Posted on Aug. 8, 2004 | Credit Cards Magazine
Kevin Smith lives on Middlebrook Road but when he called his credit
card company, the customer service representative overseas recorded
his address as "Mud in the Middle of the Little Brick Road."
Smith blames it on popular American television shows and movies
used for language training at call centers overseas; in this case,
he suspects The Wizard of Oz. He stopped using the card. Having
lost three jobs to workers in India himself and having been unceremoniously
moved to a mud-based home, Smith is savvy about call center culture.
knows companies can easily ship jobs overseas or skimp on training
to save money. So before any major purchase, he calls the company's
support line to ensure he'll be cared for and that his money will
go to a company with an emphasis on customer service. "I'm
for companies making a profit," Smith, a Jacksonville resident,
said. "[But] who do they expect to buy their products in
the future if they don't have customer support?"
In some cases, companies are recognizing that cheap labor isn't
better labor. David Butler, author of a new book, Bottom Line
Call Center Management, reports that companies like Dell, Conseco,
Citi and others have brought customer contact jobs back from overseas
because the communication barrier and lack of experience hurt
business. However, they are leaving entry-level duties, like data
The trend to focus on better, more-skilled workers for customer
services hits home at domestic call center hubs such as Jacksonville.
Local business experts say the industry has evolved from entry-level
work to higher-skill, higher-wage jobs. "I think the [phrase]
'call center' has become a misnomer, especially in Jacksonville,"
said Jerry Mallot, executive vice president of economic development
at the Jacksonville Regional Chamber of Commerce.
seen a huge evolution [of the concept] to customer care center
or technology support." About 50,000 people in the region
work in call center settings, according to the chamber, and the
number is anticipated to grow. There are about 37 large call centers
in the area. Candace Moody, spokeswoman for WorkSource, the regional
workforce development organization, said Jacksonville has been
able to establish itself as a higher-end call center locale because
it has many workers trained in these positions and a diverse group
of businesses supporting them. However, call centers as a whole,
Butler and Moody said most call centers align themselves with
the industries they support and not as an independent industry
of their own. Where some companies are bringing jobs back, other
companies may just now begin outsourcing, Butler, an economic
development professor at the University of Southern Mississippi,
said. "Everyone is at a different level," he said. Moody
said local industries, like finance, insurance or technology,
rely inherently on customer support work and require trained,
highly skilled workers.
Mallot said about half the call center jobs in the region are
technology related and average income is about $30,000, $40,000
annually. "The greater the knowledge value, the more the
company has to invest and the more stability it provides in the
economy and the companies," Mallot said. Smith left Kentucky,
where he worked as a computer support representative for companies
like Microsoft and Compaq.
Smith’s job was outsourced several times there and he went
to a "safe" company that was then sold and downsized.
He now lives in Jacksonville near his family and works in end-stage
collections for a large financial company, where, he said, his
higher-skill position is fairly secure. "People tend to think
of call centers as low-tech, low-skill environments but many call
centers are quite technical," Moody said. "As jobs shrink
you have to be more competitive for these jobs".
Diversified Consultants Inc., a Jacksonville-based call center
company, said it has had a hard time recruiting because the abundance
of good opportunities locally snap up many of the skilled workers.
The company recently landed two new national cell phone accounts
and plans on adding 100 employees by the end of the year. "It's
not a lack of applicants," Gordon Beck, general manager of
Diversified Consultants said.
Beck said three and half years ago the company could run an ad
and have a full training class two days later. Now, it takes three
weeks. He said the competition is tough for companies looking
for employees with experience, good interpersonal skills and the
ability to work independently. The family-owned company tries
to provide a good environment to retain workers; it started with
only 15 in 1991. Management knows everyone by name, which takes
away the sweatshop mentality.
Workers don't punch time cards and are rewarded for their performance,
the top collector there earned $94,000 last year. "Because
Jacksonville is so competitive in that market it's amazing we
were able to stay afloat but compete," Beck said. A study
by Mercer Human Resources Consulting found the effective ways
to retain employees are recognition programs, a favorable work
environment and high-quality supervision and leadership. Local
leaders say many companies are making such efforts. BellSouth
provides a beautiful break area with perks like television and
nap rooms, Moody said.
Citi has more than 20 call center departments based in Jacksonville,
which is the largest of all its locales; the size provides more
opportunities for growth within the company. And Express Scripts,
which is establishing a new call center in St. Marys, Ga. said
it is focusing on ongoing training and a comfortable atmosphere,
with high ceilings and designer ergonomic equipment, to support
its incoming staff.
"Call centers have to be some of the most inventive,"
Moody said. The industry is prone to rapid changes. In July alone,
companies have announced the hiring and firing of hundreds of
employees locally. Average turnover rate at call centers is about
33 percent. A call center employee who also runs a blog called
Call Center Purgatory, which journals the travails of call center
life, said the turnover is in large part because of the culture
of the business.
"What is incredible about this industry is the monitoring
of employees," the blogger known as "anonymous cog"
said via e-mail. "Time per call, calls completed, and even
what you speak about is monitored. Sometimes I feel like Winston
in 1984." Steffanie Wilk, an assistant professor of management
at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, found
many call centers are the modern-day equivalent to the manufacturing
mill: low-skilled workers doing highly regimented work, measured
in a Big-Brother type environment. However, she said this strategy
isn't effective for companies.
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Thursday, October 20, 2005 12:25 PM