Human Factors of work in call centres
W. J. Mellors1
, D. Anderson2
, M. Böcker3
, A. Clarke4
Siemens ICM, Munich,
European Management Services, UK
This paper details the main recommendations of an ETSI report that deals with the human factors aspects of work in call centres. The report, which was written by a specialist Task Force (STF) funded by the eEurope initiative, was based on reviews of existing studies of call centre operation in the UK and other countries, supported by some practical research.
The report was aimed at managers of call centres, their customers, call centre equipment and software designers and manufacturers, occupational health and human resources management. The focus was on call handlers, but the advice was also pertinent to employees with other roles in call centres. It identified jobs and tasks in call centres and the attributes and skills of call handlers and related training issues. The practical issues of disability were considered.
Key words: Call Centres, Human Factors
The UK government published advice regarding call center working practices in 1999 and updated it in 2001 [HSE (2001)]. The Human Factors committee of ETSI thought that this advice should be given a wider audience and a Special Task Force (STF) was set up to confirm its validity in a European context and to produce a report describing the human factors of the tasks and of the typical working environment of call centre operators, giving examples of some of the problems arising in their work. The report [ETSI (2003)] set out to describe work practices to minimise the occurrence of such problems.
Material and methods
In addition to the UK advice, the team's background information included advice from the German Federal Institute for Occupational Health and Safety, documents from trade associations such as FEDMA and the DMA, from trades unions such as the GMB and Unison and from professional associations such as the CCA and the VBG. ISO 9241 (Ergonomic requirements for office work with visual display terminals) gave further information.
This basic reading was followed up by visits to call centres in England, Germany, Ireland and Scotland supported by discussions at the UK Health and Safety laboratory and the Centre for Communications Interface Research in Edinburgh.
3.1 The industry
There are a number of different industry sectors using call centres and a number of different types of activity within them. The different jobs and activities that take place in call centres affect the overall job design, therefore it was found useful to categorize call centre activity. Sectors using call centres are shown in figure 1 and are described in more detail in the ETSI report. This figure also shows the significantly different types of call centre activities. Workers in each of these types of call centres will need different skills and training.
Utilities Trade Insurance Education Banking Legal
Services Health Care
Leisure Services Emergency Services Invoice Handling Sales Tele-Marketing Customer Services Message Centres Order Handling
Figure 1: Call centre market sectors
There are a number of other factors affecting call centre activity such as who initiates the call, location (e.g. in an office or at home), size, single or multiple business operation, contract type, 24/7 operation, geographical coverage and language and culture.
The hardware in a call centre can be broadly PBX or LAN based and in general the operator, wearing a headset has a keyboard and a screen on which information is displayed. On contacting the centre, the customer is usually connected to an Automatic Voice Response unit that directs the calls by using a dialogue with pre-recorded questions answered from the caller's keypad. In some centers caller information can be input by means of speech recognition.
Calls are then connected to the appropriate call handler by an Automatic Call Distribution system. Information concerning the caller, often derived by means of Computer-Telephony Integration, is displayed on the screen. Calls are often recorded and statistical data on e.g. waiting time and call duration is usually recorded for management purposes.
The working environment is critical for the well being of the staff and a number of aspects of the Display Screen Equipment (DSE) Directive apply. Open plan layouts are common as they can offer great flexibility. Privacy screens control the acoustic environment but their arrangement needs care as they can interfere with the ventilation. Screens that are too high can lead to a feeling of isolation. A good arrangement which gives economic use of space, convenient lighting arrangements, good sound attenuation and little "cage" or "pen" effect is shown in figure 2. (VBG 2000).
Figure 2: Linear offset layout
Call centres should have enough free space to allow people to get to and from workstations and to move within the call centre with ease. They should also ensure that some workplaces and toilets are accessible to people with poor mobility and those in wheelchairs.
4.3 Air quality
Adequate ventilation is particularly important in call centres because of the high concentration of employees and high level of occupation which can increase the risk of uncomfortably high temperatures. Low relative humidity is a high risk in call centres due to the large number of computers generating heat 24 hours a day, seven days a week, drying the air to unacceptable levels. This can lead to dehydration which, in turn, causes sore eyes, voice loss and headaches.
Room lighting and individual lighting should ensure an appropriate contrast between the screen and the background environment noting that lighting requirements may differ depending on whether call handlers also have to consult and complete paperwork.
Noise levels in call centres mainly arise from the many conversations taking place. The noise level should be kept low so that operators do not have to turn up the volume in their headsets and so create a risk of acoustic shock. Noise should be monitored and noise absorption incorporated into the workplace layout.
The DSE Directive requires that all radiation with the exception of the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum be reduced to negligible levels in order to protect workers' safety and health. Furthermore, hearing impaired workers using inductively coupled hearing aids can suffer significant interference from poorly suppressed equipment.
