Management Systems in a Call Centre
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Call centers are most common mean by which the Organizations can reach out to their customers and this explains their rapid growth. Many projects have been focused on call centers in order to explain their management and performance from different perspective. In this project, I have attempted to identify the two main perspectives and to explore the effective use of performance management systems found in a call centre to improve the performance of a call agents. This project was conducted in a sit-up ltd based in west Acton London, while I was working as a contact centre 1st line manager and as a customer services Team leader,. The project involved semi-structured interviews with thirty call agents and three IT employees. The analysis of the data was based on the management techniques and performance of a call centre agents on daily basis . Information systems present were standard and up to date which could also be found in any call centre and the working condition is a common issue found in most literature. Hence the highlight of this project is on the fact that there is still the need for human interaction with information systems. We have focused on that issue that The people aspect of the call centre is been ignored, hence organizations are producing burnt out employees which in long terms could have a diverse effect on the organization despite the implementation of up to date and functional information systems.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENT Firstly, I want to express my profound gratitude to the one and only Almighty God Who in His infinite mercies blessed me with this opportunity of undergoing learning at work partnership programme , M.A Computer and Business studies. Thank you all for your guidance throughout the academic year. Words are not enough to express my feelings . I want to specially thank and dedicate this project to my parents.. I want to thank Dr. Howard cowte, who taught me to believe in myself and in my work because he never let me off with a poor argument. Thank you again. Finally, I want to thank all my friends for their words of encouragement, support and friendship. Specially when I was going through hard times with my health.
The CALL CENTRES. INTRODUCTION:
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Call centers are part of out daily life today as ATMs, self-service supermarkets and internet shopping (ebay). All of which are "new age" service delivery systems that the customer at large has had to accept and live with (Mahesh and Kasturi, 2006). Call centres are being used by many organizations in a wider contexts, hence the variations in their operations range from strategic purpose to the nature of technology used and finally to management style and priorities (Taylor and Bain, 2001). According to Calvert (2001), he observed that based on the several researches done on call centres, about 95% of call centres are reported to supply information to customers and about 74% process complaints. Hence it can be concluded that the 3 main drivers for call centres indentified are
- Improve customer services to retain their client's base.
- Gain new customers and after sales service.
- Reduce cost as compare to face to face clients and also to improve efficiency.
A call centre in general, is regarded as an interface between customers and an organization's system (Information Systems and performance systems), in order to complete a well specified transaction such as generate sales; provide solutions to existing clients or advice on quite complex and technical issues like broadband support for their internet clients . Over the years, the advancement of IT, product and process knowledge as well as customer information are set into the system which has helped to reduce cost of training. This has therefore ensured core-service modules to be standardized; customized and at the same time has enabled the front line staff or call agents to concentrate on the customer and their interaction (Frenkel et al, 1998). Therefore, the purpose of this project is to explore the work environment of the call agent with respect to performance management systems, customer services and information systems. Highlighting the challenges they are constantly faced with, when executing their duties. Project was done while observing the performance and management in many departments of sit-up ltd,
RESEARCH FOCUS This project was focused to explore the effective use of performance management systems in a call centre of sit-up ltd. The main questions this project seeks to investigate are daily tasks and targets:
- What are the working conditions in today's call centres and the call agents are subjected to?
- How do performance management systems affect the call centre working environment from the call agents? perspective?
- How does the work environment affect the agent emotionally?
THE AIMS AND OBJECTIVES. The main aims and objectives for this project include:
- Identify the state-of-the-art performance management system in the call centre used in the organisation under study. This would enable us to understand the level of advancement of information systems in the organisation.
- Investigate the use of performance management systems in a call centre.
- Explore and determine the extent to how performance management system affects the working conditions of the call agent both in terms of the peroformance and improvements . In highlighting the issues and challenges the call agents encounter, it would provide an insight of the job description of a call agent from the call agents? perspective.
This project also intends to bring more awareness to management regarding the issues and challenges the call agents are constantly faced with. A good knowledge of this would enable them effectively identify and address any form of resistance that may arise from the call agents. This could be done by offering adequate training and support in the use of the performance management systems. As well as improving communication with the call agents which could affect the work environment, making it more conducive. This in turn enhances better performance from the call agents and also for the management to reduce cost in hiring new agents on the floor and continuous monitoring from management and HR point of view.
This project was based on learning at work method where many employees were observed and different management techniques were applied in order to improve their daily performance. This approach was found appropriate because it is concerned with understanding performance management systems from the social context, the social processes by which it was developed and construed by people and finally how it influences and is influenced by its social settings. Many employees were interviewed while generating data and statistics as call centres always have high level of absences and sicknesses. This was an easy approach to obtain information from number of employees and departments. Answers to complex questions and sensitive information which the respondents might be reluctant to give.
This project is structured into many chapters in order to spread the information in easy and understandable way as outlined below:
This chapter is an introduction of the project highlighting the research area with a presentation of the aims and objectives of the research.
This chapter is a critical review of existing literature on call centre. It also discusses different theories and perspectives relating to the call centre. It also discusses the use of performance management systems within the context of this project.
Theory and Research Methodology
This chapter discusses the theory chosen for the analysis of the case, research approach and the rationale behind the methods chosen for this research. It also highlighted the research design.
This chapter presents the case study, the findings from the semi-structured interviews conducted in the organization using the chosen theory as the conceptual lens for the discussion.
Conclusion This chapter is an evaluation of the research findings with a reflection on its implications for practice. It also suggests some recommendations for future research.
