Select Committee on Public Accounts Twentieth Report


7. The public may contact call centres for a range of services and the type of calls varies from those simply requiring information to those requiring specialist advice or help. Examples include the Tax Credit Helpline, NHS Direct, Floodline and the UK Passport Service Adviceline. Whether callers receive a good standard of service will depend on many factors including whether calls are answered promptly and an engaged tone is not received; operators are courteous and sensitive to the needs of callers; and whether the advice or information provided is accurate and complete. People are likely to be dissatisfied if they are faced with a large number of electronic options before they can speak to someone in person, or are passed to various operators having to repeat the same information several times before their enquiry is resolved.[8]

8. In assessing whether call centres deliver services which meet people's needs we considered how quality of service was monitored; the performance of call centres in answering calls promptly focusing in particular on the Child Benefit Centre; the cost effectiveness of services provided; outsourcing of call centres; and employment conditions.

Quality of service

9. The extent to which call centres monitor quality of service varies. The Child Benefit Centre call centre undertakes an annual survey of customer satisfaction while the Passport Agency has a monthly survey. More frequent information should enable a call centre to improve its services quickly where quality is deficient in some way. Timely customer feedback is particularly important where a call centre is outsourced such as with the UK Passport Service Adviceline and the Environment Agency's Floodline Service because there is a need to ensure that suppliers meet quality requirements specified in their contracts. Asked why only 56 of 133 call centres monitor customer satisfaction the Office of the e-Envoy said that all centres should be doing so as specified in its guidance. Very few call centres assessed, for example through listening to or taping calls, whether the information provided was accurate and complete.[9]

10. The Child Benefit Centre Enquiry Line answers queries about the benefit and requests for changes following an initial claim.[10] Team leaders at the Child Benefit Centre check a minimum of 40 calls per agent per year by listening to their handling of calls to assess their performance and provide feedback. The Department for Work and Pensions said that this level of checking was influenced by the Centre's performance in meeting its accuracy target for processing Child Benefit claims, the reported accuracy for processing these initial claims is 98% and the Department considered that checking 40 calls per agent per year was therefore sufficient. The checks were carried out by trained child benefit experts.[11]

11. Callers can become dissatisfied if they are passed to another operator and have to repeat information they have already given. For example, the UK Passport Service Adviceline may have to transfer an enquiry to a Regional Office if it cannot be resolved. Asked how it minimised the potential inconvenience, the Passport Agency said that it was seeking to reduce the 15% of calls transferred to 5%. The Agency also had a project underway investigating the possibility of simultaneously transferring of data with each voice call. Similarly, someone telephoning the Driving Standards Agency Information and Booking Services is faced initially with six electronic options to direct calls to different groups of staff. The Agency said that by directing callers to different areas their enquiry could be handled more quickly by an operator who was more likely to understand their needs thus improving the quality of the service.[12]

Answering calls promptly

12. The pattern and volume of calls can vary considerably depending on the time of day and also the season. Having too few staff can mean that a call centre cannot handle calls quickly enough, but staffing to handle the maximum likely number of calls can result in spare capacity and unnecessary costs. Call centres deal with variable patterns of calls in different ways including staff working overtime, employing temporary staff and using automated message systems to provide a recorded message which informs callers how long they may have to wait.[13]

13. In 2001-02 the Child Benefit Centre answered 2.6 million calls but a further 5.4 million calls received an engaged tone, and the Centre did not know how many times these callers had to redial and whether they eventually got through to an agent. 80% of the 241 agents taking calls in the Centre work flexi-time and set their own start and finish times. This made it difficult for the Centre to match the number of staff working to the incidence and volume of calls (Figure 2).[14]

14. The Department for Work and Pensions said that there were a number of reasons why the Child Benefit Centre could not handle the volume of calls it received. Firstly, staff had to undergo 12 weeks of training to be able to give the kind of advice which people telephoning the Child Benefit Centre require. Only 4% of calls were simply requesting information about claims, with the majority of calls requiring operators to understand child benefit entitlement rules. The length of training required prevented more work from being outsourced which would provide greater staff flexibility. Secondly, the Child Benefit Centre was one of the first call centres to be set up, so its information technology was fairly old and not now sufficiently advanced to handle the volume and pattern of calls. Because Child Benefit was relatively simple and not prone to high levels of fraud and inaccuracy it had not been a high priority for investment in IT. It had therefore been difficult to monitor and predict the volume and incidence of calls. The Department told us that the Centre would be introducing sophisticated workflow management technology in the near future.[15]

Figure 2: In 2001-02 the Child Benefit Centre could not handle all the calls received, particularly during peaks in morning and late afternoon

15. The main constraint which prevented the Child Benefit Centre from being able to answer all the calls it received was the high proportion of staff working flexitime, because staff were originally recruited by the Child Benefit Centre where working flexible hours did not present operational difficulties. Staff had subsequently been redeployed to the call centre and with low turnover it had proved difficult to change their terms of employment. In contrast the Driving Standards Agency Information and Booking Service, Floodline and the UK Passport Service Adviceline had either very few staff working flexitime or had outsourced their services.[16]

16. Asked whether the call centre was running an unnecessarily complicated operation, and in particular whether all staff taking calls needed 12 weeks of training, the Department said that like many social security issues which might appear simple Child Benefit was often more complex. For example, the growth in claims for children born overseas increased the complexity of work and operators might have to explain other complicating factors such as the application of home responsibilities protection, which could affect a person's pension. In order to handle such complexity callers could be presented with a number of options so that their enquiry could be routed to more or less experienced staff as appropriate. To make the service simple to use the Department had limited callers to two choices on first getting through to the centre, with subsequently a small number of further choices. It had deliberately avoided callers having to choose from a large number of options. In addition, the call centre's IT systems did not equip it to handle some of the complexity of the process.[17]

