Are call centres the factories of the 21st Century?

India Mill chimney in Darwen A number of factories have now been turned into call centres

More people than ever before work in call centres in the UK but are they the modern-day equivalents of the factory production line?

The chimney of the India Mill factory in Darwen, Lancashire, still stands today. When it was built in 1867, it was the tallest and the most expensive in the country but its shadow now falls over office space rather than the industrial machinery it used to.

This is a scene that has become increasingly common across the UK as the service industry expands across what William Blake once described as this "green and pleasant land". At the same time, the manufacturing industry has contracted sharply.

Immediately after World War II, manufacturing accounted for around 40% of the UK economy's output but now only 8% of jobs are in the manufacturing sector, according to the Office for National Statistics.

At the same time, the rise of the call centre - known in the industry as contact centres - has seemed unstoppable.

'Toilet monitor'

"More people have worked in call centres than ever worked in the mining industry, and I researched that in 1998," says Matt Thorne, who wrote a novel based on his experiences in a call centre.

"The interesting thing about call centres is they're great if you've got something else but it's like a proper job without any of the benefits.

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Ricky Gervais in the Office

"You got four 15-minute breaks in a day and the amount of time you spent in toilets actually was monitored."

Over one million people are employed in contact centres, according to analysis firm ContactBabel. This is over 3.5% of the entire UK workforce.

When call centre pioneer Direct Line opened its lines in Croydon, south London, with 63 employees on 2 April 1985, no-one could have imagined the impact it would have on the UK's service industry. In 2004 it received over 22 million phone calls.

But many just see them as a nuisance. Time and time again, call centres have been voted one of the most frustrating things to use, with one survey even concluding that calling one is more stressful than getting married or going to the dentist.

"They were predominantly set up as a way for companies to save money - whether the customers liked it or not," says Ann-Marie Stagg - chairwoman of the Contact Centre Managers' Association.

Start Quote

You don't hear about workers having to put their hand up to go to the toilet anymore”

End Quote Steve Morrell Indusry analyst

And if just phoning up a call centre was stressful, imagine working with a pre-determined script and repeating it day after day.

"The aim was to get everything done in 35 seconds, so there's not really a lot of room for warmth," says comedian Andy White, who worked in a call centre until 2002.

"The bonus system was very difficult because part of it was based on the people around you so people were thinking 'why should I bother?' when it only takes one person to not turn up for the figures to suffer and then there goes my bonus."

It is this perception of call centres, as a telephonic battery farm with repetitive work like factories from generations ago, that the industry is desperately working to change.

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Kirsty Young

The British at Work, presented by Kirsty Young, is on BBC Two on Thursday 10 March, 2100 GMT

The highest percentage of workers in call centres are in Scotland, the North East, Yorkshire and the North West - traditionally the industrial towns of old. Over 5% of all workers in these areas are working in call centres. The lowest percentage is in London.

"You hear a lot of nonsense about why call centres started up where they did - accents and stuff like that," says Steve Morrell, of ContactBabel.

"But that's nothing to do with it at all. It's all to do with a cheap, available labour force."

'Satanic mills'

Call centres are classic targets for mockery. In the film Big Nothing, David Schwimmer's character Charlie is placed in the "Jennifers and Stephens" section of a call centre because "callers like to think they get the same service rep".

A criticism regularly voiced is the "quantity over quality" set of statistics by which workers are measured. Often, a certain number of calls have to be answered by each member of staff per hour, in the same way as factory workers are sometimes paid per item they produce. But industry figures deny this.

"All that would happen is the adviser would talk faster so no-one could understand them or they'd just cut the customer off," says Stagg.

People working in a call centre Call centre managers increasingly believe it is how to work better rather than faster that is important

"It's all a vicious circle. The customer would just ring up again and be more upset. It took a while for the industry to work that out."

But, Stagg is keen to point out, call centres have changed.

"These places used to be dark satanic mills but the industry really has got its act together," she says.

Around one third of call centre staff now have a university degree, and conditions are improving.

"You don't hear about workers having to put their hand up to go to the toilet anymore," Morrell says.

Universities are even offering MSc courses in contact centre management and average pay for workers is increasing.

"I don't think anyone sets out to work in a call centre because they're interested in it," says Stagg.

"Most people that come in see it as suiting their hours or go in there for a couple of years before they move on. What takes some people by surprise is that there is a career path - and you can move from the call centre into different parts of the business."

Perhaps then, unlike the factories of old, ambitious workers will not be stuck on the shop floor for long.

Here is a selection of your comments.

As somebody who has worked, both as a telemarketer and, later, as a manager in a small call centre I can tell you that it can be the most soul-destroying environment that you'll ever have the misfortune to work in. The article is right in asserting that call centres are the modern era's equivalent to Blake's "dark satanic mills". Nobody wants to work in a call centre. Nobody wants to spend their life pestering people on the telephone. Nobody wants to have their every move monitored, measured and translated into efficiency ratings, pie charts, graphs and other such nonsense. The biggest problem with call centres that deal with incoming enquiries from customers is that the call centre worker has no real ability, in many cases, to deal with the problem. If the processes aren't in place to enable them to deal with a problem, they can't. It isn't the fault of the chaps in the call centre. It is the fault of the management and poorly designed systems and processes that can't cope with real life situations.