The DSE Directive obliges companies to make regular checks of workstations in order to evaluate the safety and health conditions to which they give rise. Relevant advice can be found in ISO 9241. Call handlers should be trained on good posture and the workstation layout necessary for it to be obtained. One means of achieving this is to have a reminder to set up the workstation on the log-on screen of the computer each time a call handler "logs on".
Call handlers should be trained to position microphones correctly so as to control speech levels for the caller and sidetone for the call handler. To limit daily exposure, headset volume controls should be fitted and call handlers should be trained how to use them. It is advised that a system should return the listening level to a default setting after each call.
As call handlers wear a headset throughout their shift, it is important for it to be fully adjustable to ensure a comfortable fit. To reduce the risk of ear irritation and infection, staff should be trained in headset hygiene and given the time and the materials to complete a hygiene programme. The issue of personal headsets to individuals is strongly recommended.
5.3 Specialist equipment
Many countries have legislation requiring employers to give equal opportunities to people with disabilities. Whilst some hearing impaired workers may find the normally provided range of volume control sufficient, others may require the provision of headsets with inductive coupling facilities capable of meeting the requirements of ETS 300 381 [ETSI (1994)].
Some operators with impaired vision may benefit from the ability to change the colours or contrast of the on-screen information. A successful call centre in Poland which employs only blind and highly visually impaired operators provides two headphone audio channels, one for the conversation with the caller, the other for reading the screen.
Some callers may be so hearing impaired as to be unable to communicate without the use of a textphone. Where possible, provision should be made for accepting incoming calls from a textphone by means of equipment fully compliant with the requirements of ITU-T Rec. V.18
[ITU-T (2000)]. Where this is not possible, operators must be made familiar with the characteristics of calls from relay services and be made aware of the delays that might occur when conversation is transcribed to and from text.
One of the fundamental principles of human factors is that work needs to be within the capability of an employee, that it should also be intellectually stimulating and be satisfying and rewarding. Good job design includes attention to such factors as task variety, degree of control over the pace of work and individual workload, and the degree of role ambiguity.
6.1 Targets and rewards
Targets are often set for each statistic that call handlers are required to achieve. Participants taking part in a UK study highlighted them as a major source of stress. Work should be rewarding, both mentally and by remuneration. Stimulation and challenge should be provided in the basic elements of job design. Aspects of the job, such as Automatic Call Distribution (ACD) and Electronic Performance Monitoring (EPM) need to be explained to the workforce.
The productivity, both quantity and quality, of call handlers is almost universally assessed by Electronic Performance Monitoring (EPM). By this means it is possible to produce statistics concerning every aspect of a call handler's job, both at an individual and at a group level. Monitored employees have reported higher levels of stress than unmonitored employees.
Feedback is an essential part of any development process. It can be external, from callers or customers about the quality of service offered, or internal, from call centre operators about customers, software or hardware problems or other aspects of the work. All such data is valuable for correcting faults and improving service quality. Some call handlers like to know if they are reaching their target but for the majority, such feedback was a source of stress.
6.4 Hot desking
Hot desking is a fairly common practice in many call centres.. As a result of this tidiness and hygiene at the workplace are essential. Individuals like to personalize their workplace, this is more difficult with hot desking.
6.5 Shift work
In call centres it is common practice to operate in shifts especially when operating 24/7 hours. Local shops are often closed at night, and it may be too dangerous to go out for something to eat. Adequate refreshments should be available for nightshift call handlers which should cater for those who may have differing dietary requirements for cultural or religious reasons.
Call handlers working shifts in "24/7" call centres are particularly vulnerable when leaving or arriving very late at night or early in the morning. Where appropriate, bus timetables should be available so that employees can wait in the call centre rather than on the street. Where buses are not available, arrangements should be made for taxis to collect staff at the call centre.
6.6 Group working
Call handlers should preferably be organized in stable groups so as to facilitate their assignment to special products or activities. When organized in groups, call handlers can exchange experiences more easily and share the benefits of informal communications. Such working gives a social context that is otherwise difficult to achieve in a background of part-time and shift-oriented work. Shift swapping is easier within a stable group. This encourages the growth of a team spirit which can increase productivity as members support one another.
DSE users have the right to regular breaks or changes in activity away from the screen. Apart from more general advantages of breaks, call handlers are particularly at risk from eyestrain and headaches, aggravated by working under pressure. The risk of dulled hearing and tinnitus may also be reduced by giving the ears a break from headsets; similarly, the risk of voice loss or sore throat may be reduced by giving a break from talking to callers.
7.1 Selection and training
Call centre work requires a good knowledge of a company, its procedures, of computer systems and and how to deal with customers. Call centre operators should be recruited and selected from applicants with at least one of these attributes and likely to respond to further training in other skills. Some training institutions deliver European diplomas or certificates in direct and interactive marketing.
Upselling is increasingly becoming common practice which should only be introduced to staff on a voluntary basis as not every good call handler is also a good sales person. It should be introduced with additional incentives based on performance and with special training.
