How have call centres evolved in the last 25 years?

Call centres
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As the CCMA celebrates its 25th anniversary, we talk to the organisation’s chief executive, Ann-Marie Stagg, about how call centres have changed during her tenure, and what the future holds.          

There are over 6,000 call and contact centres in the UK, employing over 1.25 million people. Accounting for roughly 4% of the working population, the call centre industry has undergone a series of significant transformations, not to mention growing pains, since the CCMA’s inception in 1994.      

“In the early days, call centres were very much seen as a way of reducing costs within an organisation,” says the CCMA’s chief executive, Ann-Marie Stagg. “It was all about centralising inbound call handling and ensuring that customers received an appropriate response. Before then, of course, customers dialled directly into a particular person within the organisation – a very hit or miss affair.   

“Technology was still limited and call distribution involved simply routing calls to an advisor on a ‘first in and first out’ basis. Technology has advanced beyond recognition since then; becoming much more intelligent and flexible and with many more options available for the organisation to efficiently respond to their customers.”

Exclusively phones

It may seem like a uniquely nostalgic proposition in today’s multichannel contact centre environment, but in 1994, call centres exclusively dealt with telephone calls.  The CCMA began life in a near pre-internet haze, when Amazon and Google were twinkles in their founders’ eyes and the Yellow Pages was still the leading source of information for contacting a business.   

“The call centre was a relatively new channel back then,” Stagg reminisces. “Most call centres were still designed as a route to drive customers away from their local branches and shops whilst trying to reduce slow and labour-intensive written correspondence. 

“For the first time there was a plethora of information available to managers that allowed them to focus on particular areas. Handling more and more calls was often the focus and this was driven by reducing call handling times and reducing the abandonment rate. This was sometimes at the expense of call quality and it was thought that achieving a simple service level – 80% of calls answered within 20 seconds, for example – was the top priority.”

Exponential growth

In the early 1990s, a firm like Direct Line had roughly several hundred employees. Today it has over 10,000, dealing with 20m+ calls a year. Not to mention the surfeit emails, tweets, live chats and video calls that brands of this nature also deal with daily, in their contact centres.

This level of existential growth made the CCMA’s primary remit – to offer then-relatively inexperienced managers much-needed best practice advice and support, and to educate the mechanics of dealing with large numbers of calls effectively – a clear one.  

One of the core advancements the CCMA has had to nurture many call centre leaders through is shifting workforces away from script-led interactions with customers to more organic and autonomous engagements.

“Managing large groups of people has moved from the “production line” of a heavily scripted model to a much more considered approach which has led to reduced turnover and improved employee satisfaction, job enrichment as well as health and wellbeing enhancements. ‘Command and Control’ is not entirely dead but certainly a coaching and development culture has largely replaced that particular management style.

“Modern organisations have a much better understanding of the value that their contact centre can bring to the customer experience and are now much more likely to invest in order to keep up to date with the market and to improve the service that is on offer.”

Nafarious practices

Despite this, Stagg is not remissive in her assessment that call centres have seen some dark days in the last 25 years, and that nefarious practices have had an effect on the public perception of life at the customer service coal face.

The industry continues to be plagued by rogue cold call merchants and revelations, such as those in Matt Thorne’s recent novel Eight Minutes Idle – based on the experiences the author had working in call centres – suggest the industry has some way to go before it has reached any kind of nirvana-like state.    

“Let’s not look at our industry through rose tinted glasses – there are still too many organisations that are working with outdated working practices, poor management and a lack of investment.

“The majority have changed but the industry can be seen as a dead end or stop-gap job. In fact, the actual reality is that these days, for millions of people, the contact centre world offers real progression and the opportunity for individuals to develop their skills in a wide range of roles.

“The contact centre often gives individuals the opportunity to use their language skills in a multilingual environment and, if the organisational culture is right, it also offers flexibility, fun and friendship. It’s an industry that I love and am proud to be part of, and it’s a pleasure to have been part of an organisation that we hope has contributed to its growth and development.” 

Human-first

And call centres continue to evolve at breakneck speed. The rise of AI, self-service, big data, of course, the smartphone, have meant that contact centres have never been able to rest on their laurels, and technology continues to be a disruptive force.

However, looking ahead to the near future, Ann-Marie Stagg explains that it is the acknowledgement of the humans that work within contact centres that will make or break their business’s future success, not the technology that aids them.      

“Not every modern contact centre is at the leading edge of technology and budgets are still a challenge in many organisations. It is certainly true that that there is now much more flexibility for people that work in the industry  – be it shift flexibility, homeworking or the opportunity to handle enquiries across different channels – and this is where all contact centres must focus in 2019 and beyond.”

With this in mind, it might be that the next 25 years are when the CCMA sees some of the advice and teaching it has given its industry since 1994 truly come to the fore. At which point the idea of call centres as ‘cost centres’ will likely be a distant memory, for many.    

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About Chris Ward

Chris Ward

Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.

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