As the TUC launches a campaign for better call-centre training, Andrew Mourant reports on how colleges are raising standards
CALL centres are a boom industry. They employ more than 400,000 people throughout the UK, many in unemployment blackspots, with numbers expected to rise to 650,000 in five years.
They are now striving to shrug off their reputation as 21st century satanic mills, where the managers are slave drivers and callers are fobbed off as quickly as possible.
Last week, the Trades Union Congress launched a campaign for national standards in the industry, with a hotline for workers who want to shop bosses. Within the first week, 550 people phoned with horror stories such as staff being allowed only a three-second break between calls. Some of the worst employers, whose workers had to raise a hand if they wanted to use the toilet, have been exposed and damned.
One company said staff must wear nappies if they go to the toilet too often.
The Communication Workers Union, CWU, says significant progress has been made, but that some rogues remain.
Even British Telecom, which prides itself on enlightened industrial relations, suffered acute embarrassment 15 months ago, when staff walked out in what was the call centre industry's first ever strike.
This was a turning point, not only for BT but, perhaps, for the entire industry.
Last year, at a centre in Stoke on Trent, BT began putting its house in order. It embared on a six-month experiment, abandoning slavish attempts to adhere to maximum call-handling times. Designated advisers were allowed whatever time they needed to deal with complex enquiries and complaints. Staff and customers were a lot happier - repeat calls and complaints dropped dramatically.
But it cost money: BT hired two coaches to every team of 30 advisors. Staff had been tormented by the lack of backup support when dealing with enquiries.
However, up-front expense can be mitigated by having a workforce that stays put, obviating the need to train new recruits.
Hard lessons have been learned at Stoke, now regarded by the CWU as an example of best practice. Carol Borghesi, BT's director of call centres and customer service, admits a happy medium needed to be struck between business efficiency and employee welfare "to balance hard and soft". And here she sees a role for further education.
"We have had a dramatic turn round," she said. "In future, we would like to see further education training focus on performance management. I would want everyone who works for us to be treated with sensitivity."
Jim Spears, BT's human resources manager for its call centres - BT has more than 100, employing 16,000 people - says the way forward from Stoke is proper training.
"BT has its own training centre, but FE colleges have a role for new entrants and modern apprentices seeking NVQs and technical qualifications," he said.