Electronic Journal of Sociology (2002)

ISSN: 1198 3655

Between Job and Satisfaction:
Motivations and Career Orientations of German "High Quality" Call Center Employees

Frank Kleemann
Chemnitz University of Technology, Dept. of Sociology
Germany
[email protected]

Ingo Matuschek
Chemnitz University of Technology, Dept. of Sociology
Germany
[email protected]

Abstract

In this paper, we argue that a “high quality” type of call center work is emerging, leading to a new labor market segment for specialized communication workers. An unexpected finding is that turnover in the “high quality” call center segment of the business remains rather high. We would like to explore the reasons for this, referring to a case study of a German bank call center empirically based on semi-structured interviews with agents and team managers, and an ethnography of the workplace. In the call center under study, management is trying hard to keep the agents attached to the company. – We complement the rather obvious ‘material’ explanations for turnover (i.e. mobility due to income and career opportunities) by more ‘immaterial’ explanatory factors, namely the general career perspectives, and the job orientations and motivations to work of that particular stratum of the workforce.

Call Centers: The German Case

Before explaining the term “high quality” call center, we would like to provide some general information on call centers in Germany.1 As call centers, we define specialized organizational units providing telephone-based customer services.2 A call center may either be a specialized department of a larger company – an in-house call center – or an independent firm offering its services as a contractor of other companies – an external call center. Formally in between those two types, there are call centers that have been out-sourced from existing companies for the purpose of degrading the employment conditions as compared to the parent company, which remains the only or main ‘client’. However, out-sourced call centers in Germany show clear structural, and functional similarities with proper in-house call centers, only that the employment conditions are less favorable. Employment relations in the out-sourced call centers are yet much better than in external call centers. Therefore, both out-sourced and real in-house call centers are treated together in the literature (cf. Bittner et al. 2000). They make up estimated two thirds of the total number of call centers, while one third are external call centers. While companies use in-house call centers to improve customer service for their products, and some of the services provided tend to be more complex, external call centers offer rather simple services at a cheap rate for a whole number of clients. Accordingly, in external call centers, working conditions are rather bad; in most centers, no works council exists; and collective wage agreements for the sector are not being matched, thus the wages are quite low. In-house call centers, on the other hand, offer better working conditions; have a qualified workforce; and only in some of the out-sourced call centers, there are no works councils and payment below the industry’s collectively agreed wages.

The call center business3 in Germany is growing rapidly. Two estimates for 1998 yield 75,000 (GfK 1998, quoted in Bittner et al. 2000: 37) or 80,000 (Michalke 1999, quoted in Bittner et al. 2000: 38) call center workplaces in Germany. Because most workplaces are used by several employees (due to extended operating hours, and a high number of part-time workers), estimates of the number of employees are 150,000 (ibv 1998, quoted in Bittner et al. 2000: 37) or 160,000 to 240,000 (Michalke 1999, quoted in Bittner et al. 2000: 38) employees having worked in call centers in 1998. Due to the rapid growth rates of the German call center business, the predicted number of workplaces will be 140,000 in 2001 (ibid.), and 160,000 in 2002 (Emnid 1998, Gemini Consulting 1997, GfK 1998, all quoted in Bittner et al. 2000: 37), with an estimated workforce of 280,000 to 410,000 employees in 2001 (Michalke 1999, quoted in Bittner et al. 2000: 38).

50% of the call center workforce is full-time employed. This holds for both in-house and external call centers. Approximately 40% of the part-timers are students (Thieme/ Ceyp 1997, quoted in Bittner 2000: 42f). Two thirds of the call center employees are age 35 and under (Bittner et al. 2000: 39) Turnover is rather high; one estimate assumes 15 to 25% per year (Wiencke/ Koke 1999), another 15 to 50% turnover per year (d’Alessio/ Oberbeck 1999).

Approximately 40% of all call centers are located in the banking and insurance industries, 25% in information and communications services and the media, 15 % in sales and advertising (and 20% are in other sectors). The large share of the financial services (= banking and insurance) segment (which we will focus on below), is owed to the fact that virtually all major German banks and insurances now offer telephone-based customer services. In the financial sector’s call centers, the qualification structure at the clerical level undergoes massive changes. In terms of vocational skills, it is slowly being transformed from traditionally specialized occupations with relatively high status and income to semi-skilled work: Specialized vocational skills are not essential anymore. At the same time, however, communication and social skills become more important.

“High Quality” Call Centers

Call centers demand of the agents a particular skill structure and open up a new labor market segment for communication workers. Crucial for working in a call center are employees’ communication skills. While experienced personnel are preferred, call centers are open to everyone promising to be a friendly and forthcoming communicator. Thus, in the recruitment process, personal traits of the workers play an important role. Once recruited, newcomers are undergoing specialized trainings where they acquire both more comprehensive, and systematic communication skills and particular patterns of talk preferred by the particular call center management. Communication skills are then further being improved on the job. In terms of vocational and technical skills, the agents do rather de-skilled clerical work on the basis of a trained general knowledge of the company’s products and procedures and a trained competence to operate the computer-based work tools. Specialized technical skills are of course appreciated, but not essential for call center agents (and therefore not remunerated); the work of call center agents can be done on a semi-skilled basis. A short term training to enter the job is sufficient in the vast majority of all cases (an exception may be technical help hotlines where the agents need comprehensive technical knowledge of the systems they provide help for). Thus, call center workers have to cope with rather routine clerical work, while communication work may be challenging or not, depending on the tasks and work organization.

