The Toxic Call Center

The Toxic Call Centre

By Niels Kjellerup, Editor & Senior Partner of Resource International April 1999.

(The concept of the Toxic Company was described by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer , in a recent article in Fast Company Magasine.)

Unprecedented job growth..

Call Centers have created 5 Million new jobs in USA since 1990. In Australia the decision to lift the ban on import of advanced telephony equipment (September 96) has led to a yearly 25% Call Centre growth with politicians at both Federal and State level vying for attractive new jobs. Some 100,000 Australians are today employed in Call Centres. Similar figures come out of Europe with Great Britain and Ireland the frontrunners in the Call Centre race.

Defining the Toxic Service Call Centre.

A Toxic Call Centre is a place you work to make enough money, so you can leave. High staff turnover and sweat shop mentality are key symptoms whereas the underlying cause are best summed up as bad management practices.

The case study "Why Call Centres Fail" identifies the 3 main factors of call centre failure : 1) Lack of People Management Know How, 2) False or wrong Benchmarks for the call centre & 3) Technology viewed as senior to processes & adding value to the customer.

Specifically the worst run call centres are Call Factories, so named because the entire focus is on handling as many calls as possible in as short as time as possible without any regards for call outcome, i.e. how the customer was served. Key offenders are typically 1) Telco directory services , 2) Credit Card customer service, 3) Airline reservations (primarily in the USA, whereas the rest of the world tend to look at reservations as a revenue channel) & 4) Customer Help Desk ( Microsoft is standout with 5-7 layers of IVR with little or no regard for helping the customer). Generally speaking the Toxic Call Centre will employ multilevel IVR to keep the customer waiting and pretend Service Levels (percentage of calls answered within say 20 seconds) are good. Phone- Rage is a new term identified in customer Satisfaction research caused by the endless waits in IVR-queues.

Key characteristics are :

  1. Disregard for potential of staff. Use of terms like ‘agents’ to dehumanise people. Burn-out accepted as inevitable cost of a tough job. No or little training to improve communication & relationship skills of reps.
  2. Lack of strategic vision for the Call Centre and how it adds-value to the organisation paying the operational cost. Call factory measurements substitute for meaningful benchmarks which could help senior management relate to the value created in call outcomes.
  3. Management role is that of enforcement rather than coaching & skills development.
  4. New Technology viewed as the only way to improve productivity.

The future of the Toxic Call Centre.

Short term endless pressure for productivity improvements. Staff retaliates by bringing in unions and labour relations sour ( the modern day sweat shop concept is born) Impossible job to manage, resulting in high turn over of Managers depleting the little Call Centre Know How existing. Finally as Senior Management gives up trying to make sense of the escalating call centre costs the activity is outsourced.

Long term, no company or organisation can afford to distance themselves from their customers and Toxic Call Centres will be restructured with a new management team with a view to develop a Coaching Culture Call Centre where Call Outcomes are given priority and the customer contact is integrated with the rest of the organisations with measurement and benchmarks which clearly demonstrates the way improved customer interaction benefits the organisation. In terms of increased revenue, lower operational costs and better customer access resulting in significant lower sales and marketing costs.


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