The end of the call-centre as we know it?

News update from the call centre; Peggy the manager has revealed that Big-Al had been attempting to sell the call-centre all along however, a buyer has still not been found.  Staff have also now been told that they will have to ‘give something back’ by working 2.5 hours without pay each week. This all seems rather desperate. Could this be the beginning of the end for the call centre? Maybe it’s simply an isolated case down to mismanagement, but maybe it’s also part of a bigger trend; has the whole call centre industry after some two decades, finally had its day?

For some reason working in a call centre seems to bring forth fantasies of its destruction, not necessarily in any cathartic sense, though Tristen Black’s description of his call-centre being swallowed up into a hell portal is particularly fetching, more I’m thinking in the sense of their obsolescence that one day the whole sorry industry will finally be put out of its misery.I particularly like a passage from the novel Eight minutes Idle in which the protagonist, Dan Thomas, jumps into a conversation between two other characters in a lift, The subject of discussion is the end of the call-centre;

‘So what do you think?’ Glasses asks Moustache. ‘Is it only a matter of time before call-centres are abolished?’

‘I doubt it’ he answers wearily. ‘Mertz wanted to make an impression, that’s all.’

‘Maybe, but he sounded convincing.’

‘Cause he’s a zealot, that’s why. And what better way of thumbing his nose at management? Telling them their world’s about to become obsolete guarantees him a future.’

‘I dunno. He must be pretty sure of himself.’

‘Wouldn’t you be? Half the world’s just converted to his cause and the other half’s terrified of it.’

‘So he’s right?’

‘No, he’s not right. It’s not like TV and telephones. Doing business over the computer completely removes the human element. Most people still need a voice.’

‘But they don’t get a voice,’ I interject, before reciting, ‘all our operators are busy at the moment… please hold and we’ll answer your call as soon as possible.’

‘So why do they keep calling?’

‘Because they’re all crazy old ladies,’ I tell him, pleased to be giving my theories an airing. ‘Look, it’s obvious. Call-centres are really doing three separate jobs. Giving people information, selling insurance, and listening to old people complain. Sure, the first two probably could be managed without operators. But computers couldn’t cope with complaints, not satisfactorily. They’ll keep us around as a public service.’

The book was published in 1999 and call centres are still with us some 13 years on. In that time the domestic call centre industry has also defied predictions that it would be decimated by outsourcing and in fact can even be said to have  thrived with the Guardian reporting in 2005  that “the growth in call centre jobs in Britain was almost three times greater than that for overall employment in the past four years.” It seems as that Mertz was wrong, or was it just that he just too early?

Last year telecommunications firm Talk Talk cited falling volumes and the increased use of ‘web based support’ as the reason behind a decision to close their Waterford call centre with a loss of 575 jobs and recently British Gas announced the closure of it’s Southampton call centre with a reported 500 job losses stating that it is now “dealing with more customers through digital channels.”

It seems that the call centre born itself from advances in technological advances in communication systems is now becoming surpassed by their further development and our acclimatization to using tools such as the internet.

As Dan Thomas suggests in Eight Minutes Idle it really appears that the only people keeping call-centres going are the ‘crazy old ladies’. Indeed I’d say that most of my callers seemed to be older people. Amongst older customers there is still a view of the internet as a dangerous unknown entity, a veritable wild-west of stolen card details and identity theft, whilst on the other hand anyone else only really called if the website is down with one lady I spoke to struggling for over half an hour with the website and making two calls before she relented and finally allowed us to take her order by phone.

So Mertz’s vision of the demise of the call-centre will surely eventually come to pass as Dan Fox, a marketing analyst, points out in an online article call-centres will not be able to rely on a diminishing group of internet-phobes;

Those in the first group turn to call centers for a few reasons. The first and most obvious is that the caller isn’t comfortable or familiar with the Internet. This is clearly not sustainable, because at a certain point everyone will be familiar and comfortable with the Internet.

But, before we rush to mourn (or perhaps rejoice at) the demise of the call centre there is perhaps one thing on which the call-centre could pin its hopes. Could emotion be the salvation for call-centres? Dan Fox, like Dan Thomas, concludes that despite all its flaws the call-centre offers something that new technology is as yet unable to..

although the individual customer service representative could probably care less about your late shipment, we assume the voice on the other end has empathy and can understand your problems and what you would like to accomplish by the end of the phone call.

What Dan Fox sees is an evolution, a new type of call centre, the emotional centre of a “multi-modal” approach to customer service. Bruno Morriset  a French Geographer agrees with this view that the call-centre has entered a new phase in its development. In an academic conference paper impressively titled The Rise of the Call Center Industry: Splintering and Virtualization of the Economic Space he sets out that;

the call center industry itself is entering an upgrading process, illustrated by new words such as contact center, information center, data center, data processing unit, web call center etc. The future of the CRM industry, especially in developed countries, lies in multimedia, more complex tasks, involving rising opportunities for skilled people. Routine-oriented only sites are threatened by technical developments and automation processes, such as voice recognition. Last but not least, customers themselves will soon ask for more personalized services, not for parrot-fashion messages: fifty million U.S. citizens have already subscribed to the federal “do-notcall” list, which bans unsolicited telephone messages from televendors

It seems therefore that we arrive at a rather positive note. The call-centre can claim a future, but in a new form as contact centre, and for critics of the call centre what does appear to promise to face a slide into irrelevance are some of the worst aspects of call-centres; the dull, repetitive tasks, the overwhelming focus on volumes rather than on the quality of interactions and the accompanying lack of respect for and investment in maintaining happy, motivated, well-skilled staff.


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