“Call centres are the electronic assembly lines of the new economy” – Phil Jennings, Union Network International

The last few months have been a busy and exciting time for Tomorrow Training. We have been up to a lot of good things, which have been really fun and educational and so it is not always easy to decide what to talk about. But after some deliberation I have decided to talk about call centres, since they are such a prominent part of how we do business today.

Call centres became widely used in South Africa in the 1980s although one could argue they have their origins in the humble ‘telephone exchange’, which was used in South Africa even up until the 1960s. Their wide-spread use, globally, coincided with the quickly emergent Computer and IT industries, as companies needed to set up ‘support centres’ or ‘HelpDesks’ as they came to be known. These centres promptly came to be seen as useful in promoting efficiency for communication between the inside and outside of the business. To a large extent, they really have changed the face of how companies interact with their clients or customers (although the use of social media is now becoming increasingly popular in some sectors). Essentially the need for call centres rose out of massive and relatively fast population growth globally, increased competition, and a major increase in the volume of activity necessitating communication between big organisations and their clients. Simultaneously, conglomerates were being developed, multi-national corporations became more widespread and mergers, both national and international, took place.  So much so that in South Africa in the mid-1980s about 500 people were employed as call centre agents. However, it was in the 1990s that call centres really ‘took off’ in South Africa with companies like M-Net (later to become MultiChoice), Eskom, ABSA Bank, Standard Bank and First National Bank pioneering this sector.  Today there are about 150 000 people employed in call centres across South Africa (although the majority are in Gauteng); and this sector is currently one of the fastest growing economic sectors in South Africa, according to the Department of Trade and Industry.

However, with over 300 000 school leavers annually, an unemployment rate estimated at 25.3% (according to Statistics SA) and about 2.8 million young people between 18 – 24 years old who are either jobless or being trained for the job market, I think there is huge scope for South Africa to place itself as an internationally recognised service provider of call centres for international conglomerates looking to move their call centres offshore. We are an English speaking country, we have, or have the means to produce, the infrastructure and relatively speaking to America and Europe our salary expectations are competitive.

However, if South Africa was to position itself as a player in this market, we would need to learn a lot. Other developing countries like India and China have already caught on to this revenue and employment generating opportunity. We also have a 30% per annum staff turn-over in our average call centres, which is significant. My immediate response is: why?

One of the key reasons for this is a generational one. People who work in call centres tend to be young (Generation X and now increasingly even Generation Y). Why, because recent school leavers, with just a Matric, can gainfully be employed in a call centre. However, one of the problems with this age group is that they don’t really even like talking on the telephone. Generation X prefers communicating via email and Generation Y’s prefer instant messaging like Mixit or even social networking sites.  The other thing orchestrators of call centres need to realise is that 12 hour shifts are really daunting for a generation who suffer from attention deficit disorder en-masse. We expect these poor folk to sit in front of a computer screen with a head set on – if they are lucky – in a stuffy room painted in bland colours (possibly decorated in Boomer paraphernalia) being articulate, responsible, accountable, polite and enthusiastic enough about their job to make good first impressions and build lasting relationships with people they have never met and don’t really care about. What worries me is that Generation X and Y have one fundamental difference to Boomers and Silents and that is, they are not really afraid of authority. They understand consequences and rules and boundaries just like older generations do, but the difference is, for older people all those things are expected and for younger people those things are earned.

So as employers of people working in call centres, we have to entice them to want to ‘do better’ at their job by providing them with as much support as our budgets will allow; and I am not talking about money. Especially if we have to keep them there doing shift work, which most of us do, we have got to provide them with ‘add-ons’ like subsidised meals at your canteen, a gym, or a crèche to make their lives more convenient. We have got to start seeing things holistically, and understand that the ‘you’re just a number’ approach is no longer appropriate. Many of these people are single parents who don’t have their own transport and may be living on the last cent of their salary by the middle of the month. Increasingly they are resentful of what seems to be the unfairness of their working conditions. My advice: give them a voice and negotiate their working conditions.

It is in your interest to gain call centre agent loyalty because to a large extent they are the face of the company. It is their performance during that 12 hour shift that may be the difference between your customers taking away a satisfactory customer experience and a good customer experience. The former will do nothing for you. The latter will increase your client or customer base because word of mouth marketing is still the most effective. 

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