For whom the bell tolls

centres are the source of innumerable HR headaches. But can training and
development help ring the changes? By Sally O’Reilly

is booming in the call centre sector, which currently employs some 2 per cent
of the UK population. But the relentless, repetitive nature of the work is
still notorious for creating low morale and fast staff turnover, and its
negative image as a dead-end job with no obvious career progression is hard to
shake off.

make matters even worse, accusations by staff of controlling, authoritarian
management styles used by some firms has led to serious workplace unrest. Last
November, for instance, BT experienced its first national industrial action for
13 years, when thousands of call centre workers held a one day strike after a
dispute about “bullying” by management, “unachievable” targets and the
widespread use of agency workers.

can training really help tackle these intractable problems? The short answer is
“yes”. If staff are given training which shows there is career development in
their role, their perception of the work can be improved.

carried out by business psychologists Kaisen Consulting among firms in the
banking, retail, telecommunications, holiday and utility sectors, including
British Airways Holiday and the Hyder Group, found that the more team leaders
focus on the development of individuals, instead of numerical targets, the more
motivated call centre staff became.

such an approach has to be carefully thought through, says Peter Champion, Hyder
Business Services’ managing director, customer service. “Our team leaders are
always focusing on improving the quality of the work,” he says.

is a briefing before every shift, at which team leaders go through each
individual element of the campaign. And at the end of each shift, staff call
off their own statistics, and say what went well, and what they were less
pleased with. That way, staff can learn from each other.”

stresses that this is just part of an integrated training approach which is
part of the ethos of Hyder’s new call centre – set up just over six months ago
and offering call centre services to external customers in the retailing,
financial services, telecoms and utilities sectors.


go through a screening process organised by specialist recruitment firm Acorn
Recruitment. This begins the moment they phone for an application form. Hyder
is looking for staff who use the phone confidently and have good interpersonal
skills, and 30 to 40 per cent fail to make the grade.

that, all staff are put on an NVQ Level 2 customer services programme. At all
stages, the emphasis is on the specific skills which call centre workers need,
rather than on technical knowledge.

operator has a personal development plan, individual to them, which is reviewed
monthly by their team leader, and at their six-monthly appraisal,” says

common mistake made by employers is to reward their star agents by promoting
them to team leader roles. Champion’s view is that while this may be
appropriate in some cases, many operators need a meaningful career path within
the role they already have. “There are other ways of having a career structure,
such as going on to more complex applications, or moving to different
applications,” he insists.

Phillipson, managing consultant at Hay McBer, says this determination to make
training and staff fulfilment run hand in hand is the only way forward for call
centres if they are serious about retaining more staff. “It will take more than
increases in pay to change the image of call centres from being the modern
equivalent of 19th century sweat shops,” she says. “That is a widely held view.
Companies should get a policy written down, in clear language, and show what is
expected at each level.”


she says that companies which stop waving a big stick at staff to keep the call
rate high may be pleasantly surprised.

Littlewoods started paying half the money which used to be bonus pay for a high
call rate as part of base pay, the call rate didn’t go down. Levels were
maintained because people felt motivated, and that they could handle each call
in their own way.”

the emphasis on developing the particular skills needed for call centre work
can also aid career satisfaction, according to Kelly Services, the employment
agency which has 20,000 staff on its payroll each week, 9,000 of which work in
call centres.

company has just set up a specialist call centre division, KellyConnect, and is
keen to take on staff with the right qualities, as well good skills.

the past, the focus has tended to be exclusively on technical skills,” says
Kelly Services marketing manager Rosemary Setten. “But we know that
competencies are equally important. Only by looking beyond applicants’ call
centre experience and using psychometric testing and behavioural interviewing,
can you find people with the right personality for the job.”

believes that selecting staff with the right competencies will mean that
retention levels will increase – but the firm is also emphasising the
importance of career development by giving staff on-site support and a
continual interactive training, via CD-Roms which create a virtual call centre
environment. “There are three CDs in the programme – one for inbound, one for
outbound and one for customer service skills,” says Andrew Hodges, manager,
call centre division, Kelly Services. Each lasts for just under three hours,
but staff can use this as a resource at any time.

they have a bad call, for instance, staff can go back and revisit the section
on difficult customers,” says Hodges. “And their responses will dictate how the
‘customer’ responds.”

Gwyn Rogers, a consultant with Kaisen Consulting, says call centre staff need
more autonomy than this. He blames the sophistication of many IT systems for
creating “learned helplessness” in call centre staff, and believes that
training and job design need to be linked to give staff the chance to make their
own decisions.

more that a person’s work is structured and dictated, by technology or
managers, the less productive they become,” he warns. “This results in both
poor customer service and disenchanted employees.”

questions whether talk is walked

centre team leaders say they are receiving little or no training, according to
research conducted by the University of Newcastle’s Centre for Urban and
Regional Development Studies.

to the study, Work Opportunities for Women in the Information Society: Call
Centre Teleworking, 92 per cent of call centres claimed to provide on-going
training to team leaders and supervisors.

according to report author Vicki Belt, “The majority of supervisors interviewed
told us they had received very little if any on-going management training.”

Call centre staff stay 15 years

the Liverpool-based mail order retailer, has call centres in Preston, Crosby
and Sunderland employing a total of 5,700 people.

majority of staff are customer advisers. Some will deal with more complex
questions, but taking orders and dealing with queries is the core of the
company’s business.

have basic induction training which lasts for three weeks, and in the final
week they will take live calls,” says Elaine Mockler, customer services manager
at Littlewood’s call centre in Sunderland. “They are looked after by supporters
– who are also advisers – during this time. They take orders only to begin
with, and the next step will be to deal with queries.”

says that most staff will stick to working at that level. But the more career
minded can go on to a further eight weeks’ training so they can deal with more
complex questions. At any level, however, total clarity about what is expected
of them helps staff to monitor their own performance – and see where they want
to go to next. Each of the four grades within the call centres has a checklist
of behaviours, so people know what is expected of them at each stage.

like other employers who are making a success of running a call centre,
Littlewoods is also espousing a more “touchy-feely” approach, with weekly buzz
sessions which highlight updates and new product information, and celebrations
of long services. And it is also very careful about promoting team leaders.

team leaders are internal promotions,” says Mockler. “We have produced a
booklet about what’s involved, which gives anyone who is interested an insight
into the work. If they want to go forward, they are put through an assessment
centre, to find out if they are suitable. It is a very different role.”

who do get through this process then complete a 12-module training programme,
which takes about three weeks to complete.

stresses the firm’s aim is to discourage staff who are clearly unsuitable – but
keep an open mind about those who have potential. “We do have to say ‘no’
sometimes,” she says. “But if someone comes forward who isn’t ready yet, we
tell them what areas they need to improve, and allow them to spend some time
assisting the team leader.”

does this approach pay off? It certainly does if high retention rates are the
measure of success.

have staff who have been here for 42 years,” says Mockler. “There is higher
turnover in our evening staff, but among the day shift staff the average stay
is 15 to 16 years.”

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