Call centers are most common mean by which the Organizations can reach out to their customers and this explains their rapid growth. Many projects have been focused on call centers in order to explain their management and performance from different perspective. In this project, I have attempted to identify the two main perspectives and to explore the effective use of performance management systems found in a call centre to improve the performance of a call agents. This project was conducted in a sit-up ltd based in west Acton London, while I was working as a contact centre 1st line manager and as a customer services Team leader,. The project involved semi-structured interviews with thirty call agents and three IT employees. The analysis of the data was based on the management techniques and performance of a call centre agents on daily basis . Information systems present were standard and up to date which could also be found in any call centre and the working condition is a common issue found in most literature. Hence the highlight of this project is on the fact that there is still the need for human interaction with information systems. We have focused on that issue that The people aspect of the call centre is been ignored, hence organizations are producing burnt out employees which in long terms could have a diverse effect on the organization despite the implementation of up to date and functional information systems.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT Firstly, I want to express my profound gratitude to the one and only Almighty God Who in His infinite mercies blessed me with this opportunity of undergoing learning at work partnership programme , M.A Computer and Business studies. Thank you all for your guidance throughout the academic year. Words are not enough to express my feelings . I want to specially thank and dedicate this project to my parents.. I want to thank Dr. Howard cowte, who taught me to believe in myself and in my work because he never let me off with a poor argument. Thank you again. Finally, I want to thank all my friends for their words of encouragement, support and friendship. Specially when I was going through hard times with my health.
The CALL CENTRES. INTRODUCTION:
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Call centers are part of out daily life today as ATMs, self-service supermarkets and internet shopping (ebay). All of which are “new age” service delivery systems that the customer at large has had to accept and live with (Mahesh and Kasturi, 2006). Call centres are being used by many organizations in a wider contexts, hence the variations in their operations range from strategic purpose to the nature of technology used and finally to management style and priorities (Taylor and Bain, 2001). According to Calvert (2001), he observed that based on the several researches done on call centres, about 95% of call centres are reported to supply information to customers and about 74% process complaints. Hence it can be concluded that the 3 main drivers for call centres indentified are
- Improve customer services to retain their client’s base.
- Gain new customers and after sales service.
- Reduce cost as compare to face to face clients and also to improve efficiency.
A call centre in general, is regarded as an interface between customers and an organization’s system (Information Systems and performance systems), in order to complete a well specified transaction such as generate sales; provide solutions to existing clients or advice on quite complex and technical issues like broadband support for their internet clients . Over the years, the advancement of IT, product and process knowledge as well as customer information are set into the system which has helped to reduce cost of training. This has therefore ensured core-service modules to be standardized; customized and at the same time has enabled the front line staff or call agents to concentrate on the customer and their interaction (Frenkel et al, 1998). Therefore, the purpose of this project is to explore the work environment of the call agent with respect to performance management systems, customer services and information systems. Highlighting the challenges they are constantly faced with, when executing their duties. Project was done while observing the performance and management in many departments of sit-up ltd,
RESEARCH FOCUS This project was focused to explore the effective use of performance management systems in a call centre of sit-up ltd. The main questions this project seeks to investigate are daily tasks and targets:
- What are the working conditions in today’s call centres and the call agents are subjected to?
- How do performance management systems affect the call centre working environment from the call agents? perspective?
- How does the work environment affect the agent emotionally?
THE AIMS AND OBJECTIVES. The main aims and objectives for this project include:
- Identify the state-of-the-art performance management system in the call centre used in the organisation under study. This would enable us to understand the level of advancement of information systems in the organisation.
- Investigate the use of performance management systems in a call centre.
- Explore and determine the extent to how performance management system affects the working conditions of the call agent both in terms of the peroformance and improvements . In highlighting the issues and challenges the call agents encounter, it would provide an insight of the job description of a call agent from the call agents? perspective.
This project also intends to bring more awareness to management regarding the issues and challenges the call agents are constantly faced with. A good knowledge of this would enable them effectively identify and address any form of resistance that may arise from the call agents. This could be done by offering adequate training and support in the use of the performance management systems. As well as improving communication with the call agents which could affect the work environment, making it more conducive. This in turn enhances better performance from the call agents and also for the management to reduce cost in hiring new agents on the floor and continuous monitoring from management and HR point of view.
