In praise of call centres


I’ve got used to telling people at parties that I manage call centres and seeing their face crumple. Sometimes it is an expression of pity but often just contempt. I seldom fight my corner because life is just too short; but I would just like to debunk a few myths.

Firstly, call centres are not some alien structure far removed from the rest of us. When I started working in 1985 the company I worked for had a typing pool. I’d write letters and proposals in long-hand and drop it in to a group of ladies (accurate not sexist) who would deliver a printed version for subsequent editing. These days anyone looking on from afar would find it difficult to distinguish me and my laptop from the typing pool of the 1980s. Technology has moved on and the expectation of job content has moved on too. The point of this story is that call centres are just carrying out functions that have always existed, but using a telephone as the medium for delivery. It would not surprise me in years to come to see many more people in offices wearing headsets and carrying out a contact centre function.

Another pet hate is the assumption that call centre staff are low paid simpletons doing an unskilled job. I would compare the skill levels to that of a shop assistant – at one end of the scale will be a minimum wage till operator but at the other is a Ferrari car salesman or a specialist Hifi advisor. The call centre role is actually not that straightforward. There are lots of people who come through training who just can’t do the job despite training and support – they struggle with multi-tasking, dealing with difficult customers, using the computer systems and the pace. They have to be able to answer any one of hundreds of possible questions about possibly hundreds of products. Initial training before someone goes on the telephone “live” is at least a week and can be months. I am also sick of hearing about “Indian call centres”. We live in a multicultural world and while you may think you are talking to someone in Mumbai it could just as easily be a centre in Leeds. Can’t understand what they are saying? Shut up, listen and keep your petty xenophobia to yourself! Before you dismiss the skills of a call centre operator try it yourself. No matter how clever you think you are there is a real adrenalin about sitting down with a headset waiting for your first real call…

And another thing…the customer is not always right. The telephone customer is far more abusive and unreasonable than they would be if they had the conversation face-to-face. They seem to think the telephone is some form of invisibility cloak. I have some “favourite” types of customer that crop up regularly:

  • The patronising smart alec. They don’t want to “waste time” talking to the operator – they want the supervisor straight away and then the managing director. They are not going to get off the telephone until the delivery van is knocking at the door. They are regularly misinformed, ignorant and suffering from short man syndrome. There is nothing that a call centre operator, or indeed anyone, can do for them other than listen (or pretend to).
  • The compensation junkie. Regardless of the tiny degree of inconvenience or the failings on the customer’s part, an apology or an explanation of the terms and conditions is not enough. They bought the cheapest item on the website, paid standard delivery and expected it to be delivered the following day for their best friend’s birthday. It should have been made clear to them that it could take 3-5 working days and they demand compensation for the distress they have been put through.
  • The 0-60 screamer. From the moment they call they are just waiting for the excuse to let rip.. “Don’t you “sir” me!” “You can stick your xxxxing “sorry” up your xxxx”. These people are typically the ones who demand to speak to a supervisor and then calm down when they are told exactly the same thing as the person they just spoke to.

Another accusation is that call centres are understaffed. This is almost always nonsense. All call centres are built to deliver a service level – the issue is whether you find the service level satisfactory or not. All call centres are built on the same mathematics that governs the designs of traffic systems. There are some well-established formulae which work out how many people you need to answer the telephone calls. All call centres are designed to not answer all calls and to not answer the calls immediately. The cost of doing so would be astronomical and would increase the price the consumer pays hugely. A typical service level is that the call centre will answer 80% of the calls within 20 seconds. However, the nature of some businesses mean that the peaks of activity are enormous. Classic ones are responses to TV advertisements in the evening (if the ads around Coronation Street contain a telephone number to ring), activity associated with deadlines e.g. betting on a big horse race, or seasonal activity (last-minute orders for Christmas). During these times typically call centres will be limited by the number of people they can fit in a building or the amount of training needed for a one-off activity. You wouldn’t expect to go straight to the bar on New Year’s Eve but for some reason you expect the same service from a contact centre. And woe betide it snows or there is a virus… while you are stuck at home off work you think it would be a great time to pick up the phone and order some stuff assuming call centre staff make it to work by helicopter or are impervious to germs.

Cold calling is another bugbear. If you don’t want cold calls register with the Telephone Preference Service. This is no worse than getting a piece of advertising literature marked “The Occupier” through your letterbox. The ones who are left are scammers and criminals. Don’t engage in an argument. Ask for the company they work for, tell them to remove your name from their list, that you are TPS registered and will be reporting them to the Information Commissioner. However, remember that when you are online, entering competitions or getting quotes, if you don’t check all the boxes on the agreements on each website you may be allowing them to call you without realising it. By not listening to the message at the start of a telephone call, or unchecking a box you put yourself on a list that could be in circulation with a number of companies for months. With more people than ever being ex-directory and registered with TPS anyone who says they are willing to receive marketing calls is very precious.

And finally… automated messages. Everyone says they don’t like them but I compare them to cash machines. When the first cash machines were launched in the early 1980s the assumption was that no-one would use them because they would prefer to talk to their bank face-to-face. Of course, the rest is history. People only want to talk to their bank directly when they are in credit and they don’t want to queue under any circumstance if they can help it. There are always bad and confusing automated messaging systems but the best ones get you to the right person who can help you faster.

There will always be exceptions but call centre staff are intelligent, good-hearted people who want to help you if they can. We all have constraints on our authority which limits what we can do in our job and call centre agents are no different. Call centres offer convenience to you as a customer – you don’t have to go to the store to settle your problem or write a letter but your expectations need to be realistic. In the old days you wouldn’t have bothered to make the journey sometimes but the telephone is just too easy to pick up.

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About justaukcook

/kʊk/ Not a chef, not an epicure, not a foodie. Just one who likes to prepare food – What really happens in the kitchen and on the high street is what I write about. Follow me on Twitter @Justaukcook and on https://www.facebook.com/justaukcook
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