Giving contact centres the human touch

When 7,000 staff at 37 Jobcentre Plus contact centres went on strike for two days in April, it highlighted an issue that has simmered since contact centres first appeared in the UK during the mid-1980s.

That issue is the high degree of monitoring and control that call centre managers exert over their employees through technological means, and the impact it has on employee satisfaction and, ultimately, customer service.
In the typical contact centre, IT systems manage the working lives of agents down to the second. There are targets for average call times, for example; the length of every break they take is monitored. Scripts must be followed and supervisors can listen in at any time. Software that monitors the tone of both caller and operative is often used to flag up calls that may be going awry.
These contact centres are, for many organisations, the primary point of interaction with customers. And while technology can of course be used to make them more efficient and more effective, it can also make agents’ lives a misery, it seems. Besides driving up staff turnover, dissatisfaction among employees may well be passed on to the customer.
Experts are now calling the very concept of a contact centre into question. At the very least, they argue, the metrics that are used to manage call centres must be improved to put the interests of the agents and customers above targets and efficiency.


Jobcentre Plus is a division of the Department for Work and Pensions, and its contact centres handle calls from the public about entitlements to state benefits.

According to the unions that led the strikes, these call centres are micro-managed to an uncomfortable degree. “For every minute of the day, staff have to enter a code to account for what they are doing,” says Jane Aitchison, president of the Department for Work and Pensions Group at the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) trade union.

Staff are not only monitored by their immediate supervisors, Aitchison says, but also by managers at the Jobcentre Plus head office in Sheffield. These managers can intervene in calls at any time, based purely on the numerical metrics they have before them.

“They just deal with the numbers and the statistics, and manage solely on that basis,” says Aitchison. “It’s a very impersonal method of managing.”

The software used by Jobcentre Plus was installed about two years ago, but not every feature and function was initially deployed. As the new features were progressively rolled out, however, tempers started to boil over, culminating in the recent series of strikes.
“It’s not that it is bad technology, but the way that it is being used,” says Aitchison.

The same system is used elsewhere within the Department for Work and Pensions without provoking nearly the same level of hostility from staff, she says. “They don’t use the system in the same crude way and the management there is a bit more reasonable.”

The dispute exemplifies the ongoing tension between employees and management in contact centres. Staff want more freedom to work in their own way, while managers need to make sure they are working effectively towards the collective goals of the organisation and not wasting time.

But when managers and supervisors deploy every weapon that the latest contact centre software provides, the balance of power is tipped decisively in their favour.


Confessions of a call centre worker

Aisling Shanley is a part-time contact centre worker in the US, who documents her experience of working in this environment on the popular blog ‘Stories of a Call Centre’. She portrays a working culture dictated by constant monitoring and statistical measurement.

“We have weekly one-on-one sessions where they go over your ‘stats’ with you. They really do measure everything and if you don’t meet your KPIs [key performance indicators], you can get written up for it,” Shanley tells Information Age. “Absolutely everything you do is monitored and they will go over everything with you. When they listen to your calls – and you can be listened to at any time – you are graded on the call. If you get less than 85% on a call, then it’s classified as ‘poor quality’ and you could receive ‘corrective action’.”

The pace can be relentless, Shanley says. “There’s a little light and it can be either green or red, depending on how many calls there are. There’s times when you can go in at eight o’clock in the morning and from then until you sign off the light will be on, and it’s just call after call after call. It can be very draining, especially on days when everybody’s yelling at you.”

While staff have 30 seconds of ‘wrap time’ between calls, taking any longer will attract the attention of a supervisor and, potentially, a warning.

Too many missed KPIs, too many ‘poor quality’ graded calls and coming back seconds late from a scheduled break just a few times too often could all be grounds for dismissal, she says. As a result, the quality of employees’ working lives are very much in the hands of their supervisors. A good supervisor will apply judgement and allow staff some leeway, but many – perhaps fearful of their own jobs and keen to hold on to their position at all costs – will do everything rigidly by the book.

Customer service

It is precisely this culture that Niels Kjellerup, a senior partner with contact centre consultancy Resource International, has campaigned against for 25 years.

Kjellerup believes that targeting staff purely on quantitative metrics, such as average call times, misses the point – a contact centre ought to focus on customer service, and hence the quality of customer service is what staff should be trained and appraised on.

In a study ten years ago of 126 contact centres in the US, the European Union and Australia, he found that half had ceased operations and been disbanded within their first 18 months of operations. Key failings included poor people management skills by supervisors and the use of false benchmarks for assessing the performance of the contact centre and its staff. It is outcomes that count, Kjellerup says, not numbers in spreadsheets.

