How to build a better call centre

Imagine a call centre filled with happy staff who leave every customer satisfied. For some companies it's already reality.

“Cancel. The. Account.”

In 2006, Vincent Ferrari called AOL to cancel his membership. It took him a very long and very strange 21 minutes to do it. In a surreal conversation with the customer service rep, Ferrari said the word “cancel” more than 20 times, and yet he was still spun in scripted circles. He was ignored, cajoled and pleaded with—the rep did almost everything, except actually fulfilling Ferrari’s request.“When I say, ‘Cancel the account,’ I don’t mean, ‘Figure out how to help me keep it,’” Ferrari said at one point, through gritted teeth. “I mean, ‘Cancel the account.’”

Afterward, Ferrari did what any disgruntled consumer in the 21st century would do. He uploaded the whole conversation to the web. It quickly went viral, prompting stories in The New York Times and an appearance on the Today show. It was a PR disaster for AOL, mere months after the company paid a $1.25-million fine for violating an agreement with the Federal Trade Commission regarding—yes—properly processing subscriber cancellation requests.

For many consumers, it was a prime example of what it’s like to deal with a call centre, reinforcing the stereotype of a sales or customer-service version of Henry Ford’s assembly line: low-skilled cubicle cattle housed in giant Orwellian workrooms, with a script or a supervisor, turning the simplest request into a maddening ordeal. It can make life truly unpleasant for the half hour or so you have to deal with such a call centre. Now imagine if you were on the other end and it was your job.

There are more than half a million Canadians working in over 14,000 call centres across the country. They are often the first and only line of communication between a company and its customers. And yet studies have shown that they are often the least valued employees in the building. They often suffer from both mental and physical health problems at a higher rate than workers in other industries as a result of their working conditions, which include operating under hard-nosed management practices and getting yelled at all day by irate customers.

It’s bad for the workers, but its arguably even worse for the companies that employ them, says Ron Burke, a professor at the Schulich School of Business. Unhappy, unhealthy employees increase human-resources costs—training a new employee costs more than $6,000, for example. And, as the AOL fiasco illustrated, they can do serious damage on the customer-service and branding fronts at a time when image and customer experience are becoming a great differentiator in the marketplace. “Too many companies are still focused on treating people in robotic ways, looking only at the bottom line,” says Burke. “That’s how you end up with all these problems, from health issues to high turnover. It’s a cliché about how bad some call centres are, but plenty of companies still don’t get it.”

Over the past decade, a great deal has been written about how happy, engaged employees perform better, are more productive and stick around longer. At Google, perks such as free lunches and the 20% rule (where workers spend 20% of their time on personal passion projects) have helped it recruit and retain enough top talent for the company to become a global force in just 10 years. And it’s not just tech giants—companies of all stripes have become more flexible, actively seeking to keep employees happy and engaged, whether through work-life balance initiatives or management strategies that encourage employee feedback, input and advancement. However, these ideas have barely trickled down to the call centre, where attrition rates can run as high as 75%. That will have to change. Companies that can’t and won’t recognize it are setting themselves up for a fall.

The modern call centre was arguably born in the 1970s, when automatic-call-distributor devices enabled companies to route incoming calls to a specific group of agents. By the late ’90s, call centres had become the main point of contact for the customers of airlines, insurance companies, banks and telecoms. Countries such as India and the Philippines became popular destinations for companies looking for cheap phone labour. But it wasn’t just overseas where call centres flourished. New Brunswick used its bilingual, educated workforce and robust telecom infrastructure, along with plenty of tax incentives, to become the call-centre capital of Canada. Nationally, annual growth of call centres outpaced overall economic expansion by more than four times from 1998 to 2006. During that time, call-centre revenues went from just over $424 million to almost $2.8 billion. To our south, more than five million Americans now work in contact or call centres.

Sales call centres may make money, but they also cost plenty in salary, training, benefits and operations. For many companies, the easiest way to find savings is to crack the whip. “If you’re competing on cost, like the Walmarts or Kmarts of the U.S., what you care about is average speed of answer, hold times and holding your agents feet to the fire and getting customers off the phone as quickly as possible,” says Kate Leggett, a senior business process analyst at research and advisory firm Forrester. “It’s all about efficiency and productivity.”

The traditional call centre may be efficient but, increasingly, companies are finding there are additional ways it can help a business and, consequently, the bottom line. Turns out, treating your employees like automatons will get you (and your customers) robots in return. Plenty of employers have recognized the economic benefit of a happier workforce, but it’s an attitude largely reserved for the upper echelons. Companies successfully competing for not only customer service and experience, but also for the talent that provides it, recognize the direct correlation between happy employees and happy customers. According to studies by the Hay Group and Towers Watson, engaged employees are 43% more productive, and companies with the highest percentage of engaged employees, on average, increase operating margins 3.64% and net profit margins by 2.06%.

Some companies eschew the stigmatized version of the call centre by having many of their call-centre employees work from home. Telus has eight traditional call centres but also 1,000 agents in its at-home-agent program. And all of U.S. airline JetBlue’s 1,800 reservation agents work from home. JetBlue spokesperson Allison Steinberg says, “Crew members are happier at home, which lends to friendlier people answering the phones, usually resulting in happier customers.”

