The Knowledge

Call centres are shedding their ‘chicken farm’ reputation as staff are increasingly trained to be experts with personal, in-depth experience of the products they deal with. Jo-Anne Flack reports

Mark Hurd-Bennett, account director at direct marketing agency MBO, spent a day last month test-driving a 7.5 tonne Iveco Ford truck.

He handles the Iveco account at MBO’s dedicated call centre and the test drive was an exercise to familiarise himself with the product. The MBO call centre is not responsible for handling sales for Iveco – it passes on all sales calls to dealers – but agents, as call operators are now called, are still expected to be very familiar with the product.

It is becoming increasingly common for call centres and their clients to insist that those handling the calls have more than a passing relationship with the products and services they deal with. The end result is a long way away from the perception of warehouses full of hundreds of people clamped to desks, taking and making calls.

Call centre operators who deal with car clients have often test driven the cars and can discuss them in detail and from personal experience.

Christine Janes is a director at Brann Contact, which handles the Fiat business. She says Fiat invests “a great deal of money” in making sure call handlers know what they are talking about.

“We get cars delivered here once a month, if possible before they are launched. It means the operators can tell people on the phone: ‘I drove it yesterday and …’

“We also use the cars as an incentive. If people have done particularly well, they can take the car home for the weekend,” says Janes. Staff who don’t have a driving licence are expected to go out in the car with a driver.

Brann Contact is not responsible for selling the product and part of its remit is to redirect callers to dealers. But its call centre staff are expected to know and appreciate the product.

Sainsbury’s is another Brann Contact client which encourages operators to understand its products. Sainsbury’s runs food fairs at which marketing services staff are invited to test products and find out how they are made. Call centre operators are invited to stores and sent on new product testing programmes.

It is not only the call centres that are demanding clients make this investment. The clients seem to be more than happy to do so. One reason for this, says Hurd-Bennett, is that it gives the client some ownership of an outsourced resource.

“It is very frustrating for a client not to see or have access to a very important part of their business every day. The more visits they make to the call centre, and the more often they get operators to visit them, they more they feel they still have a handle on what is going on.”

Janes says: “Occasionally, in the past, there may have been a client who would say it was our responsibility to motivate operators, but that is changing. If a client said that to us now, we would think very seriously about taking on the business.”

It’s a policy that has the added benefit of reducing staff churn, which is notoriously high at call centres.

Clearly, there are services – such as utilities – where operators can’t get to try out the product. Nevertheless, good clients will still get operators to visit company headquarters and learn to understand the organisation’s systems and processes.

Test-driving a car or discovering ten ways to use pesto sauce is one thing, but trying out a holiday destination is quite another. Eurocamp – part of the Holiday Break group – arranges six to eight trips to Europe each year, and it expects everyone in the company, including call handlers, to go on one of them. Call centre manager Keith Stagg says staff churn at the 150-seat call centre is currently in single figures.

Apart from the obligatory educational trips, the company also incentivises staff with discounted holidays.

“The point,” says Stagg, “is that if someone phones with a query about a particular site, an operator will be able to answer the question based on personal experience.”

Stagg says Eurocamp does two rounds of staff recruitment a year for its base in Cheshire. “Normally, we are looking for about 15 new people for the call centre and we get between 150 and 200 responses each time,” he says.

This level of service from call centres in the travel sector is not unusual: operators such as Thomas Cook and Thomson Holidays operate similar policies.

Mark Spencer-Scragg is planning and resourcing director at Maritz Learning Systems, which develops sales training solutions for call centres. He says: “This is the best form of training. It is learning by experience: if people experience it, they do it. If operators know, understand and believe in a product, they can sell it.”

The increasing skills of call centre operators, and their growing knowledge of the products, is making them more important to clients. But there is a certain irony in the situation, as Spencer-Scragg explains: “The marketing director of a high street bank recently asked me why the most poorly-paid people on his staff were the ones who had direct contact with his customers.”

Lever Brothers’ Lever Careline handled more than 120,000 calls last year, and is probably the only direct contact the company has with its customers. Within one year of its introduction in 1993, consumer contact with Lever doubled.

Lever Careline’s operators, who handle calls for all Lever Brothers cleaning products, are known as advisers and are expected to use the products and know them well.

Careline manager Sue Jarvis says: “We have advisers who have been here for seven years. Not only do they know the products very well, they also have very useful knowledge because they are the ears and voice of Lever Brothers.

“Research shows that shoppers find the detergent aisles very confusing and, nowadays, you need a science degree to do the washing. Callers want real information when they call.”

Growing recognition of the value of experienced call centre staff is bringing growth to the sector, and forward-thinking companies are responding with higher salaries.

Stefan Barden is group managing director of iForce, which describes itself as an e-fulfilment operation. He says: “We are looking for more sophisticated agents – people at graduate level. As a result, salaries are rising quite rapidly. We pay people at the going rate but we have noticed a lot of inflation.”

Barden points out that there is increasing recognition of the fact that the work of call centre staff is really customer relationship management. “It is increasingly about customer service. Good service is underpinned by the attitude of the agents – but also the fact that they have a better knowledge of clients’ products and business.”

The days of call centres being perceived, and run, like chicken farms, are clearly over. Being a call centre operator may not be many people’s dream job, but it increasingly offers reasonable money and, more importantly, career prospects.

Yet, even though a growing number of clients understand the importance of call centres to their business, many call centre staff are still at the bottom-end of the salary scale. Their true value has yet to be taken seriously.

Call Centre Expo

Call Centre Expo 2000 will take place at the NEC Birmingham on September 19 and 20.

The call centre, telebusiness and customer contact management event is now in its second year and will be host to over 150 exhibitors.

Event director for Call Centre Expo 2000 Mark Snell says: “Even though Call Centre Expo is only a year old, it has established itself as the showcase for new innovations launched to the call and contact centre market. Having doubled in size since the launch event last year, this year’s show will be the only place where visitors can witness new products and services face to face.”

The show will also feature an advice centre offering free, independent call centre and CRM advice.

There will also be a conference programme featuring over a dozen client case studies, including Thomas Cook, AXA Insurance, Ladbrokes, ebookers.com, BUPA and Prudential.

Half-day ‘executive masterclasses’ will accompany the conference, providing workshop-style learning opportunities for delegates.

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