Wednesday, August 31, 2011


Qualifications are o en used as a proxy or indicator to demonstrate a person’s ability for a job; for example, a degree in English may indicate that a person has good language skills but in fact these may be written rather than spoken. Alternatively, some applicants may possess few qualifications but still have the skills and personality to successfully accomplish the tasks required. For these reasons, the requirement for qualifications in contact centres would appear to vary depending on the level of operation and nature of the industry. In many organizations attitude is considered more important than qualifications.
Possessing educational qualifications does not indicate that a person possesses the skills necessary to work in contact centres. For organizations that have used qualifications as an indicator of suitability this can cause a problem. Furthermore, there is the ‘indeterminacy of labour’ ie, the difference between the perceived recruitment of skills and their actual translation into profitable outcomes for the organization. ‘Given that traditional indicators are unreliable, the role of selection, recruitment, induction and training in identifying and shaping social competencies is moved to the centre of the stage.’
In some industries regulatory compliance requires employees to possess specific qualifications eg, insurance and finance agents may be required to possess industry qualifications in order to provide advice or sell financial products. In Quebec, nurses working for Health-Info CLSC were expected to have a minimum of three years’ experience. Likewise, in NHS Direct, nurse advisers are required to have at least five years’ post-qualification experience giving them a ‘licence to practice’. On the other hand, the lack of direct patient interaction working on the telephones may lead to de-registration eg, midwives need to assist at a certain number of births over a specific time period.
The call centre industry is a relatively new one and as it matures across the world qualifications will become more developed and recognized. In the UK e-skills (an agency responsible for developing skills in the telecommunications and digital sectors) has identified 63 competencies required to operate in call centres and linked these to Scottish/National Vocational Qualifications. In addition, some universities are now offering Foundation Degrees; The Open University provides a course for call centre managers and the University of Central Lancashire provides postgraduate qualifications including options within an MBA.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


In face-to-face operations, such as retailing, an organization is able to embody its image through a variety of elements including d├ęcor, packaging, signage, staff uniform and store layout. A contact centre does not possess these options and the only way to transmit a brand is through the quality of the communication with the customer. The manner in which employees appear, sound and behave ‘are themselves part of the product’.
The adviser is such an important part of the whole offering to the customer that special attention needs to be taken in recruitment, selection and training. In fact, there is more investment in these areas for call centres than many other highly structured industries.
Essentially, a recruitment and selection procedure would normally consist of the following stages:
  1. compile job and person specifications;
  2. choose advertising channels;
  3. receive completed application forms;
  4. scrutinize application forms;
  5. conduct telephone interview;
  6. conduct group interview and individual interview;
  7. assessment centre – listening in to a call simulation, personality testing, sales role play;
  8. deliver numeracy and literacy tests;
  9. conduct references and credit checks;
  10. job offer made (normally contingent on satisfactory completion of induction training and probationary period).
If the call centre is newly starting, the process normally begins with an assessment of the total workload it is anticipated to handle. Next a skills and competency framework is developed and from these job and person specifications can be drawn.
Advertisement channels are then chosen such as local press, employment centres, word of mouth through existing employees, etc. Many of the advertisements do not specify training or qualification requirements but o en emphasize personal characteristics such as ‘bubbly personality’ and ‘customer focus’.
Next the application forms are scrutinized and potential candidates are chosen and interviewed over the telephone. Suitable candidates are short-listed and invited to a face-to-face interview. With larger organizations interviews are o en batched for increased efficiency and this also allows for groups to be jointly processed through induction training.
Most organizations use a behavioural or competence interview and the selection of agents is based upon behavioural skills, personality characteristics, team skills, telephone manner, literacy and numeracy, etc. The ability to carry out repetitive work is also one of the attributes considered in the selection process. Also, it is important to select bubbly personalities who are able to handle monotony and have the stamina to be energetic throughout the duration of the shit.
The ability to communicate is the overriding factor looked for during selection. One manager at a banking call centre said, ‘I think the communication skills are the most important, very important. It is the overriding skill that they’ve got to have’.
Another necessary skill for advisers is the ability to manage stressful situations and remain unruffled. Candidates may be put under some pressure in order to assess their capability to respond calmly and be assertive. The deliberately intensive nature of the recruitment and selection procedure may mean that relatively few people are successful; however, it is better for the candidates to find out they are not suited to the job and deselect themselves rather than being disappointed later. Likewise, it is more economic for the employer to avoid unnecessary expenditure such as induction training by screening potential employees through this challenging method.
In some call centres employee development is carefully structured to minimize costs and to carefully select employees. One strategy for doing this is to recruit staff on short-term contracts through employment agencies thereby enabling performance to be assessed. Where suitable advisers are identified they are then encouraged to apply directly to the organization following appropriate liaison with the agency.
Interviewing groups of applicants provides the opportunity for a number of assessment exercises. In particular, it enables recruitment staff to observe and assess the interpersonal skills of candidates working together.
Of course, not all call centres adopt the same procedures for recruiting and selecting employees: the degree of attention given to the process is dependent on the nature of the job and the skills required. To some degree there is a link between the complexity of the knowledge and skills required and the attention given to recruitment

