Call Center Perks: Pool Tables Yes, Encounter Groups No.

David Sims : First Coffee
David Sims
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Call Center Perks: Pool Tables Yes, Encounter Groups No.

By David Sims

The news as of the first coffee this morning, and the music is the great Canadian Celtic rock bar band The Dust Rhinos' album Sociable -- Live:

The British site has a report on the two-phase effort of insurance intermediary Kwik-Fit Financial Services to "improve working life for its people."

This is commendable. Highly. Call center employees are frequently treated as so many interchangeable parts, rarely as people who want to do well at a job. And the first phase of Kwik-Fit's efforts was great. Truly. This second phase is… well, I don't know.

At many call centers, the employees feel almost like prisoners. Heck, sometimes they are prisoners -- an Australian contact center newsletter reported last year that prisoners "are to operate telephones for $35 a week at a call center inside a Sydney jail."

About 30 female inmates at the medium-security Dillwynia Correctional Center, according to the report, "will handle inquiries for government agencies within the next month before pitching for private sector campaigns in the future."

The inmates reportedly "will soon begin marketing CSI products, such as recycled ink cartridges and refurbished furniture, to schools and businesses." If they do well on that, they get to "take calls for government agencies, such as license renewal inquiries normally handled by the Roads and Traffic Authority."

Also last year First Coffee saw a report on female prisoners in Singapore working twelve hours a day in a call center as outsource fulfillment for telecom companies in Southeastern Asia. No comments on how much they were paid -- or if they were paid.

Naturally prisoners, virtual or actual, are not the most highly motivated, productive employees one can have. Although absenteeism and turnover aren't the problem among the actual prisoners that they can be among the virtual variety, First Coffee imagines.

Kwik-Fit does try harder than pretty much any contact center First Coffee's seen to keep their call agents happy and motivated, and they have a 50 percent brilliant idea for doing so: Witness the "Making KFSS A Fantastic Place" program put in place last year.

According to News42, Kwik-Fit Financial Services revamped its call center in Uddingston, eight miles east of Glasgow, after asking employees for suggestions -- and receiving 6,550 of them. They spent millions of pounds putting in an IP telephone system, and added a few things not exactly commonplace in call centers:

Some are small things that don't cost anything at all: Employees get to have mugs instead of cups. Some of the other things do cost, but really not a whole heck of a lot, like the nursery opened on the premises. And some things, if done right, shouldn't cost at all, like the coffee franchise, Costa Coffee, opened in the call center restaurant.

Some things just show you're thinking of your employees: Kwik-Fit hired a concierge for employees, who for 5 pounds a month will help out with such jobs as picking up dry cleaning and going to the post office, and a "Minister of Fun," who organizes parties, football games and such for employees. They devised a new pension scheme as well.

Some suggestions were quietly shelved, such as the proposed rooftop helicopter pad. Of course one wonders which employee wishes to get to work via helicopter, and just what such an individual is doing working at a call center.

News42 reports that Kwik-Fit built a "chill out" room, "equipped with board games, vending machines, satellite TV, sofas, table football, games machines and two pool tables." Not expensive stuff, but it lets employees know you put some thought into making their work conditions nice. You know, the ol' "it's not about the money" idea.

Is it working? Over a two-year period the company's staff turnover had dropped by 18 per cent. Plug in your favorite horror numbers for how much employee turnover costs, pick the upper-end costs for pool tables and minimum-wage nursery help and the other amenities and see for yourself if the program's been worth it or not.

But they don't simply incentivize people to show up for work. Last year 18 employees from the approximately 1,000-employee center won all-expense paid trips to New York, the top earner won a car, and there are about a hundred professional skills courses employees can take provided by the center. Hundred-pound shopping vouchers, choice parking spaces and other incentives are handed out frequently for "outstanding quality results," or simply to names pulled from a hat.

Following on the success of that initiative is phase two, just announced: "Fantastic You." First Coffee's frankly dubious over both the goals and idea behind this one, mainly because I can't identify either.

Described as "an innovative scheme designed to build relationships, increase confidence and trust and promote stronger team working within each of the departments of the business," what the program does is sponsor retreats in a specially designed relaxation room within the Uddingston call center, and have "teams taking part in story telling workshops that encourage employees to share stories of positive experiences in their life," according to

The first phase, the putting pool tables and decent coffee in call centers, awarding trips to New York, the best parking spaces to top performers, great stuff. All for it. Sponsoring "retreats" to listen to each other talk, ummmm… the point being what, exactly?

I can see the overall idea. I can see where Kwik-Fit's HR Director Keren Edwards is coming from when she says "We are dedicated to continuing on our journey of improvement." I'm standing applauding when she notes that "we are already delighted to be offering our people a competitive package, from flexi-benefits to a chill out club, the new on-site nursery to a Costa Coffee franchise -- all ideas that came from phase one of our project."

So far so good. A-plus. But the "'Fantastic You" program is, well… it allows employees to "share experiences that have motivated or inspired them or shaped or changed their lives in some way," according to Edwards, who professes herself "amazed by the trust and enthusiasm that each of the participants have paid to the program at this early stage."

Maybe it's because it's a new program that we're not seeing any ROI associated with it the way we do with an 18 percent drop in turnover after the first phase. It has admittedly just rolled out, but the problem is that there are no real ROI metrics possible. A red flag goes up when there's no concrete (i.e. monetary) reason for "Why are we doing this?"

Take the first part of the project, making the call center a better place for human beings than a Singaporean or Australian prison. Good idea. Put in video games, have someone run your errands while you're working, if you work hard you win a trip to the Big Apple, you can drop your kid off at the on-site nursery, name- out- of- a- hat prizes, great stuff -- tied to a specific goal, reducing employee turnover, which is tied to a specific company profit metric, saving the cost of replacing and training new employees.

This improves business quality, improves employee loyalty and morale, which aren't just nice things, but sensible hard-headed business decisions that go straight to the bottom line. As for getting groups together to describe how much they'd like to be on American Idol or talk about their greatest date ever, why not just build a pub on site and hire a couple psychiatrists to sit and talk with whoever wants to talk?

You'd make money off the beer sales, for one thing. Instead of call girls sitting at the bar getting guys to buy them drinks which turn out to be $19 watery gin and tonics, the psychiatrists can be paid according to how much beer they can get people to buy while they're talking… no, seriously, it's one thing to create a nice work environment for your call center, show them you really care about the job they're doing and you're willing to reward good performance and let them break to shoot pool when they need to.

A good call center employee will switch to Kwik-Fit for such amenities and stay, which is the whole point. Beyond that, I can't see where on-site girl talk groups add anything to the bottom line. What, you're saying highly desirable call center employees will stay for that when they won't stay for the free nursery care and concierge, and you need to offer sessions for people to tell each other how much they'd rather be producing movies or writing novels than working at a call center?

I don't think so.

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