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Getting the Skills Right for the New Breed of Call Centres


Jane Owen, UK sales director, Skillsarena looks at the changing face of call centres and the training challenge that presents.

Call centres are an inescapable part of life in the UK. Whether you want to discuss your bank account, pay your electricity bill or find out why your brand new washing machine isn’t working, you will inevitably be put through to a call centre.

Once a niche industry, the growth of the Internet and multi-channel communications has meant that call centres have expanded to become a multi-billion pound sector in their own right.

The call centre has become omnipresent, and with them the images of sweat-shop conditions, over-zealous micro-management, repetitive tasks, lack of training, and limited job progression.

Changing Face

But these images, propagated by the popular media, hide a very real shift in both the function of the call centre and the nature of the work carried out by employees.

Managers have long realised that the call centre is where an organisation interacts with its customers, and that call centre agents have a direct impact upon the company brand. One too many conversations with a bored, unhelpful or ignorant operative and the customer are off to check out a competitor’s offering.

Investing in staff therefore is to invest in the brand. And employers are looking at both their hiring processes and retention schemes in order to reduce staff churn and to promote the new reality of call centres.

Telephone operatives are no longer conforming to the treadmill or ‘battery hen’ image of common myth. Instead they use a number of key hard and soft skills to successfully work within the changing call centre environment.

The Right Skills
Employers therefore need to find ways of guaranteeing that their potential new recruits have these necessary skills. Online assessment modules, designed specifically for today’s call centres can do just that.

Naturally, assessment modules will test a candidate’s ability to accurately handle data – this is still a key function of call centre agents after all. But advances in technology mean that online testing suites can simulate both normal and stressful conditions.

As we increasingly understand the value of information quality in the enterprise, this ability is becoming even more significant.

The majority of business processes require accurate information in order to function as efficiently as possible. Poor information quality costs both time and money, and alienates potential and actual customers, partners and suppliers. Again the call centre operative’s action impacts the brand perception.

Furthermore research carried out by the Arizona-based Institute of Configuration Management showed that employee effectiveness falls rapidly as the quality of the information they are using goes down.

Data integrity of 92 per cent, for example, halves employee effectiveness compared to 100 per cent accurate data. The impact of inaccurate data can be felt throughout the whole organisation. So it is vital that recruiters assess the accuracy as well as the speed of a candidate’s data entry skills.

The discernable move away from simply offering a basic, scripted response to customer questions also requires new skills on the part of call centre agents.

Instead of the ‘commodity approach’ operatives are increasingly required to show initiative by offering related services and responding to each customer’s unique set of circumstances.

So, for example, a call centre which previously concentrated solely on filling as many seats on an airline as possible will now start to offer chauffeur services or hotel recommendations at the customer’s destination.


The onus has shifted back to the operator to apply greater thought to each transaction, and to consider cross and up selling opportunities.

This requires stronger listening skills, as well as good oral communication and concentration. And rather than accepting a candidate’s word on whether they possess these abilities, recruiters can use sophisticated assessment modules, from providers like Skillsarena, to simulate real-life situations and quickly see how well a candidate performs.

These kind of tests not only assess whether a candidate can deliver the kind of advanced services that are now required but they can also check responses to an angry, dishonest or unreasonable caller.

Effective testing at recruitment stage can help prevent some very expensive hiring mistakes, and help reduce staff turnover.

It can also help with staff retention and motivation by providing ongoing training needs analysis. Just as customers are regularly told that their call is important, so call centre staff need to understand that they are important too.


Redesigned reward and recognition packages and incentive schemes are widely used, but training can be one of the most important ways of assuring staff that their contribution to company performance is valued.

As with any other industry, staff that see promotion as desirable and achievable will be far more likely to stay – and promotion is often dependent on the acquisition of new skills.

The problem is of course that everyone has different strengths in the first place, and so setting up a one size fits all training programme is unlikely to deliver the desired results.


A quick look at the demographics of call centre workers shows why this is of particular concern to this industry. They tend to break down into three distinct groups.

The first are those who plan to make a career with the company, and see working on the telephone front line as a stepping-stone to promotion and a promising future. These people are looking for the earliest opportunity to move on.

The second group are time-sensitive individuals, who want a steady position, not to mention steady income, which they can walk away from at the end of their shift, often because they have responsibilities outside work.

The third group tend to be temporary or seasonal employees like students, and increasingly, out of work actors, who are often around for only short periods of time seeking additional income.

One training programme will not match all of these individual’s needs. However by regularly assessing skills using specifically designed online assessment modules an organisation gains an accurate picture of each individual’s needs, and can then plan training, coaching or mentoring programmes to meet them.


Call centres are inevitably moving away from their unfortunate sweatshop image, but at the same time are facing increasing competition from cheaper establishments abroad. Remaining competitive is vital.

Getting and keeping the right staff can have a positive impact on an organisation’s performance: productivity levels increase; call rates go up; and the abandoned call rate comes down.

Assessing and training staff is not a soft and fluffy option. It is a tough business imperative.


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