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.


Calls may be monitored



Angela Merkel might not have been too happy about having her calls listened in to, but to many of us working in the call centre industry having our conversations listened in to, recorded and then fed back to us is an everyday occurrence.

For me, being listened in to is never a nice experience. First there is the paranoia. Spotting a  team-leader sat at a station  you start wondering how long since you was last monitored, then they glance over. Momentarily you catch each others eyes before you both turn away. Convinced it’s you and begin upping your workrate until you’re throat becomes sore with the exertion. You push, prod and cajole customers into buying more, upgrading or whatever it is the company wants you to do – what on paper you should do – but  which under normal circumstances you wouldn’t care less about hassling people for.  Worst of all you have to do everything by the book. No cutting corners the way you do to keep your average call time down, and absolutely no writing off of trifling amounts to neatly circumvent an argument with a customer.

Fortunately I’ve always been quite good at reading the signs and know when I’m being listened-in to and so can take full advantage of the Hawthorne effect which states that subjects being observed act differently due to the very nature of observation. Once however, I wasn’t so lucky. In my defence it was a very, very quiet day, with nothing much happening in the way of calls. I’d decided to put my feet up and take it easy. My big mistake though was  calling up a colleague for a quick chat. Unbeknownst to me they’d just had a run in with their manager and unleashed an anti-management tirade which would have landed us both in hot water were they not already working their notice. As it was it was just me fighting to keep my job. Lesson learnt.

But is monitoring all bad? Of course I’d rather not be monitored and have my conversation style forensically unpicked, but is there an up side? According to this article in Call Centre Helper there is, with the writer pointing out that

Over the years, I have often found that it is possible to gauge a call centre’s efficiency by its attitude to listening to calls. A bad call centre usually has no facilities for listening to calls. In a well-run call centre, senior management will listen to calls on a regular basis and provide immediate feedback to agents.

I’ll never love monitoring, and will always continue in the belief that monitoring is another part of the power imbalance in the Call Centre, but this something I’d agree with. In my worst call centre job I was monitored only once in two years. The reason for this quite simply is that for management monitoring calls is a time-consuming hassle they’d prefer not to do, particularly in the kind of call centre where everyone is over-burdened to the maximum.  To listen in to half an hour of calls takes half an hour of a managers time, in addition to the time taken to feed-back which is likely to be at least another half hour and even then they’d probably only hear a very narrow range of scenarios – not enough to really gauge performance. Faced with a call centre of even twenty agents regular monitoring becomes a huge task. The problem which then occurs is that managers will always be desperate for some way of measuring the performance of their staff and without monitoring they then turn to the dreaded call stats.



Where is everyone? Attrition rates in call centres.

Anyone who has worked in a call centre for any length is sure to have experienced something not dissimilar to this; It’s the moment you look around and realise that  you don’t recognise anyone anymore. The ones in your training group who you stuck with like glue in your first few weeks, the others who helped you out of a sticky situation when you didn’t know what button to press, the ones you always nodded at as you passed them in the corridor, or the one you always chatted about the weather in the canteen as you waited for your super-noodles to cook in the microwave. They’re gone. All gone.

Cartoon long service

Staff-turnover is legendary in the call-centre industry. Anecdotaly one call centre’s turnover is said to exceed 100%, while a survey of 142 UK call centres carried out in 2001 found a mean average annual ‘quit rate’ of 13% with the bottom 10% of call centres experiencing quit rates of between  28% and 82% – though the authors point out that for half  of the call centres in their sample the rate is 8% and below. More recently however, industry analysts Contactbabel put the mean average attrition rate at 26% for 2011, based on a study involving 208 UK call centres, predicting that this figure is set to rise further with outsourcing, retail, services and telecoms as having some of the highest attrition rates.

To put these observations into some sort of context XpertHR report that the median ‘voluntary resignation rate’ for the UK, across all sectors, was 7.9% in 2011.

So why do so many people quit the call centre?  well, one big reason – and I can say this from bitter experience – is that call centre work isn’t much fun. Research carried out by the Health and Safety Executive in 2003, based on a questionnaire-based study involving 36 call centres and 1141 employees, found that:

satisfaction with the intrinsic aspects of the job (the nature of the job itself) is much lower for call handlers than for other benchmark occupational groups and for other work roles within the call centre.