Call centres should allow calls from callers identified as having special needs to be dealt with in a sympathetic manner possibly by transfer to a specially trained and suitably equipped operator. Future technological developments may permit the transfer to be performed automatically.
7.2 Health issues
In a study on noise hazards associated with the call centre industry it was found that the risk of hearing damage is extremely low. Although call handlers may occasionally experience high noise levels, these are usually of very short duration. Call handlers' overall daily personal noise exposure is unlikely to exceed 85 dB(A). There is some evidence that the susceptibility to injury from some types of shock may be in some way related to stress [Ear (2001)]. Call handlers should be encouraged to report all acoustic shock incidents or any other abnormally loud noises. A record should be made of these reported events.
Although intensive use of Visual Display Units (VDUs) can cause temporary effects on vision, there is no convincing scientific evidence to support the widely held belief that using VDUs causes long-term damage. Any risk can be reduced by offering eyesight tests at induction and at regular intervals thereafter and providing spectacles if needed for working with a VDU.
Call centre employees should be warned about the risk of dysphonia, the various symptoms of the condition and how this risk can be reduced. Tension can be relieved by stretching the neck and shoulders. These exercises can be done at the workstation as well as during breaks.
MusculoSkeletal Disorders (MSDs) are recognized as a risk associated with DSE work. Call handlers may be at a higher risk than typical office workers because they have less opportunity to take breaks from using the computer. It is vital to train call handlers how to use workstation equipment properly and how to adjust it to meet their needs.
Work-related stress may be defined as the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them. Support from line managers and peers, is a very important factor in protecting employees from such stress. Call handlers may need emotional support following distressing calls.
7.3 Reference material
A great deal of reference material is normally available for call handlers to support their work. Its Display is preferably on-screen, where searching and retrieval can be efficient and quick.
Most supervisors will have been recruited or promoted from experienced call handlers, aware of most problems likely to occur and of their solutions. They require training for specific management aspects of their work and assumptions should not be made about the amount of knowledge gained on the job.
Call handlers may experience more verbal abuse than typical office workers. The first step in avoiding abusive calls is training. Newly recruited call handlers should be made aware of some of the common reasons for verbal abuse, and they should be trained how to handle abusive callers. Company policies on work-related violence should have a section dedicated to the verbal abuse experienced by call handlers. It should state clearly when call handlers should terminate an abusive call or pass it to their supervisor, and the procedure for doing so.
The caller normally expects to talk to an individual able to answer queries, take orders, or give general information about their company and assumes the call handler to be a direct employee of the organization called. Customers are less likely to become frustrated if their calls are taken efficiently and all their questions dealt with quickly in a confident manner. Agents should be able to talk customers through different situations and maintain a calm manner whatever the provocation
8.2 Voice menus
A common situation arises when a caller is presented with a number of options in a voice-menu as part of a stored voice switching system. Typically these contain instructions as to which number key to press for a particular option, Menus should be short, words and
instructions unambiguous and should never end in silence or a dead end. The user should be able to contact a human operator at any time in the dialogue.
8.3 Time in queue
Possibly the most irritating aspect of encountering a call centre answering service is being kept waiting in a queue. There should never be a long time before connection to an operator or recorded announcement appropriate to the service being sought.
Appropriate feedback should be provided at all times throughout connection with a call centre, preferably through voice announcements or tones.
8.5 Dead line
Some call centres in the marketing and selling domain may use what is called predictive dialling. This is aimed at contacting potential customers through "cold calling", where they are picked from directories or data bases. Because the rate of response is unknown and generally low, call-handler availability is often less than the possible response and a respondent may be answered by silence. This can be irritating and disturbing for some elderly or nervous persons. Such practices are not recommended and should not be employed.
8.6 Time of day
Call centre operators should be sensitive to the time of day when calling customers and, in general, avoid very early or late calls. An exception would be when responding to specific customer enquiries or urgent service calls, e.g. utilities such as gas, electricity or water, or call outs for medical, veterinary or fire service emergencies.
Ear. "Risking acoustic shock. A seminar on acoustic trauma from headsets in call centres"
- Freemantle, Australia, September 2001. Ear Associates Pty, Morwell HSE (2001). Advice regarding call centre working practice
ETSI ETS 300 381 (1994): "Telephony for hearing impaired people; Inductive coupling of telephone earphones to hearing aids".
ETSI. ETSI TR 102 202 (2003), "Human Factors; Human Factors of work in call centers"
EU.Directive 90/270/EEC of 29 May 1990 on the minimum safety and health requirements for work with display screen equipment OJ L 156, 21/06/1990 pp. 14-18.
ITU-T Recommendation V.18 (2000): "Operational and interworking requirements for modems operating in the text telephone mode".
VBG. "Call Centre Hilfen fur Planung und Einrichtung" Verwaltungs-Berufsgenossenschaft, Hamburg, 2000