itb-nz logo
Story image

Agent angst

01 Feb 2010

Emotional exhaustion, stress, employee absenteeism and turnover – is the mass production model prevalent among New Zealand contact centres harming the agents they employ and damaging the profitability of the companies they work for?

And is the reliance on metrics which technology has enabled – average handling time, average time it takes to answer a call – contributing to worse, not better, customer service?

These are questions central to academic research carried out by TrustPower Human Resource Manager Karen Boyte, who set out to determine if the mass of overseas research about contact centres was being heeded locally.

Aside from “significant psychosocial risk factors” that are detrimental to an agent’s welfare, her findings show that poor job design contributes to high rates of absenteeism and staff turnover that could be costing New Zealand companies over $1.5 billion a year.

Boyte’s research questions if it’s possible to change the fundamental job design of an agent without impairing an organisation’s profitability and/or productivity. Her Master’s thesis – in which she references 134 papers on contact centre management – is published on the Massey University website. In it she tackles the following conundrum facing large organisations today:

“How then, does Contact Centre Management balance the clear evidence that the current practices and job design are inconsistent with theories of best human resource practice while ensuring the organisation achieves its commercial business goals? Current research simply does not provide adequate answers or direction.”

Agents in the Spotlight

Is the way the customer service representative role is defined in danger of killing good customer service? In this article - continued from page one - Sarah Putt investigates.

When Karen Boyte joined TrustPower as its Human Resource Manager in 2003, she questioned whether standard technology, such as electronic signage for call volumes and predictive diallers, was having a detrimental effect on staff morale.

“When I first started we had one of those flashing red light things that would say how many calls in the queue,” she says. “Having been in HR for a long time, the way that they run call centres sort of flies in the face of everything that you learn about – empowerment and creating jobs that are fun and exciting.”

Boyte began reading widely about the working conditions of contact centres and discovered a growing body of academic research which showed that the mass production model traditionally adopted by contact centres has created a harmful environment.

The model is supported by technology which enables the behaviour of individual agents to be closely monitored and their job performance measured in granular detail.

“If you look at all the technology that they’ve brought into call centres for tracking what CSRs do, it’s all about measuring how quickly they do their job,” she says.

Metrics such as handling time, speed of answer and abandonment rates can actually be harmful to the agent’s wellbeing, while not actually contributing to an increase in productivity that benefits the organisation. In other words, metrics might just exist for their own sake; they might not actually create better customer service.

As one study by David Knights and Darren McCabe for the Journal of Management Studies put it:

“Contact Centre managers espouse that customer service quality is their highest priority. However the prominence in many Contact Centres of statistics related to such things as mean call length, number of rings before answering, call abandonment rates, and percentage of handling time spent on calls give a powerful message to employees about what the real values of the organisation are.”

However one metric that’s gaining traction – First Call Resolution – may offer agents more control over the calls. That’s because there is greater emphasis on listening to the customer’s individual query and attempting to solve it immediately; a process which requires the agent to use initiative and decision-making skills.

The research showed that staff who feel disempowered, with little or no control over their working day and with little variety in the tasks they are expected to fulfil, take more sick days and leave the job earlier, contributing to high recruitment and absenteeism costs.

As a result of her research Boyte began talking with the TrustPower* contact centre managers, and together they set about implementing changes to improve the working conditions of the agents. Improvements ranged from the cosmetic – dismantling the red flashing light that signalled how many customers were in the queue – to the fundamental: giving agents opportunities for secondments away from the phones.

When it came time to pick a topic for her Master’s degree thesis, Boyte decided to find out if other contact centres were aware of the body of research into harmful management practices and what they were doing to change it.

Boyte sent a detailed questionnaire about job design to 53 contact centres, which included the winners of the TUANZ Contact Centre Awards in 2007 and 2008. She received 20 replies, which formed the basis of her thesis.

She found the level of awareness of the recommendations from previous research was low, with 70% of participants having very little or limited knowledge of the academic research. However, she noted that some changes are being made to improve the agent’s role. These include modifications to metrics, jobs enlargement and enrichment opportunities, coaching and more staff involvement in communication forums.

“The results of the survey indicate that there are some attempts being made to increase task variety and communication, but there is still a marked reluctance to provide autonomy or work discretion to Contact Centre agents,” Boyte’s thesis reads.

She notes that job variety is often in the form of ad hoc tasks that are undertaken when time permits.

“The advice and guidelines for a sound working environment in call and contact centres in Sweden indicated a basic rule for all work is to avoid or cut down work tasks that involve close control, a high level of restriction, or monotonous routine work.”

One way of achieving more meaningful job variety is to offer secondment opportunities – that is, the temporary transfer to another role out of the contact centre. Another option is for contact centre managers to find ways of allowing agents greater control over the timing and methods of their work.

Boyte says the latter option is often not possible because senior managers in some organisations don’t see the need to put the resources into improving the fundamental job satisfaction of agents. What TrustPower has done is introduce regular one-on-one coaching, focusing on development opportunities. In addition, lead CSRs and team leaders are given more discretion when dealing with customers, alongside opportunities for leadership and management development. 

Boyte also says contact centre managers need to get smarter about what statistics they gather. She was amazed that many in the survey didn’t collect figures on absenteeism and staff churn, as these can be measured as a direct cost to business in dollar terms and provide the best possible argument for investing in a better job design for agents.

Using methodology developed by David Holman, Rosemary Batt and Ursula Holtgrewe for the Global Call Centre Project**, Boyte calculated the cost to New Zealand businesses at $1.14 billion a year in human resources costs due to staff churn, and $56 million in absenteeism.

At the time of the survey, Boyte stated there were 24,960 seats in New Zealand, but the most recent figures from callcentres.net suggest that the number has risen to 29,100 seats. So it’s fair to conclude that these costs have risen.

Her study concludes with the following observation:

“What is evident from the research to date is that the human capital costs have not been included in the equation of value creation. Turnover and absenteeism have enormous financial, social and organisational consequences for firms. Those costs come directly off the bottom line.

“Future research needs to financially qualify the impact of the current way contact centres are managed versus a more humanistic approach. When senior management can see the dollars walking out the door, they will soon sit up and take notice. Only then will we see a more concerted effort to change the work-life of our contact centre agents.”

* TrustPower operates two contact centres, in Oamaru and Tauranga, with a combined total of around 120 seats. Overall the organisation employs more than 450 staff. In December 2009 it was named as one of the top companies for leadership in Asia Pacific by Hewitt Associates in a study that included 537 organisations internationally with an average employee size of 31,443.

**The Global Call Center (GCC) Project is a collaborative network of over 40 scholars from 20 countries.