Welcome to the new blog of Better for Everyone, the UK call centre with intelligence, integrity and initiative based in Bradford, West Yorkshire!

The traditional call centre approach has earned the industry its awful sweatshop image and reputation for terrible customer service. I knew there was potential for something much better and that creating my own company with a better, more ethical approach to call centre services was the right thing to do.

Through this blog, we’ll keep you informed of our news and let you know our thoughts on what’s going on in the industry and in management generally, so do keep coming back.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

What's happening in charity fundraising is what's happening in many call centres - and it needs to stop!

Last Sunday, the News of the World ran an exposé on the “shocking hard sell tactics” used by call centre company Pell & Bales to raise money for some of the UK's biggest charities.

The story told of lowly paid workers being put under massive pressure by commission driven bosses to meet their targets. The tactics reported by the News of the World as employed by Pell & Bales are unfortunately the same as those you’d find in a majority of the call centres you might deal with in your day to day lives: heavily scripted conversations, monitored constantly by managers giving “feedback” on how better the call centre worker might have handled the call in order to achieve the desired outcome (in the case of Pell & Bales getting someone’s bank details for a charity donation).

Maybe the charities concerned should look at a different way of working…. Perhaps using a call centre with a different approach, and look at paying a daily rate rather than £60 per donation. Whilst it needs to stack up financially for the charity and the call centre operator, it needs to be a sustainable approach in the long term for all concerned too.

As for the call centres, they should actually trust their staff to get on and do their work –Don’t get me wrong, I’m not having a go at Pell & Bales here – I only know what I read about them in the News of the World and what their former employees commented on the story. Rather, I’m having a pop at call centres in general!

This is because how staff do their work is decided by senior management that aren’t close enough to the front-line and team leaders monitor and control their staff, and measure individuals’ performance against arbitrary targets that have been derived from what the company needs to deliver in its financial plan (in the case of Pell & Bales, this is probably the number of £60 commissions it needs to get for each man day). But whilst that’s useful for the bean counters to know how profitable the work they do is, it really doesn’t help operationally at all.

Since call centre companies like Pell & Bales manage people in this way, they spend a lot of management time ensuring staff to meet their targets and follow scripts (the News of the World reports a former employee as saying “But one boss, who monitored nearly all the calls, said I should have asked her for money at least three times”). Unfortunately, since meeting targets is often outside of staff members’ control (after all, they can’t influence who they call next – for example, if they have no money, don’t support charities, if it’s convenient time to talk to them and so on), so achieving targets becomes more of a lottery. Moreover, constant monitoring and management pressure to perform better puts staff under stress, de-motivates them and has an adverse effect on staff turnover, sickness and absenteeism. A quick read of the comments at the bottom of the News of the World story gives a real insight into how call centre workers often feel - hating the work, listening to heartbreaking stories, staying because they need the money and so on.

To survive in such an environment, call centre workers need to do something – if they don’t leave the situation (which of course in the current economic climate isn’t so easy), they have to either fight (a dangerous strategy whereby you could lose your job)or submit to the system in which they’re operating. In submitting, however, the unfortunate worker (and their line managers or team leaders who are often subject to the same pressures) becomes desperate and often has to lie, cheat or bully. And when the client (in this case Cancer research) comes to listen in to calls “to ensure that our strict supporter care criteria are met at all times”, everything will be done differently. That’s not because the line managers or front line staff are bad people – they are simply operating in a very bad system. Precisely what the News of the World describes in its article.

As the News of the World says – this IS shocking! However, it is not unusual.

We need to see a bit more common sense in call centre management to improve this situation – for charity fundraising as well as every other sector: surely it’s better to trust people and allow them to take the time to just get on and do their jobs properly, allowing them to have the conversation that’s right for the person they’re talking to with the purpose of generating the best they can for the charity?

And if then it doesn’t stack up financially for the charities, then everyone involved should simply admit that an outbound call centre approach doesn’t work in this case, and revert to more cost-effective approaches. Surely that would be
Better for Everyone?