With the term “high quality” call center, we refer to a type of call center where rather complex services are being delivered to the customer (thus demanding of the agent some technical knowledge about the subject matter) in a non-standardized mode of communication. Though there may well be standardized procedures for the agents how to handle each case in the company’s information system, the agents are not supposed to communicate that to the customer at all, but rather, to treat the customer in an ‘individual’ way in order to keep up the customer’s attachment to the company. (This means something different than just a standardized “smiling down the phone” as an additional component to an otherwise standardized dialogue.) Thus, the term “high quality” call center denotes a particular management strategy how to organize the contact with the customer: We do not imply that there is one single oppositional type of “low quality” call center. However, the “high quality” type of call center contrasts to other call centers where the agents more or less become operators mechanically translating between the customer and the company’s computerized information system on a more or less standardized basis (e.g. in directory enquiry or taking orders). In “high quality” call centers, the agents’ communication with the customers is not being structured by Taylorist management principles (e.g. scripting of phrases and surveillance of its proper use) – control over the agents is exercised in more indirect ways here. The agents receive general guidelines only, and training how to communicate, but are supposed to do the ‘fine tuning’ themselves. (However, this is not to be mistaken as a workers’ realm of freedom: Taylorist principles are, of course, still used to organize the call center in terms of division of labor; computerization, and standardization of processes; foremanship; or measurement of the agents’ productivity. Only in the organization of communicative performance, some ‘post-Taylorist’ principle is at work.) “High Quality” call center management today is particularly to be found in the financial services and in computer and telecommunication services (technical hotlines, sales consultancy), with rather complex services, and demanding and ‘valuable’ customers, where the communicative demonstration of competence on the company’s side as well as the delivery of an ‘emotional surplus’ in addition to the functional requirements are important features of customer service.

Although “high quality” as a (ideal) type of call center organization is at present only practiced by a minority of all call centers, our thesis is that the “high quality” call center segment will gain in importance. The theoretical reason for this is that in the future, many call centers operating in “low quality” modes (low degrees of complexity of the information to be processed, narrow guidelines for the agents how to conduct customer talks), and offering simple service (including only rather standardized transfer of information) will in the long run be replaced by internet-based features (e.g. for telebanking) at the rate in which these new technologies are becoming common media of communication. Thus, the operation of “low quality” services will be delegated to the customer. (This perspective borrows from Gershuny’s (1978) argument about the limits of growth of the service sector due to the irreducibly high costs of service work and its consequential delegation to the consumers, who thus become what Gershuny termed “prosumers” in a self-service economy. This does not imply that low quality call center services will totally be eliminated in the future (rather, they will become an costly ‘extra’ service for the customers who are supposed to use different channels of communication with the companies). But we argue that “high quality” call centers will become relatively more important within the call center business. “High quality” call center service organization will expand in the future for the reason that many more personal services now still delivered face to face (e.g. counseling) will due to the higher economic efficiency be referred to call centers, and most of those services cannot easily be replaced by standardized means of communication.

In “high quality” call centers; the agents’ work is primarily based on particular social and communicative skills. Crucial are social competences such as identifying the interests, mood and social characteristics of the persons one is talking to; eloquence; empathy; or the ability to establish rapport and to deliver emotional work. (Specialized skills are appreciated, but not crucial since they are imparted in special trainings for a new employee.) In terms of communication skills, “high quality” call centers offer to their new agents a thorough training in general social and communication competences. Besides, the agents are provided with ‘soft’ guidelines how to conduct customer talks in a proper way (in terms of general orientations, e.g. how to be friendly, how to apologize). The agents are supposed to apply these ‘soft’ rules to their individual way of communicating. This is aimed at providing ‘authentic’ communication for the customer, while at the same time (guaranteed by the general guidelines) across the individual agents; a specific ‘company style’ becomes visible. Thus, the organization sets certain limits that are being interpreted and adopted by the agents who then individually ‘fine-tune’ their conversation. Control over the agents’ work performance is exercised by benchmarking processes that are often complemented by direct surveillance of the agent’s communicative performance, and by regular (individual or collective) discussions of the performance with the team managers.

The Call Center at HI Bank – a Case Study4

Methodological Note: Our analysis presented here draws on a more comprehensive case study of a call center of a German private bank. Data have been collected in the context of two comprehensive empirical research projects: one is concerned with the rising relevance of subjectivity in media-related work,5 the other with the development of a theoretical concept of interaction in service work settings.6 The data consist of minutes of comprehensive ethnographic observations in all four subdivisions of the call center; 22 semi-structured interviews with call center agents and 10 with managers, team managers, and the chairperson of the works council; and recordings of 89 interaction sequences of call center agents with customers. – In this paper, we mainly draw on the interview data, complemented by detail information from the ethnographic minutes. The interviews have been recorded, and transcribed literally. The data have been interpreted by the standards of the reconstructive procedures of “documentary method” (Dokumentarische Methode) as developed by Ralf Bohnsack (1999) with reference to Karl Mannheim (cf. Wagner 1999 for methodological references to G.H. Mead). The interpretation procedure begins with a division of the interview into thematic sequences and the selection of the sequences that are thematically relevant according to one’s research focus. Each sequence of the transcribed oral language text is being reformulated into a written language description of its manifest content (formulierende Interpretation). This is followed by an interpretation of the latent content of each sequence by reference to established sociological concepts (reflektierende Interpretation). For the (reactive) data type of semi-structured interviews, the interpretation has to be complemented by the step of interaction control (Interaktionskontrolle – see Matuschek 1999), i.e. an analysis of the interviewer’s influences on the interviewee’s accounts.The next step is a comparative interpretation of the selected sequences both within the same case and across cases within the sample on the basis of minimum and maximum contrasts (komparative Analyse). This aims both at a coherent interpretation of the particularities of the case (Fallbeschreibung) and at a generalization of a typology of the field in question or the development of a grounded theory of the subject of research (Typenbildung).

Organizational Structure

HI Bank is a subsidiary of a major German bank. While most other major banks set up specialized telephone banking services in the mid-nineties by establishing in-house call centers, HI’s parent company decided to set up a formally independent organization. The consideration was that “direct banking” (i.e. the customer contacting the bank from his or her home or office by phone, mail or internet, without branch offices for face to face interaction) required a new form of service and products, especially tailored to a particular segment of customers likely to prefer this way of banking. Thus, HI became a bank of its own that started operating in the mid-nineties, aiming at a young, middle to upper middle class clientele. Its front office departments are divided into two sections: the general call center, and the specialized departments (e.g. for private investments, or loans). The latter are specialized in counseling and selling the bank’s products, and the operators are vocationally qualified bank clerks who work on a commission basis. Front and back office functions are integrated here; and the counseling procedure is being handled completely by one agent.

