It seems an obvious question, but for me the more I think about it, the less clear-cut it becomes – just what is, and what is not a call centre? and do you have to be in a call-centre to have a call-centre job? Above all is there one single defining characteristic of the call-centre?
One of my first jobs was dealing with the incoming calls for a department of a local council. There were two, sometimes three of us in the office and our job was to answer the phone and either take messages and put people through to our colleagues and people in other departments depending on the enquiry. It was a tough and demanding job, dealing with often distressed or angry callers, without having any real training in how to handle them, or any power whatsoever over the outcomes but I stuck with it as it was my first proper office job and I was eventually promoted to another role within the team at the time thinking – quite wrongly it would turn out – that that was the end of me and the phone, but the thing was I never really thought of it as a call centre job – and I still don’t. Though in many ways it seemed to have the characteristics of a call-centre job – It was almost entirely on the phone with my working pattern dictated by the rhythm of the calls coming in.
A few years later when working in my last call-centre job, I reapplied for my old role which had in the meantime been outsourced to a private sector provider. The surroundings had changed drastically. It was now the classic call centre – the one you see if you close your eyes and imagine a call centre – with all the operators sat in rows wearing headsets and a display on the wall detailing the number of calls waiting. What had happened was effectively a centralisation of all the people who like me had been taking calls within departments across the council. They were still organised into different business areas, but they were now all under one roof and though the tasks were largely unchanged they had all become unambiguously call-centre jobs and the place was very definitely a call centre.
In defining a call-centre there are two considerations; the tasks of the job and the environment, but can there ever be exceptions to this? What if, for instance, by way of technology a call-centre was de-centralised with operators based at home taking calls and logged in to a system remotely, could it still be regarded as a call centre? I would be inclined to say yes – so long as a final condition is met regarding the way in which workers are managed. In my old job my line-manager had been the department manager who managed a range of professionals and had little time for the specifics of managing my area. There was no specific monitoring regime, or call handling targets, but after the outsourcing the management structure became much more specialised. There were team leaders, as well as managers, who were dedicated to managing the flow and handling of calls. New IT systems were introduced which monitored, logged and fed-back and the boundaries between specialist areas were being eroded, so for example one operator could one call about bin collections and the next about housing benefit, possibly for two different councils.
Out of the three elements, task, place and management it is therefore the third which is most important. The call centre comes into existence at the point where the job becomes not doing some other task, but rather becomes the taking, or making calls. Spatially cut off from the rest of an organisation monitoring and call targets become an obsession. It’s in the call centres DNA.