Thursday, August 18, 2011


There are a number of employers who do not support qualifications because they make the skills people possess more transparent and thus facilitate an easier change of employers. This concern by some employers is not a new one and is not confined to contact centres; however, it does illustrate the tensions that exist for both employers and employees about the extent to which they will invest in developing skills.
Employers need staff who can perform their jobs competently and for this reason will invest in induction training. Similarly, if individuals wish to gain skills they too must invest in their own training. Thus, in the short term employers’ and employees’ interests coincide because both want to perform in their job and raise productivity.
On the other hand, the longer-term interests of companies and workers may differ because the firm that invests in sector-specific training for employees will raise their skills and make them more attractive to other organizations. These ‘investors in people’ may see their employees being attracted to other organizations that offer be er prospects and higher salaries. In a buoyant labour market with high turnover of staff there is an attraction for some firms to offer higher wages and poach trained employees while investing less in training for their own employees.
Training can be divided into organization-specific training, which is of little value to other employers, and general training, which is transferable. If organizations distinguish their training along these lines it may impact on decisions about the amount and type of training provided in order to minimize employee defections.
It is not just employers who may have reservations about investing in the training of their staff. Employees, too, may hesitate to develop their skills because of financial stringencies and uncertainty about the future benefits from investing in training.
Because of these obstacles to training investment there has been government intervention in some countries to provide vocational education. However, in newly emerging sectors the establishment of vocational education qualifications etc takes time and for this reason many firms take responsibility for their own training.
Research into employees’ perceived mobility benefits of training did not produce detrimental findings for employers. In general, ‘training does not significantly affect the perceived labour market perspectives of call centre agents’. The exception to this was for people who had firm-specific training who were less inclined to consider a job elsewhere. They continue, ‘All this is good news for firms offering general, sector-specific, and firm-specific training, since their investments will not increase the expected job mobility of call centre agents’.

Monday, August 15, 2011


The contact centre industry is becoming increasingly mature and established and this has led to the establishment of e-skills in the UK. This is the employer-led body recognized by the government with responsibility for articulating and addressing the skill needs of contact centre employees.
Drawing upon a range of employers, government agencies, industry experts and professional bodies e-skills has produced the Contact Centre Career and Skills Framework. The objective of the framework is to support the industry in making a ‘step change in the management and development of skills’ and:
  • provide employers, stakeholders and government with a simple mechanism for understanding the complex competencies required within contact centres;
  • provide a frame of reference for employers and individuals to identify the competencies needed at each career level and thus drive the selection of relevant training programmes;
  • help educators develop a training curriculum in line with employer need;
  • help government and stakeholders direct strategic investment and funding in the development of competencies to meet the real needs of the sector.
The framework can be used by employers:
  • to measure the competencies employees have against those required, and thus identify competency gaps;
  • to develop training programmes mapped to national and government sponsored learning and development pathways;
  • to identify a range of career development pathways within their contact centres;
  • to provide a set of competency-based job profiles to support effective recruitment and selection;
  • to support competency-based performance management and appraisal processes.
The business activities supported by the framework are numerous and a structured overview can be seen in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Contact centre activities supported by the e-skills framework
Using functional analysis, a form of job analysis, the various competency requirements for people working in contact centres have been identified, reviewed, tested and validated with more than 50 employers and stakeholders. A total of 63 competencies were identified and these were grouped into clusters: customer acquisition, customer service provision, operations management, technology skills and personal aptitudes. This comprehensive list of competencies combining knowledge, skills and behaviours provides the framework for achieving the objectives described above. 