Online U.S. shoe retailer Zappos is often held as the standard bearer for superior customer service and employee culture. Founded in 1999, the company went from US$1.6 million in sales in 2000 to US$1 billion in 2008. In 2009, it was the highest-ranking newcomer in Fortune magazine’s annual Best Companies to Work For list and later in the year was acquired by Amazon for more than US$1.2 billion.

Employee perks include free lunches, a library, nap room and paid health care. When Mullen, the company’s advertising agency, went looking for ideas back in 2010, it found the answer in Zappos’s call centre. The “Happy People Making People Happy” campaign featured audio from actual customer calls. “It’s a very fun environment,” says director of customer loyalty Rob Siefker. “I don’t think you hear that word associated with [call] centres very often.”

The 500 call-centre workers at Zappos’s Las Vegas headquarters get seven weeks of training on company culture and how to make customers happy. Every new employee, from finance to merchandising, spends time on the phone so they know what it’s like. After all that, new hires are offered $3,000 to quit (97% turn it down).

Siefker says that while time is an important metric, and the call centre does have efficiency goals, customer experience trumps all. The company record for the longest customer-service call is eight hours and 47 minutes. “It can’t just be a metric-based call centre where you’re just trying to squeeze every last ounce of work out of each employee,” he says. “Some companies think it’s too expensive, that it’s a low-skill job and they don’t see it as an invaluable part of their business. I just don’t get it.”

Another oft-awarded company in both customer service and employee satisfaction is WestJet. The airline’s reputation has helped it expand significantly over the past decade, and a big part of that is how it values the more than 700 employees in its four call centres. “They are the CEO of a guest’s experience,” says Stephen Platt, WestJet’s director of call centres and guest experience. “We talk about performance and productivity, but we rarely talk about those things in isolation. Certainly, how many calls you get through is part of it, but at the end of the day it’s about the experience you provided while doing that.”

All this may sound like plain common sense or corporate Pollyannaism, but it’s harder than it looks. Platt says that it’s easier for WestJet to maintain its culture because it’s been part of the relatively young company since it was founded in 1996. “It’s much more difficult to change an existing environment,” he says.

George Currie has worked in both sales and IT customer service at Rogers Communications (which owns Canadian Business) for more than 11 years. “Every day I knew there were going to be at least a couple people who would call up and yell at me that day,” he says. “It’s not personal. You just happen to be the one they’re taking their frustration out on. It can become a personal attack verbally, but you have to realize they’re just upset at Rogers and the problem, and you try to spin that into the most sincere apology and promise to do anything you can to assist them.”

Currie now works in sales at a new, small-scale experimental call centre Rogers set up in Kitchener, Ont. Two years ago, the company established the call centre to test not only new sales techniques but also management strategy—things like emphasizing team results in compensation and measurement over the traditional individual approach that often breeds an overly competitive and stressful boiler room atmosphere. The results have been strong sales numbers and almost zero attrition, while the centre has grown from a staff of 30 to almost 70.

Last year, the company surveyed a portion of its call-centre staff on health and wellness with the help of Scienta Health and found many suffered from headaches, obesity and other preventable problems. Because of the unrelenting pressure to process more calls, employees were cutting down on water consumption (and hence, bathroom breaks), and stress and lack of time were leading to unhealthy food choices.

As a result, the company launched an initiative at the centre with Scienta that offered advice, healthy food and online health-monitoring tools like pedometers, as well as team health challenges, to help encourage a change. The reception was so encouraging that soon it was rolled out to a larger call centre in Ottawa. After a year, senior vice-president Paul Nielsen says it’s had an incredible effect on employee health, job satisfaction and performance. “Our sales performance has gone up incredibly, and while that’s due to a number of factors, this certainly was a major contributor,” he says. The program is now being considered for all of Rogers’ 6,000 customer-service employees.

In the U.S., where the cost of medical insurance is a major expense for employers, large companies are also seeing the bottom-line benefits of investment in employees’ health and well-being. In researching for his upcoming book on fulfilling work, Schulich’s Burke found that Johnson & Johnson saw at least a $4 return on every dollar it spent on employee wellness initiatives in terms of lower health-care costs, less absenteeism and higher productivity. “Financially, it just makes great sense,” says Burke. “There’s also the halo affect of becoming an employer of choice.”

Another way progressive employers are making life easier for their call-centre workers is by investing in technology that can improve the experience of both the call-centre worker and the consumer. Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting, says that the best way to keep costs down in a people-heavy organization like a call centre is through effective use of workforce technology software, which can help quickly identify a customer’s needs and deliver the call to the right agent. Some programs use speech analytics to capture phone conversations, converting them into data that can be used to create more accurate profiles of both customers and agents. “Obviously you have to pay attention to productivity, but if used properly, you can find that balance with better-quality conversations and more satisfied staff,” says Fluss. “As organizations increasingly understand how critical a role the initial customer experience [through a call centre] plays in retention, they’re starting to rethink some of the ways their using their contact centres.”

As with any corporate culture shift, uplifting the overall quality of the call-centre experience will take time. The average MBA program has 20 or so courses, and perhaps two or three broach the subject. “You’ve got statistics, accounting, management science, operational research, but you’re not talking about humans,” says Burke.

For companies pondering just how to invest in a call centre and its employees, Zappos’s Siefker says they just have to answer one question. “What kind of relationship do I want with my customer?”