Mr Russ Hewitt, Contact 24, on 31 March 2003

Call centres are a sector of the economy that has grown rapidly in recent years, and about half a million people are employed in this way within the United Kingdom.

The typical call centre may have up to five hundred people working in one large open-plan office. The conventional picture is of each of them sitting at a desk with a telephone and a computer screen. Large concerns like banks have telephone calls routed to the centre, where computer screens give details of customers' accounts, services available, etc.

A major advantage of location away from city centres is that accommodation is cheaper and, in areas of unemployment, a pool of staff can be drawn upon. Also, for both the business and customers the hours can be extended; some centres offer a 24-hour service.

The industry continues to develop and centres can now integrate telephone and internet enquiries. Services like the despatch of brochures are offered. More sophisticated computer techniques enable enquiries to be dealt with where the enquirer appears to be speaking to a human voice, but is in fact conversing with a computer.

Much of the discussion centred on criticisms of the industry that appeared in the press. Two particularly were the working conditions for staff and the prospect of much call centre work being located in future in countries like India or South Africa.

Mr Hewitt was candid in his acceptance of some of the criticisms. The centre he directs at Bristol was one of the largest in the country, and he had to give constant thought to staff morale, since there were numerous other call centres in Bristol. His reponse in general was that there was a wide difference in standards within the industry; in particular, some major companies transferred operations just to cut costs. Mr Hewitt gave examples of how customer relations and product development could be enhanced.

Looking to the future he thought an increase in moves overseas was unlikely _ cultural differences would be a barrier. He thought it unlikely the industry would expand much more. However, technical developments should bring improvements in the service.

There are moves to bring in educational specialist qualifications, with one or two Universities playing a role.

All the members attending felt they had gained a much wider understanding of this important sector of the economy and of the services we all use.

Rodney Tye