This chapter has provided an introduction of call centre, identifying the focus area. It also stated the aims and objectives of this project as well as the research approach. It also presented a brief outline of the structure of the project.
This chapter presents a critical review of existing literature on call centres. It discusses different theories and perspectives found in literature. This chapter also discusses the different uses of management techniques in a call centre in terms of management and the call agents.
Call centre operations have become a norm in all sectors of the economy such as retailing, telecommunication, the entertainment industry (Taylor et al, 2002). They are a rapidly growing channel for service and sales delivery particularly in the financial service and telecommunication industry. These centres enable retail customers to transact business by telephone either using programmed information technology such as automatic voice response systems or through employees manipulating software to assist in answering queries resolving problems or selling products (Frenkel et al, 1998). Hence, growing number of organizations use call centres as a means of communicating with their customers directly (De Ruyter and Wetzels, 2000); managing customer complaints and maintaining customer loyalty (Pontes and O?Brien, 2000). However, despite the rapid emergence of technological innovations that have been developed to change and enhance the business processes in organisations, the call centre is still basically defined by the integration of the telephone and computer technologies (Taylor and Bain, 1999). In more details, the definition of a call centre is a dedicated operation in which computer utilizing employees receive inbound or make outbound telephone calls. These calls made or received are controlled by an Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) or a predictive dialling system. In other words, a call centre is therefore characterized by the integration of the telephone and Voice Response Units (VDU) technologies using recorded messages; Inter-active Voice Recognition (IVR) which enables customers interact with the information systems via telephone keys and speech recognition systems which enables a two-way communication between the computer and the customer using synthetic speech messages (Schalk and Van Rijckevorsel, 2007). A key feature of the call centre labour process is the integration of the telephone and the VDU technologies. Central to inbound operations is the ACD system which receives the incoming calls and automatically channels them to the available agents according to programmed instructions hence removing the need for the switchboard operators. In the case where there is no available agent to receive the call, the calls are stacked and distributed in sequence as the agents become available. Although the system can only stack a certain number of calls after which it automatically drops the calls. The agents take the calls automatically through the headset and their main assignment is to resolve the basic problems of a customer. On the other hand, for the outbound operations, it is largely based on telesales or telemarketing. The predictive dialling system works its way through the databases of their customer phone numbers and as programmed automatically dials the number of the customer as selected by the agent. At this point all the information of the customer is retrieved and displayed on the screen so as enable the agent have well informed communication. Their main job function is selling and advertising a particular product or service (Fernie and Metcalf, 1997). The common and defining call centre labour process is the ability for the operators to scan and interpret information on the VDU screens, manipulate their keyboards, retrieve data and at the same time communicate with the customer. Therefore, it is the integration of the telephone and computer technologies which both structures the labour process. This process also generates extreme levels of surveillance, monitoring and speed up which are manifest in a call centre. Recent technological developments are sought to minimize the wasteful manual operations and maximize the real time agents spend with customers hence this both speeds up and intensifies the work as the time gaps between calls are progressively reduced (Schalk and Van Rijckevorsel, 2007). In the author?s opinion, despite all these advancements in technologies, there is still the aspect of the human interaction. Employees? performance data as an instance which is either electronically displayed or in hard prints still requires human interpretation. Managers and team leaders based on the results can then take appropriate actions such as discipline or coach an underperforming agent. Hence it can be said that a call centre is a combination of technology driven measurements and human supervisors to interpret these results.
CALL CENTRES AND THEORIES.
In literature, there are two main theories seen to be dominant in the discussion of call centres:
- Foucauldian electronic panopticon which has been based on the labour process theory (Fernie and Metcalf, 1997). This is based on the preoccupation of an individual?s subjectivity which has masked the importance of a collective, trade unions organization which is a more developed form of resistance. This attempts to provide insight into the complexity of work organization and the way it is experienced by the call agents.
- Emotional labour which is based on the emotional labour theory (Hochschild, 1983). This requires an individual to induce or suppress their feelings in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others. This provides insight and better understanding of how call agents in most cases have to define their outer expression so as to "smile down the phone".
These two theories further are explained in the chapter three.
PERSPECIVES OF CALL CENTRES
Literature has generally presented two distinct perspectives of call centres. First of all, there is the perspective presented by publicists who have portrayed exciting images of a call centre. It portrays a high level of co-operative teamwork among the employees, the call agents? work under very relaxed conditions and very professional in their interactions with their customers. The agents are said to "smile down the phone" after conversing with each customer (Taylor and Bain, 1999).
However, there is the other perspective presented by Fernie and Metcalf (1998) that portrays the call centre based on the Bentham?s panopticon. It emphasizes the constraining nature of work setting described as the electronic sweatshop or panoptical wired cage (Frenkel, 1998). Based on this view, employees are connected to information technology that automatically allocates work, facilitates its completion and monitors employee performance. In other words, work is conducted in relative isolation from other colleagues but under the constant gaze of management who are responsible for structuring and interpreting the electronic information. Work can therefore be regarded as deskilled and monotonous. They claim that the constant surveillance of the supervisors on the agents has enabled them have total control over the agents which eliminates any form of resistance from the call agents. Hence call centres have been referred to as "dark satanic mills" or new sweatshops. However, it is worth noting that their perspective was not based from a range of studies carried out on call centres but rather it was primarily based on payment systems of which they studied a call centre.
