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Customer Interaction Solutions
October 2006 - Volume 25 / Number 5
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The Right Balance For The Call Center: Somewhere Between Prison
And An Encounter Group
By David Sims, TMCnet Contrubuting Editor

The following is an excerpt from David Sims’ TMCnet blog, “First Coffee,” which may be viewed at http://blog.tmcnet.com/telecom-crm. The British online recruitment site onrec.com recently offered a report on the two-phase effort of insurance intermediary Kwik-Fit Financial Services to “improve working life for its people.” This is commendable. Highly. Call center employees are frequently treated as so many interchangeable parts, rarely as people who want to do well at a job. And the first phase of Kwik-Fit’s efforts was great. Truly. This second phase is… well, I don’t know.

At many call centers, the employees feel almost like prisoners. Heck, sometimes they are prisoners — an Australian contact center newsletter (http://www.tmcnet.com/351.1) reported last year that prisoners “are to operate telephones for $35 a week at a call center inside a Sydney jail.” About 30 female inmates at the medium- security Dillwynia Correctional Center, according to the report, “will handle inquiries for government agencies within the next month before pitching for private sector campaigns in the future.”

The inmates reportedly “will soon begin marketing CSI products, such as recycled ink cartridges and refurbished furniture, to schools and businesses.” If they do well on that, they will be allowed to “take calls for government agencies, such as license renewal inquiries normally handled by the Roads and Traffic Authority.”

Also last year, First Coffee saw a report on female prisoners in Singapore working twelve hours a day in a call center as outsource fulfillment for telecom companies in Southeastern Asia. No comments on how much they were paid — or if they were paid.

Naturally prisoners, virtual or actual, are not the most highly motivated, productive employees one can have. However, it’s not difficult to imagine that absenteeism and turnover are not the problems among actual prisoners that they can be among the virtual variety.

Kwik-Fit does try harder than pretty much any contact center First Coffee has seen to keep their call center agents happy and motivated, and they have a 50 percent brilliant idea for doing so: Witness the “Making KFSS A Fantastic Place” program put in place last year.

According to News42 (www.tmcnet.com/352.1), Kwik-Fit Financial Services revamped its call center in Uddingston, eight miles east of Glasgow, after asking employees for suggestions — and receiving 6,550 of them. They spent millions of pounds putting in an IP telephone system, and added a few things not exactly commonplace in call centers.

Some are small things that don’t cost anything at all: Employees have mugs instead of cups. Some of the other things do cost, but really not a whole heck of a lot, like the nursery opened on the premises. And some things, if done right, shouldn’t cost at all, like the coffee franchise, Costa Coffee, opened in the call center restaurant. Some things just show you’re thinking of your employees: Kwik-Fit hired a concierge for employees, who for five pounds a month will help out with jobs such as picking up dry cleaning and going to the post office, and a “Minister of Fun” who organizes parties, football games and such for employees. The company devised a new pension scheme as well.

Some suggestions were quietly shelved, such as the proposed rooftop helicopter pad. Of course, one wonders which employee wishes to get to work via helicopter, and just what such an individual is doing working at a call center. News42 also reports that Kwik-Fit built a “chill out” room, “equipped with board games, vending machines, satellite TV, sofas, table football, games machines and two pool tables.” Not expensive stuff, but it lets employees know you put some thought into making their working conditions nice. You know, the old “it’s not about the money” idea.

Is it working? Over a two-year period, the company’s staff turnover dropped by 18 percent. Plug in your favorite horror numbers for how much employee turnover costs, pick the upper-end costs for pool tables and minimum-wage nursery help and the other amenities and see for yourself if the program’s been worth it or not.

But they don’t simply provide incentive for people to show up for work. Last year, 18 employees from the approximately 1,000-employee center won all-expense paid trips to New York, and the top earner won a car. There are about 100 professional skills courses employees can take courtesy of the center. Hundred-pound shopping vouchers, choice parking spaces and other incentives are handed out frequently for “outstanding quality results,” or simply to names pulled from a hat.

Following the success of that initiative is phase two, just announced: “Fantastic You.” First Coffee is frankly dubious over both the goals and idea behind this one, mainly because I can’t identify either. Described as “an innovative scheme designed to build relationships, increase confidence and trust and promote stronger team working within each of the departments of the business,” what the program does is sponsor retreats in a specially designed relaxation room within the Uddingston call center, and have “teams taking part in story telling workshops that encourage employees to share stories of positive experiences in their life,” according to onrec.com.

The first phase, the putting pool tables and decent coffee in call centers, awarding trips to New York, the best parking spaces to top performers, is great stuff. All for it. Sponsoring “retreats” to listen to each other talk, ummmm... the point being what, exactly?

I can see the overall idea. I can see where Kwik-Fit’s HR Director Keren Edwards is coming from when she says “We are dedicated to continuing on our journey of improvement.” I’m standing applauding when she notes that “we are already delighted to be offering our people a competitive package, from flexibenefits to a chill out club, the new onsite nursery to a Costa Coffee franchise — all ideas that came from phase one of our project.”

So far so good. A-plus. But the “Fantastic You” program is, well... it allows employees to “share experiences that have motivated or inspired them or shaped or changed their lives in some way,” according to Edwards, who professes herself “amazed by the trust and enthusiasm that each of the participants have paid to the program at this early stage.”

Maybe it’s because it’s a new program that we’re not seeing any ROI associated with it the way we do with an 18 percent drop in turnover after the first phase. It has admittedly just rolled out, but the problem is that there are no real ROI metrics possible. A red flag goes up when there’s no concrete (i.e., monetary) reason for “Why are we doing this?”

Take the first part of the project, making the call center a better place for human beings than a Singaporean or Australian prison. Good idea. Put in video games, have someone run your errands while you’re working, if you work hard you win a trip to the Big Apple, you can drop your kid off at the on-site nursery, name-out-of-a-hat prizes, great stuff — tied to a specific goal, reducing employee turnover, which is tied to a specific company profit metric, saving the cost of replacing and training new employees.

This improves business quality, improves employee loyalty and morale, which aren’t just nice things, but sensible hard-headed business decisions that go straight to the bottom line. As for getting groups together to describe how much they’d like to be on Pop Idol or talk about their greatest date ever, why not just build a pub on site and hire a couple of psychiatrists to sit and talk with whomever wants to talk?

A good call center employee will switch to Kwik-Fit for such amenities and stay, which is the whole point. Beyond that, I can’t see where on-site girl talk groups add anything to the bottom line. What highly desirable call center employees will stay for that when they won’t stay for the free nursery care and concierge, to the point where you need to offer sessions for people to tell each other how much they’d rather be producing movies or writing novels than working at a call center? I don’t think so.


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