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Virgin's fruitful line of enquiry

A call centre is helping to repair the tattered reputation of the train company, writes Roger Trapp
Call centres might have become important sources of new jobs. But along the way they have also been demonised as "sweatshops", "modern dark, Satanic mills" and worse. The reason, says John Seddon, a consultant and author, is that they are designed and managed on mass-production principles.

In recent years Mr Seddon has seen significant improvements in the way call centres operate, and he is convinced that "systems thinking" is the way forward. This has less to do with information technology than looking at issues as a whole. In the case of a call centre, it means analysing the operation from the point of view of the customer rather than of the manager running it.

With "astounding" results from businesses as varied as banks and computer companies to draw on, Mr Seddon is organising a conference on "transforming call-centre operations" in Buckingham in September. One of the examples that will feature at this event is the Virgin TrainLine.

Virgin's trains business is not everybody's idea of a success story. In many people's eyes, it is the venture that has brought Richard Branson down to earth with a bigger bump than his ill-fated balloon trips.

Alan Meekings is vice-president of Gemini Consulting; he has been helping to run the telephone ticket-sales operation for Virgin since his firm's parent company, Cap Gemini, was awarded the contract to operate it. He claims that this part of the Virgin trains business has seen spectacular progress in recent months.

"We inherited a terrible service," says Mr Meekings, arguing that it was not uncommon for callers to be faced with half-hour delays and that the centre struggled to organise rotas so it could operate from early in the morning to late at night.

One of the driving forces behind Virgin's award of the call-centre contract to Cap Gemini was the company's need to increase the number of rail passengers substantially before the introduction of its new fleet of trains. Such is the cost of these trains that there has to be a ready market of regular users in advance of their arrival to make the project economically viable.

A key approach to achieving the required quadrupling of revenues was to offer deeply discounted fares. But Mr Meekings, an expert in using systems thinking to come up with more effective measures of business performance, realised that he and his colleagues also had to change the way in which the call centre operated, which is why he called in Mr Seddon.

An occupational psychologist by training who has written numerous books and guides on systems thinking, including I Want You to Cheat, Mr Seddon believes that many of the problems with call centres stem from organisations' lack of understanding of how people are motivated.

"When I first saw call centres, I thought they would go away because they are so dumb. But they have grown," he says, accepting that the challenge now is not to replace them but to make them work better.

One of the features of call centres that has played an important part in attracting negative publicity is the tendency for managers to behave in a traditional command-and-control fashion - fixating on an issue such as call duration.

This creates a tendency to praise workers if they hit targets and berate them if they miss them, whereas the approach refined by Mr Meekings would indicate that over a period of time the same employees might miss targets about as often as they hit them.

This, in turn, would suggest that there was a systemic problem over which the operators had no control. Not surprisingly, this can have a demoralising effect on individuals.

One way in which employees deal with this is to cheat. They can, for example, cut off callers in mid-conversation in order to hit call-duration targets.

The better way, says Mr Seddon, is to analyse much more closely what is really going on. This way, for instance, managers might discover that a high proportion of their calls are those that Mr Meekings describes as those he does not want.

By this he means that they result from some previous failure by the centre, such as sending out the wrong tickets or giving the wrong information.

Accordingly, while Mr Meekings says the two Scottish centres that now make up Virgin TrainLine have become the busiest train call centres in Britain, he and Mr Seddon have created a tighter focus on effectiveness.

And key to this, they say, are three ground rules: involving people in decisions about "how the work works"; putting a management team in place that can deal with these issues; and introducing measures that are based on the business's purpose - not even to sell tickets but to solve rail travellers' problems - rather than just its activity.

However, managers are not easily schooled in systems thinking. "You have to go through a process that takes a systems view, so that people start to discover for themselves the factors impeding progress," Mr Meekings explains.