The right call

Criticisms of call centres may be exaggerated, but they raise questions that the industry cannot ignore. And, with increasing competition from India, the sector needs to adapt to survive.

Comparing the call centre industry in this country to William Blake’s dark satanic mills has become a cliché among marketers and it is now impossible to talk about telemarketing without making a reference to them.

Call centre consultant Simon Roncoroni was the source of this reference, which he made at a conference about four years ago. He says it is a comment that has plagued him ever since – mainly because it has taken on a misquoted life of its own.

He says: “I did not say that call centres are the dark satanic mills of the 20th century. What I said was that businesses that failed to recognise the value of people and failed to invest in developing their skills run the risk of developing the dark satanic mills of the 20th century.”

The £2bn call centre industry, or “customer contact centre industry” as it is known by people in the sector, is an easy target for both the press and, in the latest instance, the Trades Union Congress (TUC). This is because the nature of the business and the number of people it employs make it easy to draw parallels with Dickensian factory conditions.

Research company Mintel estimates that 270,000 UK workers will be employed in call centres by 2003. Taking into account part-time workers, the number of people employed in the industry is estimated to be as high as 450,000 – equivalent to 1.6 per cent of the UK workforce.

These figures put into context a TUC report released in April, which reported 733 complaints made by call centre staff. The complaints focused on the pressure that operators were under to make and take a certain number of calls within particular time limits. The report also included complaints about the culture of some call centres, which limited the number of times operators could visit the toilet or take breaks.

The report attracted much publicity and once again raised the spectre of those mills.

But Roncoroni dismisses the report as a TUC recruitment tool, “which was totally politically motivated”.

He adds: “The report does not indicate how many complaints were duplicated and how many came from the same organisation. Given the number of people employed in the industry, the complaints were a drop in the ocean and no different to what you’d find in any other industry.”

Roncoroni makes a good point but as an independent consultant he can afford to be outspoken. Those responsible for running call centres – even those that met the highest standards – need to be seen to take these criticisms on board because it would be impolitic not to.

The Listening Company marketing director Martin Williams feels that the complaints highlighted in the report “are worthy of comment”.

He says: “Given the numbers employed in this industry, the TUC complaints represent only 0.16 per cent of the workforce, in an industry that employs more people than agriculture and teaching put together.”

It would be irresponsible not to recognise the great improvement that call centres have undergone over the past few years. It would also be wrong not to acknowledge that, where bad practice exists, it is the exception. But given the size of the industry and its continued growth – 11 per cent a year – it does carry a responsibility to get things right.

The main weakness of the industry, which everyone seems to agree on, is that call centres and their staff are seen as commodities, whose service must be gained at the best possible price – and usually at the last possible moment.

This attitude, propagated by clients and their agencies, has the knock-on effect of forcing call centres to be managed purely in terms of cost and efficiency.

Williams says: “It intrigues me when clients talk about good customer retention when the main people who are responsible for that retention – call centre staff – are considered a cost.”

People as commodities

It is what call centre consultancy Calcom Group chairman Natalie Calvert refers to as “the ‘US stock exchange’ factor, which focuses on profit per employee”.

Good call centre operators understand that customers will buy into or reject a brand based on the experience they have, either face-to-face or on the phone. Millions of pounds spent on advertising how good a product or service is can be negated after one bad experience on the phone. This idea is not rocket science, but still seems to elude many marketers. If clients really understood that, as Williams says: “the call centre is the third dimension [ads being the first, product the second] of the client’s brand”, much more money and time would be invested in the discipline.

But the issue is further complicated by the nature of the business: is it possible to combine customer-friendly contact on the phone with the need to be as effective as possible? An operator who spends 20 minutes on one call may produce a happy customer. But how do you justify this when you have a stated target of spending no more than five minutes on the phone? Even well run call centres have targets that need to be met. Jonathan Wilson is a director at integrated learning consultancy Academee, which specialises in the management of call centres. He says: “It is easier to measure less important aspects of the work, for instance calls handled each hour or time spent in the toilet, than the more important areas of how satisfied the customer was at the end of a call. Consequently, employees can end up being treated badly despite doing a good job.”

Adding up the numbers

Wilson explains that there is constant friction in the industry, which has to be measured in call centres. Line managers are trained to deal with information visually and so the reports they are given deal purely in efficiency numbers. He says: “There is no way for them to measure the satisfaction that a customer might have after a phone call.”

And this is the problem. Every business has to make the numbers add up, but call centres have a much more difficult task on their hands. Calvert says: “Very few businesses deal with 60-plus calls per minute with such sensitive changes in volume – from, for instance, 30 per cent capacity before 6pm to 150 per cent {with additional staff] capacity from 6pm to 7pm and a total drop during Coronation Street.”

The issue is, how do you manage this type of business? Everyone agrees that viewing call centres as a cost base is problematic. They also agree that the quality of management and training within call centres leaves a lot to be desired.

Blue Sky Consulting consultant Liz Rochester says that the problem is that managers, particularly at a junior level, are recruited internally “usually based on the fact that they are good call-handlers.”

She adds: “But the skills that make you a good agent don’t necessarily mean you will be a good team leader.”

What happens, says Rochester, is that team leaders end up cracking the whip “and their motives are good – they just don’t know any better”.

It is this “command and control” style of management that probably lies at the root of staff dissatisfaction and links back to Roncoroni’s satanic mills reference.

Too little too late

So, despite the hysteria generated in the press and by the TUC report, the truth is that call centre operators and the army of consultants springing up to advise them are quite aware of what needs to be done to make things better.

But they had better get a move on. Crippling competition in the form of a rapidly growing call centre industry in India is something that the UK sector didn’t have to face a few years ago.

Earlier this year, call centre consultancy Outsourcing Insight managed a report on the Indian call centre industry, on behalf of a consortium of organisations interested in that market. Some of the findings were quite alarming for the UK industry.

India has 7,500 call centre lines available to the UK market at the moment. By next year this will rise to 33,000. It is estimated that by 2008 Indian call centres will employ almost 300,000 people.

The irony is that, in a country notorious for sweat shops, the standards of Indian call centres are some of the best in the world.

One of the reasons for this – something in sharp contrast to the UK – is that most of the people running Indian call centres are US university graduates and being a call centre operator is a highly sought-after job. Salaries are comparatively high and so the quality of staff is very good.

Una McLoughlin is a consultant with Performance Insight, which is part of Outsourcing Insight. She says: “We estimate that for an organisation to transfer its customer support operation to India will mean a saving for them of 30 to 40 per cent.”

She also believes that the conservatism of UK business, in terms of outsourcing, should not be underestimated. She adds: “I think the Indian market is unlikely to attract large volumes of high-value business. The likeliest wins will be in the high-volume, low-end work, which includes data capture and verification.”

Although the TUC report needs to be put firmly in context, it was probably no bad thing to remind the call centre industry that all is not well. McLoughlin is right to say that the principles of the report were sound and that any signs of bad practice need to be highlighted. The industry, to ensure its own survival, should now ring the changes. It has the advantage of knowing what needs doing and how to do it.

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