Call centres are in danger of becoming the 'dark satanic mills' of the 21st Century as the industry gains a reputation for sweatshop practices and assembly-line methods. Centres already exist where staff sit in tiny pens with high screens around them or in assembly-line rows, says Simon Roncoroni, European managing director of SITEL Consulting, the call centre specialist. A report by the Merchants Group in 1997 said a survey of 106 centres showed that morale was low, stress levels high, and absenteeism 5% compared with the national figure of 3.5%.
Early in their development, call centres became a victim of their own success with response often outstripping projections, says Sue Dives, principal consultant with The Oxford Group, the training organisation.
'High stress levels were caused by the sheer volume of calls, wrongly forecasted levels of success, and the heavy pressure on achieving targets,' she says.
The call centre industry is expanding rapidly. It employs about 125,000 people and this is predicted to rise to five million in the next three years. Recent research by Incomes Data Services into pay and conditions in call centres shows that their rapid growth has led to rising pay settlements, intense competition for staff and high levels of turnover - between 11% and 25% annually - all attributed to competition between centres and the intensity of work. The speed of the growth in the call centre industry has meant effective management strategies are often left behind. Centres that don't invest in training and development are bound to suffer from high rates of absenteeism and poor performance, says the Institute of Personnel and Development.
Jim Parle, business personnel manager at Halifax Direct, which has 800 staff, agrees that stress is a symptom of poor management but argues that call centres are no different to any other working environment.
'Of course there are pressures when an operation is based on bottom-line cost figures, but it's important to balance the customer's needs with appropriate working practices. You have to start from a premise that no one works a seven-hour day, and allow time for breaks, feedback, team meetings and training,' he says.
In the past, the industry deserved its reputation as a high-stress area but the mood and the environment are changing, says Phil Harris, sales director of the CallCentric consultancy. 'Until recently, call centres were driven by productivity and keeping the cost as low as possible,' he says. 'Activities were largely functionalised so that people got bored or felt they were being driven to achieve numbers. The focus on productivity is giving way to a realisation that it costs a lot to win new customers, so staff must become more highly valued because they maintain a relationship with existing customers.' Far removed from the assembly-line image, Autobar, a catering wholesaler which handles 6,000 calls a day, encourages a 'fun' environment for its call-centre teams, with cartoons on the walls and comic team identities such as the Sharks and the Bears.
Harris forecasts that it will take five years for call centres to be perceived as career opportunities rather than short-term jobs at low wages. Some organisations are already introducing NVQs and job gradings so that staff can see that there is a career ladder.
Call centre work varies enormously, ranging from telesales and marketing to technical assistance and emergency response. Before setting up a call centre, companies should be certain they have the capability and have their projections right. If not, they should contract out the work to a specialist.
And go for a call centre with cartoons on the walls rather than battery pens on the floor.