While call centres are not generally viewed as enviable working environments, a commitment to staff morale can help a business retain workers, save money and, most importantly, improve customer service. David Halliday, head of UK customer services, Admiral Group, explains how the company draws a link between happy workers, happy customers and the bottom line.
Running a call centre is undoubtedly a tough job for any institution. Intent on keeping costs to a minimum - while at the same time providing optimal customer service - the organisation must ensure that a drive towards efficiency does not diminish quality in any way.
The most important piece of this puzzle is, of course, the call centre employees themselves. Common sense dictates that if they are content at work, they are likely to provide a better service and be incentivised to help the people at the other end of the phone.
Equally, a satisfied workforce often translates to a long-lasting workforce. If employees are miserable in the role, attrition may become a problem - and given the costs associated with recruiting and training new workers, it can be an expensive problem to redress.
For Admiral Insurance, the only FTSE 100 company based in Wales, keeping its workforce happy is therefore a key concern. With offices in Swansea, Cardiff and Newport, the car-insurance company has been billed as a major success story. It has grown every year since it started in 1993, and accomplished a 47% increase in turnover in 2010 alone.
This success, it believes, stems in no small part from its commitment to staff morale. The company has won numerous awards for its work culture, having been listed in The Sunday Times 'Best Companies to Work For' list every year since its inception, along with the Great Place to Work Institute's list of best workplaces in the UK.
As Admiral's website explains: "We believe that happy people make happy customers and happy customers help increase profits. So our philosophy is a simple yet effective one: people who enjoy what they do, do it better."
Curious about Admiral's staff proposition, Future Banking paid a visit to the Admiral Group House office, part of a new waterfront development in Swansea. With chillout areas, table tennis, a Wii and a pool table, the culture is evidently not just about taking calls. There is even a hula hoop in sight, a relic from a recent themed staff day in which employees dressed as Disney characters.
"You spend a lot of your week in work, so it's really important we invest in making people happier," explains David Halliday, head of UK customer services, Admiral Group. "So things like corporate massages, free fruit, internet access on computers and special annual parties make a big difference. We employ a lot of people, so Admiral takes its social responsibility seriously."
Its corporate culture is focused on four key pillars: communication, equality, reward and recognition, and fun. The 'fun' side of things, encapsulated in the hula hoop, speaks for itself. There is also a free corporate gym membership, financial advice, shares in the company and a long list of further incentives.
The commitment to communication and equality includes flexible working, plus training throughout the span of each person's career, and when it comes to recognition, Admiral believes very strongly in the power of extrinsic motivation.
"I think we do reward and recognition really well," says Halliday. "It's a tough job taking calls all day, so I think it's important that you reward people, that those rewards are nice and visual and you do it frequently."
Friend to all
Admiral hires for attitude first and foremost. New recruits may not have previous experience in insurance, but ideally speaking they will be polite, friendly and willing to learn.
"Obviously, we want people who are accurate, professional, efficient and knowledgeable on the phone, but we've got to help them get there," Halliday continues. "When they come in the door, they've got to want to help the customer. I think it's really important as well that they buy into the fun side of things and also that they speak their mind; that they're not afraid to challenge the norms and make things better for us and for the customers. We don't want clones, we want real people."
The company also runs operations in Delhi and Bangalore, which run on a similar principle. Rather than abiding by a simple cost-cutting mantra, the Indian call centres are held to the same standards as the Welsh ones; customers, after all, want the same level of service no matter what number they're calling.
The Delhi and Bangalore offices therefore place the same emphasis on staff satisfaction, closing for parties or for public holidays. Because of the difference in time zone, they allow Admiral to offer a round-the-clock service without requiring employees to work antisocial hours.
Ultimately, this leads to a department manned by a highly personable, professional workforce, which delivers what they say they're going to deliver and are prepared to rectify any mistakes. Halliday feels the days of false rapport are behind us, and that today's customer service is far more about a commitment to results.
"People don't want to ring up and have an endless chat about Eastenders or Coronation Street while they're paying for the call," he explains. "I think people want speed, accuracy and knowledgeability, with a strong first-call resolution. Yet, customers are customers, they're not just numbers, so if a customer demands rapport, you change the way you deal with that call to make their experience as flexible and enjoyable as possible."
Play hard, work hard
Generally speaking, Halliday finds that where the core product is strong and the service is good, customers will renew their contracts and remain content. Where difficulties do arise, however, it is imperative that any complaints are taken seriously. This may entail shaking up staff training so that the problem does not occur again.
"The key is root cause analysis," he says. "I think if you sit in your ivory tower, you don't know what your product does and you don't know what your guys on the phone are doing, you're lost. Recently, we did a root-cause analysis of the pain points not just for the customers, but for the guys on the phone as well. From that you make sure your customer journey is strong and fluid, and you get a more rounded product that helps the customer."
Over the past ten years or so, many contact centres have been faced with a raft of cost-cutting measures. Admiral, however, has largely insulated itself against these difficulties. As Halliday contends, if you get your process and your product right in the first place, there won't be much need to cut costs.
As he sees it, today's main challenge is marrying technological advances with current business processes, and ensuring that employees are fully engaged with these changes as they happen. The advent of social media is one example. Admiral is currently testing the waters when it comes to social media and web chat, and recently launched an SMS-communication channel. New developments of this kind may, directly or indirectly, affect existing modes of operation.
For the time being, social media has been used to great effect as a feedback tool. The company has a team that handles incoming comments and uses these comments to improve the service. This is not just about responding to criticism. Whenever an Admiral employee receives praise, it is fed back to the employee in question, as part of the company's ongoing emphasis on morale.
"Our culture is supportive, results-driven, innovative and, most importantly, fun," says Halliday. "If people enjoy coming to work, and they feel engaged and part of the big picture, I think you get better results and lower attrition. What's important is that the customer prevails over everything, so it's a customer-centric culture as well."