The general call center consists of 180 employees including team managers, and is divided into four departments: New-Customer Service (NCS), an in-bound information service for potential and new customers, mostly handling short telephone requests for written information on the bank’s services, and giving assistance to new customers; General Customer Service (GCS), an in-bound department receiving all kinds of customers requests (and either handling a request or redirecting it to a specialized department – only one of the GCS teams, with senior agents, has the right to call customers back after having collected information); Customer Advisory Services (CAS), an out-bound department calling up customers to market additional products and services of HI Bank on the basis of the bank’s information about the customer’s financial and personal situation (a ‘second order’ motivation of the general call center manager is to demonstrate to the customers that HI really cares for them and thus offers comprehensive counseling), and Complaints (CO), an in- and out-bound, second-order department with extended competences handling customers’ complaints and troubleshooting in cases outside the bank’s routines or when a mistake on the bank’s side has been made. Each department is divided into teams of 7 to 13 workers, each led by a team manager. NCS is divided into 4 teams, GCS into 9, CAS into 3, and CO into 2. Each department has one manager; only GCS is divided into two managers due to its size, and a general call center manager heads the call center section.

Human Resource Management

Recruitment

The call center management puts a lot of effort into the recruitment of new agents, e.g. by an application-hotline. If the written application and an initial telephone interview seem promising, every applicant goes through a one-day assessment center. The crucial criteria for the call center management are the personality and personal motivation of the applicants, their social and communication skills, and their abilities to work in a team structure. Most of the employees have some clerical vocational training, but not necessarily in banking. The number of applications to HI Bank’s call center is high, as is the rejection rate of applicants. Assessment centers are continually being held every week, even if there is no immediate need to hire a new employee. Turnover is relatively high in the NCS and GCS departments,7 and there is a frequent need for new employees who are at the same time hard to find for the call center management, due to their strict criteria. Call center agents at HI Bank are in terms of payment treated as if they were professionals, as they do not receive a standard wage, as is common in most other call centers. One element of each recruitment process is that the applicant individually negotiates his or her yearly income with management according to his or her qualifications and previous experience. Many applicants otherwise suitable for the job are thus being rejected, because their demands are too high. (Renegotiations of the initially fixed income are possible only after a couple of years’ work, and on the basis of a good individual job performance.)

Each successful applicant is being assigned to one of the departments. The regular entry levels for new agents are the GCS and NCS departments. CAS only for experienced personnel with a professional background in banking or considerable experience in telephone marketing. (The only way to become a CO agent is to have worked in one of the other call center departments for at least two years.)

Training

Each new call center agent receives a six-week intensive training program in order to acquire the “skills” for his or her department. (This label is used by management to indicate that an employee has received internal training that enables him or her to work in a department, i.e. one has, for example, the “GCS skills”.) The program includes on the one hand technical training in general banking matters and vocabulary (particularly if one has no vocational education in banking), in the department’s daily routines, and in the handling of the information systems. On the other hand, it encompasses comprehensive communication training (conversation techniques as well as social skills and techniques). The call center agents are made familiar with the Bank’s guidelines how a customer talk has to be structured. However, these guidelines consist of general rules rather than binding scripts how to hold the conversation. An important issue for call center management is that the agents find their personal, “authentic” way to specify the general structure of the customer talks (as expected by management), thus using their personality in order to make the conversation as “natural” as possible for the customer.

The training also includes a ‘practical’ component: During the whole training period, the new agent is being assigned to a “companion”, a senior agent of the same department. The new agent watches the “companion” during his or her work, and the “companion” is supposed to explain what he or she has been doing (technical as well as conversation matters) to the new agent. Also, after the training period, the “companion”, taking turns with the agent’s team manager, accompanies the first days of the new agent’s practical work, and can be contacted by the agent for advice.

Once working in a department, every agent is on a regular basis being offered additional trainings within the department, some of which are obligatory, while most are voluntary, and being frequented quite a lot. Obligatory, too, for each agent is a continual on the job training of half an hour weekly – a discussion of one’s communication behavior with the team manager on the basis of a customer talk being either monitored by the team manager, or recorded and listened to by both. Thus, particular communication skills are individually being fostered on the job. Several other training instruments are used less frequently. Yet another, rather innovative example for the high training effort at HI Bank are “sensitivity trainings”: In order to practically experience what “good service” means and how it is being delivered in other settings, a small group of persons visits for example a luxury restaurant as regular guests. Afterwards, the experiences are being interchanged between the participants, and inferences drawn from it for the own department’s work. The intention is that the agents may internalize a more comprehensive idea of “service” guiding their activities toward the customer, and distribute that idea to their co-workers. This training instrument is, of course, only infrequently being used, and also operates as a hidden reward for ‘good work’ and compliance for selected agents.

Options for Promotion

After at least six months of employment and under the condition of a good work performance, as attested by the team manager, every agent can, by attending further training units parallel to his or her regular work, acquire additional “skills” for also taking on tasks of the other departments (without leaving his team, or department). Agents with more than just one “qualification” obtain higher wages. For management, this option for a job enlargement in terms of individual work organization serves as a means of flexibility with respect to work capacities: agents with several “qualification” can at any time be switched from one type of service to another. By some agents the acquisition of additional “skills” is being used as a means of in-house job mobility, as there is a clear hierarchy between the four departments both in terms of internal prestige and wages: GCS is lowest, NCS is almost on the same level, while CAS is clearly higher, and CO ranges high above the others. Finally, within the departments, there are particular “senior” positions for long-term employees who are being offered internal qualifications, e.g. in order to teach particular training units to new employees. All qualifications are internally certified to the agents by HI Bank. Call center agents also have the chance to promote to team manager positions, based on a selection made by the general call center manager and the department managers once a position becomes vacant. Virtually all team managers, and managers have either been recruited from own staff, or have been in their position from the beginnings of HI Bank’s operation.

Toward an Internal Labor Market?

