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Trouble along the line: Industry insider voices call centre concerns

18th Nov 2010
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Meet Rick. Rick is an industry insider: a freelance trainer within the customer service industry, specialising in the professional development of call centre workers. His long experience with blue-chip companies, both outsourced and in house, has convinced him that there are intractable problems within the call centre sector as a whole – and it is these problems he is often employed to fix.

‘Rick’ is not his real name. His identity is concealed so he can share his experience and insights as our industry whistle-blower. Remember: Rick is passionate about his work and determined to do what he can to improve the industry. He spoke to Chris Middleton, editor of Professional Outsourcing magazine.
Chris Middleton (CM): Tell us what your experience as a trainer has taught you about call centres: how some treat their staff, and how this extends into companies’ relationships with the public.
Rick (R): “The problem, generally in the industry, is old-world thinking. Some call centres have a very disciplinarian approach to staff, who are seen as a means to an end: dealing with the public at the lowest possible cost. Some companies look at people who answer the phone as a problem that needs to be fixed.”
CM: As assets who must be monitored and disciplined, rather than as people who have skills that can be used?
R: “Yes. It’s a bit like telling people to go and peel potatoes, rather than be engaged in customer service. You could say my job is just to make them peel potatoes more efficiently. But the second problem is a lot of call centre workers hate their jobs. So the attitude that comes back to me as a trainer is: ‘Why would I want to get better at doing something I hate?’
“Because of this, many companies’ training focus quickly turns from improving workers’ skills to making an uncomfortable experience better for them – so people don’t walk out, in other words. They organise staff days out and other activities. Entertainment. Sometimes my job as a trainer becomes how to make people’s day-to-day experience more enjoyable for them.”
CM: As an educator you want people to make the most of themselves...
R: “This company [one of Rick’s current clients, a global blue-chip] does its best to make the working environment more pleasant, but we’ve had to cut back on a lot of that because of the recession. And the benefit from staff days out and other ‘fun’ activities quickly runs out.
“Now I’ve been training a long time I can see that I bump up against motivation issues more than skills issues. People don’t learn skills all that well if they don’t have the right attitude – and you can’t ‘train an attitude’. Some trainers say ‘Perception is reality’ – in other words, if someone’s perception is that they don’t need training, then that becomes the reality. So what can you do? But I believe perceptions can be changed, which means the reality can too.
“The challenge for me is that shifting attitudes is not the same thing as training skills, which is what I am supposed to be doing. You’ve got to reach out to people, but it takes a lot of hard work and time.”
CM: So some companies don’t bother?
R: “Exactly. And it becomes a problem for the company. For example, the best way to handle a customer’s complaint is to let customers make their complaint. But when you have a call centre worker who doesn’t want to be there in the first place... it’s a huge problem. They don’t care.
“I listen to a lot of recorded calls. I find the ones that are most successful are those that make some kind of human connection with the customer, however small it may be. But when the call centre advisors are demotivated they don’t want to be there and so they don’t make that connection. That instantly sends out the wrong message about the company. If someone doesn’t care, that communicates quickly in terms of attitude and language.
“All customers want to know they’re respected and important – especially when they are parting with cash, or behind on their payments.”
CM: Tell us more about where this lack of motivation comes from – you mentioned people hating their jobs.
R: “One thing that’s frustrating about the call centre industry is people who work on the front line on the phone often get a real sense they’re not valuable to the company simply because it’s a low-paid job. And these are the people who talk to the customers.”
CM: So, as far as the customer is concerned, they represent a company’s brand values...
R: “Exactly. In some offshore locations, jobs may be seen as more of an opportunity. But there’s always the underlying attitude that they’re only doing it because they can’t do anything else. So there’s a self esteem issue as well: they think that what they’re doing anyone could do. That’s reinforced by the way the industry deals with recruitment.”
CM: If the company does not value good service, why should the worker?
R: “But here’s the thing: the skills displayed by someone who can support a customer and deal with them effectively are valued more in other industries and in other types of job. Counselling, coaching, negotiation, project management.... those are premium skills, and a good call centre worker uses bite-sized versions of them.
“But holding onto such people is difficult: talented workers who display flair in those areas quickly move on – either into call centre management, or they’ll take their skills and get out of the industry quick. They ask: ‘Why would I stick around in this environment if I’m good?’”
CM: Sometimes customers can behave badly, though. They might resent being called about their UK account from, say, India – they assume, as they may be talking to a British worker with an Indian accent, of course. Providers are not at fault there. Recent phone-based scams have also created distrust about call centres – but again, that is not the fault of legitimate suppliers. So there can be a lot of baggage in the way of a conversation between two human beings, but neither the call centre provider, nor the advisor, is responsible for that.
