Call Centers are 'White Collar Sweatshops?'

Patrick Barnard
Group Managing Editor, TMCnet

Call Centers are 'White Collar Sweatshops?'

CRM Buyer's Maria Verlengia has an article today about how call centers can't hold onto their agents because they are such miserable places to work, plus the pay is so low, plus they offer few opportunities for advancement. In fact, the article refers to call centers as "white collar sweat shops," which in my opinion is true in many ways.

As some of you may already know from my past posts, I was a part-time outbound agent, doing mostly market research, during the mid to late 1980s. But it was a totally different time - as the CRM Buyer report points out, today's call centers employ advanced technologies such as call recording/quality monitoring, performance management and workforce management - automated systems which can make agents feel like they are working under the shadow of "Big Brother." Every aspect of the agent's performance today can be measured - the manager can even find out, with surprising accuracy, how many minutes per shift you spend on the john. For that reason I'm not sure I'd make it in today's call center world (and no, it's not due to incontinence ...)

The real irony (and a theme which keeps recycling over and over) is how organizations emphasize the importance of the job - after all, a call center agent is on the frontline of your customer service - the person who directly interacts with your customers -- and yet companies generally only pay their agents minimum wage, or something slightly north of that. My analogy is it's like putting an air traffic controller in a tower, telling him he's in charge of protecting the lives of thousands (if not tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions) of people and then offering him $10 an hour. Will he do a good job? Will he stay on the job?

In the article, Paul Stockford, chief analyst at
Saddletree Research and director of research for the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), points out that the cost of hiring and training new agents can actually be more in the long run, compared to offering slightly higher wages. Citing a 2008 survey of 70 call centers conducted by Furst Person
, which specializes in call center staffing, he says the cost of attrition in the U.S. averages around $5,466 per individual.

One former call center worker interviewed for the article states that better working conditions and higher pay would probably go a long way to help reduce attrition. But I wouldn't hold your breath for any sweeping changes in those two areas anytime soon.

One interesting point the article raises is that some centers might actually be seeing lower attrition, as of late, due to the slumped economy and lousy job market. This is entirely believable - but it also makes me wonder, what the impact is on all these agents who feel "trapped" in their jobs? Is this a good thing for customer service ... or not?

And, as the article points out, growth of the home-based or remote agent model has been seriously hampered by security concerns (the biggest of which is home-based agents jotting down people's credit card numbers and other personal info down on paper, for ID theft purposes, as they talk with them on the phone).

It's a good article, in that it touches on many of the challenges the call center industry faces, but at the same time there are few points where it seems almost self-contradictory - like at the end, when the author quotes an agent saying how "fun" the job is. I guess the main point is, even though a call center job can be "fun" at times, that "fun" quickly wears off and it doesn't take long before you find yourself searching for new opportunities.



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