Call centres: bane of the customer with an issue, or vital component of the modern service sector? Sue Denim discusses her experiences in a social landlord’s call centre….

To ensure I cover all bases I think it’s better to start with what goes right in a contact centre. Get ready for the shortest list you’ve ever seen!

First point of contact.  For a lot of customers, it’s important to speak to someone when something goes wrong, especially when it’s to do with their home. I haven’t seen many automated bots taking calls for housing associations, and I think that’s a good thing because it just wouldn’t work. I get annoyed when I can’t get through to a real person when my internet has gone down. So, imagine what that would be like for someone when their whole family doesn’t have access to hot water in the winter months.

The majority of calls I take are known as ‘fast calls’, where I take a payment or set up a direct debit. Although most people do this through the website, it’s a nice option for some customers as it can make them feel much more at ease especially when they’re spending money.

And I’m afraid that’s it for the good stuff.

Now onto the much longer list of what goes wrong…

The people. I’m sorry to say but in my time working in customer services I’ve met and got to know some of the laziest and rudest people in my lifetime, and I’m not talking about the customers. People who are blatantly unhelpful and seem to do everything in their power to avoid taking phone calls or offering help to a new member of staff who’s unaware of the office ins and outs. Funnily enough, most of these people are in much higher positions compared to contact centre advisors and you’d be surprised how little they know about the business.

The managers. Imagine taking a call in your first week with a strange request that your training hasn’t prepared you for. You’ve looked through your employee handbook for help but no luck. So, you ask your manager and he looks at you with a face that says ‘I have no idea what you’ve just said’. So, not only completely unhelpful but has less knowledge than a contact centre advisor!

In an interview, experience seems to be the be all and end all. But I’m sorry to say this isn’t the case. Experience alone will never show someone’s genuine knowledge within a field – they must provide evidence. Not just ‘I managed a big shop or cafe for five years so I can manage anywhere’.

The ways of working. Why cater for the few people who’ve been in the contact centre the longest rather than those (most) who are eager to learn?  Simplifying training sessions for the person who’s been there the longest and who’s the last person to get to grips with the new process being implemented – I mean, what does that tell you? And I don’t think it’s a lack of ability.

When I saw it first-hand, I truly believed it was a lack of effort to try and learn; stuck in the old ways and refusing any change even if it’ll make things easier for the customers. In my experience the two employees who picked up the new process were the two newest employees, who were 100% focused and interested in learning everything they could about the role. Taking a direct debit is not rocket science but certain employees will make you feel that way. Smoke and mirrors!

Micro-management. Your every move is monitored if you work in a contact centre. I remember the time I put myself on ‘busy’ to go on the long treacherous hike to the kitchen as I needed a glass of the sauce of life. The manager: “Why are you leaving your desk?”  Me: “I need to get some water.” The manager: “Why do you need water?”  Me: “I need it to live.” The manager told me to sit down and fetched the water for me. I don’t know how that would make you feel, but at the time I felt more restricted at work than I ever did when I was a school kid.

Glorified switchboard. I feel the biggest problem with a contact centre in the housing sector is the lack of service the advisor can offer. If a customer needs something other than to make a payment or to report a repair, the chances are you’re going to have to put that call through to someone else in another department. And I reckon more than 50% of the calls you attempt to put through are not answered and a call-back is added on the system for the relevant department. Which is fine unless the department doesn’t complete the call-back within the timeframe stated on the policy, and this happens a lot.

So, I would say about 20% of the calls coming through to the centre are from disgruntled customers who are calling back for a second or third time because the department/employee has failed to contact them. Why don’t we just do what we say we will do?

Social media. I can imagine in most companies social media is run by a team who doesn’t have a clue about providing a customer service. The only reason their team was chosen is because they’re trusted to keep an eye on social media 24/7. As soon as an enquiry comes through, they’ll ping it off to the complaints team. But this means that all social media enquiries are dealt with differently from the rest of the contact the business receives and are given higher priority.

I’ve come to the realisation that this is because the company fears having anything bad written about it that the public can see.

This seems like a terrible way to run a business. You don’t push someone’s request higher up the food chain because you’re worried his 77 followers will see the service you’ve provided him. If he wants to share how he feels, he’s well within his rights to. As a business we should make contact and try to resolve the issue based on our policies and procedures.

Instead the complaints team is left bombarded with multiple enquiries sent frantically from the department with no customer service experience, who have posted publicly the timeframe complaints will make contact, adding extra stress to one of the most stretched departments. If the business isn’t happy with the customer service offer, change it – but make sure the right teams have the right resources so they can do the right things.