Telephone call centres come of age

Selling down the line will benefit the regions, says Paul Gosling
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The Independent Online
One in 20 UK workers, about one million people, will be employed in telephone call centres by the turn of the century. While some of these will be new jobs, most will replace bank clerks and insurance agents currently based in the high street. These traditional centres are of declining importance for the financial services sector.

The Incomes Data Services (IDS) survey, which predicted the continued growth in call centres, also found that most of the jobs generated by them will be in the regions, where companies can take advantage of lower rates of pay. Scotland, Northern Ireland and the North East and North West of England have all benefited from call centres.

There will, though, be specialist call centres in London, to take advantage of the capital's greater pool of multi-lingual workers. Many US corporations are using Britain as a base for pan-European call centre operations, and often require bi-lingual staff.

Virgin One, the new banking service, typifies the type of product that is dependent on call centre employment. It will be supported by staff operating from the Norwich offices of Virgin Direct, the financial services division of Virgin, where 250 people are already employed on call centres, and where a further 80 people are being recruited to support Virgin One.

"When we first launched we ran one call centre; now we have split into three," explains Jayne-Anne Gadhia, operations director of Virgin Direct. "One is based on customer understanding, giving a new business perspective. Another call centre we call "customer forever", which is our service centre. There is a difference in the training and skills involved to deal with those who have never spoken to us before, and who need to know about our products - that happens with "customers forever". The third call centre is based around individual products.

"It means that we can grow according to our customers' needs, recognising that staff at each call centre need to be skilled, but can pass customers between different centres if necessary."

The IDS survey found that most of the jobs in call centres are fairly low-paid, typically offering anything between pounds 9,500 and pounds 11,500 per annum. This is not true with Virgin Direct, however, which is targeting high performers, and where each new recruit has to undergo a six-week training programme.

"All our salaries are top quartile," says Ms Gadhia. "We reward people for demonstrating skills and for passing exams, and everyone gets an annual bonus. Eighty per cent of people in our office are graduates. Everybody has to sit product and compliance tests, so it is good to have people with a background in studying. We are not trying to recruit people from the financial services industry, because we don't believe you can teach old dogs to do new tricks."

Another growing call centre is Charles Schwab Europe, previously known as ShareLink, which is a telephone share brokerage run from Birmingham. The company claims to now account for one in 10 share dealings on the London Stock Exchange, and has expanded massively with the building society conversions.

To cope with its big increase in activity, Schwab has co-operated with Birmingham's Training and Enterprise Council to ensure that there is a local pool of skilled people available to be taken on. The TEC says that while it is important to attract new call centres, it is also essential to ensure that there are enough people available to meet the new employers' needs.

Much of the growth in the call centre market has come from the financial services sector, which is moving to telephone-based accounts, led by First Direct, which has the country's largest call centre in Leeds. But other sectors also use call centres - such as computer hardware and software suppliers that rely on them for ongoing customer support.

Matrixx Marketing, part of the Cincinnati Bell telephone group, has established its European call centre in Newcastle, offering an outsourced service to other companies. Customers include Procter & Gamble, Renault and American Express. The company's operations have grown substantially over the last two years - it now has 200 staff - and it expects to increase still further. At times of peak demand, for example after a peak-time television advertisement, overflow calls can be transferred to other Matrixx call centres around the world, including in the US.

Staff of differing backgrounds are employed by Matrixx, according to the specific needs of each customer. "We consider what knowledge we need for these types of call, what skills and what qualities we need, and what we are prepared to train people in," explains Pat McMann, training manager at Matrixx. "We will consider the nature of the in-bound and out-bound calls, some of which are more sales-focused, while others deal with customer care."

The IDS report found that most call centre staff are young women, with the centres based in the major metropolitan centres. It also found that there was little chance of promotion, and that, as a result, there was a high level of employee turnover, though it was common for companies to poach staff from other call centres.

Call centres are, added the authors, the new white-collar factories, with workers operating in lines akin to the old factory floor. But there are signs that employees may actually enjoy this rigid structure.

Both BT and Scottish Widows have tried to break away from this mould of centralised call centre. Both have established "virtual call centres" that enabled women to answer calls from home, linked to a central phone centre and a single contact number. However, each has found the experiment unsatisfactory. Scottish Widows says that most staff wanted to benefit from the company of other people in an office, rather than work on their own from home.