CALL CENTRES AND INFORMATION SYSTEMS
One main indication of call centres is in most cases defined in terms of the Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) they make use of rather than by any specific outputs they create (Frenkel et al, 1998; Taylor and Bain, 1999). Systems such as the Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) that places inbound calls in a queue and allocates them to the agents, speech recognition systems as well as screen capture are example of systems found in a call centre. But information systems has also increased the control and surveillance of calls (which could either be inbound or outbound), the agent that?s handles the call and virtually every activity they perform on real time basis (Robinson and Clive, 2006). Hence it is argued that technology found in call centres constitutes a version of technical control. According to Callaghan and Thompson (2001), technology tends to control speed through ensuring that call agents are aware of queue numbers and average waiting times. In such instances, managerial control is seen to be evident through the use of such technologies and could at the same time produce employee resistance. However, ICT has the potential to create skilled and enabled workforce (Fernie et al, 1998, and Kinnie et al, 2000). In such a situation, the improved employee independence may be resulted through the creation of alternative socio-technical systems within the call centre. This could be exhibited with self-managed work teams who have the tendency to produce more customized outputs when the dynamics of empowerment displaces the reality of control (Batt and Moynihan, 2004). This can be regarded as another concept of the call centre which is referred to as the semi-professional empowered worker (Winslow and Bramer, 1994). In this setting work is increasingly customized to the needs of the customer. The agent uses IT to seamlessly identify and render service to the customer and appropriate software assists in on-the-job learning thereby improving the agent?s knowledge and skills. Based on the labour process, systems implemented in the call centre are based on the expected result. According to Edward (1979) cited in Russell (2007), who first classified ICT as technological control, in agreement to this Callaghan and Thompson (2001), also argue the fact that management deliberately choose a technology that is designed in such a way as to limit the worker?s independence, hence are almost seen as part of the machine (technology) which continuously directs calls at them. This was represented in the expression of Taylor and Bain (1999) stating „the assembly line in the head?, where technology supports the formulation of specific targets of which workers are held accountable for (Taylor and Bain, 2001). Another aspect of technologies in a call centre is the organizational culture or behaviour. This is an attempt in understanding how new technologies affect the (re)organization of work. Barleys (1990), emphasized the need for researchers to focus more on how new technologies are incorporated into the everyday working lives of the organizational members. His argument was that a particular system could have different effects in various departments or jobs. This draws attention to the organizational theory which is based on the behaviour of users when a new technology is implemented focusing on how they establish patterns to either conform or deviate from the intentions of the designers (Russell, 2007). This aspect is outside the scope of this dissertation. Technology can therefore be regarded as a solution that bridges the sales and marketing functions to improve targeting efforts. In other cases, it can be viewed as a tool that is specifically for a one-to one customer interaction which is regarded as the sole responsibility of the sales/service; call centres or marketing departments (Peppers, 2000). But on the overall, it should neither be regarded as just a mere technology nor application but rather a cross-functional , customer-driven, technology-integration business process management strategy that aims at increasing and maximising relationships which also encompasses the entire organisation. This is often referred to as Customer Relation Management (CRM) (Goldenberg, 2000). Literature has shown that CRM is based on the interaction of:
- People: this refers to the people working with the system and are regarded as the building block for customer relationship,
- Business process: this defines the overall business goal of the organisation
- Technology: this is an enabler for achieving remarkable improvement in the performance of the organisation (Chen and Popovich, 2003).
These interactions are represented in the diagram below Diagram 2.1 The CRM Model (Chen and Popovich, 2003).
CALL CENTRE AND MANAGEMENT
In general, academic literatures on call centre have focused on employment, relationship and the labour process. A significant number of these literatures have focused largely on managerial perspective in terms of operations and performance. Call centres are people intensive operations and the management of the frontline employees otherwise referred to as the call agents has been identified as one of the biggest challenges for call centre managers (Houlihan, 2002). Call centres potentially contribute to customer satisfaction and retention but most organizations still fail to exploit full strategic value out of their call centre operations (Mahesh and kasturi, 2006). Traditionally service management models recommend that Organisations focus on three areas which include:
- Defining a service strategy
- Ensuring the service delivery systems are user friendly
- Managing for customer- oriented people especially on the frontline (Gilson and khandelwal, 2005).
These models further argue that it is important for the components - strategy, operations and people are all compatible but most literature show an indication of incompatibility.
CHALLENGES OF MANAGERS/SUPERVISORS IN A CALL CENTRE
Managers are faced with a number of challenges of which the most common and prevalent ones include:
The conflict of quality versus quantity: In call centres, this conflict is at the core of many other related problems (Frenkel et al, 1998; Callaghan and Thompson 2002 & dean, 2002). Measurement of both quantity and quality in most cases is based on performance. Research has shown that although management values quality, they tend to focus more on measurement and statistics which is as a result of the large amount of information provided to them. Information provided to them such as the number of calls per agent; the percentage of calls answered within a specified time frame; the average speed calls are answered, hence the shift of attention to quantity (Robinson and Clive, 2006). This has attributed to the high reliance on information systems to govern the pace of work in the call centre, provide the means to access the work of the call agents as well as monitor them. Information system can therefore be said to have shaped the social and organizational structure of the call centre (Calloghan and Thompson, 2001). But the negative consequence of this especially on the call agents include exhaustion, stress which should be of great concern to management. Organizations stress the need for customer satisfaction and have an overall strategic intent to acquire and retain their customers through high quality interfaces or interaction. But it has been observed that the aspect of quality in some case is given low priority than the efficiency of processing customer interactions (number of calls) at call centres (Mahesh and kasturi, 2006). Mahesh (1995) commented on the tendency of most organizations to move from high labour intensity and customization position of professional services to standardization and low labour intensity service. The origin of such problems could be traced back to the genesis of call centres and the reason for their rapid growth which is to reduce cost and increase efficiencies.
