In touch with absence control

By
managing staff expectations and working closely with the local community,
customer service provider Garlands has substantially reduced staff turnover and
sickness absence levels.  Alex Blyth
reports

The
business

Founded
in 1980 as a debt collection agency, CJ Garland & Co diversified into
customer service in 1997. Since then the Garlands Call Centres operation has
grown rapidly to employ 1,850 staff at its Hartlepool Marina and Middlesbrough
sites, and its clients include Freeserve, Powergen and Virgin Mobile. In recent
years, however, live agent call centre operations have come under increasing
pressure from overseas competitors as well as from emerging technologies such
as web and telephone-based self-service. As a result, Garlands has had little
chance to rest on its laurels. In the past two years its continuing development
has been demonstrated most clearly by its innovative ‘Touch’ programme.

The
challenge

Effective
HR management is critical to the success of any call centre. Recruiting,
retaining and motivating good staff for a job, which by its nature can be both
tedious and stressful, is an ongoing challenge. According to a 2001 report by
Income Data Services the industry has an average staff attrition rate of 22 per
cent, and, according to the Call Centre Management Association a staff
absenteeism rate of 6 per cent.

Garlands
was particularly concerned by absenteeism, so in 2001 it ran an anonymous staff
survey. Chief executive Chey Garland describes the findings: "We
discovered that many sickness days were due to non-work issues such as staff
supporting family members with problems or experiencing marriage difficulties.
Having learned this, we decided to set up a scheme that would give staff the
opportunity to acquire skills to help them deal with their situations or give
them access to a colleague who could point them towards professional support."

The
resulting ‘Touch’ programme has three key strands: in the community, staff work
on domestic violence and drink and drug issues; in education, staff work in
local schools as reading mentors, classroom assistants and IT trainers; and in
communications, employees run Radio GaGa, the in-house radio station that plays
music and delivers company news. By working closely with the appropriate local
agencies and support groups, Garlands has ensured that the only cost to the
organisation has been in staff time. There are now about 150 employees on the
scheme and each is given between five and ten days for their chosen project.

The
outcome

The
simple result of the Touch programme is that Garlands now has an absenteeism
rate of only 4 per cent (down from 6 per cent), and staff attrition has
plummeted to 5 per cent (down from 11 per cent). Given the cost of recruiting
and training new staff, this alone ensures that the scheme pays for itself.
Garlands has also found when analysing the performance of staff in outbound
sales departments that individuals who have gone through the Touch programme
have on average seen their sales performance increase by 17 per cent. HR
manager, Simon Reay,  has six staff in
his core HR team and six in the peripheral team supporting ‘the line’.

"This
success can be attributed to the phenomenon of putting wise heads on young
shoulders. Due to the experiences gained on the Touch programme our
predominantly young employees are able to relate much better to the consumer
market they serve."

The
employee perspective

Kim
Skinner, an accounts assistant who has been at Garlands for five years, agrees
with her CEO.

"When
we were told about Touch about 18 months ago I immediately volunteered for the
domestic abuse project. I had my personal reasons for choosing that, but I was
truly amazed by what I learned from the training sessions, meetings with
support groups and the local constabulary. It is a bigger problem than I’d ever
imagined and one that so few people feel comfortable discussing."

She
has put that knowledge to good use in five one-to-one sessions with colleagues
so far, and feels that there is an all round benefit: "Sometimes now
people will want to come to work because they know there is someone here they
can talk to about their problems. It benefits the company as more people turn
up and staff generally recognise that the company is doing a good thing. It has
also done a lot to improve my confidence and communication skills. I would
definitely rather do this than have a pay rise. Money gets spent and you’ve
nothing left to show for it, but doing something like this really makes a
difference."

Learning
points for HR

Although
the scheme has been successful, HR manager Reay stresses that it needs careful
management.


"Don’t try to do it all yourself," she says. "Use the available
help. Introduce it gradually – perhaps initially as a pilot scheme – and manage
expectations. "We were amazed by the level of interest when we set this up
and we hadn’t prepared enough programmes to meet the demand.


"Finally, don’t be afraid to tackle pastoral HR issues. They may seem
unconnected to work, but frequently are not, and by dealing with them
effectively you can do a lot of good both for your staff and for your
company," Reay adds.

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