Time for the Government to step in? The dark side of The Call Centre

The BBC’s fly-on-the-wall documentary has made a star of Neville Wilshire. But what about the people at the receiving end of his firm’s unsolicited calls

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Indy Politics

He likes to be called Big Nev and refers to his firm as “The Consumer Champion”. He is the 53-year-old star of the BBC3 fly-on-the-wall documentary The Call Centre and the latest episode confirmed him as a real-life David Brent.

But unlike Ricky Gervais’ famous fictional creation in The Office, Neville Wilshire is a huge success. The Swansea business he started in 2008 with just eight people now employs 700 and turnover topped £25m in 2012.

The five episodes being shown reveal a workplace full of zany antics and office fun. But behind the light-hearted façade lies a dark truth only hinted at during the show’s voiceover.

It referred to call centres as “the factories of our time… making the calls we dread”. Unsolicited calls are becoming a growing nuisance that led consumer group Which? to complain to the Government this week.

Big Nev’s workers make 1.5m of them every year, which works out at more than 2,000 calls per workers. As sales agent Jenni admitted in the first episode: “I’ve been told to f*** off loads of times. But you learn to develop a thick skin about it.”

With more than 1 million people estimated to work in outbound contact centres – those that cold-call people – the total number of unsolicited calls made in the UK this year could top two billion. In fact, according to contact centre industry analyst ContactBabel, there are 5,675 call centres in the UK employing 1,125,000 people. That means 3.99 per cent of all workers are now employed at call centres.

On Monday, Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: “Consumers are sick and tired of being bombarded with nuisance calls and texts. The current system is failing the public and given the scale of this problem, it’s time for the Government to step in. We urgently need to see a new approach, new laws and new technology to tackle this scourge on people’s lives.”

For vulnerable people, the calls can be much more than a nuisance. The worst problems are caused by so-called silent calls – with no way of knowing who’s making the calls, older people become fearful that crooks are calling to check whether they’re in.

Andrew Bale, chief executive of call-handling specialists Resilient Networks, says the problem lies with call centres that rely on predicted diallers. “There are three types of call centres,” he explains. “Inbound centres which are mainly used by big companies as customer-handling centres; outbound centres which are mainly used for marketing; and blended centres which do a mixture of inbound and outbound.” When workers in blended centres aren’t receiving calls, they’re expected to make them, so the computer is constantly dialling out so that if a worker becomes free, there’s a call waiting for them. It’s when a worker doesn’t become free in time that silent calls are made.

But it’s something that wouldn’t ever happen at Big Nev’s firm, according to senior staff. Commercial director Bhupinder Sidhu said: “It’s the offshore call centres that are responsible for most of the nuisance calls. We follow... strict Ofcom rules and even maintain a list of people who told us they don’t want to be called again.”

But it’s the nature of what Big Nev’s business makes most of its profits from that has also led to criticism for the firm. In 2012 profits soared almost fivefold from £1.3m in 2011 to £5.8m. The bulk of that was through the company’s PPI claims management business, known as We Claim U Gain, which accounted for £4.2m of 2012’s profits.

Last winter the charity Citizens Advice suggested predatory claims firms’ fees had taken £2bn from the pockets of people who have been mis-sold PPI. The Financial Services Ombudsman also criticised PPI claims firms for putting through spurious compensation claims while building societies reported that one in four claims were bogus.

“That’s not us,” says Big Nev’s operations director Ben Winchester. “We’re unique in the industry in that we send an adviser to people’s homes to go through potentially eligible claims.”

He also says the firm earns its fees: “Our specialism comes into place when we challenge rejections, and we have much higher success rates because we know the tactics the banks use.”

With an undercover reporter discovering this week that staff at a Lloyds PPI claims handling centre were told to presume that Lloyds’ salesmen had never mis-sold PPI and that most complainants would give up if rejected the first time, Big Nev’s operation does look like a consumer champion.

But it’s also worth bearing in mind that Big Nev pockets a mint for doing what he does. His salary last year, according to the latest accounts, was £193,670. On top of that he was paid a dividend of £566,695. According to ContactBabel, average call centre wages for a new agent are £16,061.

The victim’s story: ‘Phone are weapons used to sell us things we don’t want’

Martin Bostock has had it with nuisance calls. He has complained to his MP, to the police – in fact to everyone he can.

The exception, of course, is to the call centres which bombard millions of Britons with billions of unwanted calls every year. But people like Martin can’t complain to them as they don’t know who is behind the call.

“It’s ridiculous that privacy is given to the caller, not the receiver in Britain,” Martin says. “They have the right to make people’s lives a misery, while their victims seem to have no rights of redress.”

The 62-year-old consultant who lives in Coventry has joined a Which? consumer campaign to crackdown on nuisance calls.

“The phone has become a dangerous implement,” he says. “When it was expensive to make calls there was a barrier to its use. Now it’s so cheap the phone has become a weapon used by unscrupulous people trying to sell us things we don’t want.”

He claims vulnerable people have been left unprotected by a lack of regulation and the fact callers can hide behind anonymity.

However it’s not just a constant annoyance to Martin – who gets dozens of nuisance calls every week. He has also seen his 92-year-old father fleeced out of a good deal of his savings by a phone scam.

“A salesman rang him and persuaded him to sign up for a ‘land banking’ scheme,” Martin says. Land banking has now been outlawed but it involved selling areas of green belt land that were supposedly going to be granted planning permission and be worth millions.

Of course, the planning permission never materialised and, in some cases, the land wasn’t actually bought, leaving investors out of pocket.

“My father lost a four-figure sum,” says Martin. Now, like many other others, he has signed up to the Telephone Preference Service to avoid receiving nuisance calls.

But he adds: “It doesn’t work because only the good guys sign up to the code. It simply doesn’t stop unscrupulous firms from ignoring it.

“As far as I can tell the centre for this unsavoury cold-calling industry is Bangalore or the Philippines but I spoke to someone from a Birmingham call centre recently who laughed when I mentioned the TPS.”

Martin complained to West Midlands Police in January about a number of silent calls he had been receiving but got nowhere.

“They felt they were on difficult ground because I couldn’t be sure who was making the calls. But they had left me quite stressed and concerned,” he says.

“I’m an articulate Mr Angry, and I know how to do things, but if I can’t get things sorted, what hope is there for those vulnerable people who  get bombarded with nuisance calls? There  is a real human cost to this.”