As call centres further expand into everyday life, opportunities knock, writes Stephen Pritchard
Call centres have taken over many of the functions of the utilities' high street shops, and firms such as Direct Line and First Direct have changed the face of insurance and banking, even though they operate only over the phone. Call centres are a key part of the travel industry, handling car reservations, airline ticket sales, hotel bookings and train times. Call centres have even made their way into advertising. That Freephone number you called yesterday to order a car brochure or register for a special offer was almost certainly a call centre.

The call centre is a growing business, too. According to research company Datamonitor, the European call centre market is expanding by some 40 per cent annually. About 270,000 people work in call centres in Europe; almost half, 123,000, are in the UK.

Any industry with such a level of growth depends heavily on good management. Firms with call centres recognise this. Through their body, the Call Centre Managers Association (CCMA), they are introducing a management diploma in telecommunications. NVQs are also planned for operators, or "agents". The industry also hopes to recruit more graduates. Doing this will mean creating a career structure, but also raising the profile of call centres. Often, according to CCMA vice-chairman Alan Vaughan, people dismiss call centres as mundane, or associate them with cold-call telesales. "The call centre industry was never considered a profession," says Mr Vaughan. "They are the people who take phone calls."

Telesales can be part of a call centre's work but this is far from the true picture. According to Datamonitor, more than half of all call centre positions are "customer care". Across Europe, telesales and telemarketing account for just 26 per cent of agents employed. Many of those will be "inbound", dealing with orders or requests for information from advertising, rather than cold calling.

"Every blue-chip company has some form of call centre, whether it is pure selling, pure customer service, IT support or anything in between," says Mr Vaughan. "If you call your bank, you call a customer support operation. They can deal with anything from an inquiry on your bank balance to arranging a mortgage. If you phone an airline, they can sell you a Concorde ticket for tomorrow, or give you an arrival time."

Call centres are now important enough to feature on graduate training programmes. At Barclays Bank, the phone banking operation Barclaycall is one of the placements open to its graduates.

Louisa Millington spent a year working in a branch before moving to Barclaycall. She works in the business planning team, developing Barclaycall's strategy and targets. "I chose to come here because it was different, but also because it is fast growing and there is a lot of change," she says.

Much of the day-to-day work in a call centre is repetitive, and can be stressful: often, when a customer does call, it is because they have a problem. Call centres rely heavily on part-time labour; the industry is a large employer of students looking for ways to stretch their grants. Some choose to return when they graduate, and can quickly reach management positions.

This is the case for graduates with the Decisions Group, a firm that operates call centres on behalf of clients ranging from Microsoft to Sony. Clients use Decisions for hotlines to support direct-response TV campaigns, crisis management (such as product recalls), and technical support for computer software.

At least 25 per cent of Decisions' 400 staff have degrees, according to Simon Cattell, head of human resources. As a result, he can fill most graduate-level management positions, such as account executive, from the calling floor.

This was the route followed by Linda Smith, a 23-year-old business studies graduate, who now works as an account executive within Decisions' client services department.

"I was studying for my degree and worked here part-time," she says. "I was interested in the company and the growth of the industry."

Ms Smith's post is similar to an account executive in advertising or marketing. She assists an account manager with running clients' campaigns: interpreting the client's brief, turning it into a script for use on the calling floor, and following up the results. Ms Smith hopes her next step will be to account manager.

Mr Cattell accepts that working on the calling floor would not satisfy a graduate for more than a year. However, there are other, more technical functions within the call centre environment that might. One is software support. The Decisions Group handles European technical support calls for the Microsoft Network, the US software giant's Internet service. The work requires all the tact and patience of normal call centre operations, plus an extensive knowledge of MSN and computers.

Marlene Cooper has a degree in computing. Like Linda Smith, she worked part-time with Decisions, joining full-time after graduation. She worked on the calling floor handling a campaign for cable operator VideoTron, before moving to MSN.

The vagaries of Internet software mean calls can take five minutes, or an hour. The work can be challenging, but Ms Cooper finds the experience - and the exposure to blue-chip companies - very valuable. "Just saying I worked with the Microsoft Network has done my CV a lot of good." She hopes it will enable her, in time, to move to client services or consultancy. "It gives you the confidence to apply for the sort of jobs you don't get from a computing degree," she says.

Ambitious people working in call centres are well-placed to find out exactly how a business functions.

Once, the post room was said to be the way to the heart of a company, and even the board. If Michael J Fox had made The Secret of My Success in the 1990s, he might have joined the call centre, instead of taking round the mail