Human resource management of HI Bank is orientated towards the careful selection of ‘appropriate’ personalities, followed by an extended training program and consequent on the job upgrading of the call center agents’ skills. The main idea is that superior communication skills are more crucial than, and can replace a proper vocational banking qualification. In this sense, HI Bank’s call center management is aiming at the creation of an internal labor market for communication specialists. Wages are relatively high as compared to average other call centers in Germany, but moderate as compared to other financial institutions that also provide call center services in the same urban area (with a high general wage level). Financial incentives are set on a collective rather than individual, performance-related basis (as in HI Bank’s specialized departments outside the call center): Bonus payments are given to teams that have matched the benchmarks set by the general call center manager (in negotiation with HI Bank’s general management). The idea behind the collective bonus system is that on the one hand, individual performance would be difficult to measure (except for the CAS staff whose task is to sell additional bank products to customers), and on the other hand, would foster competition rather than cooperation among the agents. It is important for call center management to keep up a good ‘team spirit’ between all call center agents. This goes along with a participatory management style aiming at the agents’ active cooperation in making things work, and contributing to a continuous improvement of work organization. (Practicable suggestions are rewarded with a bonus payment.)

All in all, the cultivation of a good ‘team spirit’ in the call center section and of a high identification with the company; participatory management and ‘open’ communication structures between the hierarchy levels; the inclusion of the works council; and regular team meetings as well as occasional organized social events outside of work, are building blocks of the particular HI Bank “enterprise culture” which management is fostering. One intention (among others) of management is to keep the employees’ attachment to the company high by immaterial means: what is being produced is not only a positive work climate for the agents, but a normative feeling of belonging due to the many personal bonds existing in the firm. This kind of social (and ideological) integration into the company is supposed to result in a moral obligation for the agents to stay at HI Bank.

From the Agents’ Point of View

Working Conditions

Rather typical call center strains are being reported by HI Bank agents: backache and other health problems caused by working at the computer screen and due to the (bad) air conditioning system (particularly the full-time agents complain that after five to six hours a day, work becomes strenuous), and the varying working hours due to a complicated shift-work system including evenings and weekends.8 In order to match the agents’ needs with the operating hours and the number of agents needed at each time, a variety of shift models exist. Only a good 50% of the agents are working full-time, and most of the part-timers work less than 6 hours per day (also due to the high strains caused by longer workdays). Roughly 30% work in contracts with less than half of the regular 40 hours, most of them university students who cannot work more than 19 hours per week due to legal restrictions in Germany concerning their (favorable) status as university students; the other 20% have individual working time arrangements between 20 and 32 hours per week.

Virtually all employees value the good ‘team spirit’ and social relations among the agents as well as between agents and management. Many agents also appreciate the on the job training opportunities, and related options for advancements in terms of one’s internal position and tasks – if only incremental, these advancements offer additional variety and more “fun” in the job.

A major complaint is the wages in Hi Bank’s call center that are often perceived by the agents as comparatively low. The agents assess wages by two criteria: one is the costs of living, and average wage structure in the urban area (dominated by a high-scale service economy), and the other is banking and finance employers in the area, whose smaller, general service call center units operated by qualified bank clerks, pay higher wages.9 At the same time, the wages, perceived ‘as such’ as relatively low, are often being assessed as ‘satisfactory’ with the more comprehensive rationale that the wage, is being compensated by the very positive ‘immaterial’ working conditions at HI Bank. This judgment is based on prior work experience in other companies.

Commitment and Turnover

The actual commitment to work of the agents is very high, as perceived by themselves as well as management. The majority of the agents put highest effort into their work performance according to management guidelines for conversation. They aim at the appreciation of their work by both co-workers and management, and enjoy their work. Many agents report that it is important for them to “have fun” while doing their job, and thus put much effort and personality into the customer talks (as is required by the call center management’s concept of “authentic” conversation with the customer). In general, the agents agree to the conditions set by the company, and there is no considerable ‘resistance’ to the working conditions, nor can we say that the arrangement is one of ‘acquiescence’.

Therefore, the actually relatively high turnover in the call center (which is almost as high as in other, “low quality” call centers, as two team managers reported during our fieldwork) is an unexpected finding, at least from the management’s point of view.

For two subgroups of the call center workforce, turnover is rather easy to explain: university students move out after a couple of years due to their limited time perspectives at HI Bank; and agents with a purely instrumental work orientation (who should only be a few due to the recruitment procedures) look for better-paid jobs outside HI Bank (this is due to HI Bank’s moderate wage structure and the good labor market conditions in the area), thus displaying an economically opportunistic behavior. But these two groups make up less than one third of the call center workforce at HI Bank, and the surprising fact is that turnover also takes place at almost the same rate in the other groups of workers who are intrinsically motivated, enjoy their work at HI Bank, and have an ‘open’ time perspective in terms of employment.

An explanation given by the workers is that a feeling of burnout after two or three years in the same job almost inevitable, no matter what ‘humanization’ efforts (e.g. job rotation, job enrichment) are made by management. The agents seem to anticipate this burnout, and discuss among themselves what to do about it. Many agents in the interviews reported their considerations of possible alternatives to working at HI Bank after two to maximum three years in the HI Bank call center (while at the same time praising the good working conditions and excellent social relations at HI Bank). Thus, two turnover factors have to be distinguished: a factual burnout beginning at some point in time but for most workers after three years latest, and the anticipation by the agents that working on the call center level will get “boring” in the long run. The first factor results in workers leaving the call center work within short time, the second factor results in workers looking for alternatives and making up plans what to do after HI Bank while still doing there job there with high commitment. However, in this second case, workers may leave at any time when a good alternative for them comes up. One alternative among others is an opportunity to be promoted within HI Bank, either to the CO department, or to a team manager position, or to one of the other specialized departments of HI Bank outside the call center (which normally requires comprehensive banking skills).

Our aim is to illuminate the particular orientations of the group of ‘intrinsically motivated’ agents. In order to do so, we start with illustrations of three agents’ work orientations.

Work and Career Orientations – Three Examples

1) Sandra Assner [all names changed] is in her early thirties and works at HI Bank as a Customer Advisory Service agent. After school, she received a three-year vocational training as a dental technician and then worked in that job for another five years before running a bar for two years. Then she returned to her first occupation, but lost her job again soon, and the employment prospects were bad. Hence, she applied for a job at the HI Bank call center two years ago because she liked the idea of doing communication work. She first started in a New Customer Service team, where after some additional trainings she acquired the HI Bank’s internal “CAS qualification” and then partly worked as an outbound CAS agent. Finally, nine months ago, she switched to a CAS team. She emphasizes that she has her individual, and successful, style in talking to the customers, always trying to get into an, as she says, “interesting” and “stimulating” talk, even if she then needs more average time per conversation than the standard set by management. She is sure that her performance in terms of successful sales is more than average, and thus doesn’t care too much about management standards. She criticizes management’s collective-only assessment of the agents’ work performance, and points out that individual targets are important to her, as well as doing her job successfully:
“Well, a number of net contacts per day is set and also the conversion rate [= ratio of successful sales per total number of customer contacts – F.K./ I.M.], and by measuring the team only, your individual performance is losing importance. But I want to achieve my personal goals, and I am feeling bad when performing poorly.”

