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Is HR failing call centre workforces?

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Call centre

In the 90s, call centres were being described as 20th century workhouses. Ten years on, and the latest research shows that British call centres still have an average churn rate of 25 per cent. Rob Lewis considers whether HR is doing enough to rid the world of 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 levels 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 per cent. 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

Similar accounts from former call centre employees are not hard to find. Matt Thorne once worked at an outsourced UK call centre and his 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 whole 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.”

Despite the fact call centres have been in the popular mindset for over a decade now, and employ over 2 per cent of Britain’s working population, Thorne reckons the public at large still have little idea what they’re really like.

“The whole way call centres are structured means if you’re looking for any kind of career ladder you’re not going to find it.”

Matt Thorne, ex-call centre worker

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 remembered the employees frequently have to deal with abuse from customers who can be irate, offensive, and even drunk, high or mentally ill.

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 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 officer 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. Raye says 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 per cent,” she says. And if things are bad in the UK, evidence suggests things off-shore aren’t any better.

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, despite the fact these employees were relatively far better paid.

Off-shore staff have far less legal protection, and trade union representation is even rarer on the ground than in Britain. The West Bengal Information Technology Services Association 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.

Trouble at the top

The worst thing about all this is that it can be attributed directly to management. Too often 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 problem is that the command and control model means team leaders are focussing on the people and not the system, and Seddon believes that 95 per cent of the variation in worker performance is attributable to the system. “The way the work works has nothing to do with the way the worker works,” as he puts it.

“HR needs to shift its perspective from supporting these draconian, demoralising and inappropriate models with their policies, to getting management to understand they need to change their thinking.”

John Seddon, director, Vanguard

For example, causes in variation of call length, and therefore the number of calls handled in a day, will be things like the complexity of the call. But instead of redesigning their services from the customer’s point of view, management sees all activity as cost, and insists on a model that invisibly increases demand.

It’s human nature to seek job satisfaction, and there is an intrinsic pleasure in helping others. Too often it is the culture of call centres, rather than the personality of the staff, that is really frustrating customers.

“HR needs to shift its perspective from supporting these draconian, demoralising and inappropriate models with their policies, to getting management to understand they need to change their thinking,” says Seddon.

While Seddon considers this mismanagement to be the prevailing model for call centres the world over, he remains optimistic for the future. Knowledge will win out, he says – but it doesn’t look like it will happen any time soon, judging from the growing popularity of the software that allows for the second-by-second management of call centre workforces. Amongst the largest of these software providers is Verint, whose latest accounts show an annual revenue increase of over 40 per cent. Perhaps it’s time HR dialled in.

One Response

  1. Agree, but the problems were solved in manufacturing years ago
    I agree entirely that many call centres are awful, and that churn is very high though many centres have much higher rates than 25% , 90% is not uncommon.
    The problems of repetetive work were studied in manufacturing over 70 years ago and well into the 1960s and well reported. It is a pity that those considering and designing call centres had not consulted any of the standard books on work study. Readers might also like to see my article on the features page of HR Zone for 1 February this year. De-humanising human work is uneconomicwrong as well as being wrong. Short-term apparently high productivity is quickly eroded by the quality problems, costs of high churn, and of customer frustration that result.

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