After traffic wardens, call centre staff are fast becoming people we love to hate – from those who interrupt a quiet evening at home to tell us how to reduce our phone bills to the unhelpful operator at the end of a customer-care line.
It’s a sector which is creating myths. The often-quoted label that call centres are the new dark satanic mills owes more to a handful of rogue operators than an accurate description. The belief that call centres are staffed by armies of ill-paid, uninterested temporary workers is also wide off the mark.
Of course, there are exceptions – the most high profile being BT, which should know better. BT suffered the ignominy of having 4,000 call centre workers going on strike last November because of stress related to strict call-handling targets. Agents were expected to complete calls in 285 seconds, to a high standard and in a friendly manner, and were disciplined if they didn’t.
The call centre industry is too large for employers to be getting it wrong. According to Datamonitor, there are 223,000 UK call centre workers, and it predicts this will rise to 274,000 in 2002. At the moment, these figures represent between one and 1.7 per cent of the UK workforce.
Although this sector is problematic, the perception that most call centres are dank sweatshops is inaccurate.
Nevertheless, working in a call centre is unlikely to be many children’s ambition. So what type of people work in call centres and, more importantly, thrive in them?
Churn rates are quite high. Incomes Data Services research shows the average staff turnover is 18 per cent a year. Is this because of the nature of the work, or recruitment policies?
Training consultancy Sewells issued a report recently claiming call centres are recruiting the wrong sort of people. Chairman Dr William Holden says training and recruitment account for 35 per cent of its costs. “If used properly, the telephone is the most effective marketing tool. However, efforts to build meaningful customer relationships are often eroded by call centres,” says Dr Holden.
According to Sewells’ report, call centre and human resources managers “generally feel the ideal call- centre person is assertive, results-oriented and dynamic”.
Dr Holden claims call centres have the wrong perception of what makes a good agent.
In the report, the ideal call centre person was perceived to be someone who “will achieve, but is impatient and reluctant to follow routine.” It claims respondents saw them as “preferring a fast-moving, ever-changing environment which satisfied their need for novelty, diversity and immediate results. When frustrated, which often happens, they become blunt and ‘to the point’ in their communications style – to the point of becoming abrupt.”
However, Dr Holden says that when the call centres’ so-called superstars were interviewed, their characteristics were quite different. The report says: “These superstars were patient and tolerant people who were focused in their approach, and planned and organised themselves in a methodical and thorough fashion. They were co-operative and worked well in a team environment, where they could support and help others to attain their goals.”
The report has been greeted with a lot of scepticism in the call centre industry, particularly in the recruitment sector, where many people question the depth and rigorousness of the research. Most feel the report is a thinly-disguised sales tool. Indeed, the methodology seems vague. Nevertheless, the report raises interesting points about what type of people thrive in a call centre environment.
A perfect call centre agent
Beverley Jeffs, sales director at the Procter Consultancy, which specialises in communications training, says call centre turnover is linked to a number of factors, including the environment and how they are managed – not just the type of person recruited. “Within a call centre environment, there will be different types of people, with different qualities. I don’t agree there is a perfect call centre person.”
Jeffs also disagrees that churn rates are unnecessarily high. “Compared with what?” she asks. “I think 18 months to two years is a reasonable lifespan for a call centre agent. There are call centres where turnover is high, but you need to compare this with other industries.”
The nature of the recruitment will also depend on the type of calls they will be expected to handle. Peter McDonnell, managing director of facilities management at Blue Arrow Personnel Service, is responsible for placing thousands of temporary workers in call centres every day. He says: “The work done in call centres is diverse, from customer service and technical enquiries to active sales and passive sales. It is inappropriate to say all these agents would have the same qualities.”
McDonnell concedes there may be ideal call centre candidates, but says it is more important to understand there is an optimum period in which you can keep them productive before you need to change what they are doing to revitalise them.
“At the moment, we are working on the concept of consortium resourcing, where you have a pool of workers who move from company to company to refresh them. The call centre environment is repetitive. It is like putting someone on a production line – only there you can let your mind drift off. A call centre person doesn’t have that privilege,” says McDonnell.
The pressure to make and take a certain number of calls per hour would put pressure on the most capable person. One call centre which has opted to take this pressure off its agents is Edinburgh-based Replyline. Managing director Jane Gilburt says it does not force them to handle a set number of calls. Unsurprisingly, Replyline’s staff turnover is five per cent a year.
“I know what my targets are in terms of business and we can still guarantee our clients a quality service. We make up for it by having more agents on the phone. We might be more cost efficient if we had fewer agents taking more calls, but this system means our agents have a good knowledge of our clients’ business and they don’t walk out,” says Gilburt.
The situation is probably helped by the fact that the call centre only has 30 employees. Gilburt concedes that one with 400 to 500 workers might be more difficult to run along these lines.
Brann Contact, on the other hand, is the fifth largest call centre in Europe, and claims low turnover rates. Director Claire Davidson does not look for a standard call centre agent, but hires staff according to what clients want. “We are weaning clients away from heavy scripting, which is not good for the customer, or agents. The main characteristic we look for in a person is self motivation and reliability, because call centre work can become monotonous.”
Davidson agrees the key to retaining good staff is not so much who you hire but striking a “balance so they are not under constant pressure”.
Of course, there are some call centres, mainly outbound sales and lead-generation operations, where the work is tough and the lifecycle short.
Tony Vaughan, managing director of Mentor, an outbound agency specialising in computer clients, says: “In this sector, people consider telemarketing as a gap filler until they have decided what they want to do; or, in this company, it is used as a platform to get marketing jobs with our clients. I don’t expect anyone to stay longer than a year.”
He says that in a job where you are likely to be rejected at least six or seven times before someone will even speak to you, burnout is high.
“The main rule we have regarding recruitment is to tell people the truth. We tell them what kind of job it is – but we also say it will open doors to a better one. If we pick the right people, they will be gone after a year.”
So it seems the key to choosing the perfect call centre agent has less to do with individual characteristics than the management understanding the nature of the work. It is hard and monotonous – even when it is not outbound. There aren’t any personalities likely to be perfectly suited to hard and monotonous work but, given good management and good working conditions, it is a job that a lot of people could do, and some might enjoy.