But much more than that, working in a call centre is bad for your health. They add that….

the risk of mental health problems is higher for call handlers and job-related well-being is lower compared to benchmark groups of employees in other occupations.

The researchers also found that wellbeing was lower among agents who worked in the telecoms or IT business sectors,  in call centres of over 50 employees and where staff followed strict scripts and had performance measured either constantly or rarely. Higher levels of stress were associated with high-workloads, not being able to make full use of skills and conflicting role demands.

Some argue though that whatever the job, people quit the call centre because they never intended to stay. In an article looking at ways to reduce staff turnover, featured on the Call Centre Helper website, Andrew Beale, of outsourcing company V2 Communications sounds a different note to the other contributors when he states

we embrace churn because of its inevitability. In the main, call centres are stopgaps, leading to something else (university funding, in-between jobs, university leavers unsure of direction, etc).

This was very much the view I have encountered across the industry wherever I have worked. Even among the senior managers you’d get the impression that the expectation is that you will leave. It seemed strange in my last place as with so many clients and systems it took around eighteen months to become proficient to the level that you were hitting call-time targets and providing a reasonable level of customer service – yet, in large part because of their attitude, there was no chance to progress, or to develop in any way.

Instead my employers took a very short term view by working us  to our absolute physical and mental limit – the ‘bums on seats’ mantra. The effect of this overwork is obvious, as Dawn Walton in her book From Bad To Worse; The shortest route to contact centre destruction says

It is unrealistic to expect an agent to spend every available minute talking on, or wrapping up a call. You would see steam coming out of their ears in no time! They need breaks, lunch, training and breathing time between calls. If you push too hard on this one (usually called occupancy, utilisation or productivity) then you find an increase in absenteeism and attrition (people leaving).

So in a way it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Managers expect staff to leave so offer them no incentives to stay and in the meantime take a short-termist approach of squeezing every drop of productivity out of them while they can until the staff burn-out and quit. This then re-enforces their original views about the call centre being merely a place to pass through on your way to better things.

The churn continues.

Where’s my headset?

I thought I’d post this piece I wrote about just one of the many small annoyances which make working in a call centre even harder than it has to be – headset swiping.

For a call-centre worker the headset is the most essential piece of kit much like a marines rifle.. “This is my headset there are many like it..” Officially, in the call centre, we were all individualy issued with our own headset which we were entrusted with the care of. I never got round to naming my headset, but, well, it was mine and I looked after it, neatly wrapping the lead around the headpiece and placing it snugly in my drawer at the end of each shift .

For much of my time in the call centre this arrangement continued untroubled, but  as the busier Christmas periods approached headsets would start to vanish. The call centre bulging at the seams with temps dragged in off the street outside (and then spat out with a P45 just before Christmas) the problem was always there is never enough headsets to go on all these extra heads as the company was just too miserley to buy any more. This led to desperate agents rifling  through drawers for other peoples headsets, often with the encouragement of management who just want to get you on the phone as quick as possible.

Predictably, before very long, things would degenerate into a never-ending cycle. For example I arrived one Monday morning, full of enthusiasm as usual, only to find my headset was missing from my drawer. At my managers suggestion promptly stole a headset and a connector unit from someone elses drawer in another desk. When that person eventually came in to find they had no headset they would then have to steal someone elses. the cycle would continue. Annoying.

Call times; A call centre obsession

Call times. Two words guaranteed have anyone who has ever worked in a call centre holding their head in their hands whilst loudly groaning.

In the call centre call times are a management obsession and the bane of agents who can suffer anything from a rap on the knuckles to losing their job for not dealing with calls quickly enough.

As the Dilbert cartoon points out call-times seem to take a much higher precedence over the quality of call handling.

How could such a situation come about?

Well, we have to look at call-centre managers, in my experience these aren’t the smartest bunch of people (firmly inhabiting the stupid/evil quadrant of Vroom’s matrix)

Thanks to the technology available they have very little to do in terms of collecting data on call-times, this is done automatically. If they had to time each agent manually with a stopwatch then see how quickly call-times would lose importance.