R: “Generally, customers don’t enjoy any call centre experience. That makes it difficult for the advisor, who may not be enjoying the experience either. So you have two people who don’t want to be in the conversation, but they’re forced into it because they have no alternative.”
CM: And that takes place within a strongly branded service that people associate with a company – regardless of whether the call centre is provided by someone else, such as an offshore provider or captive.
R: “Companies always want to save money and cut costs. But for me, personally, having an obviously offshore call centre – where language or cultural issues may be apparent – does send a strong signal to the customer. But it’s one that says: ‘This organisation has put profit before service.’ I firmly believe it should be the other way around. If you want to compete on service then your top priority is to create a culture of service. That’s easy to say, but difficult to implement; especially in an established firm.”
CM: If people are taken on because they are perhaps poorly skilled, or inexpensive to employ, then those employers are creating jobs and opportunity... but it sounds as though company culture gets in the way once people are at their desks?
R: “Yes. Many companies think: ‘We don’t need people to be amazing. We need them to take lots of calls.’ So people are often recruited because they display a lack of direction or independence. So amazing customer service can’t happen. A production-line corporate mentality breeds production-line service.”
CM: It may not always be the advisor’s lack of skills. Customer service means tact, which might not survive their employers demanding a certain number of calls an hour, monitoring keystrokes, or telling people never to leave their desks...
R: “Yes, but often call centre advisors wait to be told how to do something. That’s partly because the company has recruited someone who is filling in time, or who doesn’t know what they want to do with their life, or because they are not motivated self-starters. People like that do not necessarily think on their feet. The wrong working environment can amplify those problems. As can not being valued.
“That said, a very disciplinarian, highly monitored office can prevent people from acting independently and thinking on their feet. The very skills you need in customer service do not thrive in that sort of environment. Why would they?”
CM: But surely that is improving now call centres are established and people recognise that CMor service impacts badly on reputation, especially in the world of Twitter and Facebook. Or do providers still compete on cost and calls volumes?
R: “It does seem to be changing. In the beginning, call centres were guilty of a production-line mentality. The problem is that some still have the structure of the old ‘factory’ in place. A lot of these places are trying to innovate and evolve, but the ‘factory’ is still there, and that means the factory mentality is as well.
“There is a shift away from dealing with people at the lowest possible cost. A lot of organisations now realise that it is cheaper in the long term to care for existing customers – and engage with them in new ways – than it is to acquire new ones. The old idea was to get away with as little ‘topping on the pizza’ as possible, as it were, but now people are thinking of over-delivering, because good news spreads.
“Organisations need to look at changing culture and shifting attitudes. You can keep talking about ‘the customer experience’, but if there’s no genuine commitment to it from people at all levels then they are just buzzwords.”
CM: Outsourced call centre providers need to care for their customers, as well as their customer’s customers...
R: “I think it is generally better in the outsourced call centre industry than within in-house centres. The culture is, now, more about providing value. But at the end of the day it boils down to the same essential questions: What’s the motivation for the call centre? What’s the guiding principle? Is it to serve the customer and provide value, or is it to maximise profit and cut costs? I suspect that lots of those contracts are won on the basis of providing the service at the lowest cost. That rings alarm bells with me.”
CM: It’s a problem of equating high volume and low cost with good service quality and delivery, perhaps.
R: “The issue with call centres generically is that the whole ‘rush for profit’ takes away from the human element. If you go to the other end of the scale and run a very small, local business, you can compete much more easily on service. The independent bagel shop I might choose to go into should recognise thatI’m a new customer and make an effort to welcome me. If they do, I’ll go back – and recommend it to other people.”
CM: Big organisations should remember the small businesses they used to be. In one local supermarket whoever is at the checkout makes eye contact and says ‘Hello’. It shows how far many companies have moved away from personal service that such a policy seems remarkable.
R: “Big organisations struggle to have that relationship with the customer, especially on the phone. Technology can sometimes replace common sense. When you think about it, it’s unnatural to talk to a complete stranger in a call centre and find they know all about your account simply because they have the details onscreen. That’s data, and it’s not the same as a human being building a relationship with another human being, or understanding context. Human beings, human transactions: they’re more than just service data.”
This article first appeared in Professional Outsourcing. Since Rick spoke to Chris Middleton, one of his major clients has slashed its training budget and let all of its trainers, including Rick, go.

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