best practice: call centres

Personnel Today’s monthly series reveals how managers tackle business problems and enhance performance. In this issue, Carol Borghesi, director of call centre management at BT, explores the personnel issues that confront call centre managers and looks at how to solve them

BT has been running call centres for many years and now has 110 of them across the country, employing about 20,000 staff. The size of operations makes the managing of personnel issues a daunting task but, if you get the right practices embedded within an organisation, a positive and productive working environment can be created, whatever the size of the company.

The goal should be to create an environment where call centre advisers feel confident and can interact with customers. This means more than providing a telephone and somewhere to sit. It is about engendering confidence, building teams and providing the necessary tools and systems. The perfect call centre should allow good customer interaction, with motivated groups of people led by inspirational team leaders.

If the perfect call centre is about good customer interaction, it is important to look at the factors that can compromise the quality of calls. Staffing problems, bad management, lack of motivation and an unpleasant environment will affect call centres as much as any other workplace. Solving these issues will greatly improve productivity and quality.

Perhaps the most obvious but most crucial problem is finding the right staff. Employers and advisers should view speaking to customers as an awesome responsibility, so managers should recruit accordingly. As the only contact many customers have with a company is through its call centre, it is paramount that the phones are staffed by the best communicators. Employers must have a respect for the job that needs to be done. Taking calls all day and dealing with each one to the highest standard is not an easy job and requires a particular talent. Because of the rapid growth in call centres, competition for people who can do the job is hot. But if you start with the right people, it’s difficult to go wrong.

Confidence is a major factor for the success of a call centre. Ensuring advisers feel ready to take any call takes training and continuing support. You want people to start the job as prepared as possible. I call it end-to-end recruiting. This means that when your staff pick up the phone for their first call, there should be few surprises and support for people. This leads to better customer service and confident staff.

At BT, there are regular changes to the offers and services. These changes need to be related quickly to the advisers so that they always have the latest information to hand. Internal communication is vital so advisers can stay ahead of the requests and needs of our customers. BT has installed video walls at each centre so information can be relayed quickly and efficiently to all staff. E-mails and regular team meetings also help to address new developments or customer-sensitive issues.

Soft skills and hard facts

A skilled call centre adviser does more than simply impart knowledge. Good customer service skills can transform routine calls into the kind of meaningful interactions that can resolve problems, keep customers happy and encourage them to use the services in future.

You need a comprehensive and continuing training and development programme to ensure advisers can handle difficult situations. So called ‘soft skills’ – such as the ability to negotiate and deal with conflict – equip advisers with the tools they need to handle any situation with confidence.

These skills need to dovetail with other career development programmes to create a workforce that feels respected, motivated and satisfied. Development for us means finding out what an individual brings to the job – and to their team – and how their skills and personality can best be used. Like any other career, people need to feel they are progressing and learning all the time.

With more routine calls, motivational problems can occur, leading to boredom, dissatisfaction and less-than-perfect customer service. Managers must ensure that these advisers know that their job is vital and highly valued by the company. Although somewhat controversial, automating services leaves advisers free to take the more complex and challenging calls.

Management style is important. There is no place in today’s call centres for command and control and managing by numbers. It’s not simply about logging the number of calls advisers make. Managers need to be able to recognise about a dozen key performance indicators to know how well their staff are doing.

It’s good to work

Call centres are functional places, but that doesn’t mean that they have to look functional. A pleasant work environment is critical. A call centre should be a good place to be, and this should be reflected in the friendly atmosphere as well as the decor. It is challenging to prove, but it does have an impact on productivity.

BT has a number of purpose-built call centres. Ideally, people need a place to relax, a place for personal calls, a room for socialising and eating – all things that lead to a calm and supportive working atmosphere.

A single-storey open-plan working environment can break down barriers of hierarchy, and promote a feeling of space and community. In some operations team-based scheduling is in place to assist colleague relations. Advisers sit in teams and work in teams to give them a sense of belonging.

The work does not lose its priority in a comfortable, friendly environment. On the contrary, productivity and quality improve when advisers feel part of a good team in a happy office.

The way to deliver a great standard is to put the importance of looking after people first. Ultimately, industry-wide standard call centres will drive more practitioners to reach for best practice ideas and solutions.

Call centres are an expanding industry, and high standards reflect well on everyone, as well as making good business sense.


Anne Marie Forsyth

The Call Centre Association

0141-564 9010

Strathclyde House

6 Elmbank Street

Glasgow G2 4PF

Top tips: Confidence building

  • Set out your key performance indicators to ensure a consistent managerial approach. Performance management helps to monitor call standards as well as keep advisers informed of their progress and achievements.

  • Good company communications helps advisers to be well informed before they speak to customers, increasing their confidence and improving the quality of calls.

  • Training helps to increase confidence and reduces the risk of surprises when advisers take that important first call.

  • Equip advisers with the tools they need to carry out their job to the best of their ability.

  • People are the number one priority – not just customers, but staff too. Call centre success should not be measured on simply the number of calls taken; it should be a deeper process of gauging customer and staff satisfaction.

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