The conflict of Control versus Empowerment: this is another common conflict observed in the call centre. According to Houlihan (2002), the orthodox design of the call centre is rooted in a control paradigm. Early literature on call centres abound with keywords such as "blue-collar work"; "taylorism"; "battery farming"; "mental assembly line"; "worker resistance control and emotional labour" (Fernie and Metcalf, 1997; knights and McCabe, 1998). Recent literature on the other hand has indicated the need for empowerment in service, but organisations specifically in the call centre still ignore this despite the fact that studies have indicated positive outcomes from increased empowerment. Empirical data also shows that call agents perceive themselves as less empowered than other workers in traditional office environment (Holdsworth and Cartwright, 2003). Thus the control paradigm of call centres seems to extend to the area of job design as well. Researchers also argue that the frontline agents play a critical role in service delivery in which their skills, knowledge motivation and loyalty are important factors to be managed by the organization (Sergeant and Frenkel, 2000). But the mass production model used at many call centres for operational efficiency assumes that "jobs can be designed to be turn-over proof with workers as replaceable parts" (Batt and Moynihan, 2002). Hence Wallace et al, 2000 labelled this as sacrificial HR strategy. Other common problems management is faced with in the call centre according to Taylor and Bain (1999) include:
- High rates of absence due to sickness
- High labour turnover
- Problem with motivating and keeping the employees committed to their jobs
- Lack of promotion opportunities especially in flat organisational structures.
- Loss of staff following investments in training.
CALL AGENTS AND JOB STRUCTURE The general basic idea of a call centre operator or call agent is any worker with a telephone and a computer. This has led organisations in an attempt to differentiate their operations and services, come up with names such as "Customer Service Centre or Customer Satisfaction". Various literatures have shown that agents usually work in large, open-plan offices seated in cubicles that are divided shoulder-high partitions. They are wired or connected to an integrated telephone and a computer system when they put on their headphones. In the researcher?s opinion, the job function of a call agent is basically to:
- Provide customers with detailed product and procedures involved
- Process customer transactions
- Attend to customer queries in an approachable, accurate and timely manner.
- Deliver standard service at all times to customer when interacting with them which is usually in accordance to specified service standards (scripts).
In a call centre, the use of scripts either in the form of typewritten prompt or on screen template is an attempt to structure the speech of workers into a series of predictable and regulated routine queries and responses (Taylor and Bain, 1999). This could be regarded as another distinct feature of the call centre in terms of Communication between an agent and a customer. The call agents are expected to read and enter data into the computer system that is networked within the organization while interacting with the customer. This enables any other employee to easily access and retrieves the customer?s profile as well as their record history. Other expectations of call agents in relation to their work include: The call agent is expected to acquire and use lower-order and higher-order contextual knowledge in accomplishing their task (Deery et al, 2002). The lower-order contextual knowledge is knowledge about the company information; specific products; procedures; software practices and people which may be in other departments on whom the call agents depend on for updated information as well as solution for more complex problems of the customer. While the higher- order is basically a deeper understanding of the lower, although this is not acquired during training but rather it is as a result of experience. Agents with such knowledge are seen to be more confident when dealing with the customers. But it should be noted that most of the knowledge required by the agents is embedded as information either as hard copy reference manuals or available online. The call agent is expected to display some skills when executing their duties. These skills include the computer skills which have to do with inputting data; word processing and navigating through several systems. The other skill is the social skill which is used mainly when relating to customers and other staff. A lot of attention is paid to the latter skill than the former because the social skill involves the ability to remain calm under pressure especially when faced with a continuous stream of customer calls; positive and tactful attitude when executing their duties as well as not getting personally engaged which protects them from customer abuse (Kinnie et al, 2000). In general, the call agent has to be systematic; creative and know who to depend on for more complex customer queries. Call centre jobs are highly specialized and simplified, thus there is a high level of division of labour which has its advantages. But there are also disadvantages such as low task variety (monotony of work), low task complexity, low utilization of educational qualification which are most times overlooked. Call agents are known to have no influence or control over their work in terms of the pace of their work (duration of calls, how many calls they receive) and also the planning and organisation of their work. These disadvantages are some of the factors that lead to depression among call agents and monotony of their work is one of the most frequent reasons call agents quit their jobs (Deery et al, 2002).
SUMMARY This chapter has defined discussed what a call centre is and highlighted the different perspectives of call centres found in literature. It identified the theories on which the analysis of this dissertation is based on, although it is further explained in the next chapter. It also discussed the call centre from different points of views such as technology which mentioned the fact that it still requires human interaction for any organisation to achieve its maximum potential, management who determine the work pace of the call centre. Although highlighting the challenges they are faced with, it also identified areas where they need to place more attention (i.e. control vs. empowerment). Lastly it discussed the general idea of call agents? job descriptions. This has served as a background to further explore in this research the working conditions of the call centre and determine the effect of information systems on their jobs.
THEORY AND RESEARCH METHODOLOGY
INTRODUCTION This chapter discusses the research approach adopted for this research based on the chosen theory. It also highlights the research methodology discussing the rationale behind it. It also gives a description of the researcher?s experience on the field.
RESEARCH APPROACH Literature has shown that there are three main research approaches which include the positivist, interpretive and critical (Avison and Pries-Heje, 2005). This dissertation is adopting the interpretive approach which as defined by Oates (2006) is concerned with understanding the social context of an information system, the social processes involved in its development and construed by people through which it influences and is influenced by its social setting. This approach was found appropriate because it recognizes the importance of human interpretation and interaction (Walsham, 1995). However the use of qualitative data provides more insight in examining technology and its social context (Walsham et al, 2007).
