The Toxic Call Centre

In 1999 Niels Kjellerup coined the term ‘toxic call centre‘ identifying four key characteristics:

  1. Disregard for potential of staff. Use of terms like ‘agents’ to dehumanise people. Burn-out accepted as inevitable cost of a tough job. No or little training to improve communication & relationship skills of reps
  2. Lack of strategic vision for the Call Centre and how it adds-value to the organisation paying the operational cost. Call factory measurements substitute for meaningful benchmarks which could help senior management relate to the value created in call outcomes.
  3. Management role is that of enforcement rather than coaching & skills development.
  4. New Technology viewed as the only way to improve productivity

Needless to say this sums up my old workplace – and just about every grievance I had with it – very nicely.

The good news though is that Kjellerup beleives the  Toxic call centre is by it’s very nature unsustainable, at least in the long-run:

Short term endless pressure for productivity improvements. Staff retaliates by bringing in unions and labour relations sour ( the modern day sweat shop concept is born) Impossible job to manage, resulting in high turn over of Managers depleting the little Call Centre Know How existing. Finally as Senior Management gives up trying to make sense of the escalating call centre costs the activity is outsourced.

Long term, no company or organisation can afford to distance themselves from their customers and Toxic Call Centres will be restructured with a new management team with a view to develop a Coaching Culture Call Centre where Call Outcomes are given priority and the customer contact is integrated with the rest of the organisations with measurement and benchmarks which clearly demonstrates the way improved customer interaction benefits the organisation. In terms of increased revenue, lower operational costs and better customer access resulting in significant lower sales and marketing costs.

 I’m not sure how much I share this view. I’ve seen at first hand how companies can still do very well despite upsetting people with bad call centre service. Take our worst company, one which had been in business over 20 years. I’d spend all day listening to customers telling me over and over and how awful we were and that we’d lost a customer, but still new ones kept coming to take their place. Even more puzzling if you did an internet search you’d uncover very little in the way of negative comments.

For a company looking to cut costs they may well be be safe in the knowledge that only a small portion of its customers will actually interact with the call centre, and of those who are unhappy with the service only a very small minority will be motivated to do anything about it whether that’s an angry tweet, or going elsewhere. Of course companies would do much better and get much more business if they did improve their call centres, but it’s a link they seldom seem to make.

 Just take car insurance. How many people think of call centre quality when making a purchasing decision, especially when you only have any contact with the centre when changing details, or making a claim. How bad would the service have to be before a customer would actually switch to another provider who is charging, say £20 extra a year?

And that’s why the Toxic Call Centre will be around for a while yet.