This project was based on learning at work method where many employees were observed and different management techniques were applied in order to improve their daily performance. This approach was found appropriate because it is concerned with understanding performance management systems from the social context, the social processes by which it was developed and construed by people and finally how it influences and is influenced by its social settings. Many employees were interviewed while generating data and statistics as call centres always have high level of absences and sicknesses. This was an easy approach to obtain information from number of employees and departments. Answers to complex questions and sensitive information which the respondents might be reluctant to give.
This project is structured into many chapters in order to spread the information in easy and understandable way as outlined below:
This chapter is an introduction of the project highlighting the research area with a presentation of the aims and objectives of the research.
This chapter is a critical review of existing literature on call centre. It also discusses different theories and perspectives relating to the call centre. It also discusses the use of performance management systems within the context of this project.
Theory and Research Methodology
This chapter discusses the theory chosen for the analysis of the case, research approach and the rationale behind the methods chosen for this research. It also highlighted the research design.
This chapter presents the case study, the findings from the semi-structured interviews conducted in the organization using the chosen theory as the conceptual lens for the discussion.
Conclusion This chapter is an evaluation of the research findings with a reflection on its implications for practice. It also suggests some recommendations for future research.
This chapter has provided an introduction of call centre, identifying the focus area. It also stated the aims and objectives of this project as well as the research approach. It also presented a brief outline of the structure of the project.
This chapter presents a critical review of existing literature on call centres. It discusses different theories and perspectives found in literature. This chapter also discusses the different uses of management techniques in a call centre in terms of management and the call agents.
Call centre operations have become a norm in all sectors of the economy such as retailing, telecommunication, the entertainment industry (Taylor et al, 2002). They are a rapidly growing channel for service and sales delivery particularly in the financial service and telecommunication industry. These centres enable retail customers to transact business by telephone either using programmed information technology such as automatic voice response systems or through employees manipulating software to assist in answering queries resolving problems or selling products (Frenkel et al, 1998). Hence, growing number of organizations use call centres as a means of communicating with their customers directly (De Ruyter and Wetzels, 2000); managing customer complaints and maintaining customer loyalty (Pontes and O?Brien, 2000). However, despite the rapid emergence of technological innovations that have been developed to change and enhance the business processes in organisations, the call centre is still basically defined by the integration of the telephone and computer technologies (Taylor and Bain, 1999). In more details, the definition of a call centre is a dedicated operation in which computer utilizing employees receive inbound or make outbound telephone calls. These calls made or received are controlled by an Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) or a predictive dialling system. In other words, a call centre is therefore characterized by the integration of the telephone and Voice Response Units (VDU) technologies using recorded messages; Inter-active Voice Recognition (IVR) which enables customers interact with the information systems via telephone keys and speech recognition systems which enables a two-way communication between the computer and the customer using synthetic speech messages (Schalk and Van Rijckevorsel, 2007). A key feature of the call centre labour process is the integration of the telephone and the VDU technologies. Central to inbound operations is the ACD system which receives the incoming calls and automatically channels them to the available agents according to programmed instructions hence removing the need for the switchboard operators. In the case where there is no available agent to receive the call, the calls are stacked and distributed in sequence as the agents become available. Although the system can only stack a certain number of calls after which it automatically drops the calls. The agents take the calls automatically through the headset and their main assignment is to resolve the basic problems of a customer. On the other hand, for the outbound operations, it is largely based on telesales or telemarketing. The predictive dialling system works its way through the databases of their customer phone numbers and as programmed automatically dials the number of the customer as selected by the agent. At this point all the information of the customer is retrieved and displayed on the screen so as enable the agent have well informed communication. Their main job function is selling and advertising a particular product or service (Fernie and Metcalf, 1997). The common and defining call centre labour process is the ability for the operators to scan and interpret information on the VDU screens, manipulate their keyboards, retrieve data and at the same time communicate with the customer. Therefore, it is the integration of the telephone and computer technologies which both structures the labour process. This process also generates extreme levels of surveillance, monitoring and speed up which are manifest in a call centre. Recent technological developments are sought to minimize the wasteful manual operations and maximize the real time agents spend with customers hence this both speeds up and intensifies the work as the time gaps between calls are progressively reduced (Schalk and Van Rijckevorsel, 2007). In the author?s opinion, despite all these advancements in technologies, there is still the aspect of the human interaction. Employees? performance data as an instance which is either electronically displayed or in hard prints still requires human interpretation. Managers and team leaders based on the results can then take appropriate actions such as discipline or coach an underperforming agent. Hence it can be said that a call centre is a combination of technology driven measurements and human supervisors to interpret these results.
