Employment Bright Spots: The Call Centre Industry

Bill Bennett

Updated · Mar 11, 2002

Although the antipodean call centre industry has seen some high profile closures in the last year it remains more buoyant than you might expect. Late last year the Australian subsidiary of recruitment giant TMP Worldwide picked call centres as the third hottest jobs market for 2002 – it's a long way in front of IT.

Estimates vary, but Australia's call centre industry is probably worth around $2 billion a year and, depending on which figures you accept, employs anywhere up 240,000 people in more than 4,000 call centres. New Zealand's industry is roughly a quarter the size. In the two countries the industry employs more than 2.2 % of the total working population. A study by the University of Western Sydney found call centre employment grew by some 15% last year.

Recent surveys elsewhere in Australia and New Zealand show that call centre employers still experience difficulties recruiting staff. It's not clear whether the hundreds of call centre people laid off by Ansett will all be quickly absorbed by the industry, but it appears the reasons for any delay will be more to do with geographic factors than economics – the laid off staff might not live where the vacancies are.

Nevertheless while there will no doubt be individual pain, the big picture prospects are not that bad. A July 2001 survey carried out in New Zealand by Lampenalectus Recruitment (another subsidiary of TMP Worldwide) found that 70 % of that country's call centres experience trouble recruiting call center staff.

In a press release Lampenalectus Recruitment TMP Worldwide general manager Jane Kennelly said, “This can be attributed to a range of factors such as high level attrition, call centre culture, misconception of the industry itself and a general lack of recognition of the industry.”

These factors get right to the core of the industry's problems. I'm not going to pull punches here: the bottom line is that on the whole people work in call centres because they have to, not because they want to. If skilled call centre workers can get out and work elsewhere – they tend to get out at the earliest opportunity. Not many people aspire to work in the call centre industry.

To its credit the call centre industry has done much to turn phone answering into a career path. In the early days of the industry most call centre jobs were low-paid, low-added value functional positions in, what even industry insiders admit was something of a sweatshop culture.

One reason call centre operators frequently located their businesses in areas of high unemployment is because it suited their needs to hire workers with few alternative career options. In many cases the early call centres required few skills beyond punching a few keys and being able to talk coherently.

Hellhole call centres still exist in Australia and New Zealand, but for the most part the low value work has been moved offshore.

Last week I rang a major financial institution and had my phone answered by someone who called himself ‘Bruce'. He used plenty of fair dinkum idioms, and while the guy tried hard with his Crocodile Dundee impersonation he had a distinct Indian accent. During the call I asked him if he was located in Australia. He smoothly evaded my question but wanted to talk about the weather in Sydney – which was a dead giveaway that he wasn't located in the city.

Economic nationalists might get aerated about low-value call centre jobs being outsourced to third world countries but my main complaint about overseas call centre operators is that it can be really hard to have meaningful conversations with foreigners. Sometimes it is a struggle to either understand what the other person is saying or to make oneself understood. In other cases, you might find yourself discussion something where the person on the other end of the line clearly has no comprehension of the subject matter in question. Employers might save a few quid locating offshore, but ultimately the practice harms their business.

In recent years the trend has been for call centres to morph into more general communications operations or even relationship management centres. There is less cold sales calling and more troubleshooting. Employees are frequently given more discretion and more autonomy. Somewhere in the mix is some CRM software. Often call centre staff give callers their name and return calls are routed back to the original operator so a rapport may build. This is a lot more sophisticated than simply reading prepared scripts.

These changes mean that call centre owners can no longer live with the high attrition rates. Historically call centres have had horrific employee churn rates. In the past it was not unusual for a call centre to turnover 100% of its employees in a year. Nowadays the turnover is nearer to 20% — for call centres located away from major metropolitan areas the churn would be considerably lower.

Three strategies are used to reduce call centre staff churn. First, centre operators are building better workplaces. Comfortable workstations, decent rest areas and pleasant working environments help – some of the early centres were distinctly Dickensean.

At the same time, there's been a trend towards easing work pressure. Call centre workers are still closely monitored – which can be stressful, but employers are learning how to do this in a less obnoxious way. You still hear stories of workplaces where toilet breaks are timed or rationed – but it is getting better. OneTel's famous wandering masseurs may be history, but in general workplaces are more pleasant. And anyway, employers who don't wise up in the staff relations department are the ones who can't keep good staff.

Second, call centre salaries have been rising ahead of general salaries for most of the past decade. Hourly paid workers can earn well over $20 an hour. It's not unusual to find call senior centre staff earning good salaries – though big IT industry-style packages are extremely rare. Significantly, call centre salaries held steady during 2001. This might not sound particularly exciting, but according to recruitment specialist Robert Walters, salaries for IT workers dropped by up to 25 % during the same period.

Finally, call centre managers are waking up to the idea that people want a career with career progression. This also means training. Working in a call centre might not be your dream job, but for people wanting to get a foothold in the knowledge economy, it can be a good start.

Reprinted from australia.internet.com.

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