Required scripting and work stress in the call center environment: a preliminary exploration.

Author:Berkbigler, Elizabeth
 
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INTRODUCTION

In the past several decades, the growth of call centers has significantly impacted the work force in the United States. It is estimated that there are over 50,000 call centers operating in the U.S. alone, constituting 3% of the workforce (Batt, Doellgast, & Kwon, 2005). Call center sizes in the U.S. range from very small (with under 20) to large-scale operations (over 300). The average size of a call center in the U.S. is 289 employees (Batt, et al., 2005). Desai (2010) cites a report stating that all companies on the Fortune 500 have call centers and over $300 billion are spent on call centers annually. Globally, call centers are growing at a rate of 40% (Sprigg & Jackson, 2006). As one example, the number of Canadian call centers grew 27.7% from 2001 to 2006 (Echchakoui & Naji, 2013). With call centers representing such a significant portion of the work force, their impact on business operations is obviously significant (Batt, 2002).

One reason for the widespread growth of call centers in the past several decades is technology. Technology, in general, has enabled companies to conduct business on a much larger scale, often globally. Services that were once provided through regional markets, have now become centralized global operations, with much of the work being completed via a call center (Batt & Moynihan, 2002). Call centers can be an effective tool for reaching the masses and when managed efficiently, they can become competitive advantages for companies. These centralization processes through the use call centers have allowed firms to create economies of scale by reducing offices, automating processes and simplifying its processes (Batt & Moynihan, 2002).

With the vast growth of the call center industry and increased technology, companies have also increased the job expectations for Customer Service Representatives (CSRs). Jobs that were once known for simplified tasks such as collections or the handling of minor customer service issues now entail much more. In the U.S., 43% of call centers handle both service and sales functions (Batt, et al., 2005). This statistic implies that companies are utilizing their call centers for not only the traditional functions, such as customer service and collections (Bedics, Jack & McCary, 2006), but also as a source of revenue generation. Call centers are also being used as a channel for companies to engage in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) practices (Kantsperger & Kunz, 2005; Bedics, Jack & McCary, 2006) and the representatives are expected to build relationships with the patrons. Therefore, call centers are not only being used as service centers, but also as strategic pieces of business that are used to build revenue and build service relationships.

These added expectations of the business have also led to added expectations of the service representatives who are completing the tasks. Traditionally, call center work has been characterized as low-skilled work, with its employees deemed as easily replaceable (Batt & Moynihan, 2002). Work within call centers has been compared to that of manufacturing, primarily because of the limited work discretion, task replication, and stringent work schedules (Hillmer, Hillmer, & McRoberts, 2004). These job characteristics have led call centers to be dubbed as "white-collar" production lines (Batt & Moynihan, 2002; Rose & Wright, 2005). This is primarily due to the technologies that are employed in call centers. The technologies allow business leaders to create a work environment for call centers that mirror assembly line work. The pace is controlled for the employee and there is limited job discretion (Varca, 2001). However, management prefers this work dynamic, as this provides efficiency to achieve those economies of scale that can add to profits.

However, as companies move to generate revenue and use the centers as CRM tools, the job demands facing the front-line employees have elevated. They are expected to navigate through sophisticated computer systems, follow regulatory requirements, and give thorough explanations of complicated products and services. (Hillmer, et al., 2004). All of these tasks are accomplished while meeting sales objectives, time objectives, customer service expectations and adhering to stringent time schedules (Hillmer, et al., 2004).

The typical call center agent of the past was expected to answer calls and answer the customer's questions. However, as mentioned above, the evolution from customer service center to strategic business unit, has led to the increased importance of the call center employee, and thus, has added responsibilities to the daily routines of call center agents. Call center employment, which was once deemed as a low-skilled workplace, has become much more detailed. This can be seen in the migration of call centers from outsourced countries, such as India, back into the U.S. As the job expectations elevated, language barriers contributed to offshore call centers not being able to handle the job as efficiently or as productively (Amble, 2007). Agents must possess computer skills, social skills (to build relationships with customer, superiors, and peers), active listening skills, critical thinking skills and the ability to express emotions to the customers (Rose & Wright, 2005).