CALL CENTRES AND THEORIES.
In literature, there are two main theories seen to be dominant in the discussion of call centres:
- Foucauldian electronic panopticon which has been based on the labour process theory (Fernie and Metcalf, 1997). This is based on the preoccupation of an individual?s subjectivity which has masked the importance of a collective, trade unions organization which is a more developed form of resistance. This attempts to provide insight into the complexity of work organization and the way it is experienced by the call agents.
- Emotional labour which is based on the emotional labour theory (Hochschild, 1983). This requires an individual to induce or suppress their feelings in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others. This provides insight and better understanding of how call agents in most cases have to define their outer expression so as to “smile down the phone”.
These two theories further are explained in the chapter three.
PERSPECIVES OF CALL CENTRES
Literature has generally presented two distinct perspectives of call centres. First of all, there is the perspective presented by publicists who have portrayed exciting images of a call centre. It portrays a high level of co-operative teamwork among the employees, the call agents? work under very relaxed conditions and very professional in their interactions with their customers. The agents are said to “smile down the phone” after conversing with each customer (Taylor and Bain, 1999).
However, there is the other perspective presented by Fernie and Metcalf (1998) that portrays the call centre based on the Bentham?s panopticon. It emphasizes the constraining nature of work setting described as the electronic sweatshop or panoptical wired cage (Frenkel, 1998). Based on this view, employees are connected to information technology that automatically allocates work, facilitates its completion and monitors employee performance. In other words, work is conducted in relative isolation from other colleagues but under the constant gaze of management who are responsible for structuring and interpreting the electronic information. Work can therefore be regarded as deskilled and monotonous. They claim that the constant surveillance of the supervisors on the agents has enabled them have total control over the agents which eliminates any form of resistance from the call agents. Hence call centres have been referred to as “dark satanic mills” or new sweatshops. However, it is worth noting that their perspective was not based from a range of studies carried out on call centres but rather it was primarily based on payment systems of which they studied a call centre.
CALL CENTRES AND INFORMATION SYSTEMS
One main indication of call centres is in most cases defined in terms of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) they make use of rather than by any specific outputs they create (Frenkel et al, 1998; Taylor and Bain, 1999). Systems such as the Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) that places inbound calls in a queue and allocates them to the agents, speech recognition systems as well as screen capture are example of systems found in a call centre. But information systems has also increased the control and surveillance of calls (which could either be inbound or outbound), the agent that?s handles the call and virtually every activity they perform on real time basis (Robinson and Clive, 2006). Hence it is argued that technology found in call centres constitutes a version of technical control. According to Callaghan and Thompson (2001), technology tends to control speed through ensuring that call agents are aware of queue numbers and average waiting times. In such instances, managerial control is seen to be evident through the use of such technologies and could at the same time produce employee resistance. However, ICT has the potential to create skilled and enabled workforce (Fernie et al, 1998, and Kinnie et al, 2000). In such a situation, the improved employee independence may be resulted through the creation of alternative socio-technical systems within the call centre. This could be exhibited with self-managed work teams who have the tendency to produce more customized outputs when the dynamics of empowerment displaces the reality of control (Batt and Moynihan, 2004). This can be regarded as another concept of the call centre which is referred to as the semi-professional empowered worker (Winslow and Bramer, 1994). In this setting work is increasingly customized to the needs of the customer. The agent uses IT to seamlessly identify and render service to the customer and appropriate software assists in on-the-job learning thereby improving the agent?s knowledge and skills. Based on the labour process, systems implemented in the call centre are based on the expected result. According to Edward (1979) cited in Russell (2007), who first classified ICT as technological control, in agreement to this Callaghan and Thompson (2001), also argue the fact that management deliberately choose a technology that is designed in such a way as to limit the worker?s independence, hence are almost seen as part of the machine (technology) which continuously directs calls at them. This was represented in the expression of Taylor and Bain (1999) stating „the assembly line in the head?, where technology supports the formulation of specific targets of which workers are held accountable for (Taylor and Bain, 2001). Another aspect of technologies in a call centre is the organizational culture or behaviour. This is an attempt in understanding how new technologies affect the (re)organization of work. Barleys (1990), emphasized the need for researchers to focus more on how new technologies are incorporated into the everyday working lives of the organizational members. His argument was that a particular system could have different effects in various departments or jobs. This draws attention to the organizational theory which is based on the behaviour of users when a new technology is implemented focusing on how they establish patterns to either conform or deviate from the intentions of the designers (Russell, 2007). This aspect is outside the scope of this dissertation. Technology can therefore be regarded as a solution that bridges the sales and marketing functions to improve targeting efforts. In other cases, it can be viewed as a tool that is specifically for a one-to one customer interaction which is regarded as the sole responsibility of the sales/service; call centres or marketing departments (Peppers, 2000). But on the overall, it should neither be regarded as just a mere technology nor application but rather a cross-functional , customer-driven, technology-integration business process management strategy that aims at increasing and maximising relationships which also encompasses the entire organisation. This is often referred to as Customer Relation Management (CRM) (Goldenberg, 2000). Literature has shown that CRM is based on the interaction of:
- People: this refers to the people working with the system and are regarded as the building block for customer relationship,
- Business process: this defines the overall business goal of the organisation
- Technology: this is an enabler for achieving remarkable improvement in the performance of the organisation (Chen and Popovich, 2003).
