The size of the call centre market in Europe is likely to double in the next five years. But the stress levels involved in doing the job are also soaring and the industry should be concerned about an imminent and serious skills shortage.

George Orwell could never be accused of optimism about employment opportunities in the future. But although 1984 came and went without signs of Big Brother, the mid-Eighties saw the arrival of the call centre – white collar factories promising flexible employment for the masses in the Information Age.

The growth in the telephony industry is happening at a breathtaking pace. In less than two decades, the number of call centres in the UK has spiralled to more than 2,500 – the highest number for any country in Europe – as more and more companies include telemarketing in their communications mix. In Britain it is predicted that by 2000, the number of people employed in this sector will be more than a million – about two per cent of the working population – exceeding the number who will work in more traditional industries such as agriculture.

The creation of new job opportunities is all well and good. But when you look at the flip side, the spectacles become a little less rose-tinted.

Recent surveys have underlined a growing crisis and warn that people working in call centres could become casualties of this explosive growth. Absenteeism of between four and 20 per cent, staff turnover averaging 30-40 per cent and low morale among employees all point to an industry that is already looking very stressed out.

It’s not difficult to understand why. Low pay, lack of motivation, monotonous repetitive tasks, difficult customers and physically restricting working environments are potent ingredients for workplace stress. Add to this concoction a heavy reliance upon part-time and contract staff and it doesn’t take long to realise that “flexible working” looks suspiciously like a euphemism for “dead end job”.

But although the picture seems gloomy, Matthew Taylor, client services director of telemarketing agency the Calcom Group, believes that it is easy to overlook the positives.

“It’s common to make assumptions that the work is boring, but a large number of people employed in call centres genuinely enjoy the work,” he says.

It may come as a surprise, but a recent survey by Incomes Data Services, supports this view. The survey found that many call centre staff accept that their working environment is quite normal, and enjoy the work they do.

Nevertheless, recruitment consultancy firm Austin Knight also detected an underlying discontent when a survey of 1,000 call centre employees revealed that more than half felt morale was low.

The message is clear: if call centres are to meet the demands of this supercharged expansion, a rethink of management and human resources policies will be needed in order to satisfy individual aspirations, improve staff retention and increase the number of people entering the industry.

Amanda Jones, group marketing director of the Lexus Group, agrees, and warns that the call centre industry “could soon experience the same skills shortage that the IT industry is facing”.

But given that in a survey of 100 call centres by direct marketing consultancy the Merchants Group, each one failed to meet the company’s “strategic and optimised” benchmark, the need for brain surgery rather than thinking caps may be more appropriate if the industry is to avoid coming unstuck.

“There is a three-step way to alleviate the high levels of stress in a call centre,” says Cameron Thompson of Aspect Telecommunications. “Plan, plan and plan. Bad planning, or worse, no planning, has a cumulative effect. Gradually, managers will notice a fall-off in performance and eventually, the stress will manifest itself in physical symptoms or staff will simply quit.”

As the industry becomes more competitive, with companies increasingly competing on service, there is pressure to pursue the commercial bottom line. But, says Calcom’s Matthew Taylor, the cost in human terms may be just too great.

“Call centres are people-cent red businesses. When you look at what motivates people, security and achievement are among the most important stimuli. When com-panies ignore these basic human needs, the consequences are sadly inevitable.”

Given that the statistics generally paint a rather gloomy picture of staff malaise, it is not surprising that research has found that nearly one in three call centres do not have specific remuneration policies, and almost two-thirds have no career development strategies. Taylor believes that this justifies his point.

“It is depressing how few call centres have a structured staff development plan. “Companies need to have a clear strategy that they can implement right from the recruitment stage.”

Yet a joint survey by Calcom and Austin Knight also revealed that many of the call centre managers interviewed accept that high staff turnover is unavoidable. Jones believes that the situation is unlikely to change until a career in the tele-business carries more professional kudos.

“There is still little in the way of recognised qualifications for people dedicating their careers to working in the industry,” says Jones. “It may be a little precipitous, but I’ve yet to hear ‘I want to be a call centre manager when I grow up’,” she adds.

Howard Sarna, training director with Softbank Services Group (SSG) Europe, a specialist call centre providing customer support for several large software companies, agrees. “You have to take a realistic view and accept that no one will spend their entire working life solving people’s problems over the telephone. Staff turnover at the operative level is therefore going to be high,” says Sarna.

To counter the problem, SSG has implemented a development programme which aims to reduce attrition by emphasising training. The company believes this can provide openings for employees in other areas such as sales and account management.

Sarna continues: “You can extend the length of time an employee will stay by offering a proper training programme, a definite career path and a happy working environment. In return we expect them to stay with us for at least two years. It’s a mutual understanding that allows both parties to benefit,” he says.

But while the most common method of training is through in-house programmes, the growing sophistication and globalisation of the industry means the day is fast approaching when nationally recognised training and qualifications specific to the call centre sector will become an imperative. When it happens, the industry will take a quantum leap forward as a credible profession.

“We have already begun to see various organisations providing NVQs for soft skills training, and although this is a step in the right direction, much more needs to be addressed,” says Jones.

Dr Frances MacCurtain of consultancy group Zarbo agrees that the industry is only now beginning to realise that the demands of working in telephony are unique and the skills required are more sophisticated than may have been realised. As a professional speech therapist and former winner of the Yves Cliquot Woman of the Year Award for her work in this area, Dr MacCurtain has applied the principles of speech science to the telephony industry and produced intriguing results.

“Stress is an inherent part of working in telephony, but there are phonetic laws that can be applied that will not only reduce the stress of dealing with difficult callers but also increase the productivity of the staff,” she claims.

Dr MacCurtain’s technique encourages telephonists to become aware of how they sound, and focus on their different states of vocalisation – whether, for example, they are expressing empathy, sounding patronising or becoming over-aggressive. A recent trial with the Teledynamics company, part of Taylor Nelson AGB, found that staff productivity rose nearly 20 per cent. But, she warns, there is no guarantee that the techniques work in poorly managed “vocal sweat shops”.

“It won’t cure the problems of a badly managed call centre. In fact, it is more likely that it will exacerbate the stress levels where there is no genuine management commitment to improve conditions,” she says.

With the European call centre market set to double in size during the next five years to reach a turnover of 20bn by 2001, it is inevitable that the lure of rich pickings will attract the fast-buck cowboys along with companies prepared to take a longer-term view.

And, with overseas firms continuing to invest millions of pounds in UK-based call centres, many are predicting employment in the industry will become a credible profession, with recognition through apprenticeships, university affiliations and post-graduate diplomas.

But in the rapidly changing world of telecommunications, nobody can predict the future with certainty. US business commentators point out that, as the Internet replaces personal telephone contact, the idea of factory-like call centres is already passé.

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