Call centres failing customers and staff

Call centres are taking longer to answer calls, while staff retention and salaries remain poor

A new benchmarking report examining the state of call centres worldwide has turned up some findings that will come as a blow to the industry and confirm what some have suspected -- call centres are worse now than ever.

The Merchants Global Contact Centre Benchmarking Report was based on interviews with 200 contact centres worldwide, and discovered that when it comes to answering consumers' queries, call centres are taking longer to answer their phones and respond to emails than they did four years ago.

The average wait for someone to pick up is now around half a minute, while the response time for emails is a staggering 22.2 hours -- not a good result for an industry that's prioritising the use of email as a way to cut costs.

And it's the cost-cutting that's the problem, according to the report's managing editor, Cara Diemont from Dimension Data. She told that economic pressures are driving managers to make do with what they've got, rather than invest.

And both blessed and cursed by budgetary constraints is the ICT that makes call centres possible -- it is one of the areas that's first against the wall when cuts are being made. Diemont said: "Call centres had a 'me too' technology culture but the current economic climate doesn't allow for it any more."

One technology that is picking up plaudits is speech recognition, with 54 per cent of contact centres saying they're looking at upgrading in the next two years. But will the rise of the machines mean more call centre job losses? It's unlikely, according to Diemont, who said that while the industry may see recruitment slowing down, the growth in call centres as a whole should keep employment levels healthy.

While the threat posed by technology might not be keeping workers awake at night, the general mood of gloom that's prevailing over the industry is having a knock-on effect on staff. With outsourcing casting a shadow over job security, it's no wonder call centre agents are less than chirpy -- plus the report has discovered wages in the industry haven't increased in real terms since 1999. That leaves a European agent with around £15,000 on average -- but that's against the average African agent's pay packet, which comes in at around just £6,000.

Churn rate, on the other hand, is high -- 19 per cent of all agents globally leave before a year, and the figure rises to 25 per cent in the UK.

Nevertheless, call centre staff have their own way of getting a few extra perks -- not turning up. Absenteeism in the call centre industry equates to 10 million working days lost a year, a fact that Diemont puts down to bosses not doing their jobs. "There are management issues", she said. "Instead of saying 'let's fix the problem', they say, 'let's move it to India', which doesn't solve anything. It just lowers costs."