the agent's point of view, skills-based routing can make them stand out to their employers; they are being recognised for their skills and the value they add. As a result their line managers are more likely to be able to develop a tailored development plan for them, with appropriate coaching, training and objectives - much like employees in most other office-based jobs. It also gives agents a chance to take more control of their own careers, choosing and adding new skills that keep their job interesting and expand their knowledge. They are therefore more likely to stay in their job for longer.

Customer loyalty
As well as being skills-based, routing can also be customer loyalty based. With such software, not only can you route your best customers to your most experienced agents, you can also set the time limits for hold and transfer time for each segment of customers. By combining previous call experiences with customer profile information, customer satisfaction and loyalty can be further increased by this type of call routing.

When we consider the full range of customer interfaces available in many contact centres today, the routing scenario becomes infinitely more complex. If businesses are to be equally efficient across a multi-channel environment, they need to be able to apply this functionality across all forms of media. In addition, some companies may want to prioritise enquiries based on the medium of the enquiry. For example you might decide that the waiting time for a web chat request should be three times longer than the queue holding time of inbound voice traffic. Another possible consideration is the need to integrate email and web chat into the centre's 'call waiting' statistics, which are often shared with agents via wallboard displays and/or PCs in order to keep agents informed about the number of calls waiting.

Call centres are an important employer in the UK, yet have been unable to shake their 'second-rate' image. The call centre industry is letting itself down by doing little to break outsiders' perceptions. For the person on the street, the image of the call centre remains that of the sweat shop. In reality, as Datapoint's research indicates, many call centres offer positive environments and career opportunities to rival most other industries. Technology such as call routing offers a way to improve the environment and offer further career development. I strongly urge call centres to continue this trend so that we can build an industry we are truly proud of, that will change the general public's perceptions.

Executive Summary

The research was carried out by Benchmark Research, amongst 228 agents in 33 call centres across the UK, in vertical sectors such as financial services and travel. The agents were either polled over the phone or completed a paper questionnaire. Fieldwork commenced in January 2004 and finished in February 2004.

The research begins with questions to ascertain basic demographics of call centre agents and questions them on how long they have worked in their current call centre. These questions uncover that the majority of call centre workers are women (62 per cent) and that people aged between 18 and 25 are more likely (39 per cent) than people aged over 46 (11 per cent) to be a call centre agent.

This indicates that it is younger women, at the start of their careers, who tend to see call centre work as an attractive option. The research also reveals that it is older call centre agents who are more likely to stay in their jobs the longest. 50 per cent of 36-45 year olds and 83 per cent of 46+ year olds have been in their jobs for more than two years. This indicates that call centre work remains attractive and fulfilling for workers in the later stages of their career.

Environment and facilities
The next section of the research is dedicated to assessing the environment in which call centre agents work. Encouragingly, 74 per cent of the agents questioned feel they are provided with excellent or very good working environments. Only 26 per cent think the environment has little impact or a negative effect on how they feel about their job. In particular, 71 per cent of the agents stated that it was the specific facilities they were provided with which promoted the good atmosphere in which they work. When quizzed about which facilities the agents are provided with, the following are most common:

  • Internet access (43 per cent)

  • A chill out area (38 per cent)

  • Parking (38 per cent)

  • Training rooms (33 per cent)

Bottom of the list are:

  • Free tea and coffee (3 per cent)

  • Kitchen facilities (2 per cent)

  • A crèche (1 per cent).

Encouragingly, call centre managers are hitting the nail on the head when it comes to providing the facilities that agents actually deem important. The agents select training rooms, chill out areas, parking and Internet access as their four most valued facilities, which matches what they are being provided with in most cases. By asking how the facilities actually make a difference to the agents, the research finds that the agents feel less stressed, can be more organised and productive and proud of their jobs. Interestingly when the research extended to the working environment outside of the call centre and the agents were asked whether they would find it useful to be able to work flexibly from home, or another location, nearly half the agents feel it would be quite or very useful. This option would be particularly attractive to the 36-45 year olds. However, despite this fairly high desire to work from home, only 18 per cent of the agents are presented with this option.

