Ringing Up Success?

Call Centres in Canada

According to a report from Statistics Canada, jobs declined in the sector by 28 percent from 2007 to 2011. In the sector of the economy where the outsourced call centre jobs are categorized by Statistics Canada, employment has declined by more than 32,000 across Canada since 2007.

However, there seem to be some signs of a turnaround in Canada due to a number of reasons, and call centres are finding ways to adapt in order to remain relevant and responsive to the needs of customers and other stakeholders.

Outsourcing… or Not

Having worked in call centres in the United States in the early to mid-2000s, this writer was already familiar with the reality of these jobs being outsourced to other countries to cut down on labour costs. I knew of several call centres in the city in which I lived cutting jobs and moving them overseas. Many of these jobs went to India, many to The Philippines, and some even to Canada.

Many American companies outsourced to companies in Canada due to higher labour turnover in the United States, a pool of relatively skilled unemployed people in Canada, and until recently, a favourable exchange rate, making labour costs effectively even lower.

Of course, Canada has done its own outsourcing over the years. In 2009, Sears Canada outsourced 450 catalogue order and repair service jobs from call centres in Regina, Saskatchewan and Belleville, Ontario to the Philippines; in 2011, the company brought 170 of the jobs back, hiring people to handle repair calls in Toronto. According to a report from the Toronto Globe and Mail, the company cited the more complex aspects of repair calls as the driving factor behind bringing those jobs back to Canada.

In recent years, a number of issues have influenced call centres in Canada to bring these jobs back to the country. Rising wages and high turnover rates across the Pacific plus low customer satisfaction have incited companies to reconsider moving these jobs overseas. Companies that have brought back some or all of their customer call centre work include BCE Inc., American Express Canada Inc., and Sears Canada Inc.

Shifting Trends

Although there is no central source of statistics for the industry, call centres are believed to employ tens of thousands of people, including more than 30,000 in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick combined. Many call centres are also located in Ontario.

In spite of these figures, the sector employs fewer people than it did at its peak, and the rising cost of the Canadian dollar plus political pressure in the United States to repatriate call centre jobs that were exported there in the previous decade means that call centres may never reach their peak in Canada again.

In addition, a much larger trend is the move toward Internet-based customer interaction. From booking travel to tracking packages, people have increasingly used the web and bypassed the need to talk directly to a customer service agent via telephone. Even many general customer service functions are now automatically handled by web-based systems.

Increasingly, future workers will have to be trained for this method of customer interaction. While call centres primarily focus on verbal communications skills, web-based customer interaction requires excellent writing skills. Managers of contact centres need to understand how this trend will impact the work force and make the necessary adjustments to accommodate this change.

Cloud-based technology is another breakthrough that many call centres are adapting. Cloud-based call centres are hosted environments that consolidate operations and enable users to perform product support, answer inquiries, collect payments, and complete sales via their Internet connection. Cloud-based technology in call centres will enable operations to convert onsite IT systems to cloud-based systems for their flexibility, scalability, ease-of-use and lower cost, and companies such as AT&T, Verizon, and Qwest have adapted the technology to their contact centres.

Market research firm Frost & Sullivan cites a 50 percent savings compared to onsite IT systems when companies converted to cloud-based software. The technology also makes it easier for employees to work from home, which can save centre operators the cost of buying or leasing real estate and gives centres the opportunity to scale their operations up and down with the seasons – a shopping site around the holidays, or when a client decides to roll out a promotion that will generate more calls.

Besides actual web pages, other technologies that have emerged over the past few years will also have an impact on contact centres.

With the increasing take-up of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, customers have begun using these sites to review products, express their opinions and reach out to companies. As a result, agents are not only expected to handle incoming calls but are monitoring and servicing social media contact channels to connect with customers and prospects. An increase in mobile apps for smartphones and video chatting devices such as Skype will also have an influence on call centres and interaction with customers.

Retaining Staff

With the increase in workload and adaptation to new technologies, retention rates of workers in the future will certainly continue to be an important issue. High turnover can be very common in call centres, with some workers staying only for the length of the allotted training period. Failure to comply by rules and regulations could get a worker quickly fired. According to a study conducted by Cornell University, average turnover rates in US call centres are 33 percent. Call centres specializing in retail see an average of 41 percent and subcontractor call centres (which focus mainly on sales and outbound calls) have an average turnover rate of 51 percent.

Reasons cited for the high turnover rate in call centres include low pay, customer complaints, poor morale, failure to meet quotas (whether sales, call time, or time on the phone) and repetitive work. Managers of these centres must constantly battle with the turnover rate due to the cost of constantly hiring and training new workers. Call centres that retain their workers cite incentives such as positive rewards and recognition for reps who provide good service, as well as hiring workers who have lots of experience in call centres.

Indeed, not everyone is cut out for the demands of a job in a call centre – the repetitive nature of the calls, dealing with irate customers, meeting sales quotas, and having to sit for long periods of the day in order to answer calls can be stressful and draining to many people. Also, the type of personality that fits well with dealing with customers on the phone may not necessarily also excel in sales or telemarketing; I was fired from a telemarketing job after a few months for not meeting sales quotas, in contrast to my previous job in a call centre involving client relations in the financial sector, in which I worked for a number of years and received rewards and recognition for my efforts in solving problems. Different strokes.

Opportunities to grow within an organization can be another incentive for representatives to stay within the company and work through the ranks. Being promoted from a representative to a supervisor may be an incentive for many workers to pay their dues. And the skills are indeed transferable; I know of co-workers who became Trainers, Business Analysts, Researchers, and Technical Writers after working in a call centre and being able to demonstrate their skills to other divisions of the a company.

It is nothing if not mercurial, but the world of call and contact centres has adapted to trends over the years and it will surely continue to do so. Going forward, the industry may hold a different place in the Canadian business landscape than it has in the past, but it is almost certainly not going away anytime soon. How stakeholders in this sector react to ongoing changes and shifts will continue to shape the industry, and will have an effect on the future of this sector throughout Canada and the world.

April 20, 2021, 8:59 PM EDT