Calling time on a bad reputation

After years of having a bad reputation. Patrick McCurry examines whether
call centres are getting their act together`

Call centres are often criticised as being little more than 21st century
sweat-shops, with under-trained and over-monitored staff handling non-stop
calls in a stressful environment.

Although this image is often unfounded, the industry has suffered from high
levels of staff turnover. In an attempt to tackle this, and because the nature
of the job is changing, a growing number of centres are putting in place
rigorous training programmes, some of them accredited.

The call centre industry has expanded dramatically since the 1980s and now
employs 2 per cent of the working population – more than the combined
workforces of coal mining, steel and car production.

Staff turnover remains high – typically 20 to 25 per cent, according to
Colin McKay, head of quality and standards at the Call Centre Association.
"That’s comparable to the retail sector, but the problem is that it costs
a lot more to train a call centre agent than a shop assistant, with recruitment
costs of up to £18,000 for the more sophisticated call centre jobs," he

Call centre jobs are also evolving. There is a move away from dealing with
high volumes of calls in a scripted way to a concept of ‘contact centres’ where
more emphasis is placed on communicating through other channels, such as
e-mail, and agents take more responsibility for resolving customer problems.

A Health and Safety Executive study, released last December, concluded that
call centres were not the sweat-shops of public image. However, the study did
find that working practices were more intensive than for other computer-based
office jobs, with rigorous targets set for agents and calls regularly
monitored. Problem areas highlighted included agents suffering verbal abuse and

Time pressures and tough targets can act as a barrier to training as team
leaders can be so busy managing that they have little time for coaching or
training, says Stephanie Wilson, general manager at Convergys, the world’s
largest provider of outsourced call centres. Convergys’ Newcastle call centre
has won an IiP regional award, but there are particular challenges to training
and people development in call centres, she says.

"Team leaders have an important role to play in training and coaching
but the company needs to make a commitment to support them, otherwise they will
spend all their time on admin and report writing. We have transferred some of
their admin tasks to others, which means the team leaders have more time to

While it is still somewhat rare for a call centre to achieve IiP, Wilson
says there was no prejudice againstConvergys when it sought accreditation:
"IiP is used to service industries, like hotel chains, and we’re not that


There is growing use of NVQs in call centres, following the development of
specific call centre qualifications in the past two years. Blick UK, a
manufacturer of clocking-in machines and other equipment, was one of the

Its Swindon call centre is relatively small – with 20 agents – but it faces
competition for staff from the large number of call centres in the area.

"We’ve only had one person leave in the last two years, which is very
good considering the other opportunities here," says national call centre
manager Chris Jones.

It typically takes an agent 12 to 18 months to gain the NVQ level 2 and both
team leaders have achieved an NVQ in call centre supervision.

"Staff like to gain a qualification and want to complete it so they are
much less likely to leave during that 12-18 month period," adds Jones.

Another challenge is the variety of people who join call centres, many of
which have been opened in areas where heavy industry once reigned.

Ventura provides outsourced call centre operations from sites in Leeds and
the Dearne Valley, Yorkshire. Stephen May, head of training, says younger
people tend to pick up keyboard and technical skills easily but need particular
training in customer empathy, while the older recruits have opposite training

Bradford-based Loop Customer Management, which provides services to DIY
chain B&Q, has had to hire people who understand their market – typically,
older men with backgrounds in engineering or construction. "They have been
quite wary of the technology but we have reassured them that they will pick it
up and stressed they already have great customer service skills," says
training manager Corinne Brooksbank.

Despite the increase in training, there are still problems, says Kelly
Bains, call centre development manager at recruitment agency Adecco. "Many
are throwing training at the problem of staff retention but it often doesn’t
work as it should."

He says that team leaders, who are also expected to act as coaches, often do
not have sufficient coaching skills. They are also often sidetracked into
spending most of their coaching time on poor performers in a team and so
neglect the better performers. "That leads to the better performers
feeling they are not getting the training they need," says Bains.

Another issue which companies are having to address is the fact there are
only limited promotion opportunities in the industry. Call centres are fairly
flat hierarchies, with only two levels – agents and team leaders – says
Ventura’s May.

Many of the staff are working mothers or students, who like the flexible
hours and are not necessarily interested in making it a career. To tackle this,
Ventura has introduced a ‘performer plus’ scheme for those who have been in the
job 12 months and meet certain performance standards.

There are four performance levels, each carrying a pay increase. This means
staff can continue to train with the incentive of earning more and do not feel
they are stuck in a rut says May. "It’s a kind of horizontal development
rather than the traditional vertical progression," he explains, adding
that those in the scheme are 25 per cent more likely to stay with the company
than other agents.

David Rigney, head of building society Nationwide’s call centres, says the
company shook up its training three years ago and introduced more opportunities
for career development. It now has five levels of responsibility, starting at
entry-level agent right up to financial consultant.

Quality of calls

The programme for its 800 staff scooped the Personnel Today Award for
Excellence in Training last year. "We wanted to get away from agents
leaving their personalities at the door when they arrived and to give them more
freedom in how they worked," says Rigney.

This meant instead of strict targets, such as each call not lasting more
than three minutes, agents were measured on how much time they spent talking to
customers, regardless of time per call. More emphasis is spent on assessing the
quality of calls and customer satisfaction.

Agents have also received more training in selling Nationwide products in a
‘softly-softly’ manner, says Rigney. "The changes have helped us reduce
staff turnover from 20-25 per cent to 14 per cent."

He believes the role of team leaders as coaches is crucial, particularly
listening to taped calls with individual agents, who are also given a CD
illustrating good and bad examples of calls. "Team leaders work 37 hours a
week and they know that half that time is assigned to coaching," he says.

Colin McKay, of the CCA, says that as the industry continues to grow so will
the need for training. A growing number of business schools are offering call
centre content in their MBAs but training needs are much broader than that.
"We are talking to the e-skills NTO about giving the CCA a role in
accrediting in-house training and developing a professional standard for call
centre staff because that’s something that is lacking," he says.

Under the CCA’s plan there would be sector standards based on the NVQs and
on standards developed at Nottingham Trent University, which has been offering
courses at university level for team leaders and managers.

McKay argues that soon it will no longer be true that there are limited career
prospects in the industry, pointing to the huge growth in the sector in recent

"That growth will continue and will mean more opportunities for
managers," he says.

"If I were a young person interested in management, one of the first
sectors I’d look at is call centres because there’s such growth going on."

Top tips for ringing the changes in call centres

– Coaching by team leaders is an
essential part of effective training, so ensure they are given the time and
support to carry out coaching and are not overwhelmed by the combination of
this and their other duties.

– Do not overestimate the value of front-loaded training, such
as long induction programmes before new staff begin their job. Look at the
potential for modular training after they have begun.

– Try and build in some career or skills progression. Even
though there are often limited career prospects in call centres, it is usually
possible to offer ‘horizontal’ development, such as specialising in more
sophisticated products.

– Handling difficult or abusive calls is a common source of
stress for agents so look at creating special teams that have had extra
training, to whom difficult calls can be referred.

– Look at the potential for accredited training, such as NVQs.
These can improve motivation and skills as well as loyalty to the company.

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