John DiJulius | Customer Experience Blog

Are call centers white collar sweat shops?
March 18, 2014, 10:20 am
Filed under: Customer Service

Are call centers white collar sweat shops?

written by Dave Murray

Senior Customer Service Consultant for The DiJulius Group


I read a great post recently written by Maria Verlengia for CRM Buyer.  In it, she quotes Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research and director of research for the National Association of Call Centers (NACC).  In the quote, Stockford refers to call centers as a “white collar sweat shop.”  I had never heard this reference before, but it immediately hit home for me.  All the stressful time I had spent either as a CSR, supervisor, manager or director, this reference made perfect sense to me.  Almost as if my life was flashing before my eyes, the comment made me think of all of the angry Customers holding for an answer, the unresolved issues landing on my desk, and the repetitive nature of the work, not to mention the micro-management.


Think about the typical call center environment for a moment – perhaps your own.  They are very often made up of mundane cubicles allowing for little to no creativity.  Call times and wait times are the metrics that matter most, which automatically causes each call to be about the transaction rather than the interaction.  And last but certainly far from least, many CSR’s see limited growth opportunities, even in companies experiencing tremendous growth.


I was curious what others thought when they heard the “sweat shop” reference, so I reached out to a few former employees for their thoughts.  The common theme that I heard as a cause of the “sweat shop” atmosphere was an overall feeling of lack of respect and appreciation, both from other departments within the organization and Customers.  Second on the list was lack of pay for what they know is a very important position within the organization.


My follow-up question was, “What is worse, being micro managed or being in an environment where you are trusted, but some employees try and succeed when not pulling their weight?”  The overwhelming answer was something right in the middle – a good mix of autonomy and accountability.  But how does a call center manager achieve this?


The Balance Between too much and too little

When I oversaw a call center, I went with a pretty simple rule: Hire great people with passion for the product, and let then do their job.  Give them the guidelines and tools they need to succeed, and get out of the way.  As I learned, that works well —  for a while.  But here is what happens.  People become tired and burned out from the repetitive nature of the work.  Their lives change for whatever reason, and they loose some of their passion for your company or product.  Maybe they start to feel taken advantage of because they have not advanced as quickly as they thought. 


What happens when one of the scenarios above occurs is that employees sometimes find ways to “hide” from work.  Time spent on “projects” and other ancillary tasks may increase, allowing employees to skip their fair share of inbound calls. They may also find a way to log themselves out of an e-mail queue.  Obviously, two major negatives will occur when this happens: Customer response times may suffer, and fellow employees will catch on to these tricks and feel slighted and burdened.  Compounding the issue is that this can happen to any employee, even someone you once considered your best.  In this case, trust may be high and need for accountability low, allowing the behavior to continue for a while before it is uncovered.


In this world of micro-management of one’s time, tasks, and call volume, we must always remember this:  How can we expect our employees to treat our best Customers the way we would like them to IF we don’t treat our employees as well, if not better?  We cannot.  We need our CSR’s to be ambassadors of our companies and our products.  As we all know, very often the call center is the only human interaction our Customers have with us.  Also, very often the Customer is taking the time to call us because they have encountered some type of problem.  Wouldn’t we all love to have our CSR’s be known as problem solvers as opposed to policy enforcers?  Would we all love to hear more instances of heroic resolutions as opposed to Customers asking for a supervisor to move their complaint up the ladder?


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