Call Centre Action Month Winds Down

November 8, 2013

Helping a senior determine which bus to take to the library, ensuring someone’s electrical account is set up in their new home, collecting important information after a car accident – these are just a few of the jobs hundreds of MoveUP members perform in call centres. In October, MoveUP highlighted the work of these professionals as part of UNI Global Union’s Call Centre Action Month campaign.

Approximately two-thirds of all interactions between companies and their customers are now taking place through call centres, which are largely staffed by highly-skilled yet unfortunately undervalued employees.

“Based on their education, skills, and the complex tasks they perform each day, call centre workers are professionals. Ideally, professional status includes good wages that are above the national average, recognition of employees’ valuable skills, some autonomy and control over work, and clear paths to career advancements,” UNI’s Call Centre Action Month report states, but points out that globally, we are far from that ideal:

“Too many call centre workers find themselves in dead-end jobs with no autonomy and substandard pay.”

When we at MoveUP saw the report we thought it was important to talk to our members who work in call centres to learn about their similar challenges and what additional unique issues they might face.

Over the month of October, in recognition of UNI’s Call Centre Action Month, Communications Officer Jarrah Hodge visited call centres staffed by MoveUP members at FortisBC, ICBC, Coast Mountain Bus Company and Accenture (for BC Hydro). There were a few key things all or most of them had in common.

For one, they’re highly trained. Nearly everyone interviewed had received between 6-8 weeks of training to learn how to answer the varying kinds of calls they’d have to deal with.

Janie McDougall, a MoveUP member at FortisBC Customer Service Centre, said, “We learned about gas and where it comes from, how a meter works and what to advise when it breaks down, how to use our computer system, and how to communicate with customers in a way that’s sensitive and careful.”

At ICBC, people work answering main customer service lines and processing and resolving telephone claims. Brody Darough-Hardekopf said new hires get approximately eight weeks of training so they can work with customers effectively and be ready to answer questions on claims province-wide, how licensing works and related areas of provincial law.

Stephen Von Sychowski, now a MoveUP union representative, started in customer service at the Coast Mountain Bus Company. “The members in that call centre are well-trained and committed to providing good service,” he explains. “They’re helping people get around the Lower Mainland by public transit. A lot of our callers were people who couldn’t afford a smartphone or computer, or didn’t have technological skills, but they still needed to get around.”

That training is crucial when you’re doing important, fast-paced work.

“We’re the front line,” said MoveUP Executive Board Member Nancy de Vries, who works at the BC Hydro Customer Care (Accenture) in Vernon, “We deal with everything, from someone’s power getting disconnected to trouble calls like when someone spots a downed power line. We make sure it gets passed on so things get fixed and we walk the caller through steps to make sure they’re safe.”

“Some calls are quite severe,” said MoveUP Executive Board Member Melanie Greenlaw, who has worked at BC Hydro Customer Care (Accenture) in Burnaby for eight years, “I had a fellow who was trapped in a car accident and a power line had fallen on his car. Another time there was a man stuck in a crane that had made contact with a power line. You have to keep them calm and ask lots of questions to make sure they’re safe.”

“In an emergency sometimes people call in nonchalantly, not aware that it really is an emergency. And sometimes someone calls in hysterical, thinking their house might explode. We get lots of calls from fire departments, for instance if they need gas shut off or if they’re the first emergency responders on site if a gas line ruptures. You have to ask all the right questions to make sure the people are safe and get the information our workers need to get out to the right place quickly,” Janie McDougall explained.

Unfortunately call centre workers’ skills and professionalism aren’t always recognized in their wages and working conditions. It wasn’t uncommon for members to talk about how the stress caused by excessive monitoring, fear of unreasonable discipline and/or exposure to harassment from the public was causing high turnover amon the their coworkers.

“In many call centres … employees are frequently under pressure to meet a quota while having very little control over their own schedules or work flow. Threats, heavy monitoring and the pace of work lead to quick burnout,” UNI’s report notes.

MoveUP members working in call centres face challenges seen across the sector. Executive Board Member Stephanie Smith says she hears from members who are stressed and burned out by overly strict and punitive monitoring of employees’ work while dealing with nearly impossible targets.

The UNI report notes that high turnover not only hurts employees, but also costs employers:

“On average [in the business process outsourcing industry], replacing one agent equals 16 per cent of the gross annual earnings of a call centre worker.”

The presence of a union can make a significant difference. UNI found median annual pay in union call centres was about seven per cent higher. Union call centres also tended to invest more in training and place limits on performance monitoring. It’s not just workers who benefit: customers receive better service when they’re talking to someone who’s properly trained, and companies see a much lower turnover rate.

MoveUP members share in that union advantage. Of CMBC, Von Sychowski explained: “There are always things that can be improved, but it wasn’t like the horror stories you hear about non-union call centres. Through the union we got fairer wages, a regular work schedule and benefits.”

de Vries agrees, “Day-to-day, it definitely helps to have a union to make sure the employer is being fair overall.”