Thursday, August 11, 2011

QUALIFICATIONS | Skills and Competencies

It would appear that a high level of education is an important factor for employers when choosing a location for contact centres. Likewise, promotional materials for many regions in Britain emphasize the fact that they have a highly educated workforce in order to attract employers. This is also to be found at national levels; for example, the Welsh Development Agency noted, ‘the availability of a large pool of well-educated, skilled people’; and Czechinvest stated, ‘The Czech economy is attractive for its skilled and well-educated labour force. . . the extent of university education is high.’
This view corresponds with the experiences of a New Zealand agency that was asked by a US company how many of the staff would have degrees. In India a high proportion of call centre agents have a degree and this was a measure used by the US company. The response from the agency was that nearly all New Zealanders are educated up to the age of 18/19 and therefore were more than suitable for the job.
The evidence of graduate employment in contact centres also appears on the surface to support the case for qualifications. In research conducted in Scotland, 22 per cent of telephone sales staff had a degree, which was significantly higher than 7 per cent for clerical workers and 3 per cent of sales staff. Also, 40 per cent of employees including management grades possessed a degree. Furthermore, in an advice line for small businesses provided by an Australian bank, all employees possessed a university-level qualification. In research conducted in the United States, almost 60 per cent had a four-year college degree.
However, young well-educated people, particularly university graduates, tend not to stay for long in call centres. They consider their job as a temporary sojourn before moving to something else. So although qualifications may indicate potential abilities for working in call centres they do not always correlate with long periods of loyal service.
Qualifications are also required in specific occupational areas, for example in the insurance sector agents may be required to possess industry qualifications in order to provide advice or sell financial products. In Quebec, nurses working for Health-Info CLSC were required to be qualified and have a minimum of three years’ experience.
As the contact centre industry matures, specific qualifications have been made available. In the UK there are Scottish/National Vocational Qualifications, Foundation Degrees, degrees, and master’s degrees available. The benefits of these are that people are able to demonstrate their skills more easily to employers, making the labour market more flexible.
Employers are also encouraging staff to study for qualifications. In one survey, 79 per cent of respondents offered their employees the opportunity to gain a qualification and 80 per cent of the outsourcing industry allowed staff to gain qualifications.
Yet the use of general qualifications is only a proxy or indicator of ability; they are not always accurate in predicting successful work in contact centres. The value of some qualifications, including degrees, has been challenged by a number of sources and the following summarize the concern about the value of qualifications in contact centres:
Social skills were valued far more highly than the possession of formal qualifications, or any other relevant factors such as computing skills and technical or industry knowledge and experience.
The aims are to select staff with the required a itudinal and behavioural characteristics, induct them into a quality culture and, equally important, but o en neglected, retain their services. . . selection o en focuses on attitudes to flexibility and customer service rather than skill or qualification levels. 
Education and skills should not be confused. A university degree is not a prerequisite for most contact centre work and may not even be desirable
Consequently, the ‘right attitude’ can take precedence over formal qualifications and skills when recruiting call centre workers. 
Possessing an educational qualification does not guarantee that a person has the specific skills required for working as a call centre representative. Someone with a degree may not possess the necessary skills of communication, personality, stamina, etc which are required. Many employers tend to recruit on the basis of skills and attitudes rather than qualifications. This perspective is illustrated by the DTI, which explained:
It is vital that education and skills do not get mixed up. The Indian contact centre industry proudly points out that graduates are available for a fraction of the salary that a UK school-leaver would be paid, but the reality is that a degree makes no difference to how well most contact centre jobs are performed.

Sunday, August 7, 2011


In order to understand the areas of learning and development that are found in contact centres it is helpful to categorize them so that the organization can structure the training provision and participants can mentally organize what they are receiving. Research was conducted into publications about skills in call centres and these areas were compiled to provide a more comprehensive listing. Table 1 provides an overview of the area.
Table 1: Contact centre adviser skills – overview
A wide range of terms were found including: hard skills, so skills, technical skills, attributes, competencies, personality, social skills, interpersonal skills, characteristics, traits and knowledge. These various categories have been consolidated using the ABC of learning ie, attitudes (affective), behaviour (skills) and cognition (knowledge). We will now look at these areas in turn.