Asked for the reasons of the high turnover among the call center agents, Sandra mentions the wage system of the HI Bank and the denial of health problems by management. She paints her picture of the turnover at HI Bank:

“A good two years ago, I started working in my old NCS-Team. Two years are really not a long time. When I joined the team, we were 13 guys, and today I am the only one still working at the HI Bank call center. And they did not change positions within the Bank; well, maybe one, and all the others all were leaving the company. Nobody is here anymore. I think it’s a pity, and the cause is the kind of work you do as a call center agent. Especially customer advice, you have to talk permanently, one call after another, eight and a half hours a day. That’s really something, you can’t do that forever, it just doesn’t work, it is very strenuous, and also very monotonous and boring.”

Asked where her colleagues have gone she says:

“Most of them are doing something similar to their jobs here in the call center. This doesn’t necessarily mean in a bank, though many of them are bank clerks by qualification. Another field of work is telecommunication. I know one guy who’s working in that business now. It’s quite good for applications to other call centers if you have been at HI Bank, you can really highlight that in your CV. The HI Bank call center won an award for its quality, and is generally known as a well-organized call center. People from here are always welcome at other place, that’s what I’ve heard a lot before. If you apply to other places, you have a good chance. It opens up opportunities to make a small step up the career ladder, maybe as a supervisor or a team manager elsewhere. We seem to have a good reputation.”

Like others before, Sandra Assner has made concrete plans for leaving the HI Bank. She is not a professional banker, but sees herself as a professional communicator. Therefore, she wants to apply her communication skills acquired at Hi Bank to a new field. In her leisure time, she has for the last twelve months been taking vocational retraining as a pharmaceutical expert in a private school (therefore working only part-time at HI Bank, on a thirty-hours per week basis) because she wants to get into a more interesting field of work, and she is looking forward to it:

“I’m more interested in human physiology than in accounts, credits, deposits, funds, or the stock exchange. So right now I’m going through that training for another six months, and then apply for a job as a pharmaceutical representative. I think it’s just more interesting.”

All in all, we can say that Sandra is deliberately planning her near-future career. She makes a considerable private investment in her vocational qualification, while at the same time reducing her working hours at HI Bank (and thus, her income) in order to match both work and training program. With a limited time perspective for her present job and more interesting one in sight, Sandra is doing her present job with high motivation and great pleasure. The qualification she is going to get is on the same formal level as the one she already has, thus she is only advancing ‘laterally’ in terms of her career. Her main motivation is to switch to a job that she finds more ‘interesting’ than her present one. She is, however, not aiming at using her skills in order to enter a higher level, for example by looking for more specialized professional, or academic education. Her career plans have only a limited time perspective. This is due to the fact that she is not willing to make binding long-term decisions.

2) Patrick Niss, after vocational training as a wholesaler, started working in a bank’s branch office for five years, before joining the HI-Bank as a full-time call center agent. Here, he has been working as a New Customer Service agent for the last two and a half years. He is in his late twenties now. Comparing his former and present jobs, he prefers his present job because of the favorable social relations in the call center. He adds that the present job is also less stressful due to the routine character of the customer talks. At the same time, however, he criticizes that due to the strict division of labor in HI Bank between front and back office employees, the call center agents are excessively being limited to communication work. Thus, the daily work, mainly consisting of short talks with new or potential customers answering short requests, becomes more and more monotonous for him as an experienced agent, and every bit of variety is highly appreciated:
“Well, sometimes when you’ve done the job for a couple of hours, it gets really boring. You just don’t want to hear yourself talk anymore, because the talks are always the same, every little sequence is always the same. You are sometimes really happy to carry out even a simple transaction for a new customer. <...> Sure, there are colleagues who have just changed departments, to CAS, to CO, or to private investment, and their tasks have changed too. Of course, it’s up to you. I’ve been doing NCS for more than two years now and I’m on the edge of changing my job.”

Though Patrick seems willing to leave his present job, he would at the same time very much like to stay in the Bank because of the good personal relations among the agents:

“I’m not specifically searching for another job because I like the social relations here and the colleagues, I’m feeling fine at HI-Bank. And I believe in the HI-Bank concept and don’t want to leave the bank.”

However, the good social relations only refer to the persons on his hierarchy level. At the same time, he is critical of management for its ignorance of the agents’ knowledge. He says that the agents are the true experts in knowing what the customers want, and thus were able to give important inputs for the reorganization of work routines:

“In the early days of HI-Bank, as I know from senior colleagues who told me, some products were developed together like this: ‘Okay guys, let’s just all sit down and talk about the best ways to make the account service work.’ <...> There are a lot of people among us with good ideas. Unfortunately the people who decide are not able to deal with that, they say: ‘Uh, come on, your job is to talk to customers, leave that to the project manager, because they know best how to do it’.”

Thus, Patrick suffers from the lower management limiting him to the role of a communicator.

Patrick also considers the wages in the call center as relatively low, as compared to the specialized departments of HI Bank. In his view, that is the main reason for the call center’s high turnover:

“I know a lot of people who have been working at HI-Bank for quite a long time, most of them in the specialized departments of course; like in private investments or provisions. Anyway, in the call center departments the turnover is much higher for sure. I think the main reason is the wage level or the inflexibility referring to the wages. (...) I’m making 3,000. – DM net, and this is pretty good for the call center at HI-Bank.”10

All in all, Patrick is torn between the quite boring routine of his job on the one side and the positive social within the bank on the other. Patrick is rather passive in terms of career planning. He doesn’t really seem to know what to do and what he wants. He dislikes his present job, and at the same time wants to stay at HI Bank, but he has so far shown no initiative to acquire an additional internal “qualification” in order to switch to call center tasks other than NCS. Patrick is prone to losing motivation for his daily work at HI Bank, while being unable to look for an alternative to his present job. It seems that he is not actively negotiating possible future perspectives with call center management. This may be due to his inner distance toward management owed to the decline of his offers to participate in changes of the work organization, which also points to the fact that much of management’s claim for a participatory work organization is limited to the communicative dimension of work only.