These interactions are represented in the diagram below Diagram 2.1 The CRM Model (Chen and Popovich, 2003).
CALL CENTRE AND MANAGEMENT
In general, academic literatures on call centre have focused on employment, relationship and the labour process. A significant number of these literatures have focused largely on managerial perspective in terms of operations and performance. Call centres are people intensive operations and the management of the frontline employees otherwise referred to as the call agents has been identified as one of the biggest challenges for call centre managers (Houlihan, 2002). Call centres potentially contribute to customer satisfaction and retention but most organizations still fail to exploit full strategic value out of their call centre operations (Mahesh and kasturi, 2006). Traditionally service management models recommend that Organisations focus on three areas which include:
- Defining a service strategy
- Ensuring the service delivery systems are user friendly
- Managing for customer- oriented people especially on the frontline (Gilson and khandelwal, 2005).
These models further argue that it is important for the components – strategy, operations and people are all compatible but most literature show an indication of incompatibility.
CHALLENGES OF MANAGERS/SUPERVISORS IN A CALL CENTRE
Managers are faced with a number of challenges of which the most common and prevalent ones include:
The conflict of quality versus quantity: In call centres, this conflict is at the core of many other related problems (Frenkel et al, 1998; Callaghan and Thompson 2002 & dean, 2002). Measurement of both quantity and quality in most cases is based on performance. Research has shown that although management values quality, they tend to focus more on measurement and statistics which is as a result of the large amount of information provided to them. Information provided to them such as the number of calls per agent; the percentage of calls answered within a specified time frame; the average speed calls are answered, hence the shift of attention to quantity (Robinson and Clive, 2006). This has attributed to the high reliance on information systems to govern the pace of work in the call centre, provide the means to access the work of the call agents as well as monitor them. Information system can therefore be said to have shaped the social and organizational structure of the call centre (Calloghan and Thompson, 2001). But the negative consequence of this especially on the call agents include exhaustion, stress which should be of great concern to management. Organizations stress the need for customer satisfaction and have an overall strategic intent to acquire and retain their customers through high quality interfaces or interaction. But it has been observed that the aspect of quality in some case is given low priority than the efficiency of processing customer interactions (number of calls) at call centres (Mahesh and kasturi, 2006). Mahesh (1995) commented on the tendency of most organizations to move from high labour intensity and customization position of professional services to standardization and low labour intensity service. The origin of such problems could be traced back to the genesis of call centres and the reason for their rapid growth which is to reduce cost and increase efficiencies.