Hard skills

Hard skills generally refer to the IT skills, system skills and product knowledge a CSR is expected to have to successfully complete a transaction with a customer. Literacy and numeracy are considered to be necessary aptitudes. Hard skills are emphasized more in the public and finance sectors and the latter, in particular, demands a greater degree of product knowledge, which is o en combined with a legislative requirement for qualifications.
During induction training there is o en a strong emphasis on IT skills with at least 50 per cent of time devoted to this area. The reason for this may be that organizations o en employ people based on their attitude and believe that IT skills can be learnt after recruitment.
In England and Wales, NHS Direct nurse advisers were required to possess at least five years’ experience after qualification, which provided them with a ‘licence to practice’. These ‘hard’ skills and knowledge were then complemented by a training period of five to six weeks in the Clinical Assessment System so ware and clinical nursing knowledge. This was then followed by ‘nursery desking’ or buddying where the new nurses listened in to live calls before progressing to taking calls under supervision.
Without good product knowledge it is very difficult for agents to provide a satisfactory service. Thus, a basic instruction book given to agents is insufficient and should be supplemented by informative training. The amount of training should be dependent upon the role of the agent, and eight levels of products and services training have been described:
  1. Basic information: Information likely to be found in company literature and catalogues.
  2. Background explained: This includes the basic information found in 1 combined with an understanding of how the elements relate to one another.
  3. Detailed product knowledge: This involves understanding and being able to discuss the pros and cons of product features, which are very useful in sales roles.
  4. Application knowledge: Knowing how the product or service is practically used and the implications. The agent will benefit from having practical experience rather than just having an understanding of the product or service in isolation.
  5. Competitor knowledge: Understanding what is offered by competitors will allow comparisons to be made between the products and services.
  6. Basic support: In addition to points 1–5 a knowledge of the most common problems customers have with the products and services, and clear ideas of how to resolve them.
  7. Intermediate support: Builds on the basic support with general technical knowledge to allow the diagnosis and correction of unexpected problems.
  8. High-level support: Builds upon the intermediate support with a detailed technical knowledge so that the agent can alter or guide the customer to fix the problems or make modifications.

Soft skills

Soft skills address the interpersonal skills of communication and personality and it is o en believed that social skills are more important than hard skills. Indeed, outsourcers tend to provide more attention to the development of transferable and so skills because agents will o en move between systems and products.
So skills or social skills can be subdivided into communications skills and people skills. Communication skills refer to the competencies required for good interaction with a customer. ‘Customer focus’ is the attitude required as well as the ability to empathize with the customer. Importantly, well motivated individuals who possess a caring attitude are sought by managers.
In addition to the requirement for good communication skills with the customer, employees also need people skills to work successfully with colleagues. Although most of the work is individual, agents are o en grouped in teams of eight to 15, which allows them to interact socially, share information, encourage a coaching culture and develop friendly competition.


It is debatable whether or not personality is a skill or not; however, it is an important element in the total communication message delivered by the agent. During recruitment managers look for people who possess high levels of confidence, were ‘bubbly’ or lively, and had a natural ability to talk, develop rapport and smile down the phone. For people who work in technical support, communication skills are less highly valued; the ability to problem solve is considered more important. Moreover, the people in these roles are considered less likely to possess ‘bubbly’ personalities.
Having a lively manner even if it is not a person’s natural predisposition is encouraged in call centres. However, presenting a lively personality in the call centre which is different than normal can be very challenging and stressful over a long period of time. 


Another area described in Table 1 is that of attributes and traits. A person’s attributes and traits are very deeply embedded and hard to change; indeed, it is debatable whether or not they are a skill. However, call centre advisers benefit from:
  • personality: positive attitude, sense of humour, enthusiasm;
  • communication: energy, fluency, rapport, warmth, tone, pitch;
  • acting;
  • conscientiousness;
  • tolerance of pressure;
  • resistance to stress;
  • emotional intelligence;
  • flexibility;
  • motivation;
  • stamina.
A number of other abilities have also been described. The work can be very repetitive and stressful and therefore another attribute required by agents is that of having the strength and stamina to survive an intensive workload. Also, it has been suggested that agents need ‘guile’ to manage the whole process while being constantly monitored.
A further ability for working in call centres is that of patience. One adviser emphatically said, ‘In my opinion the main skill you need is patience in abundance’.

Sales skills

Another skill area is that of selling, which can be very demanding, particularly when there are sales-related pay targets. It o en involves out-bound calls to potential or existing customers although many organizations now consider most of the calls they receive from customers (ie, in-bound) as an opportunity to cross-sell (eg, linking home and car insurance together), or up-sell (eg, an enhanced package where people buying car insurance are encouraged to choose a more expensive option with more benefits).
The skill sets and attitudes of employees who prefer in-bound calls and those who are involved with out-bound calls are o en very different. Many employees in each of these categories are reluctant to change from one role to another and the challenge is to get traditional in-bound agents to recognize the value of selling.