3) Berta Rust is a 25 year-old bank clerk who after a three-year vocational training, had been working in a bank’s branch office for three years, and joined the HI-Bank call center six months ago. She works in the CAS-department, and she appreciates the good personal relations with the colleagues, the rather relaxed work atmosphere, and her wage. During the interview, she emphasizes several times that her work is “fun”. When asked what she means by “fun”, she answers:
“Everything – the colleagues, the company. Or take the office rooms we are working in: you see, the walls are made of glass, that’s something I haven’t seen before; to me, this expresses the special attitude of this institution, a philosophy of everybody working together. I have worked at two other banks before. This here is something different, the team spirit and the colleagues are important to me, and you really work as a team. Yeah, working is really fun here. (...) In an ordinary bank, you have a different atmosphere; you have to pay much attention to your outfit. And there a lot more elder guys than in the HI-Bank. All in all, we are a very young team.”

Berta is content with her income at HI Bank. As everyone in the call center, she has been negotiating her wage with management upon recruitment. She says that it’s up to oneself to negotiate his or her wage, and nobody else is to be blamed if someone has agreed to a rather bad deal. She reports that a lot of colleagues have rather low wages, and complain:

“For me it’s okay. I get more than in my former job – otherwise, I wouldn’t change jobs. Some colleagues complain that you really have to sell yourself. When you apply to HI-Bank, management asks you what income you’d expect, and more often than not, they tell you ‘ hey, that’s too much, you can get this or that’. My impression is that some people here have sold themselves too cheap, and of course they complain that they earn too little. I can only repeat: It’s all up to you. I myself, I think I have made a good deal, and I’m fine with the money I’m getting.”

Although she is happy with her present situation, she is not planning to work in her department for a very long time. She considers changing the department, as in the more specialized Complaints department (CO); she would be able to acquire additional communication skills.

“Call center, what I’m doing right now, well, I think you can’t do that any more than, say, two years. So, that’s my idea of it so far. How I like it, I don’t know. What I’d like to do is to work in CO. Seems interesting to me – the talks are very complex and have a lot of variation. You learn much about talks, I mean, like, some techniques of manipulating others. I think you can acquire valuable skills there, and therefore I’m interested.”

Her long-term career plans are to return to a ‘regular’ bank as a communications specialist after a couple of years, where here vocational banking qualification is more important. She considers the communication skills to be acquired at HI Bank, and particularly at the CO department, as being most useful for a future advancement in her career:

“Additional miming and gesticulating [in face to face communication at a branch bank – F.K./ I.M.] makes it easier, you have better ways to get hold of a customer. Sitting at a desk with a customer, you’re able to say: ‘Hey, customer, here are some glossy brochures, let’s take a look and I’ll explain it all to you.’ Here, I’m not able to do that, everything is just sensitive talk, you have to listen more carefully, pay attention to background noises at the customer’s and so on. At a desk in a normal bank, it is much easier. ‘cause I smile, and then the talk is getting much easier.”

In terms of skills needed for her present job, Berta thinks that one needs both communication competences and some technical knowledge in banking. Both skills can be trained on the job. A vocational banking background is in her view helpful, but not essential.

“You never can tell: an agent without vocational skills can sometimes perform better then a qualified bank clerk. <...> You know, if you’re only a banking specialist but can’t talk to the customers, your whole knowledge doesn’t help. And it’s also worthless, if you easily make friends with every customer, but then, when he asks you three questions, you can’t answer any? It should be a mix of both.”

All in all, Berta has a general idea of changing jobs every other year in order to advance in terms of her career. Just like Sandra Assner (above), she is using her jobs to collect work experience and additional skills in her ‘portfolio’, but Berta is more straightforward, and instrumental in terms of an upward career mobility (in terms of income and status). However, she also has no clear long-term perspective in terms of her future position or occupation. Although she praises the excellent personal relations at HI Bank, this seems to be a rather ephemeral asset of the job to her. In the long run, her career advancement will be more important to her. In general, she displays rather egoistic traits, for example when reasoning about the negotiation of wages.

Discussion

Our thesis is that two dimensions have to be distinguished in order to fully explain the relatively high turnover in a “high quality” call center, such as the one at HI Bank: First, the career opportunities offered to employees due to the presently favorable call center labor market, and second, the subjective motivations to work in the particular stratum of the workforce most likely to join a “high quality” call center.

1) Obviously, opportunities for promotion due to a favorable labor market are as such reasons for employees to leave their position as a call center agent. The most obvious way to move on is by advancing to supervisor or team manager positions. This is most likely to be achieved by changing to a newly established, or expanding call center, as within the same company, only a few positions open up. Other advancement options within the company but outside the call center are for persons with sub-academic qualifications limited to those who also have a specialized training in banking or whatever else the company’s business is. Thus, a main motivation for doing a good job in high-quality call centers is the acquisition of practical communication skills and work experience, in order to achieve promotion. A “high quality” call center offers the employees different opportunities for individual career advancement. Employees without a specialized training in banking (though most persons have some roughly related vocational training, e.g. in accounting, or are (or have been) university students), have a chance to enter a booming, and transforming segment, with options to enter the banking sector as well as to promote as an expert for personal communication in any other trade. For employees with a proper qualification in banking, there are (as in Beate’s case, above) opportunities within the banking sector to become a specialist for customer relations or communication.11
2) As the second dimension may be less obvious, we are going to elaborate along the three examples sketched above. Each of the three employees is highly committed to doing their work well. At the same time, the cases document that working committedly in HI Bank’s “high quality” call center is being perceived as possible for a limited time only. The cases of Sandra and Berta point to the necessity for the agents to develop a perspective beyond the HI Bank call center in order to make sense of the job and thus maintain their commitment to work: the present job is thus becoming just one ‘patch’ of one’s career – a career the person is patch working on throughout his or her whole life. On the contrary, Patrick’s example shows that there is a danger of losing commitment if the same job is being done for too long.

