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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 10:07 GMT 11:07 UK
UK call centres seek new identity
The soap opera preferred by call centre managers above all others is apparently EastEnders.
They also choose Coca-Cola over Pepsi and use gifts such as chocolate and Budweiser to motivate their staff, a recent independent survey said.
Increasingly, companies - particularly in the financial services industry - are opening call centres in India to cut costs and keep centres open around the clock.
Staff in India are trained in all things British, including soap operas, presumably to reassure any bewildered Brits that find themselves on the phone to the sub-continent.
The latest company to try out India's workforce is the insurer Zurich Financial Services, which is running a pilot scheme in Bangalore.
Call centre 'churn'
Zurich acknowledges there are cost benefits, but attributes the move to high staff turnover and the difficulty in finding people to cover night and weekend shifts.
Call centres are notorious for their "churn" - the amount of people walking in and then out the door - and average staff turnover is about 32%.
"It's a real difficulty," says Tim Selleck, a call centre manager at Stormark, which carries out call-based research for other companies.
"You have people who are very stable, who have been here for nine, 10, or 11 years.
"But then we also take on staff who only stay a week, or two weeks."
Since call centres mushroomed throughout the UK in the 1990s, they have has been saddled with a poor image.
Inevitably, the horror stories of abusive callers, staff humiliation and Big Brother monitoring systems stick in the public memory.
"It's massively unfair," says Mr Selleck.
"On the whole, 90-95% of call centres are very professional organisations and pay very well.
"But there are still 5-10% who pack 'em in, stack 'em high and drive them hard."
Recent reports indicate that the majority of call centres are trying to change their image, as part of an effort to retain staff and keep them motivated.
"The UK has come a long way in the last couple of years," says Mike Havard, managing director of a consultancy called CMInsight and a standards advisory board member of the Call and Contact Centres Association (CCA).
Near Gatwick Airport, British Car Parks (BCP) runs a call centre employing about 80 people who sell pre-booked car parking, car hire and accommodation in airport hotels.
The call centre manager, Marcus Quilter, lays great emphasis on motivating his staff.
"I have day-to-day contact with my staff as much as is humanly possible.
"I like to be as consultative as possible, rather than dictatorial."
This philosophy sees staff organising their own breaks and providing input on how to run the centre.
Mark Watson, one of BCP's senior reservations advisor, who works on the phone and coaches colleagues, agrees that this improves morale.
"It's a good atmosphere and you don't have put your hand up to go to the loo," he says.
Industry under threat
But despite new trends, some statistics suggest that the growth in UK call centres is slowing down.
Recently, British Telecom cut 2,200 jobs as part of a reorganisation of its call centre operations.
ITV Digital's collapse late last month has put a further 900 jobs in Wales under threat.
At the same time, insurers - which have seen their finances badly hit by 11 September - are switching centres to India where operations can be 70% cheaper.
Royal Sun & Alliance, Bupa, Axa and Churchill have been among the first movers.
"The globalisation of the call centre is inevitable," says Mr Selleck.
"If you are open 24 hours a day it makes sense to have staff in India rather than paying overtime over here."
Is the grass greener?
And even Mr Quilter, with his progressive view of life in a call centre, says that late shifts remain unpopular.
He also admits that monotony, pressure and morale can create problems.
"The worse thing about my own job is... a lot of people unhappy with their circumstances, who think the grass is greener on the other side of the fence," he says.
It seems the single-minded moulding of call centre operators into bright, cheery professionals is good for business, but can also stifle individuality.
BCP's Mr Watson loves working as a member of a tight-knit team, but says "being on the phone for a long time doing something again and again can get mundane and a bit boring".
You could hardly blame call centre workers for wanting to break out.
Mr Watson admits his ambition is to be in EastEnders, before adding hastily, "as well as wanting to be a call manager of course".
CMInsight's Mr Havard agrees that call centres need to focus more on providing a high degree of motivation and job satisfaction in this repetitive environment.
By encouraging staff input and training, Mr Quilter believes he has kept turnover at BCP below the industry average - even if his agents still baulk at the late shift.
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