RESEARCH METHOD This dissertation was conducted in a telecommunication industry located in Nigeria. Thirty of the employees comprised of inbound; outbound agents and the IT department employees were interviewed during a period of three weeks. During this period, the call agents were observed (non participative). The researcher conducted a semi-structured interview because this offered flexibility during the course of the interview and at the same time allowing the researcher explores interesting areas that may arise. It also enabled the researcher clarify misleading or ambiguous questions (Cornford and Smithson, 2006).
DATA ANALYSIS Data generated from the semi-structured interviews would be analysed using the thematic analysis. In literature, the thematic analysis has two approaches which are namely:
The deductive approach: in which themes are derived from existing theories found in literatures.
The inductive approach: are themes derived from categories observed in the data generated from those interviewed, or from other literature or documents studied. For the purpose of this research, the inductive approach was adopted. This was as a result of a change in the researcher?s mindset that initially started off with a limited knowledge as regards the nature of work in the call centre. However during the course of interviewing; interacting with the call agents and further reading of literature and documents, the researcher was then able to better relate to the call centre environment. This led the researcher to adjust the initial questions prepared for the semi-structured interviews to more relevant questions. Themes were then identified from the data generated.
THEORY CHOSEN This research is based on two theories namely the emotional labour theory (Hochschild, 1983) and the labour process theory (Foucault, 1977) which are found in this research to be inter-related.
LABOR PROCESS THEORY: This in most cases is referred to as the Foucauldian electronic panopticon. It is based on a prison designed by Bentham hence it is also referred to as Bentham?s panopticon. It was adapted by Foucault (1977) in which a detached tower in a prison was centrally situated for central observation (surveillance) of the inmates. As a result, all the individual inmates knew they were always been watched from the tower but they could never see the observer, hence never knew precisely when they were been watched. The major effect of this was to stimulate the inmates to a perpetual state of consciousness and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. In other words, the effect of surveillance is permanent even when it is discontinued in reality. In this view, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible (inmates are constantly viewed) and unverifiable (at the same time never know precisely when or not they are been watched). But it is worth noting, that apart from surveillance in prisons, panopticon can also be applicable in a laboratory, where it is used in carrying out experiments such as medicines and monitoring their effects, to alter behaviour, train or correct individuals, although this is beyond the scope of this dissertation. A critique of this theory is the fact that intensive monitoring and tightened controls could have counter-productive effects. It could result in the agents becoming under-performed and could eventually damage the company profile with the customers (Taylor and Bain, 2000).
THE EMOTIONAL LABBOUR THEORY: This theory was developed by Hochschild (1983) in her attempt to understand the labour process in an airline industry. In examining a flight attendant concluded, in the course of doing physical labour (pushing heavy meal carts through the aisles) and mental labour(preparing and actually organizing emergency landings and evacuations), the flight attendant was doing something more, which she named as emotional labour. Hochschild defined emotional labour as "the management of feelings to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display for a wage". Therefore, this form of labour requires a person to induce or suppress their feelings in order to sustain the outward countenance that produces the proper state of mind in others. Hence it requires a coordination of mind and feelings. These theories were found suitable for this research because from literature it was observed that researchers are beginning to recognize the importance of organisational behaviour in terms of emotions in the everyday work life (Fisher & Ashkanasy, 2000). One of the areas that have attracted such attention is the management of emotions as part of the work place (emotional labour). Also in most organizations especially the customer service departments in this case the call centre which is the focus of this research, there are specified emotional displays rules such as appropriate telephone manners and behaviours such as "smile down the phone" which according to Hochschild defines the outer countenance. These indicate the appropriate emotion the employees are to display when executing their jobs irrespective of their feelings under the circumstance (Gross, 1998). Although in most cases involves the call agents faking or suppressing an inappropriate emotion when executing their duties (emotional labour). Also in the call centre in relation to the labour process theory, the agents are constantly visible through the use of information systems, thus has rendered the supervisor?s control perfect. RESEARCH DESIGN The research study was conducted in CELTEL, which is a one of the big telecommunication Organisations located in Lagos, Nigeria. Initial contact was made with the Head of Department of the call centre with a letter of introduction stating the research proposal (see Appendix A). The call agents and the IT department employees were mailed the participant information sheet informing them of the purpose for the research (see Appendix B) as well as the consent form (see Appendix C). This was done ahead of the proposed interview dates to enable them indicate both their consent and availability. The total number of respondents was thirty call agents and three IT employees. The duration of each interview was between forty five minutes to an hour thirty minutes.
This chapter identifies that a qualitative research approach is adopted and discussed labour process theory and emotional labour theory as the theories chosen as a lens to interpret the research findings. It also gives a description of the researcher?s experience on the field.
INTRODUCTION This chapter discusses the present state of telecommunication in UK, highlighting the challenges the industry encounters. This chapter also discussed the findings from the semi-structured interviews with the call agents and the IT employees. TELECOMMUNICATION IN UK:- Over the years, the telecommunication industry in UK, has been observed to grow with more applications and sophisticated features been added (Grover and Goslar, 1993). Its importance to the business community has also become increasingly evident especially in Nigeria where telecommunication has a big impact on its economy. The telecommunication sector is currently undergoing very rapid changes and growth. The liberalization of the sector and competition by private operators has brought about very substantial benefits to subscribers in terms of low prices and enhanced choice. As at December 2004, an average growth rate of 125% subscribers was realized annually, yet Nigeria still had a great demand. There is substantial evidence showing the deep quest by consumers as well as good quality service operators. These service operators in turn are constantly investing in infrastructures to as to meet up with demand. However some issues have been identified that pose as challenges to the continuous growth of the telecommunication industry. These include:
- Poor public power supply
- Poor security as infrastructures are often vandalized
- High import duty
- Anti-competitive practices with some operators alleged to be forming cartels to frustrate the natural interplay of the market forces
- Funds needed by operators to expand operations
- High operational cost.
