Call center performance worsens

(This is a post that I’d drafted in July 2008 but never published — the job I’d interviewed for was the contract I eventually got last year. I have no idea why I never published this, as it was esssentially finished. Rather than slipping it in unseen into the July 2008 posts — or deleting it — I thought I’d go ahead and publish it now.)

Had another job interview yesterday. While I was waiting, I read the June 23, 2008, copy of ComputerWorld in the lobby. It was actually a pretty good issue. (Too bad ComputerWorld subscriptions are so expensive for Canadians — I’d read a physical copy of it on the bus or while waiting for an appointment, but I never manage to find the time to go check it out online.)

One of the articles in this issue caught my attention.

Call center performance worsens

This was a short article, presumably taken from the blog post linked to above, offering statistics to show that call center performance has been declining over time.

“Look at these numbers: agent attrition rate is 27%, nearly double 1997; agent absentee rate more than doubled to 11%; but it’s easier to call in sick when your supervisor is faking it, too, as their absentee rate last year doubled to 4% from 2%.

Compounding those problems are fewer full-time agents, now just 73% of the workforce, down from 87% ten years ago. And outsourcing obviously hasn’t helped matters, which skyrocketed 220% since 1997.”

That’s very true. Third party call centers are horrible, soul-sucking, extremely high stress places to work. Contradictory SLAs make it impossible to provide really good customer service and still meet the centers’ talk times and other metrics. The emphasis of the third party call center on being cost effective and meeting SLAs over everything else means that you frequently get sent home part way through your shift during slow times, which means that you don’t get a full week’s pay that week — they may pay more than working the fry vat at McDonald’s but “involuntary go homes” can easily put your annual earnings below that of a full-time, minmum wage job. Absenteeism rises because sometimes you need a mental health day to stave off a nervous breakdown or to keep you from “going postal” — the inability to schedule time off when you need it doesn’t help. Insecurity about your job in general (will we lose our contract to another call center or offshore outsourcing?) adds to the stress. It shouldn’t be a surprise that many agents are in a hurry to find another job. The call center I worked at was full of former IT executives, graphic designers, scientists, and other professionals hit by mass layoffs and employment downturns. And there are always more people like that desperate for work who can take their places so the companies have no need to invest in retention efforts, improve working conditions, or increase employee morale across the board.

“Grant Sainsbury, practice director for Dimension Data, acknowledges, “Absolutely, the performance over the ten years has fallen off.” But he argues that the call center environment has changed during the intervening decade.

The primary change, of course, has been the rise of the Internet. Sainsbury suggests that it has made consumers better informed, thus making their queries more complex since they can solve the more piddling issues on their own.”

I’d say that depends on the type of call center. For the contract I was working, only a small fraction of the people calling in were of the “better informed” variety. Most of the calls were for piddling but time-consuming issues from people with either little Internet/computer experience or just enough knowledge to make them a danger to themselves. The fact that performance has fallen off is definitely a call center management issue. If call centers really wanted to improve the overall management issues, they would hire as managers people who had actually worked in the pits…and who’ve actually called call centers as a user. If you’ve never worked on the front lines at a call center and have never called one yourself, you have no business running one.