Staff engagement: the key to creating call centres of excellence

Call centres have a poor reputation for people managementContact centres are often perceived as hothouses where low-paid staff are “churned and burned”. A recent television advertisement for an online insurer went so far as to portray a call centre floor as a battery of hens clucking into headsets.

Call centres, contact centres, control rooms (emergency services) and help desks all employ people to speak to customers over the phone, and the sheer size of the organisations presents an HR challenge.

Retention issues

There are an estimated 5,000 to 7,000 of these ‘rooms’ employing between 600,000 and 900,000 staff in the UK. About 50% work in sites with more than 250 desks. And the average annual salary of call centre agents is between £14,000 and £16,500, while team leaders earn £21,000 to £25,000.

Not surprisingly in this environment, attrition is an issue. “Significant resources go into recruitment campaigns, selection and induction training, but because career paths above team leader level are few in many centres, attrition is inevitable,” says Graeme Sherman, director of Catalyst, a contact centre and change management consultancy.

Agent attrition runs at an average of 20% to 25% a year in the UK, with rates as high as 50% in some telesales units, yet is almost non-existent in some public sector centres. Call centres in India can lose staff at a rate of between 100% and 200% a year.

That’s why employee engagement is the most important thing to get right, according to Frances Dillon, head of organisational development at First Direct.


The internet and phone bank employs 2,700 people in Leeds and Hamilton, 75% of them in customer-facing roles via the phone. Its annual employee focus survey identified career development and corporate leadership as the key drivers for staff engagement. “They want a clear line of sight from the CEO down to customer service reps,” says Dillon.

International bank National Australia Group Europe (NAGE), which owns UK brands Clydesdale Bank and Yorkshire Bank, also puts a turnaround in productivity and profit down to heightened employee engagement.

Kevin Page, head of contact centres at NAGE, manages three call centres housing 800 staff. He puts the company’s success down to introducing an HR tool called Scores on the Board in its call centres.

The tool is based on business theories such as the Service Profit Chain (see box, right) and balanced scorecard. The idea is that if staff feel valued and involved, customers have great experiences dealing with the service organisation, then great business results follow.

Sherman believes this is a nugget of advice for other contact centre employers to take note of. “The organisations I know that have managed a big turnaround in their call centre cultures have one thing in common. They all stopped treating their people like parts of a big machine, and started treating them like people,” he says.

He explains that there are three things that bring about lasting change: peer review of goals that are related to things within workers’ control meaningful personal goals and development opportunities and masterclasses on topics ranging from products to skills and development training.

Being prepared to listen to employees’ wants and needs is also crucial to success.

“We listen to what our people tell us all the time and we act on it. If we don’t listen, we won’t have an accurate picture of how people feel. If they aren’t happy, they won’t deliver great customer service,” says Dillon, who runs two or three focus groups of around 10 employees each month.

First Direct also offers staff an enviable variety of employee benefits, most of which have been suggested by staff. On-site services include massage, hairdresser, ironing service, sports and social service and a concierge to run errands for staff. The Leeds office also houses the largest on-site nursery in the UK.

People programmes

Other people programmes include mentoring, a two-year graduate programme for internal applicants, job swapping (which includes senior management returning ‘back to the floor’) and job shadowing. “Mentoring is important and a part of the culture here. HR provides guidelines, but people do it as a natural extension of the culture,” says Dillon.

At NAGE, Page felt it was important to address feedback from staff – even when it was negative. This gave staff dignity and made people feel they had a voice, he says: “Our staff started to treat their jobs more seriously. They felt their role was important and felt better about themselves.”

Staff engagement programmes at both employers have met with demonstrable results. NAGE has just been named best call centre in the world at the Contact Centre World Awards, and a 10% decrease in staff turnover has saved the bank around £20,000 in recruitment fees, according to Page. Attrition has gone from 65% to below 40%.

First Direct, meanwhile, now has an attrition rate of just 14.2% a year, with an average length of stay now around six years. Employee engagement scores in staff surveys have improved greatly this year, which Dillon attributes to a high level of in-house expertise following a leadership development programme. To mark its achievement, the bank was ranked among the finalists in the European Call Centre Awards last year.

Sherman concludes that, if agents are happy, then customers are happy. “Any organisation that puts the agent-caller relationship at the centre of their thinking will produce the best results,” he says. “When there are personal progression and growth opportunities, staff look forward – and not in the job pages.”

How the service profit chain works

  • Customer loyalty drives profitability and growth

  • Customer satisfaction drives customer loyalty

  • Value drives customer satisfaction

  • Employee productivity drives value

  • Employee loyalty drives productivity

  • Employee satisfaction drives loyalty

  • Internal quality drives employee satisfaction

Source: Harvard Business Review OnPoint

Case study: National Australia Group Europe

National Australia Group Europe (NAGE) has recently been named the best contact centre (250+ seats) in the world at the Contact Centre World Awards (pictured right). Two years ago its operating costs were 25% higher than the market average, with an occupancy level (how busy customer service agents are) of just 50%, compared to an industry average of 85%.

In addition, up to 12% of employees were absent on any one day. Annual attrition rates were at 65%.

Kevin Page, head of contact centres at NAGE, felt as though his call centres were processing staff faster than they could recruit. “We were a professional recruitment and training company,” he quips.

So the centre introduced a host of new HR initiatives, including improving the physical working environment, providing leadership development, employee well-being and career development programmes. Page also started a system called Scores on the Board, which measures team performance against a set of four key indicators: engaged staff satisfied customers decreased expenses or increased productivity and increased revenue.

“It has been the backbone of our people programme. We use it every week with every employee,” he says. The system encourages individuals to run their part of the company like a small business, and is designed to improve team motivation, self-management, engagement and performance.

The team analyses staff and customer feedback and tries to identify the reasons for any performance gaps, then devises action plans to close the gaps they have influence over. Other issues are referred on to the most appropriate person.

In 12 months, recruitment and training costs plummeted. Attrition dropped from 65% to less than 40% and absences went from 12% to under 5%. “The cost of the programme has been inconsequential when compared to the benefits we’ve derived from it,” says Page.

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