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Lives on hold: call centre staff answer back

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14th Sep 2007
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If you think ringing call centres is frustrating, try working in one. Rob Lewis listens as the staff go off script, and finds there’s a lot of work to be done before contact centres can improve the customer experience.

photo of agent headset

By Rob Lewis, staff writer

They are accused of being lazy, unhelpful, under-educated and - horror of horrors - foreign, but call centre staff have to work in offices that have been routinely described as 20th century workhouses. Can a CRM Jerusalem be built here, amongst these dark satanic mills?

As recently as 2005, the CIPD and Aston University found a “persistent view” that customer service roles were filled by people with low skill levels on minimum rates of pay. Nothing appears to have changed much since then.

In August, the University of Bath released job satisfaction rankings for all UK occupations and call centre service staff came third from the bottom (beaten only by welders and assembly line workers). The latest research shows that British call centres have an average churn rate of 25 percent. Does anyone enjoy this job?

“Not really,” says David, who handled complaints and enquiries at an in-house call centre for an Australian telecoms company in London. “There was a guy from Sydney who’d come over with management when they were putting the centre together, so they directed as many of the incoming sales calls to him as he could handle. He just had to sit there while his commission shot up, but I think even he was a little bored.”

Off-message and underpaid

Customer relations experts have long extolled the benefits of empowering staff to become ‘brand ambassadors’, but the grim realities of David’s job have made him sceptical such a thing can be achieved in a call centre.

Similar accounts from former call centre employees are not hard to find. Colin worked in an in-house call centre for an insurance company. “Some of the people there did thrive on it,” he says, “but the rest of us just became empty husks. Drug use amongst staff was common, during the working day as well as outside the office, and we wound callers up no end.”

Then there was Matt Thorne, who worked at an outsourced UK call centre, and whose time there was the inspiration for his second novel Eight Minutes Idle – the maximum amount of time employees could spend off the phone. “It is a weird job,” he admits. “The way call centres are structured means if you’re looking for any kind of career ladder, you’re not going to find it. Likewise, if you go to a recruitment agency and you’ve got any skills at all, they’re not going to send you to a call centre.”

"In August, the University of Bath released job satisfaction rankings for all UK occupations and call centre service staff came third from the bottom."

Despite the fact call centres have been in the popular mindset for over a decade now and employ over two percent of Britain’s working population, Thorne reckons the public at large still have little idea what they’re really like. The truth is, contact centre workforces are no more dysfunctional than the world their inbound calls come from. If there is anti-social behaviour in some centres, then it must be borne in mind their employees frequently have to deal with abuse from irate customers or prospects.

Too often, responses are limited to scripted options and it remains unknown what proportion of call centres have guidelines in place for dealing with truly upsetting calls. Certainly, it would appear to contradict the call centre ethos to publicise that abuse of staff will not be tolerated.

No wonder then that in 2003, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) surveyed over 36 call centres and found greater levels of job-related depression and lower levels of job satisfaction for call handlers than any other contact centre employee. In job-related anxiety they were placed second only to managers.

“I don’t think things have got any better since then,” says Karen Raye, national finance office for Amicus, the union responsible for call centre workforces. "The majority of call centre employees are still facing a poor working environment and unrealistic targets.”

For example, Raye cites the fact that some centres are still forbidding employees to bring personal possessions to their desks, making them deposit their belongings in lockers at the start of their shift instead. “The churn rate in some call centres is easily as high 50 percent,” she adds. And if things are bad in the UK, evidence suggests things offshore aren’t any better.

The same, only worse

India’s Economic Times engaged in a survey of similar scale and scope at the same time as the HSE. Erratic working patterns and assumed Western identities were taking a similar psychological toll on the workforce, despite the fact these employees were relatively far better paid.

Offshore staff have far less legal protection and trade union representation is even rarer than in Britain. The West Bengal Information Technology Services Association (WBITSA) is an Indian call centre union founded in November last year, but has yet to attract 1,000 members. One of their campaign goals – still to be met – is the introduction of a 48-hour working week.

"In 2004, Dr Sanjay Chugh, a psychiatrist with a practice in New Delhi, reported to The Guardian that he had seen over 100 cases of call centre employees suffering from depression or substance abuse."

In 2004, Dr Sanjay Chugh, a psychiatrist with a practice in New Delhi, reported to The Guardian that he had seen over 100 cases of call centre employees suffering from depression or substance abuse. Three years on, he says the condition is the same if not worse, but now the effects are radiating more into other aspects of employees’ lives.

“We see marriages falling apart and people playing around with their medication because of their shift patterns,” he confides. “Another common problem is the use of stimulants to beat the biological clock.”

Dr Chugh says Modanafil, cocaine, amphetamines and methamphetamines are the chemicals of choice for the young bi-lingual graduates working in India’s outsourced call centres. Another common problem both at home and offshore, according to the HSE, is the increased frequency of urinary tract infections, particularly amongst female call handlers, due to the lack of toilet breaks.

The worst thing about all this is that management are often culpable. Too frequently the key decision makers behind call centre operations – specifically outsourced operations – are worried only about one thing. “It’s all about cost,” explains the chief executive of a leading outsourcing consultancy. “Don’t believe anything else.”

In a competitive market, it’s an understandable concern but it can blind managers to the bigger picture. Professor John Seddon is the author of business bestseller Freedom from Command and Control, as well as the director of management consultancy Vanguard. For years, he has been outlining what he believes is the biggest problem with call centre management.

The core service paradigm, in a command and control view, is: how much work is there, how long have I got to do it, and how many people have I got. “So they set about managing people’s activity, and it’s a stupid idea,” he says.

The tragedy is that the command and control model means team leaders are working on the people and not the system, when Seddon considers 95 percent of the variation in worker performance attributable to it. “The way the work works has nothing to do with the way the worker works,” as he puts it.

Faced with a management system that fostered endless rounds of telephone ping-pong with increasingly angry customers, call handlers Russ Burt and David Whitestone took matters into their own hands by using their free time to start an official web forum to deal with customer complaints to their employer.

The company eventually bought the website but it was closed down within two years. It’s just another example of the business mindset that spends too much time managing the people and not the system.

“Anyone that cares about customer experience should approach their financial directors about this,” says Seddon. “They need to say 'wake up'. What you’ve got here is high cost and low quality service, and if you change your thinking you can have it the other way around.”

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