Support, training and development
The second section of the research delves into how empowered and supported call centre agents are and how much training they receive to help them do their jobs better. Just over half of the agents are encouraged to use their own initiative with another 40 per cent having some room to make their own decisions. This indicates that a career as a call centre agent is not rigid, but offers the opportunity to be resourceful. In addition, motivation is maintained with over 80 per cent of agents believing they have sufficient or a lot of management support.

When it comes to training, the research dispels the myth that call centre work is an unskilled option, and highlights call centre employers' commitment to training their agents. The results show that four out of ten agents receive more than one day of training per month. Compare this to the national percentage of only 14.3 per cent of workers who received any job-related training during the summer of 2003 and it's clear call centres are providing competitive development opportunities and an attractive career path.

Finally, the research looks at the more technical aspects of the facilities provided to agents. Specifically, it looks at how call centres are set up to route incoming enquiries to the agents and what information about the enquiry the agent receives. Surprisingly, nearly 50 per cent of call centres do not route the calls to agents based on their area of expertise or knowledge. Moreover, in those call centres that do try to route calls to suitable agents, only four out of ten agents find that calls are always routed accurately. That means that a significant number of callers are connected to agents who are not suitably qualified to answer their enquiries. This highlights the case for developing subject area specialists within call centres and ensuring a policy and the technology is in place to route incoming calls to the correct agent.

In addition, only just over a third of agents are provided with all the information about the incoming caller. So, not only are calls not routed to the best agent to resolve the caller's enquiry but, when the caller does get through the agent is unlikely to have the correct information about them. This could have a severe impact on the level of service the caller receives. In summary, the research finds that whilst in some cases technical facilities could be improved, most of the call centres polled are providing excellent working conditions, with a strong commitment to support, training and development.

1 National statistics - Labour Market Trends, December 2003. This statistic of working-age employees receiving job-related training was taken over the summer of 2003.

Datapoint's top tips for running an effective call centre:

  1. Develop a trusting environment - Effective call centres demand regular performance management - this must be within a trusting environment, where agents feel comfortable. A culture of empowerment ensures agents feel they make a difference to overall performance and aren't threatened.

  2. Are you a competitive employer? - Check you are a competitive employer - keep up to date benchmarks of salary, package, benefits and facilities compared to other call centres in your area.

  3. Provide flexible shift patterns - Make it easy for agents to work at the call centre - create flexible shift patterns, lay on transport to and from the centre or offer the chance to work from home.

  4. Replicate best practice from other sites - Highlight other sites where the operations work well - pointing to something that already works give agents something to base their efforts on. This could be other call centres within your organisation or local non-competing centres.

  5. Mentor new agents - Run a buddy system for new agents with longer serving agents to ensure they are coached and up to speed quickly when they join.

  6. Find out what your agents want - Run an annual employee survey so you know what facilities and working arrangements agents want and need. Customise your facilities and services accordingly.

  7. Keep agents performing to the highest levels - Ensure they are pushed and developed in existing and new areas with both face-to-face training and elearning leading to internal qualifications or promotion. Also support agents in training for external qualifications such as NVQs.

  8. Make your call centre comfortable to work in - Suitable lighting, correct acoustics, comfortable seating, and air conditioning are key. Also, make sure that agents have good personal space and avoid back pain by arranging their work spaces correctly.

  9. Regularly brief agents on company news - These briefings will give agents a link between their role and the progress of the company as a whole. Also, it will ensure they adhere to brand values and culture.

  10. Don't underestimate the power of recognition - Incentivise agents with long service awards and recognise other forms of success with rewards for individual campaigns and achievements and team work.

About Sarah Faux:
Sarah joined Datapoint in July 2002 as chief executive officer, after five years as Senior Vice President at eLoyalty Corporation. During her time with eLoyalty, she launched and managed eLoyalty Ventures, a venture capital fund backed by eLoyalty Corporation and three co-investors to identify and invest in the next generation of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) companies. Additionally, Faux has over 10 years experience in CRM and has spoken at many international events on developing customer loyalty solutions.

About DataPoint:
Datapoint specializes in extracting value from call centres by making them work commercially, operationally and technically. The company is known for its honest and straightforward approach towards protecting current and future investment in call centres. Datapoint has 20 years experience in call centres and during this time it created a number of solutions.

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Published: Wednesday, June 23, 2004

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