In a recent survey by the London School of Economics, it was
revealed that more people are now employed in UK call centres than in
the coal, steel and car assembly industries combined, accounting for 1%
of the national workforce.
At a time when most UK businesses are cutting back or issuing
recruitment freezes, call centres are hiring with a vengeance. A good
example is Sitel’s call centre in the City of London, on Old Street. It
opened in 1997 to handle Norwich Union’s demutualisation with a staff of
250 and now employs 750 full-time telephone operators on four floors.
Its clients include Go, Scottish Amicable and Calortex.
Recent media coverage has painted call centres as modern-day sweatshops,
bursting at the seams with overworked, underpaid staff chained to their
desks by continuously beeping headsets.
To see if this was the case, we decided to visit a call centre and
thought the Old Street site was a reasonable place to start.
It is, in fact, quite calm and surprisingly quiet, considering the
number of people talking simultaneously on the phone. People don’t look
overly hassled and a good few of them are ambling around, in a very
unchained-to-the-desk sort of way. It’s also lively, especially on the
Go floor. Here 40 operators from Germany, Italy, Denmark and Portugal
(Go’s destinations) sit at terminals sporting flags from their
respective nations. It’s a colourful scene reminiscent of the Eurovision
Brendan Gray, the site general manager, is more than happy to indulge in
a spot of cultural stereotyping in assessing the working styles of his
Go team. After some thought, he concludes: ’The Italians tend to wave
their arms about, the Danes are a bit slower and the Germans are quick
and efficient.’ Presumably, the German operators always beat the English
staff at football, too.
Go has its own call centre at Stansted, so the purpose of this team is
to handle all calls from passengers in the airline’s destination
Stansted handles all calls originating in the UK.
All Sitel’s Go operators at Old Street are native speakers of their
language living in the UK. However, Go and Sitel want overseas
passengers to think that they are speaking to someone in their own
country, which can create problems.
’It may be that callers start talking about the fantastic weather in
Rome and it may be raining here, so operators need to have some local
knowledge,’ says Gray. Sitel gets round this by giving out newspapers
from the relevant countries every morning, allowing operators to gen up
on the local gossip before taking to the phone.
The strategy is paying off and the team is already handling 2000 calls
per day, taken over two shifts from 6am to midnight. Gray says he
expects the call volumes to double over the next three to four months,
including a busy Christmas holiday period.
Because Go is a ticketless, no-frills operation, the staff only have to
establish availability, take credit card details and assign passengers a
reference number, which allows them to maintain a high call turnover. Go
management, including chief executive Barbara Cassani, visit the site
regularly to check that everything’s running smoothly.
A Nobo board in the middle of the room reminds operators of the number
of completed calls and abandoned calls and their own handsets tell them
how many calls are waiting. This contrasts with the Big Brother school
of employee motivation employed by some call centres, where an
electronic display in the middle of the room tells operators how much
faster they should be working.
’We don’t want them rushing calls because they feel under pressure,’
says Gray. ’We rely on the managers to monitor the efficiency of the
floor - you can’t leave it up to the operator.’
With some clients demanding that their call centres at least meet or
exceed the industry average of 85% of calls answered in 20 seconds, it
is easy to see how stress could be a problem.
Although operators are free to walk away from their phone if they need a
break, there is no let up if they remain at their desks. For outbound
calls - such as credit control for Calortex - predictive dialling
technology constantly searches the database for live contacts and
connects an operator to them as soon as they have finished a call.
Clients getting jumpy about security can be another source of
A specially constructed glass vestibule at the exit of one floor is
designed as a ’frisking zone’ where operators can be prevented from
leaving with documentation that could be leaked to the press. This was
built for a client that was poised to merge with another financial
institution but wanted to keep its plans under wraps. The call centre
was staffed and prepared for when the announcement was made, but the
deal fell through.
But the commonest stress-inducer in any call centre is still an
unexpected barrage of calls. This happened when Norwich Union’s
demutualisation announcement went public quicker than Sitel expected,
after letters to the building society’s three million customers were
sent out too early. The call centre was flooded with 9000 calls in just
30 minutes. Sitel quickly put on an automated message telling customers
when they could expect a cheque, and the pressure was relieved.
At brown-trouser times like this, it’s easy to see how a call centre can
become a sweat shop. But as Gray says, traffic peaks and troughs are
part of the game - it just a question of being prepared for them.