Don’t overlook a key strategic asset in call centre staff

Outsourcing a big segment of routine HR responsibilities to a call centre
can be beneficial, but companies must remember to invest as much in their call
centre employees as they would in any new investment or service

Getting bums on seats is a splendid tenet for the world of entertainment.
But when transferred from theatre land to the call centre workplace, there
could hardly be a more appalling principle.

Why is it then that despite protestations across the call centre industry to
the contrary, ‘rope ’em in, stack ’em high and drive ’em hard’ is still the
prevailing approach to their staff?

Call centres continue to be notorious for their churn, with average staff
turnover around 32 per cent. Companies are still putting their entire destinies
into the hands of their worst-trained, worst-paid and worst-motivated people.

Workers’ tasks are crushingly boring and repetitive, they are subjected to
violent outbursts from frustrated callers, they operate within
strictly-controlled regimes, they have no scope or encouragement to develop
individual skills, and their sense of fulfilment is zero.

In such an atmosphere employees are principally concerned with their own
survival rather than care for the customer.

But then self-preservation is arguably no more than natural in an
environment where 6 per cent of the workforce suffers from serious psychiatric
problems – double the rate for the general working population.

The trouble from the company’s point of view is that call centre staff live
with their customers – its lifeblood – every day, and it is from them that
customers form their image.

Furthermore, with call centres often the only interface between business and
the outside world, they are increasingly becoming an organisation’s sole
showcase, with the abilities and attitudes of staff playing a vital part in
building the brand and consumer trust in that brand.

We live in an age when the way companies care for and present themselves to
their patrons can be a significant competitive differentiator, and those that
fail to adequately invest in their staff will weaken their market position and
ultimately endanger their survival.

Yet they continue to subject employees to the relentless strain of quotas,
judging them by the quantity of their daily contacts rather than the quality of
how they interact with callers.

If people are poorly trained and poorly treated, the result is high levels
of staff turnover and low levels of service, which is why the issue of calibre
and retention of employees should be on every board’s agenda. It is also why
boards must become far more closely involved in how centres are run and manned.

After all, ensuring that maximum return is derived from an organisation’s
most valuable asset is within the compass of its directors.

Companies must regard their call centre workforces as a strategic asset and
apply as much focus to investment in people as they would to an important new
product or service. That means senior executives directly participating in
recruitment, training, development and working environment and not leaving it
solely to the subordinate strata of HR and call centre management.

Where management has imposed a systems strategy, boards should superimpose a
people strategy. They should also closely engage themselves in selection
policies and candidate quality and in how staff are taught, handled and
encouraged to fulfil their potential.

As part of that, they should ensure employees are armed with the personal
and inter-personal skills that underpin relationships, and are empowered to
become knowledge workers, with a wide availability of information and media
channels, rather than script-reading robots.

Above all, at the forefront of their minds they should carry the maxim that
the way to a customer’s heart lies not in software and systems, but in people.
And for the company that values its future, something more is needed than
merely bums on seats.

By Glenn Hurley, chairman of hosted contact centre specialists Port@l

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