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The £1 billion phone bill

8 October 2004

The £1 billion phone bill

CALL CENTRE staff are losing their companies £1bn a year, according to new research from a Midlands' university.

Aston Business School's Gary Fisher spent three years gathering data on the processes, levels of service and staff turnover in 105 of the UK's call centres. He found rife absenteeism and 'significantly higher' attrition rates in performance-driven companies who used highly controlled, mechanised systems.*

Typical responses from operatives in such mass-production centres include feelings of being unappreciated, undervalued and worthless at 'having to do the same thing day-in-day-out'.

'Despite what many callers might think of call centre employees,' said Fisher, 'this research proves that the operatives are not robots and do not want to be treated as such.

'A lot of the people we spoke to felt that many of the systems and technologies set in place to improve staff efficiency and call volumes actually made them feel restricted,' Fisher continued. 'This eventually leads to unhappy staff staying away from work or even leaving.'

Exhaustive scripting and the necessity to stick to a maximum call duration were also demotivating factors for the operatives. Fisher recalls one example of efficiency-gone-mad from a customer who called a bank to cancel the accounts and standing orders of a recently deceased parent. The customer was eventually told that the call would have to be terminated because the three minute maximum call duration had been reached!

Fisher sees many parallels between this and the UK's manufacturing industries which have lost business to their competitors overseas. 'Call centres sprung up in the 1980s - when there were much higher levels of unemployment in the UK - and were for many companies a cost cutting exercise using mass production processes,' he said.

'If call centres want to avoid going the way of many of our manufacturers it is vital that they improve the lot of customer facing staff.

'Organisations that seek to remain competitive can no longer concentrate on reducing costs and improving efficiency,' he continued. 'Unique value and innovation demand competing on the basis of human intelligence rather than efficiency.

'The ideal call centre environment is one in which the operative has the freedom to make a decision and the authority to action it,' said Fisher, now an innovation fellow at Aston University's business partnership unit. 'This allows them to help give the customer satisfaction and, as a result, feel like a valuable part of the company.'

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For further information please call 0121 204 4549 or email: b.a.l.coombes@aston.ac.uk

Notes for editors

A full copy of this research, commissioned by London School of Economics' Centre for Economic Performance, is available on request from Lucas North. It is also published by CM-insight as a call centre practitioner paper.

* The main causes of absenteeism and attrition cited in the research include: interactive voice response systems (a recorded automated service); maximum call duration guidelines; the job satisfaction and commitment of managers; large team sizes of over ten personnel and computer telephony integration (software systems that recognise names/ telephone numbers and retrieve data automatically).

Attrition: voluntary turnover (does not include internal promotions to other departments within the same organisation or redundancies.

Fisher found staff turnover varied between one- and 88 per cent over an 18 month period. He regards a figure of between five and ten per cent to be ideal though very few of the call centres he researched met this ideal. Low attrition rates are clearly possible but, Fisher found, are only achieved by a few centres that have rejected mass production methodologies.

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