The UK leads Europe in the telephone revolution. Neil Taylor, head
of marketing for BT’s CiB call centres, calculates that across Europe
there are 600,000 call-centre seats, of which 250,000 are
But are we talking quantity rather than quality? Have companies grasped
the idea that the telephone enables them to give a better service and
not just a cheaper one?
Teleperformance, the French-based bureau network with 70 call centres in
26 countries, hands out annual awards based on an international mystery
shopping survey it conducts into call-handling standards. The UK, it
claims, performs little better than average in the international
rankings. It trails well behind the US and Canada and a number of
continental countries, including Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and
The survey is a major undertaking, although Teleperformance is the first
to admit its limitations. Twenty mystery-shopper calls are made to each
of at least 100 companies in 21 countries worldwide. Results are
assessed according to ten criteria, including speed of response, warmth
of the greeting, product knowledge and overall efficiency.
This year, 54,000 calls were made to more than 2000 firms.
’We don’t try to pretend it is totally scientific,’ says Neil Perring,
joint managing director of BPS Teleperformance, the group’s UK arm. ’As
the basis for the awards, it’s intended to have significance, but also
to be a bit of fun. Because of the cost, it’s just not possible to
include everyone. On the other hand, having 100 call centres as our UK
sample takes in all the really significant ones.’
The UK results show financial services performing best. Richard
Branson’s PEPs-to-pensions operation, Virgin Direct, was the UK winner,
followed by telephone bank First Direct and car brand Audi. Travel and
consumer goods - two sectors where a quarter of all calls went
unanswered - performed worst and pulled down the UK average (see table,
It is widely acknowledged that international comparisons are tricky.
Some experts suggest that you would expect the smaller continental
countries with high living standards and smaller call centres to provide
a better service than the UK.
James Wilkinson, vice-president of telemarketing consultancy TSC Europe,
has an intriguing alternative suggestion: the UK led the way with
telemarketing in Europe and has now entered a more mature second phase
ahead of other countries.
’Everyone starts off with very good standards, but then they have to
justify the cost of maintaining that level, and you find that standards
slip slightly,’ he says. ’However, you have to balance that against
customer perceptions. People quickly notice if it takes longer to pick
up calls and if the operators don’t seem to be as well trained and
informed as they were previously.’
Controlling standards is difficult enough at the best of times, but how
do you manage it when you run call centres in several different
American Express took the international prize in this year’s
Teleperformance awards. Jim Hobby is head of the company’s European
customer service centres, including its ten call centres. He answers
this question by pointing to Amex’s mission statement: to be the world’s
most respected service brand.
That aim is carried through to every level of the organisation, Hobby
claims. The company believes that satisfied staff mean satisfied
customers, and ultimately satisfied shareholders.
Satisfaction scores are regularly monitored, as are service levels. ’We
use a balanced score-card approach, covering both productivity and
quality,’ says Hobby. ’For the call centres specifically, that means
traditional measures such as answering within 20 seconds and reducing
the numbers of lost calls. But all my call centres are set the same
service targets; I see no reason to differentiate between them.’
The Teleperformance survey suggests that financial services are setting
the pace in the UK and may have something to teach other industries. The
truth is, although the sector reflects some best practices, it also
reflects some of the worst.
Leading the way
BT will soon be publishing a major piece of research carried out on its
behalf by the Futures Foundation, looking at the use of telemarketing in
’It is absolutely true that there is greater penetration in the
financial services sector than anywhere else,’ says BT’s Taylor.
’As many as 80% of companies in the sector claim to offer some services
on the telephone. It’s estimated that financial services account for 26%
of all telebusiness, making them the biggest by far.’
But Taylor is sceptical about overall standards, away from some of the
high-profile examples such as Virgin Direct, First Direct and Direct
Line - all of which had a revolutionary vision when they were first
Financial services, he argues, lend themselves to being sold over the
phone. However, the companies were pushed down that route, some of them
unwillingly, because of a combination of deregulation and the impact on
their businesses of pioneering phone-based banking and insurance
services such as First Direct.
Look at the high-street banks, for example. TSC Europe claims that banks
now receive more phone calls than visits to their branches. In many
cases they have coped with this by diverting calls to regional call
Customers believe they are speaking to their local branch but they are
In theory, this shouldn’t matter if the right systems are in place.
However, TSC’s Wilkinson says it is a transitional mode; the regional
call-centre staff are trained to handle particular queries very well,
but lack the flexibility of local counter staff. The study by the
Futures Foundation suggests that among people who have contacted their
banks by telephone, only 16% consider the service excellent.
’We found that there is a clear recognition in financial services that
they need to improve customer services over the telephone,’ says BT’s
Taylor. ’They know they have to do better, and their willingness to
recognise the problem is probably higher than in any other sector.
’However, they tend to think they’ll do this through the use of more
advanced equipment, or by encouraging more e-mail and internet
In short, they’re looking to new technology as a panacea.