Generalists and specialists

The level of skills required in the contact centre industry would appear to be partly dependent upon the nature of the interaction and also the value of the customer to the organization. With low-value customers requiring a standard service, eg directory enquiries, advisers tend to have little discretion in how they work and communicate. At the other end of the scale, high-value customers who have more complex needs are supported by agents with greater skills and training, and also with more discretion.
This may involve a form of value-based routing in which the most valuable customers are channelled to the best advisers. This can be achieved along product or service lines and also many telecommunications systems recognize customers’ telephone numbers and allow these to be prioritized in order of importance. Combining value-based routing and skills-based routing is a powerful strategic approach to support the most valuable customers.
There has been a steady decline in the number of contact centres using specialist advisers: in 1999 this was 12 per cent, in 2003 it was 9 per cent and in 2004 it was 4 per cent. There has also been a reduction in multi-skilled advisers from 56 per cent in 2003, to 45 per cent in 2004. At one time, multi-skilled advisers were considered to increase the number of functions provided by a centre; however, Dimension Data suggested that this may have been difficult to achieve and not provided a sufficient return on investment. Moreover, for both specialist and multi-skilled advisers, the cost of training and levels of attrition may have reduced the incentive to operate these two forms of provision.
The balance, preferred by 42 per cent of respondents, is a combination of generalists and specialists. This allows for an appropriate level of specialists who can be financially motivated and retained while having generalists who may cost less, require less training, but have a higher turnover.
The policy of increasing first-time resolution of calls has a number of implications for advisers. On the positive side:
  • Advisers need to possess a wider knowledge and broader skills base in order to handle the increased range of calls.
  • Agents normally complete the whole transaction, which can result in higher levels of satisfaction.
  • The increased variety of calls can create greater interest and stimulation.
There are also a number of challenges associated with multi-skilling:
  • Advisers need more skills and knowledge, which requires more training.
  • The increased knowledge and skills may place excessive demands on advisers.
  • To compensate for the increased requirements, systems and prompts may become more restrictive thus reducing the scope of the adviser and making the work boring.
  • The skills required for up-selling and cross-selling of products and services are not found in all advisers.

Feminine skills

A visit to a contact centre will, in most cases, illustrate the predominantly female nature of the workforce with women making up approximately 70 per cent of the workforce. One of the reasons for this is that women are perceived to possess better communication skills than men and these are the qualities required in customer service operations. It is not just the ability to communicate but also the skill to develop a rapport with the customer and smile down the telephone that makes women attractive to employers. Naturally, not all women are good communicators and not all men are poor communicators but it would appear that femininity has become a market requirement.
Identifying these social skills and detailing them as has happened with the competencies described in the e-skills Contact Centre Career and Skills Framework may benefit women. Citing the work of the OECD Belt et al stated that, ‘If women’s social skills are to become more visible, widely recognized and be er compensated they must be formally identified and recognized as skills.’

Monday, August 1, 2011


The level of knowledge and skills found in contact centres varies widely; for example, the skills required in telephone number enquiries are very different to those required in conducting a medical examination or counselling an emotional person. Also, the use of ‘first-contact resolution’ discourages the transfer of the customer to another adviser and results in the need to answer a greater range of calls. Screen prompts and lists of Frequently Asked Questions are helpful but not all customers fit into the standard framework.
Furthermore, the scope of the job may be wider in some areas than in others, requiring multi-skilling, eg local government call centres experience a wide range of queries and requests such as anti-social behaviour calls, refuse, highways, pest control, noise pollution, corporate complaints, Council Tax, Social Services referrals, and Housing and Housing Repairs. In effect, the levels of skills and competencies depend upon the business model. The skills used in contact centres are also difficult to describe because in many respects they are hidden:
Quality service requires that workers rely on inner arsenals of affective and interpersonal skills, capabilities which cannot be successfully codified, standardized or dissected into discrete components and set forth in a company handbook.
These ‘inner arsenals’ progress from being slow, explicit knowledge to quick, intuitive tacit knowledge that is not clear to observe. When NHS Direct call operators first begin they are very slow and methodical, reading the question then asking the question and then typing in the details. Gradually, the skills become intuitive, allowing the operator to listen more closely to the caller and follow a suitable protocol that is clinically safe. This can be critically important as the following remarks illustrate:
I use critical thinking. . . it is problem solving but all about not being robotic. Mental health calls is an example. ‘Can you give me the telephone number for Mind?’ ‘Why do you want that?’ You could actually put it on the health information queue, but why do they want the number? ‘Actually, I am sat on Cli on Bridge and I am just about to jump!’ Different call!
There is no clear agreement about the level of skills required in call centres. Employers and industry representatives present the industry as knowledge-intensive and requiring skilled employees with good interpersonal skills. On the other hand, many academics emphasize the repetition, routine and lack of control experienced by the agents.
Yet it would appear that the picture is more complicated than a skilled/ deskilled argument. The skills of contact centre advisers are not always acknowledged  because interactive service work is different to that of white collar work such as banking. Moreover, although a public perception exists that jobs in call centres are relatively easy, in reality they need a mixture of abilities, attitudes, characteristics and skills.
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