Richard Holman, Birmingham, United Kingdom

I worked in a call centre in Leeds when I was at university which was located at the top of a hill. I remember thinking at the time as I watched people drag themselves up the hill in the often inclement Leeds weather, that it reminded me of seeing films of people in my History classes going of to t'factory in the early 20th Century.

Craig, London

I used to earn my money in a factory. I worked on the shopfloor as a maintenance fitter repairing & overhauling industrial plant & machinery. I served an apprenticeship beforehand for 3 years to qualify as a skilled worker. It was easy to take pride in a job well done & the pay was OK (about 30K/annum at current rates excluding shift allowances & overtime). The company I worked for made bearings. By selling its products, wealth was created for its owners, for me & the UK. Call centres provide services. No service industry creates wealth. I doubt the people working in them can take pride in the act of speaking down a phone line even when done well. From what I know, the pay isn't up to much either: the graduates in call centres must take an age to pay their debts from studying degrees that do nothing for their employability. As a result I would say the decline of manufacturing & the rise of the call centre are bad things.

Ludojay, Bristol, England

I have been working in a call centre for a bank in Leeds since October, and I would make a few comments. We do have targets for the number of calls that we handle during a shift, and we also have targets for the amount of time we are logged on taking calls - principally so our customers don't wait in big long call queues. The atmosphere is fairly relaxed in the call centre, and there are many opportunities to progress into other areas of the business. As noted in the article, a vast majority of the people working at my call centre (mainly the newest recruits) are graduates, so there is a high level of knowledge which can be used to help customers. The pay isn't great, but there is the opportunity to get half yearly bonuses if personal targets are hit or bettered - a good incentive to do the job properly! Working in a call centre was never a career plan for me, but it has opened my eyes to other possible career paths.

Gordon Pearce, Bradford

I used to work at a bank call centre in Chester. I can confidently say it was by far the worst job I have ever had. The social and political elements of the bank 'call-centre' environment coupled with the high stress and long working hours was a brutal eye-opener for me. The call centres there are like a revolving door, and many of the associates who work there sometimes don't last longer than a few months because of the ridiculous and unrealistic money-led internal targets. Not to mention the claustrophobic enclosed desks (pods) that you have to operate from. It is like the human equivalent of a battery hen farm.

Greg, London

Working in a call centre is the most soul destroying experience. I beg everyone not to be rude to call centre staff because, believe me, they have the worst job in the world and you don't. Ironically, the building I worked in was a converted mill. I earned a salary of £13,000 for a year after University. The desire to help customers very quickly diminishes once you realise that you are required to be at work 15 minutes early (unpaid) to 'log on', you are required to stay after your shift if you are still dealing with a customer (unpaid), you have 30 minutes for lunch (unpaid) and will lose a proportion of your bonus if you get stuck in the canteen/toilet/lift queue and fail to log on precisely on time. It didn't take long to learn how to work the system. Bonuses were largely related to 'average handling time' of your calls. So I began to ring my mobile for 1 second at a time to bring my average down. I would leave customers on hold whilst I went to the loo as I would lose my bonus if I logged off. I felt sorry for the customers though and used to call them back so they didn't incur the call charges. I bumped into the Chief Executive of the company years later when protesting against an academy school he was opening. I confessed all and he laughed and said he didn't blame me.

Jodie Hill, London

I worked in a call center for 6 years and left in 2009. It was hell on earth, all management were concerned with were meaningless stats. If you had an idea of working differently, this was taken as "Being Negative" towards the current status quo. I remember being given a warning for being 17 seconds late one day, but they conveniently failed to recognise if you worked late or came in early.

Gareth Jones, Shipley, UK

I work in IT for an organisation which runs call centres as a large part of the business. Our call centres are filled with people who like the hours, or who are (as in your article), just starting out in their careers, and planning to move on. A surprisingly large number of the team leaders, managers, and other members of staff within the business have come from the call centre, and certainly within IT, we often recruit call centre agents into the IT department. I agree that the image has changed, and I can see it first hand. I am surprised, however, that there is any image of calling a call centre being a stressful activity. I suppose this depends on the purpose of the call, be it a complaint, or a request for information, or as a means to purchase something. Generally I personally don't have any issue in talking to call centre agents, except perhaps when it's a government department!

Nic, London

They are just about the loneliest job in the world. I would be surrounded by hundreds of other people taking calls, but because I was busy and there was no gap between calls, I would hardly have an opportunity to speak to those sitting next to me. If, as is usual, they had different breaks to me, I could go all day without talking to anyone except the callers, all of whom asked the same questions. Companies still want calls to take an average or maximum time. Exceed the average and they would be on your back to speed up your calls. One company only allowed 1 minute per hour to personal usage. If you were 4 seconds late in returning from a break, they would put a black mark against your record. Staff turnover all of the call centres is around a third or half per year. Only the brain dead lasted longer. If there were better jobs available, the number of people with degrees would drop dramatically. Although many of the degrees people had were of the joking type, that wouldn't get them a job elsewhere. Most of the bosses at call centres would be at home in a Dickens novel, they are operating modern day sweat shops.

John B, London

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