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Is your call really important to us?

26 October 08 16:49 GMT

By Kevin Peachey
Consumer affairs reporter, BBC News

Are there any more annoying phrases in the English language than "your call is important to us", or "we are experiencing particularly high call volumes"?

But our lives have been transformed by call centres - allowing us to book our holidays, organise our financial affairs and check train times from the comfort of our homes.

So what is going on when our call is on hold and who are the staff we rely on to give us the correct information when we finally get through?

It may be a surprise to hear that they are people such as Julie Hicks, who used to manage a book shop, or mother-of-four Colleen Jackson.

"I come to work to maintain my sanity," says Colleen, 37, who has worked in a call centre for nearly five years.

Chit-chat

Given that they have transformed customer services, what is it about call centres that is so infuriating?

The over-familiar, American-style chit-chat used by some call centre staff irritates customers around the world, according to a report by Oxford University academic Kristina Hultgren.

Using first names and engaging in small talk could backfire instead of putting callers at their ease, she says. Call handlers are sometimes told not to use "negative-sounding" phrases, but this can lead to confusion.

She also argues that female staff tend to connect better with customers than their male colleagues.

This assumes that people can get through to speak to anybody at all - and that depends on staffing levels.

People power

Andrew Smart, director of call centre outsourcing company Virtual Sales Team, says that treating staff like robots is of no use to customers.

"Traditional call centre staff are incredibly annoying because they read off a script and are not allowed to use their brains in conversations with customers," he says.

It has also led to an image problem for the prospect of working in a call centre.

This prompted Call Centre Focus magazine to launch a programme to raise standards in the industry.

This month, it announced the results of a poll of 50 of the UK's leading call centres, with 20,000 mystery shopper calls testing the sector on timeliness, ease of use, reliability, staff knowledge and personalised service. Each was then given a percentage customer service rating.

"We are finally able to communicate that far from being 21st-Century sweatshops, barely worth a second thought, call centres should be recognised as performing a vital function and performing it well," says Claudia Hathway, Call Centre Focus editor.

Direct success

Top marks in the exercise went to HSBC's internet bank First Direct, with a customer service score of close to 92%. It finished ahead of Denplan and F&C Investments.

It employs 3,400 call centre staff at sites in Leeds and Hamilton. In West Yorkshire, staff sit at one end of a vast, purpose-built building with the look of an airport hangar.

Groups sit in two lines, each with a customised noticeboard at one end displaying team names such as "Bowman's Arrows" or "Worldwide Websters".

There is a sense of the schoolyard about the room. Staff sometimes fling soft balls at each other during a 15-minute break - or "buzz session". Games based around the success of calls, such as "sales Scrabble" are ongoing.

Customer services director Jason Sharpe drops phrases such as "sprinkle the magic" into team talks and refers to his staff as "colleagues".

It is easy to be cynical, but there is an element of Disney about the place - you have to embrace the fun to see it at its best.

The staff certainly seem to be having a good time. Recruitment often follows recommendations from friends already working there.

"I am a woman. I'm on the phone all day and I get paid to do it," says Colleen Jackson who, as a mum, was attracted by the flexible hours.

Pay can reach £17,165 a year for a 36-hour week, but Ms Jackson says she redecorated her entire bathroom with vouchers handed out as bonuses for alerting sales staff to customers needing other financial products.

"I never feel like a machine," agrees Julie Hicks, who has worked at First Direct for seven years.

First impressions

However chirpy they might be on the phone, customers' impressions are formed by how quickly their call is answered.

The target - clearly displayed on screens around the room - is for calls to be answered in person within 20 seconds of dialling.

But Jason Sharpe explains that while staff are expected to deal with 10 customers an hour, there is no script and no pressure to end calls as quickly as possible.

Staff are given eight weeks of training, then have key facts at their disposal.

It is clear that they like to talk. Listening in to one call, a conversation breaks out about children after the caller's toddler bangs her head on a cupboard door.

You almost forget that he was calling about his bank account.

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