That lesson still has not been learnt, he adds. “About 25% of contact centres are really good, about 30% are very bad and the rest are in between,” says Kjellerup. “The idea behind the contact centre was to get a big room, have people handling millions of calls and let computers run it. But it basically
doesn’t work.”

The trouble is, he says, too often the customer is left out of the equation. Instead of focusing on computer-generated ‘call traffic measurements’, organisations ought to focus on ‘key value indicators’, says Kjellerup.

“What value do you create by talking to your customers? That is to say, value for you and your clients? When you start focusing on that, the contact centre starts to improve dramatically,” he says.

However, these metrics require an organisation to think more deeply about its purpose – to establish what its quality metrics ought to be and how it is going to properly measure them. But it can be done, says Kjellerup, pointing to the example of toy maker LEGO Group.

How LEGO gets it right

In 2004, LEGO Group was struggling and in danger of being snapped up by a private equity company or, even worse, by a rival.

It was turned around by a single-minded focus on customers and their needs led by the new CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. This single-minded focus on the customer is also reflected in the way in which its global contact centres are run today. Staff do not have scripts to follow, nor are they measured – on threat of dismissal – on average call handling times. “At the end of every call they ask, ‘Would you like to recommend us to your friends and family? Please give us a rating from zero to ten,’” says Kjellerup.

LEGO Group has four consumer contact centres around the world – one in Slough, UK, supporting Europe; one in Connecticut supporting the Americas; and two small centres in South Korea and Australia. Its centre in Slough employs multilingual staff across the whole of Europe and also supports contacts with consumers via its Facebook page. It doesn’t yet support web chat, but that may be coming soon.

“We get 1.5 million contacts from people every year, in about 15 or 16 different languages,” explains Sophie Patrikios, senior director of consumer services at LEGO Group.

“Because we also sell direct to the consumer, about one-third of them are people querying their order, one-third are from people who have lost a piece and one-third are ‘the unexpected’. That could be anything, such as someone getting married and wanting William and Kate LEGO mini-figures.”

The ethos of the company, says Patrikios, is that LEGO products are premium priced so when consumers buy a LEGO set they are paying for a high level of support too. Not only do the operatives at the contact centre know that it is their purpose to resolve problems for customers, but information is then fed back to the head office in Denmark so that any issues that emerge can subsequently be resolved at source.

“Anyone who is interested can ask for a report on what people are saying about a particular product range or how many complaints there have been about crumpled building instructions in a set,” says Patrikios. “There is a department whose job is to extract proper insight out of the data. We are pretty obsessive about ‘closing the loop’, and not just resolving the problem.”

In other words, the information gleaned from contact centre callers is considered valuable business intelligence and used to make the products better. Contact centre staff, therefore, know that they are a key component of the whole LEGO business. Patrikios believes that call centre management techniques commonly deployed elsewhere, such as call-time targets and rigid scripts, inevitably drive a certain kind of behaviour among operatives that is ultimately counter-productive.

That is not to say that Lego does not use technology to make the most of its call centres. The US and European call centres were bridged with a new telephony system a few years ago and now budgeting, forecasting and workforce planning are handled across two continents. While operatives in Slough do not routinely take US calls (and vice versa), on the night of Thanksgiving in the US, when contact centre calls often reach new records, many incoming calls are routed to the UK to help balance the load.

And staff performance at the LEGO Group contact centre is regularly assessed, but the emphasis is not entirely on the numbers, says Patrikios. “Advisers have individual quality scores, which are based on the quality ratings that their own callers give them, and that’s a big chunk of their potential bonus,” she explains.

“It’s true that we don’t put a number to the length of a phone call, but if we knew that someone was taking 15 minutes when everyone else was taking five, we would certainly pick up on that and try and work out whether there was a problem.”

One of the key components of LEGO Group’s approach is recruitment. “The LEGO brand values translate into a certain conversational style and that is fun, reliable, knowledgeable and engaging,” explains Patrikios. “We recruit people who are fun and engaging and we train them to be knowledgeable and reliable.”

Indeed, it only hires people who really want to work for the company. First of all, it conducts telephone interviews with applicants to assess their suitability. All contact centre staff must be able to speak at least two languages to ‘native’ level. It then invites the most suitable to Slough for a further interview. Candidates are assessed on their personality and whether they can deliver good service to consumers without a script. Written language is also tested so that email queries can be professionally responded to.

Perhaps not every company has the brand cachet to be able to pick and choose which contact centre staff they hire. But with employees dissatisfied and customers frustrated, the proposition that the metrics used to manage call centres need to be updated is one that few organisations can ignore.

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