Call centre of excellence: outplacement of ITV Digital staff

One
of the few successes to come out of the ITV Digital fiasco was its customer
call centre operation based in Pembroke, Wales, operated by recruitment agency
Manpower. This is the story of how the agency handled the project from its
inception to outplacement following the broadcaster’s collapse. Nic Paton
reports

The
brief

The
centre was established two years ago by Manpower in conjunction with Pembroke
County Council, the Welsh Development Agency and IT firm 7C, with a brief simply
to handle customer enquiries for ITV Digital.

With
a capacity for 1,100 staff, the centre was a major new employer in an area
largely reliant on seasonal tourism, Ministry of Defence work, fishing and the
refinery industry.

The
sort skills needed for call centre work were largely unknown to the local
population, and training was a key factor during the recruitment process, says
Debbie Rainbow, Manpower contract manager for the Pembroke site.

Advertising

Advertising
for positions was concentrated in the local press, although some staff were
appointed through search and selection firms. There was a close liaison with
the Government’s employment service, Jobcentre Plus, with a recruitment
campaign run directly through local job centres.

The
interview/hiring process

An
HR team from Manpower was created to co-ordinate and handle the recruitment
process.

A
pre-employment training programme was established providing keyboard skills and
multi-tasking. The programme was also run through local job centres, with the
offer of a guaranteed interview at the end,

This
did result in some wastage, and Rainbow admits and, if  the process were to be repeated, interviews
would probably be done up front. “Some lessons were learnt,” she says.

Interviews
were carried out by a specialist Manpower interview team. As part of the
process, applicants were sent to a teleskills assessment centre, where
computer, listening and communication skills were assessed and some role
playing carried out.

Training

Induction
training for successful applicants included a two- to three-week programme
where they learnt about ITV Digital, how it worked, and how to deal with
customer calls. This included opportunities to answer or listen in on calls
from customers.

Once
established, workers were able to develop their ongoing training needs,
including applying and studying for NVQs. About one quarter of the 1,000 staff
were undertaking NVQs by the time ITV Digital collapsed, says Rainbow. “We had
people taking NVQs in call handling, customer services, IT and other areas. And
there was managerial training,” she adds

The
collapse

The
speed of  ITV Digital’s collapse,
although not totally unexpected, still came as a surprise to many staff, says
Ruth Hounslow, Manpower’s public affairs manager.

“We
knew there was going to be significant downsizing but even up to the last
minute we were unaware that the call centre was going to come to a halt. Even
the telephone lines were cut, so effectively there was no point in people
coming into work,” she says.

Staff
at the time said they were “shell-shocked, hurt and devastated” and even local
unions spoke of “absolute bewilderment”.

Amid
the chaos and confusion which ensued, once the service at Pembroke was shut
down, managers and marketing staff at an administrative office in Plymouth were
forced to man the phones and field calls from disgruntled customers.

Redundancy

The
laying-off process was solely handled by Manpower, with staff rapidly shipped
down from the agency’s head office to help cope with the crisis caused by the
collapse, and to ensure everything ran smoothly, says Hounslow.

Most
staff were on either a week or a month’s notice, so getting answers quickly was
vital.

“We
wanted to make sure everything happened swiftly so people were not left hanging
around waiting for a consultation meeting. We wanted them to know what was
happening and give them a date of notice,” she says.

The
day after the collapse, Jobcentre Plus went in to create an on-site job centre
to deal with job and benefits queries and to allow people to register. “We were
trying to make the break as easy as possible,” says Hounslow.

Common
questions included what sort of work was on offer, what sort of work people
could do without affecting their benefits, and what sort of benefits were they
eligible for, she adds. Having the centre on-site meant any queries could be
resolved swiftly, and helped to keep up morale.

Picking
up the pieces

Contact
was maintained with the training providers to ensure that opportunities for
retraining and upskilling were also made available to staff.

“It
was about trying to maintain the momentum and making it very clear that it was
not the work they had done that was at fault,” says Hounslow. “There was a real
attempt to maintain a positive feeling at the centre, it was not just shutters
down and this is the end of the Pembroke centre.”

The
quality of the staff was so high that within two days new clients were coming
to the site, and now 240 staff have been taken back on, she says.

Rainbow
agrees the quality of the staff and the training they were given shone through
even as the plug was being pulled on ITV Digital.

“People
felt they had found a job that they had the skills for and that they enjoyed,
and they did not want to give it up,” she says.

“At
the end we had staff asking ‘What about our customers? What should we say to
them?’ They were facing redundancy but were still concerned about the
customers. This is a world class workforce,” she adds proudly.

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