Nigeria at present is officially the largest market for telecommunication in Africa and The mobile sector has played a key role to its growth. However the network congestion due to strong demand for service by consumers resulted in a reduction of sales by telecommunications operators in 2003 as the regulator insisted on the increase of network capacity to accommodate the high demand. But over the four years into the mobile revolution queues of vendors; other customers that would like to lodge a complaint are still observed at many operator vendors or "friendship centres". (NCC, 2004)
CELTEL. CELTEL is one of the big players in telecommunication in Nigeria. It is one of the three major telecommunication Organisations presently. Although as at the time of research, the organisation was undergoing management changes which would also affect the name of the organisation. But for the purpose of this dissertation, the researcher decided to refer the organisation by its old name since it was under this management this research initially began.
THE STUDY This research was conducted in CELTEL?s call centre for a period of three weeks. Over this period, the researcher conducted semi- structured interviews with thirty three employees comprising of
- Three from the IT department employees: this was to enable the researcher gain background knowledge has to the systems that where implemented in the call centre and also obtain a general overview of how the system works.
- Thirty call agents from both the inbound and outbound departments and
- Two team leaders.
The interviews lasted for a period of forty-five minutes to one hour thirty minutes. INFORMATION SYSTEMS IN A THE CALL CENTRES.
Over the years the systems used in the call centre have either changed or have been upgraded. In the early years, the call agents in the organization both inbound and outbound agents had to work with the same kind of applications on the system. This was quite difficult because the number of applications the call agent had to navigate through to extract the desired information about the customer. This contributed in making the work quite difficult and tedious rendering them less efficient. However over the years, the systems and applications were modified in such a way that only the applications relevant to a particular unit in the department for instance the outbound unit were implemented. This made an evident change in the efficiency and speed of the call agent in extracting a customer?s data. Having interviewed the IT department employees, the main systems used in the call centre include: The AVAYA System: It basically functions as the Automatic Call Distribution (ACD), which is used for prompting calls and distributing it to the agents? based on the requirements of the caller. Although English language is a standard language in Nigeria, it should not be ignored that there are a number of different languages spoken in Nigeria. Therefore, the systems have been enhanced to consider such conditions so as to transfer such calls to the appropriate agent that understands and speaks the language in question. The GENESYS System: this is a superior form of the AVAYA system which basically functions as the AVAYA system in routing calls. But it is enhanced in the sense that it performs skilled routing. During the training period of the call agents, they undergo various assessments which are used to measure their levels of competency in various areas such as fluency in English or other traditional languages. The call agents are usually scored in a 1 to 5 scale with 5 been very fluent and this information is fed into the system. Therefore, when a call comes in, the GENESYS system not only checks for the next available agent but also checks for the best in the relevant criteria. This was adopted as a means of management ensuring that customers always receive quality handling. The system is also used for report querying in assessing the performance of the call agents. The NICE System: is basically used for call monitoring (video and voice) and call recording. This is the system supervisors and managers refer to when monitoring and assessing the performance of a call agent. It is also used when a complaint has been made concerning the service an agent offered. This system provides real time capture of what is on the screen of the agent at any point in time. It is also used to run query reports for assessing the performance of the call agents.
In the opinion of the IT employees, the systems implemented in the call centre are up to date and capable of meeting the demands of the market as well as the number of agents working on the system at a time. Although the systems are partially outsourced it has been tailored to suit their needs except in very serious faults or high level of technical maintenance, they are responsible for the maintenance of the systems.
FINDINGS AND DISCUSSION
ISSUES FOUND IN THE CALL CENTRE. In identifying the issues and challenges in the call centre, the labour process theory and the emotional labour process theory were used as the lens. This section is divided into two sections: the issues identified by:
- IT employees
- The call agents.
ISSUES IDENTIFIED BY THE IT EMPLOYEES: The main issue raised by the IT employee concerning the information systems implemented is the fact that the NICE logger has a very small storage capacity. As stated by the IT employees, "Every morning I have to move the call recorded for the previous day to another system that had a bigger storage capacity. Any day this is not done and the storage capacity is full it automatically starts to delete records of earlier calls". This is a big problem for supervisors or management who need to listen back to the calls especially assessing the performance of the call agents or investigating a query raised by a customer concerning the attitude or service of a call agent. Apart from this, there was the general satisfaction regarding the systems in the call centre which was as a result of the huge amount investment s management places on the systems in the call centre. This Suggests that the systems presently found in the call centre are standard and up to date as compared to any other call centre found in the western world. Although the systems were co-outsourced, they have been fully trained to run and maintain the systems and only in cases of major failures or maintenance where the vendors are invited to work on the system. Other issues the IT department has are with the call agents, in terms of the agents downloading large files from the internet for their personal use. The agents usually blame the IT department for having very slow systems. However, the IT staff discovered that a potential cause of the slowness of the systems was the number and the sizes of the files call agents? were downloading. As a resolution to this, they periodically check the systems and clean up whatever personal files they have stored on the system. This was not quite effective, because during the shifts the agents were still found downloading files. In an attempt to resolving this issue, the IT department implemented some restrictions on the system reducing the access the agents had to the internet. There have been improvements but it is still an issue because some agents have still found their way around the restrictions to download files. Agents also log on as not ready or they drop calls but all this can be discovered when query reports are run of which there is no set time as to when these queries are run. Thus there is the possibility that agents do this and get away with such behaviours. General challenges the IT staff are faced with include:
- Network failure
- Power failure
ISSUES IDENTIFIED BY THE CALL AGENTS: The working conditions and were found to be the most prevalent issue in the call centre.