In terms of analysis, to call-centre managers the average call-time is seemingly a simple and objective measure enabling the manager to make an easy comparison between agents. This is of course a mistake, any agent will tell you that average call times are affected by many things; the day of the week, the client you are working on, computer glitches, and just plain luck  – anyone could have been landed with that long and complex query that took you over 20 minutes to deal with, but it was your phone which rang.

Monitoring quality on the other hand takes time, lots more of it. One single manager can glance at the call time charts produced by the phones, but to measure quality would mean listening-in to calls –  even if a manager spent an entire day listening in they would only hear a small selection of calls.

If an agent knows they are being listened-in to they can also simply adapt their behaviour (a well known phenomenon known as the ‘Hawthorne effect’ ) Of course this effect can be overcome by using various methods however, these take more time and effort on the part of the manager.

Quality is also a much more problematic concept to define far less objective. Who decides what good quality means? – say for example an agent bends the rules to help a customer and that customer leaves the call delighted… Is that a good, or bad call?

There is also with such a qualitative measure no simple way of ranking agents. Assigning a quality ‘score’ would be regarded with suscpicion. Therefore the feedback process is also more involved. Feedback about quality involves a 1-1 conversation which again thakes up more time.

The main reason, of course, for the emphasis on call-times is simply (and perhaps unsurprisingly) money. In my case the call centre received payment per-call so the more calls we could get through the more money. Even if it’s not on a per-call basis the more calls a single agent can handle the lower the number needed to meet demand.

It’s a very short-term way of thinking. The problems of which are best summed up by my old colleague T-J.

T-J routinely topped the monthly call time chart. Like a cyclist on a breakaway she posted a way out in front average time of just over 2 minutes.  A couple of others in a chasing group trailed just behind T-J and would maybe try to mount the occasional challenge, but would always fall back. T-J was a one-off.

(Personally I was happy to be just a domestique in the main peleton which ran from somewhere around 2.30 to 2.50. I reasoned that was the best place to keep my head down. In the end I chose a deliberate strategy of apathy – I just stopped looking at the monthly list.)

How did T-J do so well?

I realised the answer one shift when we were both taking calls for our flower delivery client. We were heading towards a bank holiday which added an extra day to delivery times however, we handled this in very different ways;


Me: Hello Flower Delivery Ltd

Customer: Hello, I’d like to order some flowers for Tuesday please.

Me: I’m afraid as its a bank holiday that means the card won’t be delivered until Wednesday at least.

Customer: Oh..

Me: If you choose the express option we could just about get it there for Tuesday.

Customer: How much is that?

Me: It will be an extra £3.50

Customer: No, that’s too much, I’ll go with the ordinary delivery please. Wednesday will be o.k.

(What I’ve done here is by offering the customer options Ive actually increased my call time).


T-J: Flower delivery Ltd

Customer: Hello, I’d like to order some flowers for Tuesday please.

T-J: You do realise they won’t get there until Wednesday.

Customer: Oh ok…


Customer: Bye


Good Manager/ Evil Manager; The Managerial Matrix

It’s well documented in this blog that for a time I suffered at the hands of a bad manager in the call centre. I was therefore very intrigued to come across a theory espoused by Vroom – a character in Chetan Bhagat’s novel; One Night at The Call Centre.

Vroom explains: ‘there are four kinds of bosses in this world, based on two dimensions; a) how smart or stupid they are, and b) whether they are good or evil. Only with extreme good luck do you get a boss who is smart and a good human being. However, Bakshi falls ino the most dangerous and common category. He is stupid, as we all know, but he is evil too,’

I know where I’d place my old manager Peggy on the matrix.

Where would your boss go?

Back to the call centre

Yo may have noticed I haven’t written much recently. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that I just haven’t been in the call centre.

Following the ruckus with my manager I was signed off with stress for a month.

Tomorrow that month ends.

I have had no contact from anyone in management so have no idea what will happen when I open the door and tentatively set foot onto the call-centre floor.

Will be leaped upon and dragged into the office where I’ll be issued with the paperwork for a disciplinary? Will I still have my desk? Can I remember all my passwords? I don’t know.

What I do know is I’m dreading it.