Most major companies have some form of telephone response unit, if not a proper call centre. It has long been recognised as one of the front lines by which the company is judged and any business that aims to compete on service standards has to get it right.

Industry pioneers soon realised that ever-growing telesales operations demanded new solutions to motivate, energise and evaluate staff. In the past, those individuals who might be expected to sit, like battery hens, in uninspiring surroundings were grouped into teams, and then pitched in competition with each other.

Yet the efficiency of the operation did not reflect positively on the well-being of staff. Turnover was high, brought on partly through competitors' actions to poach operators, or simple boredom among staff. For those reasons, the industry saw moves between companies for even very modest salary increases.

Swift and accurate advice
In the assistance and legal protection market, requirements were slightly different from telesales operations. Through their premiums, callers have paid for a help or assistance service. They expect to have swift and accurate advice from knowledgeable operators.

It takes, of course, a considerable investment in the technology that enables the services to function, and this has to be renewed or upgraded almost continually. Where many call centre operations have fallen short is in the calibre of the human resource: their training, their development, and their career path. This investment can be a significant one, both in terms of management and in financial commitment to training. Nevertheless, there will be a payback in the medium to long-term.

If you take a school leaver and show them how to use a computer's prompt screen, they can perform a service function. But if it ends there, this ignores both their career prospects and their emotional development as they mature. Recruiting people who have work experience, are returning to work, or are switching from public to private sectors all helps. Our usual requirement is three years' experience in a call centre environment.

Having selected likely candidates, it is then necessary to match them to a suitable position. The aim should be to give them a role that they can grow into. This learning process can help them to develop an interest in the business of the company. In our situation, we specialise in providing a service specifically for the insurance industry.

It would be easy to offer 24-hour services to other industries, but this is not our chosen path, because to do so would conflict with our “culture statements”.

This means that staff understand the insurance industry, yet still become proficient in a variety of skills that would look good on any CV. However, it is in our interests to minimise the loss of trained personnel, and interest them in the various roles that are open within the legal expenses environment.

Regular one-to-one updates and feedback apply to all staff. Annual assessments, at which goals are established, are reviewed thereafter at quarterly intervals. Happy workers are productive workers. Lower turnover in staff means reduced direct costs for such things as advertising, and less wasted management time.

Get the priorities right
Attention to detail on health and safety (H&S) issues is similarly important – it must be a priority. Ultimate responsibility for H&S falls onto the managing director. New staff are inducted in the normal way. Then, after two weeks, we call in independent assessors to check each individual's needs at their workstation. Measurements are made of knee-to-floor height, hip height and so on, and positions for the height of screens or need for armrests established. Particular needs to facilitate wheelchairs or visually impaired staff need to be catered for. All this is recorded so that adjustments can be made to whichever workstation is used in the operation.

Other issues, such as noisy headsets, are also the subject of regular checks. Headsets are personal to just one user, and are serviced or replaced as needed.

We have found that taking part in the Investors in People accreditation greatly facilitates the training process. Individuals become involved in deciding their own strengths and weaknesses, so our HR people develop an appropriate response to help them progress. We have also found great benefit from adopting the government's modern apprenticeship scheme. It has been another way of matching commitment of the company to the loyalty of our staff.

Supporting progress
Establishing a clear grade structure also makes it easier for staff to assess their progress. This has further been helped by the General Insurance Standards Council (GISC) requirements. These demand that people prove they can interpret knowledge and put it into practice in their work.

A key indicator remains staff turnover – it is vital to retain experienced staff. Ultimately, we want them to become managers, but recognise that not all staff want to move in that direction.

This was not a significant problem when all advisers were legally qualified and handled legal problems only. It was after expansion into areas such as insured assistance services and general helplines on health, vets and travel that staff turnover increased. HR resources were targeted to prevent the establishment of that trend, and more focused management techniques were applied.

The fruits of this approach are now evident. Staff are better motivated and stay in their jobs, or within the company. A record number of candidates have completed their modern apprenticeships. Training and study leave is open to all. More staff are rising through the ranks, and align themselves to the core values of our organisation. Promotion from within satisfies the majority of our recruitment.

No one has all the answers, and requirements will change. Nevertheless, if you prioritise staff issues, you will have an efficient and a co-operative call centre workforce. This will bring direct and indirect cost dividends, as well as ensuring that a first-class service is available to new and existing clients.

  • Charles Wright is general manager of DAS Legal Expenses Insurance.