Views on the growth in Australian Call Centres.

Article by Niels Kjellerup Editor & Senior Partner of Resource International. June 26th 1999.

Economic Rationalism got it right.
Before September 1996 the Australian Call Centre industry was small and dominated by a selected few industries- telecommunications, credit cards, airlines and car-hire & taxi companies. As part of trade liberalisations the Howard Government removed import restrictions on Telecommunication Equipment. This rule had been established to protect local producers of such equipment, and required that any imports must have a 40% local content. According to sources in Canberra this rule had been implemented in the 60's to protect Telecom Australia and its preferred suppliers ( NEC, Ericsson, Nortel to name a few) and to create and protect Australian jobs. Australia then had maybe 800 call centres with possibly 10,000 employees. The technology was really Stone Age dominated by one major vendor Telstra. I have succeeded in locating two call centres with imported ACDs at that time, Qantas Reservation and Silvertop Taxi's in Melbourne.

The trade liberalisation resulted in the arrival of major independent vendors Lucent Technology, Genesys, Aspect, IBM & HP all interested in developing the dormant Call Centre Market. By mid 1997 the large US Outsource Call Centre companies began buying up existing Telemarketing & Call Centre service agencies and today we have SITEL, Excel, Omnicom & The Index Group. Add to that list of 100's of smaller software and CTI vendors who arrived less noticed. Since 1996 the number of Call Centres have exploded from an estimated 800 to 5-6000 sites and employment has grown from probably 10,000 to closer to 100,000.

All because Senator Alston succeeded in removing a trade barrier? We're some, who are happy, then Minister for Industry John Moore didn't railroad that proposal (as he did with the import tariffs on cars). 

Other relevant drivers of the call centre boom.

At the same time politically on all levels of Government a sustained push to provide better service levels at lower cost dominated the agenda with some remarkable results. The Agency ( now known as Centreline), the ATO Customer Service Centres, The Brisbane City Council Call Centre are some of noteworthy initiatives. State sponsored Call Centre Development Offices was set up to attract call centres. Best known are the efforts of the SA & Tasmanian Local Government. Local councils got in on the act- Bendigo, Wollongong, Gold Coast & Hunter Valley were noticeable.

The de-regulation of the Energy sector with everyone hurrying to secure the loyalty of customers, saw customer service centres mushroom.

Inside the Call Centre Industry Simon Kriss deserves credit for establishing the Call Centre Managers Association  in 1997 as a competitor to the Australian Telemarketing Association. The ATA economically dominated by its large sponsor Telstra had never succeeded in attracting more than 2-300 paying members. Using his own funds to finance the CCMA , it attracted several hundred members within 12 months. More importantly it revigorated the ATA to change its name to The Australian Teleservices Ass, it hired Robert Allen (from ATUG) as the new general manager and reached out to embrace the Call Centre Industry. For the first time research was undertaken to provide vital information to decision makers. ( Done by CEASA research in collaboration with the ATA amongst its members). Other research was undertaken by Hallis to quantify salary and remuneration levels inside the industry (click here). The most important research into the Industry was the TARP 1997 Teleservice Benchmarking Studies.

Long way to go.

The Bad news is that the TARP research established that Australian Call Centres were the worst in the World to measure Customer Satisfaction , so it seems fairly safe to assume that the prime motive for establishing Call Centres was to cut cost and not to improve Customer access. The danger lurks that great many call centres are headed towards the Galley Slave model with a toxic workplace and staff turnover rates of over 30%, like in the UK.

The good news is that my own research has identified two World Class call centres both located in Brisbane. The Brisbane City Council Call Centre (read the case study here) and the Qantas Sales Centre; both the centres are outstanding in producing desirable call outcomes and have virtually No staff turnover.

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