Call centre staff really are adults

As call centre working
practices are called into question, Megan Peppin looks at managing this growth

It is 2001 – yet how can some
organisations treat their employees with no feelings or intelligence? The TUC telephone
hotline set up to highlight bad working practices in call centres received 600
calls in two weeks. Military-like measures are put in place by some employers
to manage sickness, attendance and almost minute-by-minute productivity
monitoring (News, 27 February). In my experience from managing call centres in
the past, some of these examples are real.

It seems that managers in big
organisations often think call centres ought to be managed differently from
other areas of business. But I would argue that good management practice is
good management practice in whatever environment people work and that call
centres do not need to be treated uniquely.

The problem often starts with call
centre managers and how they are targeted. Often managers have set targets to
achieve service levels that are not necessarily a relevant measure of success
and may not be within the control of that manager.

When this happens, the manager’s
energies become deflected into a numbers game, counting hours and minutes
worked and calls per person without considering the efficacy of the measures
and activity. "Bums on seats" becomes the primary task with an
alarming focus on productivity management. As the cycle continues, sickness
increases, retention plummets and what management could be available to spend
with individuals is then concentrated on absence management, recruitment and
basic training. Clearly, this leaves no time for any targeted, quality training
initiatives that could grow the business.

First-line managers in call centres
are often recruited from the team because of qualities such as individual
capability and maturity. This does not always lead to effective managers if
they are not committed to developing their people and business.

How do we evaluate their readiness
and real commitment to management, a role that requires emotional maturity and
commitment more than intimate job knowledge or systems knowledge? Add
inexperienced and poorly trained first line managers and inexperienced staff to
the operations manager who has targets that are all numbers, and it is obvious
how dysfunction begins to occur.

Some guidelines that can be applied
to any call centre include:

– Build management targets around
areas managers can influence, for example individual productivity targets,
staff retention, conversion rates of calls to sales, training hours delivered.

– Make sure the staff to first line
management ratio is right to deliver quality results through motivated staff –
sustainable results cannot be delivered with 1:15 management:staff ratios that
exist in so many call centres.

– Develop productivity measures
that can be used for individual development. For example, person A may talk
longer than the average time to customers but is this a bad thing if the level
of referred calls or complaints is non-existent?

– Let staff be individuals and give
them responsibility.

Many call centres encourage staff
to design and manage their own shifts or lunch rotas and provide opportunities
to rotate jobs and treat their staff as adults. Both staff and managers can
have enriched and constructive working experience within call centres.

This approach takes courage and
sponsorship by senior management, and can be summed up simply – ensure call
centre staff have the same working conditions as yourself and they will deliver
the numbers.

Megan Peppin is HR
manager at reinsurance company GeneralCologne Re. Her experience includes call
centre management in the financial services industry

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