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Call centres: what can the 'new shop floor' learn from the old?

3rd March 2014
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[SPECIAL FEATURE: Darren Maw, managing director of HR and employment law firm Vista]

The financial services industry is extremely good at treating its customers well. Above and beyond regulatory requirements such as Treating Customers Fairly, most providers from lenders to insurers will have a call centre full of skilled staff that are highly trained to go the extra mile in giving the best possible customer experience.

But what about how they treat each other? Call centres are known to be a tough, high-pressure working environment. Whether meeting sales targets or handling complaints, call centre life is far from easy, so management need to consider internal relations as well as external ones. How best to manage conflict? Disciplinary issues? Absenteeism? Morale and productivity?

With around a million of the UK’s workforce currently employed in such jobs, the call centre is often referred to as the ‘new shop floor’. It is interesting to observe the differences and similarities in management methods between traditional shop floor-type industries such as manufacturing and their newer counterpart.

In my long experience working with both blue-collar and white-collar employers, some patterns have emerged to show that there is a lot that the latter can learn from the former.

At Vista we observe a different kind of P/E ratio: I call it the Patience/Expediency ratio. If a manager has a high P/E ratio, this means that when problems arise in the workforce they are inclined to be very tolerant and accommodating, to make excuses and to hope the problem gets better. Inevitably, this allows the problem to build - and these types of managers, by the same token, are inclined to making a snap decision (the ‘final straw’) to end it. Long patience, quick expediency.

Interestingly, these high P/E ratios are usually observed in the more white-collar working environments. Back on the old shop floor, meanwhile, we find that operational managers often have a far more balanced P/E ratio. They seem to be better at confronting issues, establishing clear expectations, and most importantly, intervening early the moment those expectations are not being met.

The difference here is that all-important early intervention. By dealing with potential issues in an honest, adult, face-to-face conversation, this type of manager sets an example from which we can all learn.

The evidence is everywhere: in traditional industries such as manufacturing or retail we see countless examples of harmonious, inclusive, supportive workforces. I believe the thing these working environments have in common is straight-talking operational managers. This is something that our emerging service-based economy should aspire to emulate.

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