If you're interested, watch out for a job as a telephone sales operator. There will be plenty on offer, particularly in the financial services industry. A recent report from Datamonitor predicted that by 2001, there will be more than 250,000 call centre agents in the UK, with a quarter of these in tele-insurance and tele-banking. This growth is part of the good news of the computer revolution in this sector, resulting in job creation rather than loss.
The name of the game is customer care, and the attractions of the job should be interpreted as "know thy client". The only catch is a geographical one.
For example, the founding father of telephone insurance in the UK, Direct Line, has its main call centre in Glasgow. The reason is the company seeks employees with Scottish accents. As Adrian Webb explains, when your contact with the customer depends solely on a few brief minutes down a telephone line, every aspect of that experience must be attended to.
"People respond to a voice," he says. "We just have too many people who say, "I spoke to a lovely lady with a Scottish accent", for us to ignore it.' Call the Croydon branch and your call will be automatically routed to the seductive tones north of the border.
The attention being paid to the customer is being worked up into a virtual science - a sort of semiotics of the call centre. Every sign, symbol and sound is subject to analysis. For example, the population is broken down into its attitude towards telephones. Forty-seven per cent of us are telephiles. Sixteen per cent are telephobes. (Fifteen per cent are "functionists" - they "just do it and say goodbye".)
One company involved in selling the technology is the directly named Customer Care Company, or C3 for short. (That venerable insurance companies should employ consultancies with names like this indicates the culture shock these developments represent). Their programme is called Continuous Relation Management and the arguments are persuasive. For example, 73 per cent of people agree that tele-business relieves the pressure on life in the late 1990s. However, 68 per cent of people strongly agree that they "would prefer not to do business again if possible" with a service provider who handles calls badly.
The real driver, though, is economic. Running a call centre, as opposed to a branch network, is cheap. Within its first year, 20 per cent of Sun Alliance's new investments came from its direct business. Remarkably, this was achieved with a staff of only 25.
Not that the internal politics of the call centre has been such good news. Many insurers secretly acknowledge that going direct has result in a clash between intermediary and direct sales forces. Both are competing for the same customers, and the wise purchaser might shop using both delivery channels.
This raises another sensitive issue - that of quota systems. It has been suggested that with some insurers, estimates given are subject to the volume of telesales in that day, or week. Again, customers beware.
The future of direct services lies with the Internet, of course, but it is early days for this channel. The most advanced Web sites will provide quotations over the Net, though only within certain parameters. More can call, post or e-mail an inquirer, having received their details online. A good Web directory for finding these services is MoneyWorld (http://www.moneyworld.co.uk), although Danny Bowers, the site manager, admits that you may not be tasting a true Internet service yet. "The application form from the Internet may be fed into the call centre system," he says. "Some of the big players are doing the calculations by hand.'
The killer application would be the one every customer desires - the one-stop form that goes off and pulls back all the quotes available in the market. But this would require insurers to part with the pearl of great price - underwriting information. Whether they are prepared to bend this far towards the customer remains to be seen.Reuse content