But though information technology has been blamed for making call centres what they are, it seems technology also has the power to turn that image round. Thanks to developments in what is known as "computer telephony integration" (CTI), managers have an opportunity to make the centres better places in which to work as well as more efficient.
According to NICE Systems, an Israeli company, up to 60 per cent of the costs of call centres are attributable to people. Given that staff turnover rates run at similar percentages in some centres, this statistic isn't surprising.
NICE, which started out in 1986 supplying intelligent systems for government organisations, has concentrated for the past two years on helping large corporations and financial institutions to tackle quality management problems.
Recently, however, it realised there was an important market beyond the large organisations traditionally associated with call centres. Research from Datamonitor shows that in 1997 more than a third of the total of 3,560 call centres employed between 11 and 30 agents. Even though the market is consolidating, it is predicted that next year 39 per cent of the expected 5,050 call centres will employ between 11 and 30 people dealing with customers.
Consequently, Benny Levin, chairman and chief executive, recently announced that the company was targeting the small to medium-sized market with a new software product. This enables call centres to report on and evaluate the performance of staff.
The system behind NiceUniverse LIVE revolves around a piece of software that enables a computer to record and evaluate a telephone conversation between a call centre employee and a customer. It builds on the company's experience as a pro-vider of equipment for recording calls made by dealers on trading floors in London, New York and other financial centres.
Linking phones to computers in this way might appear to be adding to the Big Brother atmosphere often associated with call centres. But Arieh Shemesh, NICE's UK managing director, rejects this idea, saying employees are "very happy with the system". Not only does it enable organisations to direct training but it means supervisors have a better appreciation of what employees do when handling calls, he says.
"Before, nobody knew what everyone was doing," he adds, suggesting that this lack of information contributed to the concentration on such basic mea- sures as the numbers of calls handled per hour.
This is one of the biggest criticisms of call centres - that they emphasise quantity rather than quality. That staff might be judged on the amount of calls they get through is seen as a cause of stress and can be at odds with an organisation's aim of providing a better service.
The trouble is that it is generally much easier to measure the number of calls than to assess the sort of service an employee provides. In fact, the demands of dealing with callers within the time periods stipulated by certain organisations can increase the number of calls - for the simple reason that the original call does not adequately deal with the inquiry. By having an accurate picture of calls as they happen, managers can respond either by dealing with the underlying problem or by introducing training that is specific to an individual employee's difficulties.
The appeal of the service is demonstrated by the fact that the London borough of Lewi-sham has just become one of the latest customers of NICE. With a call centre receiving 300,000 inquiries a year, Jeremy Precieux, the customer services manager, feels the system is particularly beneficial in helping it improve quality. Managers can us the information gleaned to tackle problems in dealing with calls and set training priorities accordingly.
He sees another advantage in reducing the staff turnover rates for which call centres have become notorious. "Employees feel more valued if they are given training," he says.
It seems to be good news for NICE as well. Earlier this month it reported record quarterly revenues, net income and earnings per share, putting it well on course to exceed last year's sales of $100m.