This leads to the conclusion that burnout in “high quality” call center work seems to be almost inevitable, no matter what additional job enrichment (such as senior positions as a “companion”, or trainer for new employees) is provided by management, and how ‘interesting’ the particular work tasks are: in the long run, these tasks become routine and offer only very limited variations, and the employees’ agency is restricted to (compensatory) communicative and emotional inputs toward the customers in order to ameliorate the conversation climate. But unfortunately, this single dimension in which the agents can make a ‘creative’ contribution to work has little or no visible effects on the work output, and it is therefore difficult to take pride in one’s products of work. Once an agent has reached mastery to deal with all kinds of customers, the job also becomes nothing but routine in terms of the more demanding communication work. In other words, sooner or later the job gets boring ‘anyway’.

However, the only employees who can deal with that fact easily are those with a purely instrumental work orientation: they don’t expect work to “interesting’ or ‘fun’ but rather do whatever they are told to in order to make a living. Whereas the ‘committed’ employees demanded by HI Bank, who have some kind of intrinsic motivation to work, will suffer from a feeling of boredom.

Beyond the good labor market conditions in the call center segment at present, therefore, a crucial factor for explaining why turnover in call centers of a “high quality” type is almost as high as in other call centers, is the particular motivation to work of most agents: they want to do an ‘interesting’ job in which boredom must not occur. But the desire to even “have fun” at work, in that kind of work can only be maintained for a limited time period, and thus, a change of jobs is unavoidable (or commitment is slowly going lost, and with it the intrinsic motivation to work, as may happen in Patrick’s case).

The reason for escaping into ‘patchwork’ careers is in the qualifications and the labor market conditions of that particular stratum of the workforce characterized by its vocational, yet non-academic qualification structure with limited vertical career opportunities. Corresponding to the vocational qualification is a subjective claim to have an ‘interesting’ occupation, i.e. some kind of ‘post-materialist’ intrinsic motivation to work. The relatively high qualification, added by skills acquired all throughout the career opens up opportunities to change positions, and to find ‘better’ jobs in terms of one’s subjective preferences. However, for most employees of this middle stratum of the occupational structure, a strategic, long-term career planning is hardly possible; and the prospect of promotion into specialist or management positions is rather bad, and very competitive for workers without academic training. This results in the pursuit of a ‘career’ which mainly consists of rather ‘lateral’ movements with only incremental upward social mobility. Instead, the main criterion for orientation on the labor market is the (subjectively perceived) “fun” that certain jobs promise. Since most jobs in that stratum are inherently ‘interesting’ only for a limited period of time before they become routine and ‘boring’, the particular experience of job satisfaction can in each job only be upheld temporarily. (Thus, one’s occupation in this stratum is very unlikely to have the durable qualities of a “calling” in the Weberian sense.) However, what is being created is a substitute for a comprehensively satisfying long-term occupation, is a biographical experience of ever contrasting jobs making up a patchwork of different satisfying aspects of work. Therefore, in the long run each single job inherently has a decreasing marginal utility for the subjects because it is only satisfactory in certain aspects that have to be complemented by others in the previous and consecutive jobs.

“High quality” call center management thus faces a dilemma: on the one side, skilled, and ‘committed’, employees are needed in order to produce high quality services (i.e. not only competent, but also ‘individual’ and ‘authentic’ conversation of agents with the ‘special’ customers), but on the other side, the vast majority of these very employees will only do that job for a limited time (two to three years maximum), no matter what additional participatory, or job enrichment features of work organization are implemented. Thus, the high training costs for the agents hardly pay off, unless the agents’ initial wages are rather low (as is the case at HI Bank where wages are individually being negotiated with the new agents), which in turn fosters the tendency for the agents to leave the institution early and decreases the chances of hiring the best-qualified workers. And the better the agents are being trained by the organization, the higher their chance to apply to some better position elsewhere.

In the particular case of HI Bank, management to a certain extent becomes a victim of its particular “highest quality” strategy, which turns into a self-limitation. Management’s self-perception is that their special training program for new agents is unique and top-quality (which may be the case, or may be not – we don’t have to assess that). Management’s strategy, then, is to qualify every new employee according to HI Bank’s elaborate training program, no matter how skilled these persons already are as communication workers. Highly qualified persons are thus being retrained according to HI Bank’s ‘unique’ standards which HI Bank’s management tacitly considers a ‘one best way’ strategy of skill formation. If this holds true, however, then what HI Bank is practicing is an intake of a well-qualified employees with high potentials for becoming an expert communication worker, and an output of workers with high actual communication skills. A workforce, though, that is more or less deliberately acquiring communication skills at HI Bank in order to advance in their careers, predominantly by leaving HI Bank for positions at other institutions.

HI Bank’s management fails to prevent their workforce from leaving the call center sooner or later. This is due to both the good labor market situation in the call center business and the particular orientations to work of the employees, as discussed above, combined with HI Bank’s strategy not to stress on material incentives in order to keep the workers attached to the organization, but rather to build on ‘immaterial’ means of a particular “enterprise culture” which includes the cultivation of good personal relations among employees and management, a participatory mode of work organization, and on-the-job training opportunities. It almost appears as a management strategy to build an internal labor market solely on these ‘immaterial’ means. It fails, however, because for the employees, HI Bank’s “enterprise culture” is being perceived as a positive additional aspect of the working condition, but not a decisive factor for their long-term career decisions – although they often claim the opposite in front of management. (But what should management expect from employees, which they have trained to become professional emotion workers knowing too well how to always give the person they are talking to a positive response?)

To sum it up, it seems that attempts to building internal labor markets in the “high quality” call center segment are bound to fail, as the specificity of technical skills required is rather low, while the more crucial general communication skills can rather easily be transferred to other call centers. The only feasible way for “high quality” call center management to get along, then, seems to find a balance between training effort, wage incentives, and positive social relations in the company in order to prevent their employees from leaving too early. But they can’t prevent the agents from leaving in the long run.

Conclusions

With reference to the future development of the call center business, we have contended that the “high quality” call center segment is going to gain importance in the future. If that holds true, then a particular labor market segment for skilled communication work with a particular skill structure is emerging. This segment is basically open to everyone with a certain degree of general education, promising to be a friendly and forthcoming communicator. Vocational skills in the particular trade the call center is attached to are appreciated, but not necessary; what is needed in terms of technical skills and knowledge of the company can be trained rather easily at the beginning of employment.

