An overview of the Call Centre industry
The UK Call Centre industry has grown by almost 250% since the mid-90s, and it is expected to continue growing (DTI, 2004). By 2007 this industry will employ almost 1 million people in approximately 6,000 call centres (DTI, 2004). The banking and finance services are the business sector that runs the most of the Call Centres in the UK employing more than one quarter of the total call-handlers.
This essay is structured as follows; firstly, definitions are given of what constitutes a Call Centre (CC) and what is a call-handler. Later, descriptions of the current working practices and general problems in the CC industry are explained, giving attention to Lloyds TSB CCs (LTSBCC) in particular. The second part of this essay begins with a description of the working practices in the Birmingham LTSBCC (BirmCC), giving special importance to the job design (variety, autonomy, and completeness) and the hygiene factors (Herzberg, 1966). Later a comparison between the BirmCC and other LTSBCCs are carried out in order to highlight the deficits of the BirmCC. Advice is also given regarding ergonomics issues. To conclude, recommendations and steps for their implementation are provided.
Due to the fact that there is no a definitive definition of a call centre and call-handler, this paper will use the ones proposed by Sprigg, Smith, and Jackson, (2003, p.1).
Call centre: ‘a work environment in which the main business is conducted via a telephone whilst simultaneously using display screen equipment. The term call centre includes parts of companies dedicated to this activity such as internal help lines as well as whole companies’.
Call-handler: ‘an employee whose job requires them to spend a significant proportion of their working time responding to calls on the telephone whilst simultaneously using display screen equipment’
Most of the problems facing the CC industry are not only entwined but also have their origin in the current economical era of ‘cost minimisation’ which leads many companies to adopt ‘mean and lean’ strategies.
Korczynski (2002) pointed out, the objectives of the companies behind call centres are two fold; they are driven by the need to be cost-efficient and the desire to be customer-orientated. Two aspects that are contradictory, that is, if the cost-efficient goal is achieved by increasing the speed in which calls are processed, it would be difficult for call-handlers to achieve the quality standards when providing solutions for clients.
Companies may prefer bureaucratic efficiency when the call centre serves a high-volume market. This ‘mass service’ model (Schlesinger & Heskett, 1991) leads to standardised services, Taylorist job designs, and neglecting employee related issues such as well-being (Holman, 2003). The election of this model can be also favoured by the economic realities of the area in which the call centre is located (e.g. high unemployment). ‘Mass service’ call centres are comprised of a cheap labour force with low skills and characterized by high levels of monitoring control and poor training, low job security, low control, status and variety in their job design to name but a few (Holman, 2003; Deery & Kinnie, 2002). On the contrary, ‘High Commitment Service” model (HCM) is adopted by companies which want to provide a customer orientation focus to their call centres (Korczynski, Shire, Frenkel, & Tam, 2000). Companies choose this model when the goal is to maximise profits by providing a customised service to a specific customer segment (Holman, 2003). Thus, organisations need to invest heavily on recruiting, training and maintenance of their workforce. Usually this implies empowered jobs (characterized by high control, low scripting and high skills requirements) and variety in their job design, the use of monitoring for developmental purposes and continuous training to name but a few (Holman, 2003). Thus, it seems clear that there is a huge diversity regarding the job design of call centres as a result of their purpose and the strategic plan designed by the company that set them up.
Taking this into account the problems facing CC managers differ depending on the approach adopted by the CC. Nonetheless some of the problems appear to be relevant for all the industry. For example, the bad press the industry generally attracts (Mathison, 2001). CCs have been portrayed as ‘electronic sweatshops’, ‘twentieth century panopticons’, or ‘dark satanic mills of the 21st century’ (Garson, 1988; Fernie and Metcalf, 1998). The underlying cause related to this ‘media problem’ is the job design, therefore the most feasible way of overturning this general impression is to ‘redesign’ the job and adopt the HSC approach. Accordingly, the Call Centre Association (CCA) developed the “Standard Framework for Best Practice” with the aim of supporting and developing internal processes while ensuring improvement in both performance and customer’s satisfaction (CCA, 2006). In addition the Health and Safety Executive has produced a circular providing advice regarding CC working practices (HELA, 2005).
An additional problem that particularly affects the banking and financial services sector, refers to offshoring CCs to developing countries (e.g. India). Offshoring is rationalized on the grounds of saving costs. However important aspects such as quality or cultural fit might be compromised by this general tendency. In general, only ‘mass service’ call centres are suitable to be offshored.
An issue that specifically affects managers is turnover. The average rate of turnover in 2003 was 15%, with the financial service sector being one of the highest in the industry (DTI, 2004). Low pay and high intensity of work are considered the main factors for leaving. Turnover is not cheap, it has been calculated that a company may lose around £5000 in the recruitment and selection of a new call-handler. In addition, a new call-handler is less productive than an experienced one (DTI, 2004).
A further challenge is the employee well-being. Well-being has been measured in terms of anxiety, depression, job satisfaction, emotional exhaustion and stress (e.g. Holman, 2002; Deery, Iverson, & Walsh, 2001; Sprigg et al., 2003; Grebner, Semmer, Faso, Gut, Kalin, & Elfering, 2003). Job design, performance monitoring, HR practices and team leader support may have a great impact on employee well-being (Holman, Chissick, & Totterdell, 2002). Regarding job design, there is evidence demonstrating that control, variety, and the demands put on employees are important predictors of well-being (Holman , 2002).
Other issues, such as motivation or HR practices are also important for CC managers. Nonetheless staff turnover and employee well-being are clearly the main issues in the CC Industry, which due to the own nature of CC environments, require a somewhat different approach than in other industries.
Challenges at Lloyds TSB’s Call Centres
One challenge facing managers at LTSBCCs is similar to other CC managers in the finance sector. That is, to assure the staff that their job will not be transferred to a developing country. In fact the risk facing LTSBCCs is considerable; in November 2004 the CC located in Newcastle was closed with the subsequent loss of 960 jobs. Currently Lloyds TSB is preparing to close another five CCs (LTU, 2005). This lack of job security may undermine the morale of LTSBCC workforce, reverberating not only in the staff job satisfaction but also in the quality of the services they provide and in the overall productivity.
According to reports based on LTSBCC, “one of the main challenges the bank was facing is how to reconcile the geographical disparity and reasons for departmental differences of its call centres” (Forsyth, 2004, p.14). This citation comes from an article describing the efforts dedicated by Lloyds TSB in order to obtain the CCA accreditation for the LTSBCCs located in Glasgow, Newport, and Swansea. The article explains how the differences amongst the call centres (e.g. induction program, training, development, working conditions) were addressed in order to unify and adapt the different procedures to meet the criteria for the best-practice guidelines, promoting the shift of those CCs towards the HSC model. This challenge may still be unresolved, as not all LTSBCC have obtained such accreditation. The reason why Lloyds TSB was not interested in obtaining accreditation in all CCs is unknown, although it is reasonable to think that they were purely economical.
 Non profit organisation and leading body representing the industry.
 For example, an Indian call-handler is paid 10-15% of what their UK based colleague receives (DTI, 2004).