The conflict of Control versus Empowerment: this is another common conflict observed in the call centre. According to Houlihan (2002), the orthodox design of the call centre is rooted in a control paradigm. Early literature on call centres abound with keywords such as “blue-collar work”; “taylorism”; “battery farming”; “mental assembly line”; “worker resistance control and emotional labour” (Fernie and Metcalf, 1997; knights and McCabe, 1998). Recent literature on the other hand has indicated the need for empowerment in service, but organisations specifically in the call centre still ignore this despite the fact that studies have indicated positive outcomes from increased empowerment. Empirical data also shows that call agents perceive themselves as less empowered than other workers in traditional office environment (Holdsworth and Cartwright, 2003). Thus the control paradigm of call centres seems to extend to the area of job design as well. Researchers also argue that the frontline agents play a critical role in service delivery in which their skills, knowledge motivation and loyalty are important factors to be managed by the organization (Sergeant and Frenkel, 2000). But the mass production model used at many call centres for operational efficiency assumes that “jobs can be designed to be turn-over proof with workers as replaceable parts” (Batt and Moynihan, 2002). Hence Wallace et al, 2000 labelled this as sacrificial HR strategy. Other common problems management is faced with in the call centre according to Taylor and Bain (1999) include:
- High rates of absence due to sickness
- High labour turnover
- Problem with motivating and keeping the employees committed to their jobs
- Lack of promotion opportunities especially in flat organisational structures.
- Loss of staff following investments in training.
CALL AGENTS AND JOB STRUCTURE The general basic idea of a call centre operator or call agent is any worker with a telephone and a computer. This has led organisations in an attempt to differentiate their operations and services, come up with names such as “Customer Service Centre or Customer Satisfaction”. Various literatures have shown that agents usually work in large, open-plan offices seated in cubicles that are divided shoulder-high partitions. They are wired or connected to an integrated telephone and a computer system when they put on their headphones. In the researcher?s opinion, the job function of a call agent is basically to:
- Provide customers with detailed product and procedures involved
- Process customer transactions
- Attend to customer queries in an approachable, accurate and timely manner.
- Deliver standard service at all times to customer when interacting with them which is usually in accordance to specified service standards (scripts).
In a call centre, the use of scripts either in the form of typewritten prompt or on screen template is an attempt to structure the speech of workers into a series of predictable and regulated routine queries and responses (Taylor and Bain, 1999). This could be regarded as another distinct feature of the call centre in terms of Communication between an agent and a customer. The call agents are expected to read and enter data into the computer system that is networked within the organization while interacting with the customer. This enables any other employee to easily access and retrieves the customer?s profile as well as their record history. Other expectations of call agents in relation to their work include: The call agent is expected to acquire and use lower-order and higher-order contextual knowledge in accomplishing their task (Deery et al, 2002). The lower-order contextual knowledge is knowledge about the company information; specific products; procedures; software practices and people which may be in other departments on whom the call agents depend on for updated information as well as solution for more complex problems of the customer. While the higher- order is basically a deeper understanding of the lower, although this is not acquired during training but rather it is as a result of experience. Agents with such knowledge are seen to be more confident when dealing with the customers. But it should be noted that most of the knowledge required by the agents is embedded as information either as hard copy reference manuals or available online. The call agent is expected to display some skills when executing their duties. These skills include the computer skills which have to do with inputting data; word processing and navigating through several systems. The other skill is the social skill which is used mainly when relating to customers and other staff. A lot of attention is paid to the latter skill than the former because the social skill involves the ability to remain calm under pressure especially when faced with a continuous stream of customer calls; positive and tactful attitude when executing their duties as well as not getting personally engaged which protects them from customer abuse (Kinnie et al, 2000). In general, the call agent has to be systematic; creative and know who to depend on for more complex customer queries. Call centre jobs are highly specialized and simplified, thus there is a high level of division of labour which has its advantages. But there are also disadvantages such as low task variety (monotony of work), low task complexity, low utilization of educational qualification which are most times overlooked. Call agents are known to have no influence or control over their work in terms of the pace of their work (duration of calls, how many calls they receive) and also the planning and organisation of their work. These disadvantages are some of the factors that lead to depression among call agents and monotony of their work is one of the most frequent reasons call agents quit their jobs (Deery et al, 2002).
SUMMARY This chapter has defined discussed what a call centre is and highlighted the different perspectives of call centres found in literature. It identified the theories on which the analysis of this dissertation is based on, although it is further explained in the next chapter. It also discussed the call centre from different points of views such as technology which mentioned the fact that it still requires human interaction for any organisation to achieve its maximum potential, management who determine the work pace of the call centre. Although highlighting the challenges they are faced with, it also identified areas where they need to place more attention (i.e. control vs. empowerment). Lastly it discussed the general idea of call agents? job descriptions. This has served as a background to further explore in this research the working conditions of the call centre and determine the effect of information systems on their jobs.
THEORY AND RESEARCH METHODOLOGY
INTRODUCTION This chapter discusses the research approach adopted for this research based on the chosen theory. It also highlights the research methodolo