On-the-job training in Britain’s largest industries used to involve either developing strong biceps, a tolerance of dark confined spaces or a way with molten steel. But in the Nineties your first step on the learning curve is more likely to be a quick induction in Computer Telephony Integration (CTI) systems, acceptable departures from a call script, or even a quirky team building session to prepare you for a huge and thoroughly modern industry, telemarketing.
More than two per cent of the population will be involved in call centre activity by 2000, a large percentage of whom will be telemarketers, estimates Anne Marie For- syth, executive director of the Call Centre Association.
All thoughts of recession aside, massive growth is leaving employers crying out for new recruits to fill seats in barn-like centres, which some liken to sweatshops. Combined with this prevailing poor image, a lack of specific, appropriate professional qualifications for such a training intensive industry is a flat note in the dial tone.
Most new recruits see only a temporary fill-in job instead of a career path ahead of them, contributing to an often reported call centre staff churn rate of around 30 per cent.
John Orsmond, chairman of Advertising Research Marketing (ARM), says the high churn rate is responsible for a huge and continuous recruitment and retraining burden.
“At the last count, 14 per cent of call centres had still not equipped their operators with headsets. So it’s not only training issues, it’s people issues,” says Orsmond. “There’s an influx of people going into undercapitalised telebureax who do not like the stress of working under such measurability, which brings it back into the purchase circle of getting skills, keeping them and having to retrain constantly.”
ARM has recently undertaken consumer and supply side studies of call centres, showing – the volume of calls has risen 700 per cent in the last three years. Studies show failings on the supply side (of skills, systems and capacity) are not meeting consumer demands for convenience.
Orsmond believes there is room for improvement. “The educational establishments need to understand from the outset the speed, accuracy and precision needed right from the outset, to produce cross-skill understanding of technology, as well as marketing.”
The knock-on effect on clients and consumers of badly resourced telemarketing operations are profound, says Orsmond. “Some clients may be spending lots of money on DRTV ads, but only one of those spots needs to be answered by a badly equipped and resourced call centre and they could lose 20,000 callers.”
He claims the issue hasn’t been addressed sufficiently by call centre trade bodies (over 60 exist), or educational establishments.
But a plethora of training courses has sprung up to meet © demand over the last ten years, through both private companies and institutions. There are a number of training centres offering intensive office courses for entry level operators. Operators can now study for NVQs on the job.
The Call Centre Association has also endorsed courses at every level, from an introductory certificate for operators, offered by various training providers, through to an eleven-week course for call centre managers developed by the Open University Business School, which also has an MBA course. The Institute of Direct Marketing offers a nine-day certificate course in call management and similar courses are springing up all over the UK. Higher level courses for managers include a call centre management diploma run by Sitel Corporation and the Open University.
But the scarcity of IT skills is still a fundamental issue facing centres, says Orsmond. Despite the recent explosion of courses there is not a single university in the country offering any training in high-tech marketing and telecoms systems, he notes.
Helen MacKenzie, managing director of The Business Extension, says technology is playing an increasingly key role. “Database expertise is the cornerstone of all direct marketing and an in-depth understanding is crucial to effective telemarketing,” she says.
So are the qualifications available meeting the needs of managers and operators? Many in the industry say no, opting for internal training and made-to-measure courses commissioned from outside contractors instead.
Bibi Bajwa, joint managing director of BPS Teleperformance, says while undertaking external training is encouraged, it is often too general. “The impact of an outside course is limited, whereas one-to-one coaching is specific and focused on our business requirements.”
Raising awareness and networking seem to be the main functions of external courses for managers, she says.
Supporting and managing the learning process for staff on outside courses can also involve a demoralising workload for supervisors, she says. “Inevitably, after a few weeks on the course they have a crisis of confidence which impacts on their work here. You can’t let people fail but you can’t pressurise them to do what they truly don’t want to do.”
BPS staff have to do their own research and prepare a sound proposition to management if they want to undertake outside training. Goals and performance are also assessed at quarterly reviews where every staff member’s training needs and objectives are revised, which Bajwa says forces people to plan their learning more effectively.
She doesn’t dismiss external courses outright, “But you need to look at how beneficial it’s going to be to your organisation”. BPS sees work-based NVQs as mainly a staff retention tactic.
“We take a mercenary approach to the NVQs. They don’t have much impact on the skills brought to the business, but it’s about an improvement in self esteem and confidence,” Bajwa explains.
A lot of telemarketing training has a measurable shelf-life, says Keith Wymer, managing director of training consultancy Hotlines Marketing Group. Training needs to be revisited every four or five months as the ability to use new skills wanes in as little as 12 to 14 weeks after a course, he says.
