Are call centers white collar sweat shops?

Are call centers white collar sweat shops?
written by Dave Murray
Senior Customer Service Consultant for The DiJulius Group

I read a great post recently written by Maria Verlengia for CRM Buyer. In it, she quotes Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research and director of research for the National Association of Call Centers (NACC). In the quote, Stockford refers to call centers as a “white collar sweat shop.” I had never heard this reference before, but it immediately hit home for me. All the stressful time I had spent either as a CSR, supervisor, manager or director, this reference made perfect sense to me. Almost as if my life was flashing before my eyes, the comment made me think of all of the angry Customers holding for an answer, the unresolved issues landing on my desk, and the repetitive nature of the work, not to mention the micro-management.

Think about the typical call center environment for a moment – perhaps your own. They are very often made up of mundane cubicles allowing for little to no creativity. Call times and wait times are the metrics that matter most, which automatically causes each call to be about the transaction rather than the interaction. And last but certainly far from least, many CSR’s see limited growth opportunities, even in companies experiencing tremendous growth.

customer experience executive academy TDGI was curious what others thought when they heard the “sweat shop” reference, so I reached out to a few former employees for their thoughts. The common theme that I heard as a cause of the “sweat shop” atmosphere was an overall feeling of lack of respect and appreciation, both from other departments within the organization and Customers. Second on the list was lack of pay for what they know is a very important position within the organization.

My follow-up question was, “What is worse, being micro managed or being in an environment where you are trusted, but some employees try and succeed when not pulling their weight?” The overwhelming answer was something right in the middle – a good mix of autonomy and accountability. But how does a call center manager achieve this?

The Balance Between too much and too little
When I oversaw a call center, I went with a pretty simple rule: Hire great people with passion for the product, and let then do their job. Give them the guidelines and tools they need to succeed, and get out of the way. As I learned, that works well — for a while. But here is what happens. People become tired and burned out from the repetitive nature of the work. Their lives change for whatever reason, and they loose some of their passion for your company or product. Maybe they start to feel taken advantage of because they have not advanced as quickly as they thought.

What happens when one of the scenarios above occurs is that employees sometimes find ways to “hide” from work. Time spent on “projects” and other ancillary tasks may increase, allowing employees to skip their fair share of inbound calls. They may also find a way to log themselves out of an e-mail queue. Obviously, two major negatives will occur when this happens: Customer response times may suffer, and fellow employees will catch on to these tricks and feel slighted and burdened. Compounding the issue is that this can happen to any employee, even someone you once considered your best. In this case, trust may be high and need for accountability low, allowing the behavior to continue for a while before it is uncovered.

In this world of micro-management of one’s time, tasks, and call volume, we must always remember this: How can we expect our employees to treat our best Customers the way we would like them to IF we don’t treat our employees as well, if not better? We cannot. We need our CSR’s to be ambassadors of our companies and our products. As we all know, very often the call center is the only human interaction our Customers have with us. Also, very often the Customer is taking the time to call us because they have encountered some type of problem. Wouldn’t we all love to have our CSR’s be known as problem solvers as opposed to policy enforcers? Would we all love to hear more instances of heroic resolutions as opposed to Customers asking for a supervisor to move their complaint up the ladder?

So how do we split the difference? What is the right level of management? How do we hold people accountable for maximizing their time with Customers, but still let them move at a pace comfortable to them? How do we give our employees the autonomy to solve problems, but not give away the store?

call center micro managementThe answer is simple, but not easy, because it requires some work. We need to take the time to help our employees be prepared. Prepared to fix what can go wrong, prepared to perform their job at the optimal level, and prepared to go above and beyond to WOW a Customer when the opportunity arises. The key word here is prepared. We cannot simply expect our employees to recognize these things, nor can we expect to tell them once during an orientation and expect it to stick. It also does not mean we can train employees once and expect them to maintain proper habits.

What we need to do, rather, is to create a system that all employees can use to consistently recognize and address defects, our standards, and above & beyond opportunities. The better prepared our employees are to handle situations that arise everyday, the more time we have to manage behind the scenes. This allows us more opportunity to monitor agent activity to ensure all team members are pulling their weight – without micro managing. It allows us to ensure that our staffing levels are correct – ensuring that our best ambassadors are not over stressed and over burdened because we do not have enough people hired and trained (A HUGE problem in the call center world). This all sounds great, but how do we deliver these tools?

I recommend two methods to begin the process, but be warned, both will take an investment of time and human resources. The first step in the process is getting your team together to create your Customer Experience Cycle, or CEC. Creating your CEC is basically mapping your Customer’s touch points with your team. Once you have identified what these touch points are, you then dissect each one, looking for what can and does go wrong (Service Defects), what we need to do on each and every call (our operational and service standards), and ways we can surprise and delight our Customers (Above & Beyond opportunities). Going through this workshop with your front-line team is truly an eye-opening experience, for both you and your team. A renewed sense of purpose begins to grow as excitement builds. Your team becomes re-energized to do their job – and to do it well.

While this is a great start to the process, it is just that – the start. You cannot expect the momentum you have just created to be maintained without consistent re-enforcement. This is where the second piece comes in: daily huddles. Now before you start saying “that will never work here because…” (and I know you will, because I have heard all of the excuses, and made some of them myself,) think about the gold standard of service, The Ritz Carlton. They hold a huddle, or in their world, a Stand-up, each and every day. So does Chick-fil-A. Each company has gotten past the fact that not everyone will be present each and every day. They have gotten past the fact that they have multiple shift starting times throughout the day. What they have done is used this platform to consistently focus on their service values, discuss things that went wrong (and how they were fixed), and celebrate success stories – every day.

The process that I just outlined promotes autonomy and a strong sense of ownership within your team, while being a great team-building exercise to boot. Creating your CEC, and then re-enforcing it on a daily basis will give your team a renewed sense of purpose. Thanks to the huddles, this will not wear-off over time, but rather transform your culture into one where Above & Beyond is the norm.

I look forward to hearing from you with results, and I am happy to help you in your journey by answering any questions that you may have.


Anticipate your Customer’s unexpressed needs

About The Author

Dave Murray

Dave is the Senior Customer Experience Consultant for The DiJulius Group and has helped dozens of companies create incredible systems that allow them to consistently deliver superior customer service. Dave’s experience has varied from leading call centers and front-line team members, to working closely with key partners and stakeholders.