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Wednesday, 21 February, 2001, 14:01 GMT
Call centre confidential
Call centres in the UK employ more than 400,000 people, but not everyone is happy with this booming sector. The TUC says the industry has won a "sweatshop image". Michael (not his real name) has worked in call centres for five years, first manning the phones, now as a manager. Are call centres really that bad?

Sweatshops. It's a nice metaphor. The work is difficult and to keep costs down you have to get through as many calls as possible. So you take call, after call, after call for seven hours or more.

That's where the sweatshop comparison comes in. You can get very tired at the end of a shift, uncomfortably tired.

I don't know if I've ever had death threats, but I have been threatened with violence

But you've got to remember that the working conditions aren't that bad and there's a strong union presence.

I don't think it's that call centres themselves are bad, it's the nature of the work. It can be very stressful - dealing with customers who aren't very happy.

I don't know if I've ever had death threats, but I have been threatened with violence by people who assume you are in the same city as them.

I get sworn at a lot. But you have to remember the abuse is usually in the heat of the moment, it's nothing personal, and the person wouldn't know you if they fell over you in the street.

Jack Straw, home secretary
"Even an affable customer can become riled"
It helps if you're quite laid back. You have to deal with things without feeling customers' comments are not a direct attack on you or your company - and, of course, lots of people are very loyal to their employer.

Some workers find they can deal with angry callers better than others. If you find it difficult, if you refuse to apologise for something that isn't your fault or the fault of your company, then a call centre isn't the place for you.

I wouldn't be surprised if it was amongst the most stressful jobs

The training says it's not a big thing to just apologise - though in the real world it's sometimes hard to remember that.

There are plenty of defusing techniques to change the course of a call. Apologies, for example. If you say 'sorry', that doesn't sound like you mean it.

Say 'I'm sorry I dropped a concrete block on your foot' then the apology is instantly more personal and appropriate. You've said what you're sorry for.

You can take calls all day and just have nice chats with people. It depends what sort of calls you're answering. If a caller has been denied credit or had a service cut off, they're going to be ready to shout.

Imelda Marcos and her shoe phone
"You wouldn't start a row because a shop hasn't got the shoes you want"
If you're just fielding product enquiries it's all going to be pleasant and amicable - just like you wouldn't go into a shop and start a row because they haven't got the shoes you want.

Of course, if you have a lot of calls and a queue develops, even someone who started out as an affable, reasonable customer can become riled.

Because they're often large operations, callers hardly ever speak to the same member of staff. They can even be transferred several times during a call. That's when people get frustrated with repeating themselves and feeling nothing is getting done.

It's not the sort of thing you could make a career out of

I'm not sure if it's a low-prestige job. Maybe it is, but it attracts people who don't want to commit to a career for a great length of time - hence the high turnover.

It's very repetitive work. You wouldn't want to go into a call centre and stay there all your working life. It's suited to students, mothers returning to work or those seeing out their time before they retire for good.

Though short breaks are worked into the daily pattern, talking to your colleagues is frowned on. You can't stop workers talking - you'd never keep them if you did - but it's not the sort of job where you can chat all day.

John Lennon
"It helps if you're quite laid back"
Some people come in, do the job and go home, barely talking to anybody apart from the customers.

There's been a lot of talk about acoustic shock [damage to hearing caused by sudden loud noises during phone calls]. Everyone's been made aware of it, but I've never heard of anyone suffering from it. I'm sure it exists.

The real problem is that companies only see call centres as a cost, not a source of revenue. In fact call centres are an increasingly important part of a company's brand.

I deal with my bank exclusively by phone. My image of it comes from how long it takes to get through and how helpful the person is when I do.

With that in mind, companies should spend as much as they can to make sure they have happy, productive call centre staff.

Are call centres 'sweatshops'? It's indoors work and there's no heavy lifting, which is always a good thing.

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