THE DYNAMIC OF CALL CENTERS

Although the goals of the call center and the roles of the agents are evolving, the dynamics of the call center have not. Call center work in the past, was generically classified as clerical. Standard "office" jobs were the category in which call center work fell. During this time, tasks were varied and non-standardized (Batt & Moynihan, 2002). However, with the explosion of call centers as a major center for carrying work loads, firms shifted from varied tasks to more be more standardized in regards to task replication. Call centers today continue to be managed and streamlined in a standardized form, much as production lines (Batt & Moynihan, 2002; Zapf et al., 2003). Management seeks to increase efficiency, production and revenue through the use of technology to insure that its customer base is not only touched, but also that the most calls are answered as efficiently as possible. Because of this demand for production and the replicating of tasks, the similarities to factories are a real comparison. However, call center employees are differentiated from typical factory workers in that in addition to the task replication and low job discretion, as service workers, CSRs are also expected to perform a high level of emotional labor as part of their tasks (Wallace, Eagleson, & Waldersee, 2000).

All of these job demands have led to high turnover rates (Batt, 2002; Echchakoui & Naji, 2013; Hillmer et al., 2004; Holdsworth & Cartwright, 2003; Holman et al., 2009); and high levels of absenteeism (Deery, Iverson & Walsh, 2006; Frenkel, Orlitzky, & Wallace, 2005; Holman, 2003; Schlak & van Rijckevorsel, 2007) in the call center environment. In addition, workforce tenure is fairly low with approximately one-third of employees with less than one year of tenure at work (Holman, Batt & Holtgrewe, 2007). Therefore, this had resulted in a accumulation of research surrounding work related stress and call centers.

WORK STRESS IN CALL CENTERS

Service work in general has been deemed as stressful (Varca, 2006; Holman, 2002). In addition to the stress of service work, call center representatives also have added job demands that are lead to stressful work conditions. Call center representatives have limited task control (Holman, 2003), limited control over the timing of which they need to answer calls (Zapf et al., 2003) and are faced with routine tasks that become monotonous for the employee (Zapf et al., 2003). Research has indicated that call center employees experience more stress than social workers, law enforcement agents, and mental health workers (Singh, Goolsby, & Rhoads, 1994). As the call center industry grows, so does the research on call centers. Much of this research has been dedicated to the stress associated with the job demands of the CSR job function.

Much of the research that has been conducted in regards to work-related stress in call centers has focused on role stressors. Stressors such as role conflict, role ambiguity, role overload, and work pressures (Witt, Andrews, & Carleson, 2004). These stressors have been found to produce a number of stress-related consequences including employee burnout, high rates of absenteeism, high rates of turnover and poor service quality (Hillmer, et al., 2004; Ruyter, Wetzels, & Feinberg, 2001; Varca, 2006).

Of these areas, job control (or lack of) in call centers continues to be a stand out predictor of work-related stress in call centers. The low levels of job control and lack of job discretion is a key driver to employee dissatisfaction in call center (Holman & Fernie, 2000; Holman, 2003; Varca, 2006; Varca, 2001).

JOB CONTROL IN CALL CENTERS

The term "job control" when used to examine work stress refers to the amount of discretion that an employee has while carrying out their assigned job duties (Newton & Jimmieson, 2008). Low levels of job control indicate that employees have very little discretion in their daily job duties. Job control as a cause of work-related stress is a well-examined topic. Karasek (1979) was a pioneer in the examination of this topic. He summarized that when employees feel that they have low levels of discretion in completed work tasks and high job demand is present, there are likely to be high levels exhaustion, job dissatisfaction and overall life dissatisfaction (Karasek, 1979).

The work of Karasek (1979) has been reinforced by several studies. There have been many studies to test this hypothesis and nearly all conclusions noting a negative relationship between job control and work place stress, or essentially, a lower level of job control (limited discretion on daily work tasks)...

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