Features: April 29th, 2005

Getting a Better Call Centre Culture

By Adam Smith

Customer management and motivating staff are crucial to effective and efficient operation of call centres. This article explores these issues using the example of police control rooms which are evolving into call centres.

While commercial call centres have made a concerted effort to appear more customer-focused and employee centric, police control centres have focused almost entirely on the primary remit of dealing quickly and correctly with incoming emergency calls.

This approach, while undoubtedly improving the service offered to the general public, has lead to a control room culture where civilian dispatch agents suffer from stress and low morale with little inclination to commit to their role long term. In such a stressful environment, dispatch agents are going to feel under pressure. Agents handle more than 1,000 different types of call from pranksters to murder as well as regularly taking abuse from callers, it’s the nature of the job and it would be churlish to suggest it will change.

However, where change is required is in the management, assessment, monitoring and training of agents. Their role calls for skill and they improve with experience. High staff churn and a resistance to current management policies are slowly undoing the improvements gained through the streamlining and centralisation of emergency control centre operations. Police forces know this and are looking at ways to improve the control room environment and the management of civilian agents.

Managing Agents

Control rooms are undergoing a cultural seed-change similar to the one experienced by their commercial call centre cousins eight or nine years ago. Then, changes in how customers interacted with companies led to an ever increasing workload. Agent disenfranchisement was a key issue and companies were looking at new ways to train, motivate and manage employees.

However, the advantage control rooms have today is that technologies exist to not only solve many of the management and staff issues of the past, but also to significantly improve critical factors such as agent performance, job satisfaction and staff attrition. In other words, substantially improve how Police forces serve the general public.

Despite the changing structure of the control centre the role of the dispatch agent has by and large remained the same; which is to make quick and practical decisions regarding the routing and management of emergency calls and situations, often under difficult circumstances. From the onset there was a realisation that some form of agent performance monitoring was needed to ensure an acceptable level of service was being delivered…and that is the problem.

Currently, in most force control rooms, the primary method of monitoring and supervision is manual side-by-side training and coaching. Live ‘at desk’ appraisals are commonplace along with manual self-scoring and formal performance reviews. In a high-pressure time-critical environment these methods are not only failing to deliver a true and accurate picture of how call takers are performing, they are also contributing to the problems of disenfranchisement and stress outlined above.

Live, on-the-job assessment (side-by-side with a manager) fails on a number of levels. Firstly, the agent is usually on ‘best behaviour’, aware of the need to impress. Secondly, due to the unpredictable nature of the control room workload, assessments are frequently interrupted or elongated depending on call volumes. This again destroys the value and quality of the evaluation. There is also the problem of how to ensure the hand written information is turned into useable data that can be acted on to improve agent performance and overall service.

The modern Police force is a high-tech, highly skilled organisation that, on the whole, employs the latest technologies to help it better serve the public, so it seems strange that in the control room old manual methods are still being employed.

Some forces though have realised the need for investment in this area and have implemented digital call recording and analysis solutions that have not only replaced old manual methods but also provided a means of implanting new training, monitoring and verification policies that are helping to change the working environment for the better and ultimately help the Police force deliver a better service.

These solutions allow control centre managers to monitor agent performance in an unobtrusive yet comprehensive manner. The systems automatically capture voice and screen information and then turns it into actionable data based on user defined criteria such as managing the caller, correct grading of incidents, assertiveness, acquisition of relevant information, effect on outcome, result of call etc.

From control room to call centre

But it’s not just the systems that need changing; sometimes the physical location must change to enable emergency call handling staff to meet customer service targets.

When Hampshire Constabulary centralised the handling of many of the three and a half million telephone calls it received every year, the main goals were raising efficiency and productivity.

A purpose-built enquiry centre and a new command and control centre were built to improve the level of service to people living and working within the constabulary’s area. These new facilities, more akin to a modern commercial call centre than traditional emergency control rooms, helped to change the working culture and thus improve both employee conditions and ultimately customer service.

Less than one year after completion the reorganisation not only delivered against those targets, it is also started to set new standards for service and response that many commercial organisations would be envious of. This improvement however would not have been possible without the complete rethink of call handling which the force underwent after realising it suffered from many of the problems outlined early in the article.

In conclusion, by implementing new call recording and analysis technologies and making physical changes to the workplace, emergency control rooms can mirror the progress achieved by their commercial cousins in terms of improving working conditions for staff and delivering improved service to customers.

Every day call handlers around the UK are dealing with life and death situations and many feel overly pressured and under equipped. By using proven tools and processes that have worked in the commercial environment, the emergency services can improve both the quality of life for their employees and, equally important, the quality of service to the general public.

Adam Smith is Public Safety Market Manager at NICE, a worldwide leader of multimedia digital recording solutions, applications and related professional services for business interaction management.