The more call center management moves away from strictly Taylorist toward more participatory “high quality” principles of work organization, the more complicated a long-term employee attachment to the company will be. A highly skilled workforce consisting of intrinsically motivated persons is more difficult to be motivated than ‘instrumental’ workers. A question that we have not been taking account of yet, is whether a long-term attachment of the employees is functional for the company at all. Or, to put it differently: Taking the burnout thesis serious, under what conditions could the employees’ individual mobility (which seems to be almost inevitable anyway) be functional for the organization? In theoretical terms, that question challenges an implicit assumption of (at least, German) industrial sociology that long-term employment at the same company is in itself a positive feature.

We would in this respect like to add to recent considerations by Chris Smith (2001) on the theoretical relevance of workers’ mobility for labor process theory. He points to the (much neglected) fact that “mobility-effort bargaining” (ibid: 2) is a dimension of labor power separate to work-effort bargaining. The crucial aspect to be considered, according to Smith, is the option to mobility, which the workers possess. Smith diagnoses that at present, a structurally induced mobility of labor power exists; resulting in a “hyper-mobility” of labor – despite all companies’ incentives for the workers to stay, and despite attempts to creating internal labor markets by a work organization built on non-transferable skills, benefits based on seniority, high wages, creating voice mechanisms. Smith goes deeper by reflecting on management strategies for dealing with high turnover, while implicitly assuming that the workers’ behavior is a reaction to the structural conditions set by management, and thus leaving out the more general social conditions of the workers. This is exactly where we would like to complement the theoretical considerations of Chris Smith, taking the workers’ particular motivations, and what Smith terms “individual mobility” (as opposed to “structural mobility”), into account.

In this paper, we tried to offer for a specific segment of the workforce an explanation of these workers’ mobility based upon their specific situatedness in the labor market (in between unqualified, and de-skilled workers and professional workers with high formal education, with particular options for mobility). Closer reflections of their motivation to work, and of the general situation of that particular stratum in society, and thus, further linkage to general sociology would be fruitful. What we want to argue here is that subjectivity matters, yet subjectivity is not being produced independently from the material conditions the individuals live in.

If, as analyzed above, the mobility behavior and work orientations of “high quality” call center agents are rather individualized, leading to “hyper-mobility” in terms of turnover (to take up the phrase introduced by Chris Smith), then the basis for ‘classical’ collective action, particularly for unionization – a perception of bad working conditions and a common class location of the workers –, is losing ground in “high quality” call center workplaces. The crucial point seems to us that “high quality” call center workers lack a consciousness of doing a ‘bad job’ at all. We do not want to turn to the ‘easy’ answer that the problem is just a ‘false consciousness’ of the workers. But the question remains, how individual mobility (sought after by that stratum of employees) and collective mobilization (in the long run necessary to secure tolerable market conditions) could be integrated.

References

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Endnotes

1. otes A representative call center survey is still missing. There are some rather small-scale non-representative estimates, mostly provided by commercial research institutes and consultancy firms. We refer to a survey of that literature provided by Bittner et al. (2000).

2. Meanwhile, some call centers also provide communication channels other than the telephone, such as email or chat. However, we do not discuss this differentiation process toward poly-medial communication centers here.

3. We agree with Bittner et al. (2000) that in economic terms, it does not make sense to talk of a call center ’sector’ or ’industry’, as the majority of the call centers are closely attached to companies in different sectors. We will, however, argue below that it makes sense to talk about an emerging particular labor market segment for call center work, or rather, communication work.

4. The following case study is based on research in a German direct bank conducted in November/ December 1999 and May/ June 2000. The data consist of open participant observations at the workplace, and of 22 taped qualitative interviews with call center agents as well as team managers and department managers.

5. The project was titled "New Practices of Work and Life in Media-related Autonomized Forms of Work". It focused on the handling of new technologies by the employees, new forms of organization of work and how subjects act and react in this context. Empirical data is being collected in various fields of media-related work (e.g. web-design, computer engineering, tele-services). Beginning in January, 1998, it has been funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) for the duration of three years. It has been conducted at the Chemnitz University of Technology under the supervision of Prof. Dr. G�Voݮ Assistants are Dr. Ingo Matuschek and Dipl.-Soz. Frank Kleemann. The project ended in December 2001 and is followed by a more specific project on German Call Centers in different branches, which started in January, 2002.

6. The project is titled "Service Work as Interaction". Using the background of sociological and psychological action theories as well as the concept of emotion work, the research project analyses the process of service provision as a mutual performance of service provider and service recipient. Empirical data is being collected in the fields of service work at call centers, on the German railway and in care of the aged. Beginning in Mai 2000, it is also funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) for the duration of two and a half years. It is being conducted at the Chemnitz University of Technology and the Arbeiterwohlfahrt M� under the supervision of Prof. Dr. G�Voݠand Dr. Wolfgang Dunkel. Assistants are Dipl.-Soz. Angela Lutz and Dr. Philip Anderson. Dr. Kerstin Rieder (Innsbruck University) is an associate project partner.

7. We had to infer this information from our interviews, as management refused to tell us exact numbers.

8. All four call center departments operate from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, GCS until midnight, and beside day shifts there are early and late shifts; on Saturdays, CAS and CO run another day shift from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., while GCS and NCS operate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., divided into two shifts; and GCS operates on Sundays from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. as well.

9. In this latter respect, HI Bank agents without a vocational qualification in banking become ’victims’ of their management’s ideological stance that in a call center, communication skills can ’replace’ proper banking skills – maybe they can, factually; but, in the managements’ sense, they are supposed to do so without equal pay...

10. Needless to say that a net income like Patrick’s is rather low as compared to the general income level in the urban area where HI Bank is located; his gross income, by the way, is approximately double of the net amount and thus equals approx. [6,000 Deutschmarks or] 3,000 €/ 2,750 $ per month; the gap between gross and net income is due to the rather high social security deductions and the high income taxes for single persons.

11. It should be added that for employees without any career ambitions, and with a purely instrumental work orientation there is prospect for rather secure employment at relatively high wages (as compared to other semi-skilled service jobs).