Is Scotland turning into a call centre nation?

IF YOU think call centres are a blight on modern life that leave you boiling with anger and on the verge of throwing the phone through the window, press ONE.

If you believe they are a shining example of quality customer service and have breathed new life into Scotland's unemployment blackspots, press TWO.

If you need more information, press THREE and listen to Songbird by Kenny G for a few minutes until an adviser eventually becomes available.

Those who pressed TWO may be among the estimated 105,000 people in Scotland who work in call centres, an industry worth 2.2 billion a year.

Those who pressed ONE may cling on to a different statistic - on average, every UK adult spends 24 hours every year on the phone to a call centre. There are more than three million complaints annually - from waiting times to the "aggressive" manner of call centre staff.

Whatever your view, all the statistics prove we are living in a call centre generation - although the industry itself may prefer to use the softer "contact centre" title.

The future of call centres was debated in Edinburgh last week, when 600 delegates gathered for a conference of the Customer Contact Association, the industry's trade body. Phil Taylor, a professor at Strathclyde University and expert on the business of call centres, told the meeting that Scotland is better placed than other countries to withstand the well-documented outsourcing of jobs to India.

He suggested two reasons: call centre companies in Scotland are staffed by experienced employees who understand colloquial English, and second, some of the call centre companies based in Scotland - financial institutions for example - have shown a reluctance to outsource their work. The single biggest call centre employer in Scotland, satellite broadcaster BSkyB, employs 6,000 and has based the majority of its call centre operation in Scotland since 1989.

Other large call centres include IBM (Greenock), 02 (Glasgow) and NHS 24 (Glasgow). Lanarkshire has also done well out of call centres, with about 9,000 created in the last decade.

Surveys have also highlighted the fact that callers have more trust in a friendly Scottish accent than staff from other parts of the UK. Strathclyde University lecturer Peter Bain, who has co-authored a number of reports on contact centres with Prof Taylor, said Scotland had been "less severely" affected by the off-shoring of call centre posts to India than other regions.

Mr Bain said problems had arisen over the ability of some Indian staff to deal with calls routed from the UK: "It's not just that Indian operators have to understand written English, they have to understand colloquial English and a range of accents."

An estimated 30,000-35,000 call centre jobs in India involve handling UK calls. Up to 25,000 more employees handle the "back office" jobs that make the centres work.

But whether we are calling Mumbai or Motherwell, most of us have unhappy anecdotes to relate; this is an industry with a serious, historic, image problem.

And it isn't just the callers. Unions maintain the call centre environment is a deeply stressed one peopled by temporary staff on low wages.

The analysts, ContactBabel say new starters at one of Scotland's 450 call centres can expect to earn an average of 12,721.

Steve Morrell, a senior analyst with ContactBabel, says: "All of the reasons that contact centres moved up to Scotland in the first place are still there. The reason was there were high levels of unemployment and contact centres are extremely labour intensive - 70 per cent or more of your contact centre expenditure, if not more, is spent on staff salaries."

But are these staff all walking into huge call centre sheds with big smiles on their faces? No, say the unions.

Stephen Baillie, the regional organiser for the GMB disputes that working conditions at call centres have been transformed. He says: "My experience is exactly the same - considerable amounts of stress, considerable amounts of pressure. People tend to have temporary contracts or don't last too long. It tends to be that 'there's plenty more where they came from'."

David Fleming, the national secretary of the trade union Amicus, says: "Employers often fail to recognise the importance of call centre staff, they are the first point of call for most financial services customers. Call centres are often target driven, stressful environments."

Mr Fleming said his union was campaigning for "skills and a positive working environment" in Scotland's call centres.

Anne Marie Forsyth, chief executive of the Customer Contact Association, does not recognise the picture of low salaries and points to an industry of increasing diversity where multi-lingual staff at IBM deal with clients across the world.

She says: "We are increasingly trying to dispel the myth that a call centre is a call centre is a call centre, because it's not. They have moved from being this little thing on the side to being the centre of communication.

"Businesses are built around them at the centre - for example ING Bank, Standard Life, First Direct, Intelligent Finance - all built around this indirect way of doing business."

Ms Forsyth admits image problems persist and accepts customers can feel "detached" when dealing with call centres. However, she insists the industry is learning from experience and undergoing a "big transition".

If you would like to take issue with Ms Forsyth, please hold.

When stress comes calling

A BRITISH University psychologist who has extensively researched working practices in call centres yesterday said she believed the industry had gone a long way to improve conditions from the era when it was perceived as an electronic sweatshop.

However Christine Sprigg, a lecturer in occupational psychology at Sheffield University, said call-centre jobs could be stressful because employees often had little autonomy, with their movements monitored and their phone conversations carefully scripted.

"A lot of it is related to the fundamental design of the work, it's the fact that they are machine-paced individuals, the calls are being sent through to them and the calls are being automatically dialled out - it doesn't give them a lot of auto- nomy to do what they want to do."

Ms Sprigg wrote about the call centre industry in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology earlier this year in the wake of research involving 36 call centres and 1141 employees. She added: "The more heavily 'scripted' employees are and the more surveillance they experience, the more stressful those jobs are."

However, the academic believed there was a limit to how much call-centre work could in reality be improved.

"I appreciate there is only so much you can do to improve these jobs," she said. "What these jobs are about is fundamentally sitting there and making and taking phone calls for eight hours a day. I think it's hard work."

The Sheffield University expert said she would be keen to conduct further research on the psychological effects of abuse that call centre employees could sometimes suffer.

"We actually know very little about the impact of threats and verbal abuse on people, we don't know what the long-term implications of being sworn at on a regular basis actually are."

Ms Sprigg said managers should support staff who could be on the receiving end of abuse from unhappy callers.

"When we've got young kids coming off the street into call centres they need to be confident and empowered enough to deal with abuse.

"They have to make it clear to customers they won't be spoken to like that and that they will not be punished by their manager if they terminate an abusive call."

GROWING BUSINESS

• The call centre business in Scotland is predicted to be worth 2.5 billion a year by 2008.

• There are currently 450 call centres north of the Border.

• Scots call centres are larger than those in the rest of the country, having an average of 145 seats - computers and desks - which can be occupied 24 hours a day by staff on shifts.

• Analysts ContactBabel estimate that 105,000 people work in Scotland's call centre industry - from those actually taking calls to the army of computer and ancillary staff who make the businesses run.

• In Scotland, 4.3 per cent of the working population is employed in call centres - higher than the UK average of 3.1 per cent.

• Employees are typically female and in their mid to late 20s.

• Scotland's early lead in call centres is regarded as having created an experienced workforce with lower turnover than other parts of the world.

• In India - where an estimated 35,000 employees handle calls relating to the UK - staff turnover has proved an issue, with highly trained graduates often leaving after short stints.

• Three million complaints about UK call centres were made by the public last year, but that has to be put into perspective against the billions of calls handled by staff every year.