Anne-Marie Forsyth of the Contact Centre Association voices her concern at the reality TV show and the message it sends.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to outdo the cringeworthy antics of David Brent from ‘The Office’ but step forward his doppelgänger - Nev Wilshire founder and CEO of ‘Save Britain Money’ and larger-than-life star of the BBC 3 documentary ‘The Call Centre.’ Even Ricky Gervais, creator of ‘The Office’ could hardly believe Nev was real, tweeting that ‘The Call Centre’ was his best work, only he couldn’t remember having written it.
For those who didn’t catch the programme - Nev is a throwback from another age of office banter, with a swaggering ebullient style, a way with words that sends HR managers into fits of apoplexy, and a fondness for ritual employee humiliation. And despite shouting in employees’ faces, forcing them to sing and meddling clumsily in their personal lives, Nev has acquired a cult following not only in his own workplace but beyond, sending Twitter into overdrive as his more pithy utterances (SWSWSWN - Some Will, Some Won’t, So What, Next) become national catchphrases.
Nev’s over the top antics have sparked many watercooler debates over whether he is a hero, an anti-hero, or simply the embodiment of the ‘Marmite manager’ - you either love him or hate him.
Whichever view you take, you have to concede that Nev has notched up impressive growth, taking his business from 16 agents to 700 in just 8 years and providing much-needed jobs in Wales. His business was named 26th fastest growing company in the UK and, however improbable it may seem, won three stars as ‘Best Place to Work.’
His methods may be questionable - and even actionable - but his bizarre pep-talks seem to buoy up the young people he employs who are subjected to regular verbal abuse from the strangers they cold call 200 times a day. It is inevitable that for people who have never set foot inside a call centre, Nev, ‘Chickenhead’ and fellow agents will form their view of modern call centres.
Raise our voices
But, really, is Nev truly the man we want as standard-bearer for our industry? And are the kind of jobs he provides really the roles we envisaged in our 2022 Scenario of The Future Workforce - peopled by multi-skilled, empathetic knowledge workers? With respect, Nev - I think not.
In reality, the kind of cold-calling depicted forms a very small part of contact centre activity in the UK and bears little resemblance to the professional operations of so many of our members whose highly-trained agents are working hard to deliver professional service to customers with increasingly complex issues.
It is these kind of higher-value jobs, which increasingly combine service and sales, that are critical to service sector growth - a main engine of the UK economy. Data released by the Office of National Statistics this week provided illuminating insights into how radically our economy has changed in the last 170 years, with traditional occupations a shadow of the force they once were and service jobs, including contact centre roles, increasingly vital.
Farming and fishing now account for only 1% of employment. That is only one-quarter of the contribution made by contact centres which now employ 4% of the working population, representing one million jobs.
In Wales alone, there are 200 contact centres, which, as the Welsh Contact Centre Forum commented: “...employ 30,000 people earning a decent wage with real career progression.” They have addressed a serious need for alternative employment in areas blighted by the decline of heavy industry. The economy has had many painful bouts of restructuring and the service sector’s dominance is now a permanent feature - 81% of Britons now work in the service sector.
Nev is a maverick whose summer of fame will pass (or he may end up on the ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ fame circuit for reality TV wannabes). However, as his star fades, there is an opportunity, arguably a duty, for the rest of us to raise our voices and start telling the public and the government who we really are and why we matter so much to the economy.
Anne Marie Forsyth is chief executive of the Contact Centre Association.