“Our research has shown it takes six deliveries of the same message, in a different style every time, to achieve total internalisation of their training messages,” says Wymer. “They use the skills so much it’s a bit like a knife. It goes blunt and needs resharpening.”
Hotlines has seen a 110 per cent increase in demand for soft skills training in the past year, which Wymer says is due to increasing use of outbound telesales, notably in the insurance and finance sectors. “These markets have traditionally relied on inbound response handling. We are being called in because our clients’ staff have the wrong skills.”
Tony Collins, chief executive of the Customer Contact Company, a call centre management consultancy, also says while a lot of industry knowledge can be gained on outside courses, most management training is achievable on the job. “We do our own training of managers but they must be effective from day one, so obviously external courses do have a role to play.”
The industry is facing a real lack of quality call centre managers, notes Collins. “Due to the industry’s rapid growth, there is now a real shortage of training available to get people up to speed.”
While he believes professional management courses should be seen as prestigious, he personally values team leadership skills above qualifications. “I’m looking for a motivator. I’d rather find the person first and then get them to learn.”
Part of the problem, he believes, is that those professional courses that are available are not regarded highly enough by people who could be ideal for employment in this sector.
“Telemarketing and telesales still sounds nasty and degrading. I think if operators got involved in hands-on training courses immediately, it would make them realise that they were getting involved in something more important than they initially may have thought.
“Effective agents are your organisation. They have to do everything a customer wants in one phone conversation. It’s for this reason that I think jobs in this sector should be advertised in The Times and not the local paper.”
Collins emphasises that call centres are an excellent place for graduates to start in management. “I think we should look at it like Marks & Spencer, which employs people from university and brings them through on the shop floor.”
Solutions to the irrelevancy of some courses are being found. The Call Centre Consortium, a Sunderland-based group comprising managers and representatives, was approached by the University of Sunderland seeking input into its certificate in call centre management from the outset. Cheryl Black, head of call centre services at Acxiom which has a 150-seat centre in Sunderland and a smaller outpost in London, says the university’s approach is sensible and will ensure its direct business relevance to local centres, which now numbers 10 and boasts approximately 8,000 employees.
“From our point of view it’s ideal. Once we have team leaders who are ready to be developed, we have a tailor-made package available to us. In the past we might have had to look at something in general customer care or business administration.”
Black says the needs of telemarketing centres are different from manufacturing or a general office environment, so bespoke courses are the only solution.
“The needs we have to meet are similar to production targets with a very high focus on people management. I think nothing that exists at the moment is a direct fit for the kind of people we have.”
But Black believes a tailored course, like the one the University of Sunderland is offering, is a good starting point for those making a move into first level management. “It will help them to start learning again if you like, because a lot of people in call centres don’t come from a further education background or may have been out of education for a long time.”
This embryonic course at the University of Sunderland is competition for The IDM’s Certificate in Call Centre Management, launched 18 months ago. More than 150 people have completed the nine-day course which covers all aspects, from recruitment to the law.
Course developer, Simon Roncoroni of The L&R Group, says a lot of effort has gone into making it as relevant as possible. But he believes the course is being hampered because most centres can’t afford to let their staff go for a long periods, largely due to financial constraints.
“But, I think the real issue is that we don’t yet have the commitment to professional training.”
IDM managing director Derek Holder believes the key industry bodies need to establish a qualifications structure, including NVQs, in order to create a career route. “If it can be established as a respected profession, then you can develop set career paths.”
Holder adds that training plays a large part in staff retention. “Better practice leads to better results which leads to a more motivated staff.”
The industry has yet to establish itself as a profession, explains Holder. “We’re helping to do that by establishing part of the qualifications structure a profession needs.”
So, can an operator really see a career path shining ahead when glued to a headset with backed-up callers flashing on the board above? It is in the big centres that there is more opportunity. David Walsh, managing director at Golley Slater in Cardiff, believes its training, which is mostly done in-house, extends the duration of an outbound telemarketer’s stay in the company. There is room for those with ambition to become team leaders or call centre managers, or move into the IT area, he says. “But it is a demanding activity and at some stage you’ll want to move on,” he says.
Walsh says while every attempt is made to build a career ladder, there are always more operators than permanent senior staff positions, making it inevitable that some will look for opportunity elsewhere.
The Business Extension’s, MacKenzie says the majority of its managers began their careers as operators. “They are now our project leaders, account directors, telecoms managers and IT managers.”
BPS Teleperformance also boasts a majority of managers at all levels – from operations and IT staff – who started out on the phones.
Bajwa says: “You can have all the degrees and vocational qualifications in the world, but there is no substitute for personal experience.”
She says that 60 to 80 per cent of the agents at the BPS’ Birmingham centre are undergraduates who can see corporate progression in action.