ISSUES WITH THE WORKING CONDITIONS:
Targets: the inbound call agents were expected to meet a target of one hundred and thirty calls during the day shift (morning and afternoon). Each shift lasts for about seven hours with only thirty minutes of break. The night shift was expected to meet a target of two hundred and twenty calls but since the hours were longer, they had two hours of break. The inbound agents have a talk time of one minute and thirty seconds for each call including wrap up time or could be referred to as handling time. A wrap up time is the period an agent leaves a footnote on the customer?s profile account, stating precisely what the customer?s issue was; if it was resolved stating how it was resolved or if the issue was not resolved and the reason why it was not resolved. This is usually done simultaneously or after conversing with the customer. The agent immediately after this indicates the ready mode to the system for the next call. The outbound agents have an average handling time of four minutes and are expected to make a hundred calls a day. A large number of the call agents in the inbound department, had an issue with the targets they had to meet in each shift especially the day shifts. They regarded the targets as well as the wrap up time as been unrealistic. Although some of them were of the opinion that the targets were unrealistic but it was still achievable. The problem in this case is the fact that they would not offer quality service to their customers. However a few number of them had no issue with the targets, quoting one of them, "In my opinion, the targets are reasonable after all if agents knew their job well they would go straight to the point. After all not all customers would have complex issues. The fact is that most agents just want to have some time between calls to chat around". During the course of the agents performing their duties, the researcher observed that the working environment of the inbound staff was more intense than that of the outbound. This could be attributed to the fact that the system (AVAYA) automatically directs the call to an agent, thus they have no control over it. Unlike the outbound agents whose work is the reverse in the sense that, they make the calls to their customers. This enables them plan their time and the team leaders are not strict as to how they plan their job, but still keep a watchful eye and monitor ensure they make the calls and meet their targets.
Although the outbound agents had a more relaxed working condition, their job was still very tedious and demanding because since they were making the calls to the customers. Customers were seen to take advantage of the situation to resolve any issue they had instead of later calling the customer care service. Thus the outbound agents in most cases are seen to virtually execute both the outbound and inbound duties simultaneously with the same talk time limit. On the other hand, the outbound environment was very tense because the call just kept „pouring in? and the agents are given little or no time between calls to have a quite break. On one occasion, as mentioned by an agent when in an attempt to have a quick break after a stream of calls, she placed her system on a not ready status. Almost immediately, the supervisor worked up to her work station and asked her to get herself back on the ready status because of the volume of calls coming in. In general, it can be seen that due to the targets the call agents have to achieve in each shift and the constant surveillance of their supervisors all add up to the intense labour process found in the call centre. Agents in turn have found ways to "beat" the system in an attempt to achieve the required targets. The two main ways agents attempt to achieve this is for the agent to:
- Log in to the system and yet display the not ready status
- Transferring calls to other agents
- Drop calls.
However, this can be discovered when query reports are run of which they have no knowledge as to how data is collated or which calls are listened to when these queries are run. This suggests that there is a chance that the agents can get away with such behaviours depending on how often supervisors or management listen to their calls or check the system as regards the status of an agent.
The Performance Evaluation Scheme: the performance evaluation is done quarterly and is based on both quality (60%) and quantity (40%). Although the agents are quite aware of the criteria by which they are assessed on, they are not quite pleased about the grading system. Quality: this entails how the customer was initially greeted on receiving the call; how the required information was presented to the customer displaying a good understanding of the information required by the customer; how the conversation ended (which was referred to as wrap up), updating the information (the customer?s request and the agent?s response) into the customer?s profile in the system. Quantity: this is based on the average number of calls the agent receives per shift; the average talk time the agent spent on each customer and the wrap up time, and the average time between calls (this is from the time an agent ends a call to the time when the agent is ready to answer another call).
