Call centre performance at White Knight

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The case

White Knight is a well-established mAIl order catalogue company with its headquarters and main distribution centre in Crawley. There is a call centre in Brighton, where there is a relatively goOD pool of labour, especially out of season when the call centre has to recruit large quantities of temporary staff to handle the pre-CHRistmas peak. The function of the call centre is to receive and process customer orders and to deal with customer enquiries and complaints. Order fulfilment activities take place in Crawley. The approach adopted by the company to customer service is named ‘QED’ – ie Quality and Efficiency Driven.

Call centre performance at White Knight

Business is good and, on the whole, getting better. There have, however, been some problems with the performance of the call centre. Call office performance is measured by a range of metrics, the most important ones BEIng service levels in terms of the time within which calls are answered, the duration of calls (‘average talk time’) and the proportion of customers who hang up because they are tired of waiting for a response. In addition, some calls were monitored by quality assurance, and interactive voice response (IVR) software was used to obtain customer feedback at the end of a sample of calls. Standards were set for the three main metrics, namely 80 per cent of calls to be answered within 20 seconds, average talk time no more that 2 minutes, no more that 3 per cent of customers hanging up. However, the call centre was not meeting these targets – on average service levels were running at less than 70 per cent, average talk time was nearly 3 minutes and about 5 per cent of customers were hanging up. Customer satisfaction levels were declining. Something had to be done. The Director of Operations asked the recently appointed Head of HR for her advice. The latter briefed the HR Business Partner, who had also just joined the organization and was responsible for the call centre and distribution (previously without specific HR support), to look into the problem and suggest solutions.

The HR Business Partner established the following facts:

The call centre employed 250 permanent full-time agents, working shifts, 60 permanent part-time agents, also on shifts, and, in the busy seasons such as pre-Christmas, up to 200 temporary agents, most of them part-time.

The centre relied on the permanent staff to maintain the standards and in an informal and largely unstructured way to mentor the temporary staff.

Rates of pay were average compared to similar jobs in Brighton.

All employees were on a flat rate; there were no provisions for relating pay to service, performance or skill.

Although there were outline job descriptions for agents, no attempt had been made to produce a specification of the competencies and personal characteristics that would be most suited to the work.

The interviewing process was crude and superficial to say the least.

New agents were given half a day’s training by a team leader and then sat with an experienced agent for two days before starting on the job.

Attempts were made to encourage temporary agents to return in following years but without a great deal of success – no special inducements were given.

Permanent agents with more than three years’ experience or temporary agents who had returned in three consecutive years had significantly higher levels of performance on average than those with less service – they were hitting the targets. This meant an improvement of 22 per cent in service levels over the results obtained by staff with less than one year’s service and 9 per cent over those with from one to two years’ service. Their scores on the customer service index were 17 per cent above year one staff and 6 per cent above year two staff (similar improvements in performance were noted for returning temporary staff).

The labour turnover figures for permanent staff in the last three years were 21, 24 and 27 per cent respectively.

A cohort analysis showed that 40 per cent of permanent staff left in their first year, 25 per cent in their second year and 15 per cent in their third year.

An analysis of returning temporary staff showed that no more than about 20 per cent of them returned in the following year.

A rough estimate of the cost of labour turnover suggested that it amounted to nearly £3,200 for every permanent staff leaver, allowing for recruiting and training costs and the costs of reduced efficiency and productivity – on this basis the total cost of the losses of permanent staff last year was £224,000.

Agents were employed on the same job continuously – there was no job rotation.

Absenteeism was high and interviews conducted by the HR Business Partner indicated that stress and tiredness were probably major contributory factors.

It was evident from conversations with managers and team leaders and an employee engagement survey conducted by the HR Business Partner that the quality of leadership was inadequate.

All in all, a sorry picture.

The task

Carry out a diagnosis of the problem based on the above analysis and outline the steps the HR Business Partner might recommend and how they could be justified in the form of a business case.


One of the most important points emerging from the analysis was the significant improvement in performance of the more experienced staff. This indicates a need to improve retention and return rates. There is clearly plenty that can be done about induction and training. An analysis of those who stayed or returned might produce criteria for a more systematic and focused recruitment process. Consideration could be given to pay being related to service and, possibly, performance or skill, and financial inducements could be considered for those the centre would want to re-engage (eg starting at a higher rate, allowing for previous experience and performance). Generally, there is a need to improve engagement and commitment, bearing in mind, however, that the nature of the work in a call centre can be very routine and at the same time demanding. What could be done to provide more job variety, and to reduce exhaustion and stress? What should be done about the quality of leadership?