Fertile Fields for Managers

New Zealand has witnessed huge
growth in the call centre industry recently. Last year’s Asia Pacific Call Centre Study by Call Centre Research (CCR), estimates there are more than 300 call centres operating here, employing around 15,000 people.
This trend is expected to continue and numbers increase with the development of e-commerce and pushes by Trade New Zealand and local government to attract call centres to New Zealand.
So then, are call centres becoming the breeding ground for our future senior managers? And, is this desirable outcome? Even if it is too soon to answer these questions, it is clear that the skills learned in the complex and demanding environment of call centre are useful in management. Yet the potential for call centres for management training has not been realised.
This is about to change, according to many voices in the industry.
Looked at long term, the history of call centres is still in its infancy and the rapid pace of technology ensures there are many developments to come.
This year is milestone year with new qualifications on offer from Manukau Institute of Technology (MIT), and Electrotechnology Industry Training Organisation (ET ITO), providing benchmark for the industry. Terry Culley at ET ITO says, “We manage pathway of qualifications at different levels for people already working in the industry. This year we will have about 300 people finishing courses. Next year the number of entrants will more than double. We have been inundated with interest from contact centres.”

Career paths
One of Culley’s aims is to provide ladder of progressive qualifications that will help people in the industry to understand the nature of their job better.
“This will have direct influence on workers handling the demands of their job.
“We all know that the repetitious nature of the job ensures high turnover of staff in this business.
“These qualifications are designed to help slow this trend down and perhaps even reverse it. If operators can see career path and we can help demonstrate to companies the point of training and qualifications, then this will have long-term benefit on the industry.”
The call centre industry is one of the fastest growing industries in the world, according to Linda Weterman, office systems lecturer at MIT. Weterman deals with about 20 contact centres around Auckland and says there is significant interest in MIT’s new courses.
She went to Morton TAFE, Brisbane, to study its training courses.
“We have chosen the most appropriate programmes for New Zealand and will be offering pre-employment, part- and full-time courses. Things are further on in the US, with university degrees on offer. In Australia, too, there are more examples of customer service reps attending training and being promoted right up to senior positions. I think it is partly because there are lots of measurements in this business, such as call timing and scripting. These kinds of skills are appropriate for senior management.”
Gaining certificate in itself does not, of course, guarantee good senior manager.
Just as important is on-the-job training, according to David Sylvester, call centre consultant at TARP New Zealand.
“How many senior managers do you know who used to be call centre managers? They’re as scarce as hen’s teeth and yet few people gain better overview of the organisation than call centre personnel.
“I believe call centres are great training grounds. They provide customer service experience, marketing experience, human resource and training development, and information and tele-phone technology training. They’re cost and revenue centres, so they also provide financial experience. Team leaders learn how to deal with people at both ends of the telephone. These skills are transportable to many other areas of company or an industry,” says Sylvester.
Rather than looking for an experienced call centre manager when recruiting, Sylvester suggests than management experience in other sectors could be just as valid. Allan Gammon of BP is good example.
He had broad experience within BP including engineering, marketing, managing field sales team and selling LPG before being appointed manager of BP’s call centre.
“We are at the cutting edge of telephony and communication so good manager soon learns to draw on the experience of others to develop new approaches and to upskill themselves.”
BP now requires their graduate trainees to spend time in call centres as an integral part of their training. Perhaps this move will encourage other companies to follow suit.

Learning customer service
Simon Archer, HR manager of outsourcing company Sitel, sees call centres as generally the single most important and pervasive interface with company’s customers.
“If life in call centre is not good for the CSR [customer service rep], then the customer is unlikely to experience excellent service,” says Archer. “This places an intense focus on the people skills of call centre managers and team leaders. There are not many better training grounds for people management skills, and for building very real disciplines into the recruitment, performance management, coaching, and skill development aspects of people management.”
Call centre operations are under intense, sometimes daily and real-time scrutiny from their clients.
Some CSRs describe it as working in the heat of the midday sun, under magnifying glass, with corresponding rise in temperature when things go wrong.
This means that the call centre must be very good operationally and at managing the clients’ expectations. “These are essential skills for many management roles,” says Archer. Adam Chapo, at James Hardie, says the experience of working under magnifying glass helped him to become more active listener when he was CSR and, in turn, to become more effective team builder.
“My 10 years’ experience starting from the ground floor has helped me to become customer service manager.” Chapo took advantage of all the team leadership courses on offer while he was working in Australia with James Hardie.
“Part of our skills training was to build team environment, to get group together and actively listen to both sides of conversations.”
For career advancement within the industry lot depends on the company committing to training. “It is early days here in New Zealand for companies to send their staff on call centre courses but I think this is about to change,” says Chapo.
“This year we are sending five reps through ET ITO to get national accreditation. There is definitely shortage of really good contact centre staff so these training courses are crucial not just for the individual but for the industry as whole.
“Once reps have these certificates they will be in good position to transport their skills to other areas. Most people can update their technology skills but it is their ability to handle people which makes the difference between fair CSR and someone able to become senior manager.”

Culling the dogs
The importance of the “people factor” is also recognised by David Glen at Page One. “This is hard-edge market. People live or die according to their presentations. Since the industry is growing so rapidly there are lot of dogs out there. The ones that stay and get promoted are the ones that are willing to listen and learn.”
The ability to turn out consistently good presentations is valuable in this business. Some CSRs are doing around 10 presentations an hour with an emphasis on holding attention, building rapport and how to close sale.
As John Chetwynd at Telnet says, “So much happens so quickly that if you are sympathetic to the needs of the customer, you have the potential to develop lot of skills which are all useful in management roles.”
Glen expressed reservations, however, at the thought of call centres producing future senior managers. “I co

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