Sunday, 13 March 2011

Motivation: The present and future challenge of call centres

Engage and motivate individuals definitely represents one of the biggest, arguably the biggest, challenge employers constantly need to face. HR Professionals are in fact relentlessly striving to come up with new effective ideas to prepare employees to go the extra mile, exercise discretionary behaviour and contribute to the attainment of their organization competitive advantage. This clearly represents for HR everything but a straightforward feat to perform in practice and firms differently strive to tackle the problem according to the different peculiarities of their industry: a financial institution, for instance, will clearly develop practices sorely different from that introduced and executed by a car manufacturer.

The task is even more daunting for the employers of the call centre industry, as often as not beset with very high absenteeism rates. The main feature of the work typically offered by these organizations is indeed repetitiveness, which makes it particularly difficult for managers to motivate and engage individuals, never mind prepare these to go the extra mile. Whether on the one hand it is very unlikely that the problem might be effectively addressed adopting the one-size-fits-all approach, it is also true on the other hand that it does not equally affect the employers of the different regions and areas in which call centres are established. The reason why different employers experience diverse degrees of difficulty is usually associated with the disparate characteristics of the local labour market where call centres are set and run.
So negative is the perception of working in call centre environments as to many people in Western countries, especially young people, as often as not preferring not to have any job at all, rather than working in a call centre. In general, individuals dislike taking this kind of job by reason of the repetitiveness it entails, the high level of stress typical of these environments and, last but not least, in that for many people working in a call centre can be tantamount to having a dead-end job.
Whereas more often than not in order for individuals to work in a call centre these do not need to prove the achievement of particularly brilliant academic results, individuals aiming at working in a call centre definitely need to meet very significant and essential person specification. Outstanding communication abilities, confidence when speaking on the phone and an inborn listening ability, for instance, definitely represent mandatory preconditions to cover these roles. Yet, being able to promptly understand the caller wants assumes a greater importance for an individual to properly and effectively carry out the typical call centre tasks. To avert customer disappointment and complaints, call centre agents need to promptly pinpoint the reason why people call and rapidly identify the most suitable solution to meet their expectations and address their problems. Doing that according to the service level agreements reached by the employer with their direct customers just contributes to add further difficulties and stress to call centre agents job.
Being genuinely kind, reassuring, fully available and ready to help and cooperate with others definitely represent some other essential requirements of an effective call centre agent (CCA). On the other hand of it, for instance, short-tempered people should steer clear from working in call centre environments and from customer-facing positions at large.

Despite CCAs’ education may play a marginal role on the quality of their performance, their personal attitudes and qualities are sorely important. As discussed earlier, for CCAs to effectively carry out their work these definitely need to have some specific and important qualities, but before setting a call centre in any given area a crucially significant investigation necessarily needs to be conducted.
Considering the growing disaffection expressed by jobseekers at large with this industry, investors planning to set a call centre should first and foremost conduct an in-depth study of the local labour market enabling them to gain a thorough knowledge and understanding of its features and avert future staff high turnover rates. This activity, which is of pivotal importance and can be thus regarded as a “golden rule” for any organization, irrespective of its specific industry, has to be invariably regarded as a mandatory prerequisite before setting and running a call centre. “Understanding the environment in which an organization operates” is one of the most important activities, arguably the most important activity, HRM should be concerned with (Torrington et al., 2008).
As a general rule, employers should avert establishing a call centre in areas whose labour market:

- Is acknowledged as “tight”;

- Is characterized by the presence of highly educated people (especially young people);

- The average pay rates are competitive.
It clearly sorely depends on the different regional circumstances; in India, for example, a degree is often regarded as a prerequisite to have access to a call centre position. It also indeed depends on the type of activities and services offered by the platform; in some western countries a higher education level may be required to work in particular types of call centres (banking and finance), in some other cases a thorough and wide technical knowledge could be considered more relevant (IT and automotive), whereas in many other cases a good command of foreign languages represents the most sought requirement (assistance and business services).
Knowing well in advance what a particular area or region actually offers in terms of workforce skills and what individuals are expected to receive in terms of reward and career prospects is invariably of paramount importance. The area’s unemployment rate is clearly an additional variable to duly keep into consideration as well as its labour market past and likely future trends are. In areas where the unemployment rate has traditionally been and is likely to remain rather high, a job is still surely considered and appreciated as such so that in these locations an employer may be put in a position to relatively easily attract and retain talents. By contrast, in areas where the unemployment rate is very low and people typically seek exciting, rewarding and satisfying career opportunities, the establishment of a call centre may prove to end in a dismal failure.