’But it is no good getting an efficient front end to your business if
the processes that support it are archaic. All that does is further
reduce customer satisfaction. There is nothing worse than unfulfilled
Wanda Goldwag, Air Miles’ director of sales and relationship management,
agrees that technology does not solve everything. Telemarketing is
central to running one of the country’s best-known loyalty schemes, and
the company has a large call centre at its Crawley headquarters with 920
Air Miles is a particularly complex operation. Telephone staff need to
be able to switch from confirming how many Air Miles a customer has
collected to consulting airline timetables. They also tap into British
Airways’ database to confirm availability of flights and make
Last year things began to go horribly wrong. The general surge in use of
the phone, which has made telemarketing one of the UK’s most dynamic
industries, was compounded in Air Miles’ case by its own rapid
Delays in responding to calls rapidly reached unacceptable levels.
The company will be opening a call centre in Warrington in October,
initially with 200 staff and expanding to 800. Partly in an attempt to
take pressure off Crawley, a web site was launched in November
(www.airmiles.co.uk). Collectors can use it to check their totals and
look at flight availability.
Speeding the process
Goldwag says: ’We’re now getting several hundred hits a day. What
happens at the moment is that people visiting the web site do quite a
lot of work themselves. It’s likely that they will still want to speak
to someone, but by the time they do they are more sure of what they
want, so the calls are shorter. But I don’t think web sites will replace
call centres for some time.’
Perring, at BPS Teleperformance, says that one of the clear trends to
emerge from his company’s annual bout of mystery shopping is the growing
use of technology to channel calls - if you want accounts press 1, if
you want the systems department press 2, and so on. Used properly, it
saves everyone’s time, but it can be a source of frustration if
customers are unsure which department they want.
’Looking back over ten years, I’d say that overall call-centre standards
are higher,’ says Perring. ’But the number of really excellent companies
is still roughly the same. And an odd feature seems to be that, with
very few exceptions, companies seem to go through cycles of
’The reason is that it is almost impossible to maintain excellence for
ever. In bureaus it is not such a problem; after two or three years
staff have generally been promoted or have left. But in in-house call
centres it is quite possible to find people who have been doing the same
job for ten years, and in time that could become 20 or 30.
’How do you keep staff motivated and fresh over that length of time?
It’s not easy. All I can say is, hats off to companies like First Direct
who put lots of emphasis on training and, broadly speaking, seem to be
able to pull it off.’
Virgin Direct’s call centre in Norwich must be one of the few in the UK
to have been ’feng shui-ed’, to provide a harmonious environment for its
Needless to say, that is not the sole explanation for how it came to be
voted top UK call centre in this year’s Teleperformance international
’There is always a Virgin way of doing things,’ says marketing manager
Gordon Maw. ’It is always about trying to find a different way, and
adding value for customers in a manner they can’t get anywhere
Being one of the first companies to offer a cheap-to-administer tracking
fund PEP, which shadows the FTSE index, was one reason for its early
Another was the decision to staff the call centre with salaried
operators who do not receive bonuses or commission and are under no
pressure to sell hard.
’Buying financial services on the high street can be an intimidating
experience,’ says Maw. ’You are at a disadvantage: you’re on their
premises and they have the expertise.
’We believe that the telephone puts the customer in charge; they can
always put the phone down. What we’re all about is making it a
’We’re not scripted and stale; we want to come across as friendly and
personal. We want a relationship.’
A GROWTH BUSINESS
Telemarketing overtook direct mail in 1995 as the biggest element in the
UK direct-marketing industry, according to a recent comprehensive review
of the sector, The Telebusiness Report.
UK expenditure on telemarketing now exceeds pounds 1.2bn - a figure
which is expected to double by 2005, although by then the rate of
expansion will be slowing.
The number of call centres in Europe quadrupled between 1994 and 1997,
reaching more than 36,000 last year. This compares with more than 90,000
in the US.
The report suggests that in two years the number of call-centre seats in
the UK will have risen from around 250,000 to 500,000. This will
maintain the UK’s 20% share of the European market.
Technology will also continue to advance. Speech recognition is tipped
as one of the key developments.
Computer telephony integration is forecast to bring big advances in
productivity, with the majority of call centres expecting to adopt it in
some form over the next two years.
The Telebusiness Report is published by Haymarket Management Reports,
priced pounds 450. For further information contact Morice Snell-Mendoza
(tel 0171 413 4412, fax 0171 413 4138), or visit the web site at
Teleperformance mystery shopper test How UK call centres perform
Sector Total Answered Overall Overall Total
calls (%) attitude efficiency marks
attempted (%) (%) (%)
Financial services 312 86.9 70.0 71.0 64.6
Other services 302 92.7 65.5 70.0 62.9
Automotive 346 80.3 65.5 65.0 11.98
Mail order 125 96.0 63.5 55.0 11.93
Insurance 337 84.6 66.5 57.5 11.58
Retail 109 91.7 60.5 50.0 11.53
High-tech 204 84.8 61.0 62.0 11.44
Travel 301 75.4 42.5 54.5 9.91
Consumer goods 194 72.7 42.0 45.5 8.44
Total 2230 84.1 60.5 59.5 11.36