The Call Centre – Inherently Good or Bad?

There are two views of human nature. One optimistic assessment is that human nature is fundamentally good. Sure, on occasion, it could become knocked-off course by bad, but in the end it’s true goodness would be reasserted. The other contrary and far more pessimistic view is that human nature is fundamentally bad and that despite things like civilisation constraining it – like a dam constrains water – it will, when these constraints are loosened follow its true destructive course.

So what about the call centre? Is it fundamentally good in nature, with the occasional outbreak of badness, or is it more fundamentally bad and will it always revert to type?

We’ve heard before about the toxic call centre – the place Niels Kjellerup described in 1999 as

a place you work to make enough money, so you can leave. High staff turnover and sweat shop mentality are key symptoms whereas the underlying cause are best summed up as bad management practices.

But is the toxic call centre a corruption of the call centre, or is it it’s true self? I’m pondering this because of news from my last call centre. It was never perfect, but as call centres go it wasn’t bad; You could make a coffee and go to the loo pretty much when you felt like it and management followed a ‘coaching’ philosophy.

A new senior manager however, has ushered in a new approach. It’s a familiar one in which the whip is cracking, tea and coffee breaks are frowned upon and numbers are rearing their head in a big, big way for both junior managers and staff. Next I’m sure I’ll hear about memos on toilet breaks.

It seems to me that the call centre is governed by an internal logic. People sat at desks, either taking or making calls, are easy to monitor. Therefore the ability to micromanage is inbuilt into the environment, inbuilt into the call centre.

This in turn is re-enforced by IT systems which log and calculate productivity, producing reams and reams of numbers; Calls waiting, idle times, wrap-up times, toilet break times and so on.

Sometimes, and in some places there may be structures which can contain its nature. In my old call centre it was a firebrand of a union-rep who genuinely put the fear into managers at all levels and whose approach meant that toilet breaks went unremarked upon, in others it may be an organisation which takes a more holistic approach. However, as soon as this changes it seems the call centre reverts to type.