Despite it is clearly up to the call centres management to show that these too can offer career and growth prospects to their employees, it is also obvious that organizations do not need hundreds of managers. The task cannot be indeed classified as straightforward so that HR Professionals should constantly investigate bespoke solutions adequate to the specific circumstances. To motivate, engage and reward staff businesses might, for instance, develop internal mobility policies enabling individuals, who have yielded valuable results for a pre-identified period of time, to work in a different organizational office or function or to be exempted from night shifts or the roster at large either permanently or for any given period of time.
Despite the call centre environment described so far may appear slightly grim, call centres are everything but destined to disappear. In contrast, the number of industries and organizations having recourse to this type of activity is increasingly growing. The circumstance that call centres enable organizations to answer to their customer queries around the clock has clearly played a significant role on the industry development. These can in fact operate at global level with no problems as regards the different time zones.
The creation of common platforms and shared services has also allowed many multinationals and big corporations to sensibly reduce the overheads related to the offering of customer services and pre- and post-sale services. Setting a single call centre covering the activities of a whole region in fact permits firms to avoid setting a facility in each country of the relevant area; never mind the benefit of establishing this in the location offering the most favourable labour market conditions. This practice does not indeed represent a call centre peculiarity; HR Shared Services, for instance, can be absolutely regarded as an additional example of that.

The booming of the call centre industry has definitely been favoured by technological advances, which have clearly played a significant role. Without the contribution of computers, the internet, e-mails, GPS, satellites systems and so forth the call centre industry could have not experienced a so rapid and unrelenting growth.
Inasmuch as call centres are destined to increasingly gain value within modern organizations, it can hardly be argued that call centres managers are prepared to effectually face the more challenging problems these will be prompt to manage in the future. The sickness absence rate recorded by the industry is self-explanatory. With an average absence level of 12.4 days per employee per year (CIPD, 2009) call centres show the highest absence rate amongst the different existing industries, with stress being one of the main causes of this undesirable accomplishment.
In call centres, more than in many other industries, offering significant flexible working opportunities may clearly effectively help employers to engage and motivate their employees. Flexible working schemes are usually part of family-friendly policies whose aim is enabling individuals with caring responsibilities and parents with young children to work flexibly and from home in order to more easily manage their family commitments. Regulations in the UK allow employers to refuse employee requests for flexible working only whether as a consequence of acceding to these the employer would incur some additional costs. Employers can also deny individual requests whether meeting these may affect the organization capability to meet their customer demands or the quality of the goods or services provided, may cause problems to the reorganization of the work amongst existing staff or cause similar drawbacks.

Call centres should indeed develop flexible working policies going well beyond legal requirements. Since the type of job performed in call centres is objectively hard, employers should strive to enable a better work/life balance to all of their employees irrespective of what provided for by the local regulations. Everybody has his/her own wants and personal interests and aims at living a pleasant life. This clearly means that the employer will accept an additional burden in the management of its day-to-day activities, but such efforts should in turn effectively contribute to improve its employer branding image and genuinely encourage its staff discretionary behaviour. After all, it is unlikely that people living exceedingly hectic lives could be actually able to perform well at work. In order to attain the best results, businesses should consider all of the three options available in terms of flexible working, to wit: the number of hours, the timing and the location where the work is carried out.
What employers should rather in general avert is having recourse to an autocratic leadership style: this is anachronistic, considered unbearable by Gen Y people and very unlikely to produce positive results; albeit also in this case it depends on the different circumstances.
Organizations which have actively investigated suitable ways to motivate and engage their staff with appropriate and bespoke actions and solutions have usually achieved very good results (Generation Y, Call Centres, engagement and motivation) giving evidence that the results yielded are well-worth the efforts. Nonetheless, despite many call centres may have the same types of problem the one size does not fit all. The challenges faced by the different organizations are and have thus to be considered contingent upon the different context in which these operate. Employers should investigate and identify individual expectations and the viable measures they can take to meet their workforce needs and expectations, whilst achieving the target and standard of service required.
The best way to understand what individuals actually wish is clearly ask the question directly to them. Internal surveys can definitely help, but employers should consider that the data gathered by means of internal surveys must hence to be translated into practical actions and activities. Employees need to have tangible evidence that their suggestions and voices have been listed to. Surveys, focus groups, large groups and whatever other method adopted to collect data will otherwise only have the effect of creating pointless expectations, which whether not met may in turn just produce undesirable counterproductive effects.
Inasmuch as the call centre industry still has a bright future ahead of it, the challenge their business leaders need to face is likely to be increasingly tricky to manage too.
Longo, R., (2011), Motivation: The present and future challenge of call centres, HR Professionals, [online].

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