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Toiling Away in 'White-Collar Sweatshops' - aka Call Centers

By Maria Verlengia
Jun 9, 2009 4:00 AM PT

Sarah Betesh's career in customer service began in box office call centers at venues such as the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. She moved on to Tickets.com and Vertical Alliance, at one point becoming a call center manager.

Toiling Away in 'White-Collar Sweatshops' - aka Call Centers

However, in spite of her success, Betesh left her call center career behind in 2003. She now teaches autistic children at a middle school in Bucks County, Penn. The high stress levels she experienced in the call center environment left her feeling burned out. Ultimately, she found the work unsatisfying because she did not feel she was accomplishing anything.

High Stress, High Turnover

"I worked for Tickets.com for two years," Betesh told CRM Buyer. "It's a really high-stress job. You don't get a lot of money. The only time people call you is if something is wrong. They're mad. Phones would ring off the hook. Phone centers are typically very busy."

Another difficult aspect was the repetitive nature of the work. Betesh likened it to a factory. "It gets boring. That's tough," she said.

Betesh's story sheds light on some of the factors leading to the high turnover rates typical of the call center industry. People take on the typically minimum-wage positions hoping to move on to something else, she said. It's a good way to enter the customer service field.

"They're using it as a stepping stone, or it's their second job," Betesh observed.

Most people consider a call center position as a way to break into a company or field -- not a long-term career, echoed Karl Bonawitz, division manager at firstPro, which fills call center openings.

"People look at it as a foot-in-the-door process," he told CRM Buyer.

Recession Effect

In spite of the historically high turnover rates at call centers, Bonawitz has seen a tremendous slowdown over the past six months -- at least in the IT call centers he staffs in the Philadelphia area -- which he attributes to the poor job market.

"I think it's the economy. The economy has everyone scared," he said. The moving around that typically occurs in the call center industry is not happening as much.

Will turnover become high again once conditions improve?

"That's the $10 million question," he said. Once the job market improves, he foresees people once again moving on to bigger and better opportunities.

Higher Pay, Better Training

Working conditions are a factor in the high turnover rate -- especially for people who are not prepared for or suited to customer service work, said Bonawitz. "I think it can be a stressful job. Every single call is tracked. Customer satisfaction is tracked. The volume is high. It takes the right kind of personality. You need a little bit of a thicker skin."

Additional training would help retain people, he suggested. "People in those roles don't want to feel stymied. They want to continue to learn."

Higher pay would also help retain the right employees, Bonawitz maintained, but companies are resistant to the extra expense that would entail, typically viewing call center staffing as a low priority.

That is a mistake, he said, because contact with a call center staff member is frequently the first impression a customer has of a company. A bad attitude can have a negative effect on a customer's opinion.

"I think it makes a huge difference," said Bonawitz.

High-Turnover Costs

In the long run, high turnover is very costly, said Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research and director of research for the National Association of Call Centers (NACC).

"The hiring costs are huge," he told CRM Buyer.

In fact, the cost of attrition was US$5,466 per individual, Stockford noted, based on a 2008 survey of 70 call centers conducted by Furst Person, a company that specializes in call center staffing.

Solutions to the Problem

Impersonal workspaces, tightly controlled staff, and some methods of monitoring performance such as critiquing calls and measuring call times all factored into the high turnover rate, said Stockford.

"It's pretty much like a white collar sweatshop," he remarked.

In her experience, companies kept a close watch on the performance of call center employees, observed former CSR Betesh.

"All of your calls were tracked," she said.

When she moved into a managerial position, she recognized the pitfalls of overmonitoring employees. "No one likes to be micromanaged."

Some companies are taking steps to improve working conditions, such as measuring performance based on successful outcomes of calls, which Stockford believes is a better indicator of performance.

Some are offering telecommuting to call center employees.

"It's happening more than you realize," observed Stockford. "That's a way of keeping employees."

JetBlue and Veterans2work are two companies offering work-at-home options for call center staff, he noted.

Still, there aren't many companies offering an option to telecommute yet, firstPro's Bonawitz said, likely because companies think they cannot adequately monitor employees who work at home.

Although companies may believe that, the perception is unfounded, Stockford said.

"A lot of monitoring is done online anyway," he pointed out.

Signs of Change

Surprisingly, Stockford does not believe increased training will help alleviate the call center churn problem. Training is currently highly variable among call centers, depending on the complexity of the product. In a survey of NACC members and newsletter readers Saddletree conducted last year, participants were asked asked if they would like additional training. Half the respondents expressed no interest.

Improving the work environment, however, can help reduce churn. Some companies have less than 10 percent turnover per year, Stockford commented -- usually, they are companies that understand the value of customer service.

Yet many call centers are resistant to change; Stockford attributes that to a lack of leadership in the industry and calls for more innovation and initiative.

Although firstPro's Bonawitz reported a definite slowdown in call center staffing, Stockford has not noticed a drop in the turnover rate or many layoffs during the recession in the call center hot spots he monitors such as Phoenix, Dallas and Florida.

That is because companies are doing everything they can to maintain their customer base, he suggested, and they want to keep their call centers running efficiently.

"I think attrition is still an issue," he said.

The Right Fit

Although working in a call center was ultimately not the right career for her, Betesh acknowledged that a call center job could be the right fit for some people.

Working in a well-managed call center can be a pleasant experience, especially with respect to the social aspects.

"For some people, it's their niche," she said. "There's definitely camaraderie if the office is run right. Huge camaraderie. We had fun."


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