The agents are graded on a scale of 1, 3 and 5. The agents are not pleased and felt this was quite unrealistic because for each grade there was a set percentage. For instance to attain 3 grade the agent has to have 60% and to attain 5, 100%. This by itself had a demoralizing effect on the agents because as stated by one of the agents, „The evaluation no longer has an effect on most of the call agents because no matter how much effort put into your work, attaining 100% is impossible. It is only possible in cases where the agent ignores the quality aspect, which of course they get disciplined for it if discovered. Its equality painful knowing that having put so much effort and attains a score like 80% or even 90%, you are still graded a 3 alongside someone else who probably did not put as much effort and scored 65%. Bearing that in mind, one tends to just ignore the evaluation and go about doing their job without any form of drive or enthusiasm as long as you don?t get in to trouble?. This is an indication of how the job affects the call agents emotionally, especially knowing that your efforts are not been recognized but rather based solely on the grading system. The Systems / Applications: the call agents (outbound and inbound) work with a number of different applications. Previously, the agents found this quite challenging because they all worked with all the applications installed on their systems. This made it difficult to retrieve a customer?s information as different parts of their information were present on different applications. Recently, management during the course of upgrading their systems separated the departments and the relevant application for that department i.e. each agent working in their various departments make use of only applications that are relevant to their work. Also, the various applications are now been integrated into a single application so as to facilitate the speed and efficiency of the agent, especially in retrieving the customer?s details instead of opening various application for the same customer?s account. However, the call agents especially those in the outbound department still have some issues with the system despite the fact that the systems had recently just be upgraded. The system was still affected by the number of users. As explained by an agent, "There was a period of time when the system would only permit thirty agents at a time to make calls and there are about sixty agents per shift. This meant that the thirty first person would not be able to make a call until one of the previous thirty people already on a call ends their call". This makes the work very slow and more frustrating because despite this challenge, they still had to meet their targets. Although more allowance has been made to accommodate more agents; they are still faced with this issue especially when everyone is on a call. Surveillance: the agents are well aware of the fact that they are constantly been watched by management although cannot tell precisely when they are listening to their calls or capturing what is on their screen. The researcher was of the general opinion and observed that the agents have more or less developed a numb towards the surveillance nature of management. They now regard it as a way of life and as an agent said "It does not bother me that they are listening to my calls or can see what is on my screen. It would only be a bother when you know you are doing something wrong" Transferring calls: the ability for call agents to transfer calls to their colleagues was another issue the agents had with the system. As earlier mentioned, Nigeria is a country with a lot of diverse languages such as Hausa, Yoruba etc, although English is the standard language in the country. There were cases where there was language barrier between the customer and the call agent. Therefore, in such cases agents were seen to transfer such calls to another agent who they knew could speak the language. This ability was meant to be of an advantage in cases of where the agent had a difficult issue from a customer and needs help from either a supervisor or a colleague but rather it turned out to have a bad effect especially on the agent that kept receiving such calls. This was because the agent became overworked having to deal with meeting his own target as well as answering such transferred calls. However, it is worth noting that these transferred calls are not counted for the agent who eventually handles the call but rather for the initial agent who transferred the call to his colleague. This did not seem fair to some of the agents due to the volume of calls they handled in addition to the transferred call. This was eventually addressed by management by recruiting more call agents solely on the language criteria and the system modified to direct such calls to only the appropriate agents. Agents also took advantage of this ability and were constantly transferring calls to their colleagues for no reason apart from them trying to meet their target.
ISSUES OF CALL AGENTS WITH MANAGEMENT Nature of work: From the call agents? point of view, management has a blur idea as regards the nature of the call centre job. They are of the opinion that management do not regard or acknowledge their hard work despite the conditions under which they perform their duties. Times when they approached management to review their working conditions by reducing their targets and increase the talk times, their request was turned down and quoting an agent, "The job of a call agent basically entails sitting down for a few hours and all they have to do is either receive or make certain amount of calls, how hard can that be". This shows that management including other departments generally has a wrong impression about call agents and the nature of their jobs. They have little or no idea on the intense labour process of the call centre. The researcher had the opportunity of observing them for a few days and was of the opinion that the job is a lot more than just receiving calls. The mere fact of sitting in a particular position for a few hours, watching them repeat the same activity continuously was so exhausting. This was a very enlightening experience for the researcher as regards the nature of work of the call agents. Education: There is also the false impression management has concerning the level of education the call agents possess. There is the general belief that call agents are not well educated. But the researcher discovered that the contrary was the case. Most of the call agents are first degree holders from reputable universities, others had diplomas from the technical schools and a few percentages of them have attained their masters? degree. But due to the wrong impression people have about the call centre, the job is not generally regarded with prestige as other professions. This explains why management when approached to review their work conditions or their salaries utter statements quoting an agent, „Management believes that high school children can equally get the job done with a lower salary. So if they are not ready to do the work they can resign?. Following the discussions and observations the researcher had with the call agents, it was obvious that the very intense and repetitive nature of their job affects them emotionally. As an agent summarized the situation of the call agents as, „Over the years the systems have been improved upon and are upgraded regularly but the major issue is the fact that most of the agents are burnt out?. The statement above summaries the emotional effect of the job on the call agents. This is because having to constantly put up with all these issues and still be at their best when performing their duties is very demanding mentally. Also knowing that their complaints are not been attended to, in other words „falling on deaf ears? contributes to the emotional job effect. The emotional effects of these issues have been seen in some cases to manifest in their health. The researcher discovered that some had developed health issues such as back aches, asthma etc during the years they have been working in the call centre
SUMMARY This chapter has provided background knowledge of status of telecommunication in Nigeria and how it contributes to the country?s development. This chapter identified and discussed the main issues raised by both IT employees and the call agents. It identified the role of information systems in the call centre; how it is been used by management and the call agents and its effect on the call agents. CONCLUSION. INTRODUTION This chapter is an evaluation of the research findings with a reflection on its implications for practice. It also suggests some recommendations for future research. SUMMARY OF DISSERTATION In dissertation chapter one was introduction giving a brief background of the proposed research, as well as stating the researcher?s intention also highlighting the aims and objectives. Chapter two was a literature review of call centres indicating the different areas in which previous research has been conducted. Chapter three was a discussion of the research method adopted in this dissertation and the method data was gathered which was by conducting semi- structured interviews. Chapter four was a discussion of the findings obtained from the semi- structured interviews in the organization highlighting their issues and challenges. RESEARCH CONTRIBUTION There have been quite a number of researches that have been conducted in the area of the call centre. This dissertation has attempted to bring to light the working conditions of the call agent in relation to information systems which was one of the objectives. In the researcher?s opinion, having interviewed and observed the call agents, there is a lot of focus and investments on the information systems implemented in the call centre. This is a good thing in its own aspect bearing in mind that the organization in question is located in a developing country. This is an indication of the progress developing countries are making in the implementation of Information systems and the significan
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