Looking after staff means they take care of customers

For ASDA it’s about giving contact centre colleagues a voice in the business and a status equal to that of sales and merchandising, while at Virgin Media it means lifting some of the pressure and fostering open, transparent ways of working.

Employee engagement may have become a burning topic for all UK businesses in recent years, but for contact centres, traditionally associated with high levels of stress, burnout and churn, the drive to build a loyal, contented and profitable workforce requires genuine cultural change on the frontline.

“Doing the right thing by our people is very important to us and it impacts directly on customer service levels and on profits,” says Helen Scott, director of people at Virgin Media; which employs 3,500 contact centre staff in the UK.

“If we look after the people who directly serve our customers, we not only attract goodwill internally, but we also find that we enjoy more referrals to customers’ friends and family, and ultimately a healthier bottom line.”

Although research has consistently shown that consumers feel frustrated by the average contact centre experience – making life on the other end of the line pretty miserable at times too – Ms Scott believes that keeping Virgin Media a “fun place to work” can offset many of the more negative aspects of the job.

Regular charity and volunteering days, together with an online “Shout!” staff recognition programme, helps reward positive behaviour and build cohesion, while multi-million-pound refurbishment projects at key sites, flexible working patterns and access to private medical insurance for all grades make staff feel valued and appreciated.

If we look after the people who directly serve our customers, we not only attract goodwill internally, but also enjoy a healthier bottom line

The firm, which has seen consistent revenue growth every quarter for the past three years, is also keen to tackle head-on the day-to-day pressures of contact centre work.

“We have taken the decision to remove the huge electronic display boards that record how many customers are still waiting to be served because we believe they raise stress levels among agents,” says Ms Scott.

“Rather than feeling they must get a customer off the phone as soon as possible, we want them to deal with the customer’s issues courteously and effectively so they don’t have to call in again.”

That Virgin Media is officially one of the least complained about companies in its sector, receiving the fewest complaints for its telephone service, and second fewest for broadband, TV and mobile, according to the latest report from regulator Ofcom, indicates that “engagement and customer service are indivisible”, she says.

Ann-Marie Stagg, chairwoman of the Call Centre Management Association, notes that “the best call centres, and those enjoying the lowest staff attrition rates, have moved away from traditional employee satisfaction surveys to measuring levels of employee engagement”.

“Call centres work hard at creating an environment where people continue to grow and develop, and understand the part they play in the wider organisation,” she says, adding that the majority have introduced new HR initiatives, including improvements to the physical working environment, leadership training, and employee wellbeing and career path development programmes.

A good example of the multi-pronged approach to engagement is the supermarket giant ASDA, which, despite achieving an absence rate below 4 per cent among its 150,000 workforce, agrees that contact centres do not generally enjoy a high profile either internally or in UK business as a whole.

“Engagement is huge for us and we are very upfront about our core values of service to the customer, striving for excellence and respect for the individual. When a colleague isn’t fully engaged with us, it quickly becomes apparent,” says Customer Service Academy manager Nathan Dring.

The firm takes pride in a company-wide reward and recognition scheme which, it believes, “builds loyalty to the brand”, and promotes a range of wellness initiatives, such as a programme to stop smoking and “bootcamp” for health and weight loss management. Promotion from within is the default position for a business run on meritocracy and where long service in excess of 35 years is  not uncommon.

Yet according to Mr Dring, the 180 ASDA contact centre staff at the company’s Leeds headquarters, who each deal with an average of 50 calls a day – many of them “escalated” complaints from customers who are considering taking their business elsewhere – have particular issues to grapple with.

“The average ASDA customer spends £100,000 with us in the course of a lifetime and in a very real sense, the Leeds centre is responsible for millions of pounds of the business’s assets every day,” he says.

“By encouraging them to feed back all product complaints to the sales and merchandising departments, and therefore highlight troublesome lines that may ultimately need to be pulled, we make it plain that our call centre colleagues are a vital part of our business.”

The best call centres have moved away from traditional employee satisfaction surveys to measuring levels of employee engagement

Although the 500-store chain will launch its first official graduate entry scheme next year, ASDA remains firmly committed to maintaining an informal communications style between management and colleagues, and a non-classroom-based approach to learning and development.

“You can’t force colleagues in a call centre, say, to engage with your brand, but you can make a concerted attempt to speak to people in an easy, inclusive way. You can abandon the old-style classroom-based training courses, which tend to demotivate, and you can demonstrate in all sorts of ways that you care about people and their future,” he says.

“Working in a contact centre shouldn’t be a forgotten career. It deserves a far higher profile, both inside ASDA and in the UK as a whole.”

While ASDA and Virgin Media are big fish in the contact centre pond, staff engagement is also a crucial issue for insurance firm Hastings Direct, a relative minnow which employs 1,400 people in a range of contact centre, marketing, finance and IT roles.

To HR director Amanda Menahem, whose introduction of a talent management programme is credited with helping foster record lows in staff turnover and absence rates at the firm, true engagement comes from allowing contact centre personnel to get on with their work without heavy-handed supervision.

“More money may engage you for the short term, but if you can’t communicate with your manager and don’t feel reasonably autonomous at work, then no amount of pay rises will be sufficient,” she says.

“Our philosophy is to give our people the tools and the training to do the job, reduce scripting to the minimum – after all, no customer wants to talk to a robot – and get out of the way while they do what they do best; build rapport with customers.”

She adds: “We live and breathe our values at Hastings Direct and one of them is understanding the very real link between empowering your employees, and enjoying better customer and business outcomes.”