For those outside the industry, call centres are often perceived as intense, target-obsessed environments. Whether it’s headlines about outsourcing to countries for cheap labour or comparisons to Victorian-era factory working conditions, they frequently get a bad rap.
In reality, many of the issues faced by the sector are similar to those being tackled by other industries, and the difficulties posed from a learning and development perspective are universal – they are just exaggerated.
Staff turnover, for example, is notoriously high, and resources for development are often severely tight compared with other sectors. Meanwhile, the pressure to keep staff at their desks and on the phones means that time for training is scarce.
These are the kinds of barriers to learning and development experienced by most training managers, but even more so by those in the contact centre world. As Ray Harrison, head of training, development and coaching for Barclaycard Business puts it: “Doing more with less is the world I live in.”
Harrison joined Barclaycard Business in May this year, filling a post that had only been created a few months earlier. There are two rather distinctive sides to the business, which has three contact centres in Teeside, Liverpool and Northampton, employing 750 full-time staff. The merchant side puts machinery for card transactions into retail outlets, and the other side consists of the corporate credit cards arm.
Historically, training had been devolved to contact centres, which each had their own training team. But Harrison was recruited to bring a more strategic approach to training – aligning it to the overall aims of the business, as opposed to simply running courses on a patch-by-patch, centre-by-centre basis. Learning wasn’t joined up enough to recruitment, performance management, and succession planning, but now Harrison can take a global view.
Reporting to the head of all contact centres with a team of 13 trainers, Harrison has the overall task of changing the way learning is perceived and incorporated into the business.
Learning and development more typically falls under the remit of HR, but there are advantages to this structure, says Harrison. “I’m close to the business, I can see what they need quicker and respond quicker with a solution.”
That’s not to say there aren’t downsides, too. “They’re [the employer] driven by numbers and service levels,” he adds. “My world is quality, their’s is often quantity.”
In his first few months in the job, Harrison has been concentrating much of his energy and attention on the company’s induction programme. It currently lasts up to seven weeks, and is the primary focus of the training function. Harrison believes it is far too long, and reducing it will be the first step towards becoming more strategic and innovative about learning.
“The primary objective of inductions at the moment is to get people through the door and up to speed on the processes, systems and technology as soon as possible,” says Harrison. “If we’re going to get involved in other kinds of training – and it’s a definite that we will – then we will have to look at changing the way we do inductions.”
To that end, he’s been doing internal research to evaluate the programme – which parts are vital, and where there may be scope for change.
Contact centre staff are only allowed 3% of their time for ‘shrinkage’ – time off the phone lines – for everything from meal and comfort breaks to training activities and meetings. Under such circumstances, Harrison says there is no option but to “get smarter regarding learning”.
Freeing up the time and resources currently spent on inductions will enable his team to put effort into soft skills development and coaching.
“A lot of people think induction is about getting people up and running as soon as possible,” he says. “That’s not my view.”
Harrison’s view is rather more long-term. “Line management tends to see induction as the training function’s responsibility, and training managers are not batting back enough,” he says. “We’re not equipping line managers to carry on the induction down the line.”
One alternative would be a cycle of a few days’ classroom work for new recruits, followed by buddying for a day. Harrison admits such a scenario would require negotiating with line managers on shrinkage, because as soon as a new recruit gets on the phone with a customer, the normal rules apply.
For Harrison, three activities provide the greatest scope for increasing learning participation and its impact with the least effect on shrinkage: e-learning, succession planning and coaching. And it’s coaching that he believes holds the greatest potential of all.
The way that coaching is currently used at Barclaycard Business is “sporadic,” says Harrison, and it refers to line managers’ requirement to listen in on employees’ calls twice a month to monitor their performance. “Our statistics suggest coaching could be improved,” says Harrison.
“Is it a stick with which to beat people, or to develop them?”
A qualified coach himself, Harrison believes current coaching practice is “imposed”, and doesn’t serve as an incentive for improvement.
“I have plans to change how coaching is perceived – from doing a given number of sessions a certain number of times a month, to: ‘What are the benefits to the team?’
“It is about changing the way it is viewed,” he adds. “At the moment, we are driven by what we’ve got to do, rather than the effect the coaching might have. The focus is an incorrect driver – it’s a stick, rather than a carrot.
“I need to move training, development and coaching from being a cost centre to a profit centre,” he says. “At the moment, it’s seen as a cost.”
In addition to using coaching for ongoing soft skills development, Harrison sees the method as having another role – as a follow-up to other training.
“One measure of a training activity’s success must be that follow-up coaching,” says Harrison. “I want it to be structured. It tells the trainer whether the benefits in the classroom are real, it keeps their skills honed and it keeps them at the forefront of the business. It also gives credibility to the trainer.”
Bringing learning into the business in the way that coaching can has become something of a theme in Harrison’s career. “My area of focus is putting the trainer in the business, rather than sending people out to the trainer,” says Harrison. “It can’t be seen as something that’s done to people, but rather done with them.”
Staff turnover is an issue at Barclaycard Business, although not to the same extent as elsewhere in the sector. “We are a contact centre – we have attrition issues,” Harrison says simply. “Our staff turnover is probably less than average, but like any other contact centre, it is an issue.”
In such an atmosphere, to what extent can people development truly be effective and impact the bottom line? Harrison is of the firm view that given development, people will stay with the company for longer, and during his time at banking giant Abbey as international training manager, he watched it happen. “We saw a direct impact,” says Harrison. “Extra development reduced attrition.”
But to achieve impact requires a particular approach. “I want to take learning out of the classroom and share responsibility for it between trainers and line managers,” he says. “I want ‘tracksuit’ trainers, out in the business conducting hands-on coaching activity.
“It’s line managers’ responsibility as much as the training manager’s – and that starts at the top.”
Skills framework boosts capability
Barclaycard Business has a ‘strategy for colleagues’ – a pledge to understand and define the knowledge, skills and experience required of all roles within the business to improve capability. It’s a commitment to invest in its people – leaders and contact centre staff alike.
As part of its strategy, the company is implementing a competency framework for all contact centre staff developed by e-skills UK, the sector skills council (SSC) covering call centres, as well as IT and telecommunications. Just completing its pilot stage, it is hoped the framework will be rolled out by the end of 2007.
The contact centre industry lends itself to using a generic framework, says Harrison, and the e-skills framework links to NVQs and other recognised development.
“It’s based on good research,” says Harrison. “Why reinvent the wheel? I’d prefer to take it and tailor it rather than build it from the bottom up.”
One competency framework linking everything from recruitment and induction to performance management and succession planning will allow for a joined-up approach that ensures clarity and consistency.
The single framework covering all the key roles within the contact centres will also enable Harrison’s team to clarify the differing expectations for each role, helping line managers in turn to be more strategic in coaching and developing their teams, and managing their performance.
“It gives a framework I can hang on to development activity,” he says.
“We can determine the gaps between where our people are and where they need to be,” he adds. “It’s a better use of my training resource.”
CV: Ray Harrison
2005 Head of training, development and coaching, Barclaycard Business
2004 Learning manager, Cater Allen Private Bank
2002 International training manager, Abbey
1999 Field training manager, Royal London Insurance
1995 Field training manager, United Assurance