17. The performance of the Passport Agency had improved since our previous report, which was critical of the long delays in issuing passports in the summer of 1999. Outsourcing the service had been a significant contributory factor. 99% of calls were answered and around 90% were connected in 20 seconds. This was because a number of services were provided from one call centre site, so that the private sector provider had more flexibility to redeploy staff to meet peaks and troughs in calls. The Passport Agency said that it did not have this flexibility when the service was provided in-house.[18]

18. Following the Comptroller and Auditor General's examination, the Department for Work and Pensions told us that it had changed the way it deployed and retrained staff in the Child Benefit Call Centre and no longer operated the threshold that once a certain number of callers in a queue was reached they automatically heard an engaged tone. As a result the number of callers receiving an engaged tone had reduced from 600,000 in September 2002 to 200,000 October and 24,000 in November, although it increased to 42,000 in December (Figure 3).[19]

Figure 3: Proportion of calls to Child Benefit Centre hearing an engaged tone

Source: Department for Work and Pensions

Ensuring that call centres are cost effective

19. Department should be able to identify the costs of their call centres in order to assess the costs effectiveness of their operations. The Comptroller and Auditor General's examination found that 24 (18%) of call centres could not provide any information on their costs. This was because costs were part of a larger outsourced service and could not be easily disaggregated, or departments' financial systems were set up so that costs of call centres were amalgamated with costs for other parts of the department and could not be separately identified. For the 73 call centres which measured both their costs and the average length of calls 44 had a cost per call minute[20] of less than £1; 26 a cost of between £1-£5; and three had a cost per call minute of more than £5. The comparable figure for the call centre industry as a whole ranges from 40 pence to 60 pence per call minute.[21]

20. Some centres had high costs per call minute, such as Equality Direct at £27.50, and the Electronic Integrated Arable Compensation Scheme Help Desk with a cost per call minute of £23.00, significantly above the industrial average. The Office of the e-Envoy considered that this could be explained by how long the call centre had been operational. Costs could initially be high until the volume of calls increased. Also for complex calls requiring a detailed response the duration of the call might be much longer, which would increase the cost per call minute. The Office said that cost per call minute was a crude measure which needed to be examined in some detail to obtain a more accurate indication of cost effectiveness.[22]

21. The Driving Standards Agency established its call centre in 1998, but had not assessed its performance against its original business case justifying the investment. The decision to set up a call centre was part of a much larger business case and it was not possible to identify costs separately. The Agency as a trading fund had a five year agreement with the Treasury not to increase its prices by more than inflation, which it had achieved. The Agency considered that this demonstrated the cost effectiveness of using a call centre to deliver some of its services.[23]

Outsourcing call centres to the private sector

22. The majority of call centres are provided in-house by departments, but 45 are contracted to the private sector to manage. Departments have responsibility for deciding whether to outsource their call centres and in reaching a decision can draw on guidance from COI Communications. The Office of the e-Envoy told us that the decision to outsource was usually influenced by whether the private sector could deliver a good quality service more cost effectively. But equally important was the nature of the service and how time critical it was for example, in an emergency situation the public would most likely want information quickly and outsourcing might not be an option. This was because of the length of time it could take to select and appoint a private sector supplier and for the successful firm to acquire sufficient depth of knowledge of the service.[24]

23. Asked how it had decided to outsource the information and booking service for the driving theory test but retain the booking service for the practical test in-house, the Driving Standards Agency said that the latter involved allocating driving test examiners. If these were not deployed effectively practical driving tests could not take place or could be delayed, which would seriously affect the quality of service to the public. The Agency considered this risk was best managed in-house. For the theory test the external supplier was responsible for the whole process including administering the sitting of the theory test.[25]

24. Over the Christmas and New Year period, when there was a serious risk of flooding, the company which operated Floodline only answered 82% of calls in 15 seconds compared to the 90% target which the Environment Agency contractually required it to meet. The Agency said it would be discussing this underperformance with the company and how it should be reflected in its payment for this period.[26]

Working conditions

25. The high volumes of calls, the often repetitive and routine nature of calls, and the fact that large numbers of staff are usually housed in one building looking at computer screens all increase the risk of poor working conditions. The Office of the e-Envoy said that Health and Safety Regulations applied to private sector suppliers contracted to run departments' call centres. In selecting private firms to manage a call centre departments would seek assurance about the working conditions which the potential supplier would provide. The Health and Safety Executive had a programme of checking that working conditions were satisfactory for all organisations including call centres. The extent to which departments monitored their suppliers' working conditions was for them to decide.[27] Both the Passport Agency and the Environment Agency told us that the location of their outsourced call centres had to be agreed with them, and there was no risk of the contractor deciding to base them overseas.[28]

8   C&AG's Report, paras 2.4 , 2.11; Qq 32-33 Back

9   Qq 1, 11-13, 58 Back

10   C&AG's Report, para 3.2 Back

11   ibid, paras 3.2, 3.13; Qq 64-65, 70-72 Back

12   Qq 116-119; Ev 26 Back

13   C&AG's Report, paras 2.18, 2.20 Back

14   ibid, paras 3.10-3.11  Back

15   Qq 7, 48, 73, 156 Back

16   Qq 34-36 Back

17   Qq 8, 46, 48, 73 Back

18   24th Report from the Committee of Public Accounts, The Passport Delays of Summer 1999 (HC 208, Session 1999-00); Qq 4-6 Back

19   Q 78 Back

20   Cost per call minute is the cost incurred in handling each minute of a call  Back

21   C&AG's Report, paras 8, 2.6-2.7 Back

22   ibid, C&AG's Report, para 2.7 (Figure 16); Qq 28-31, 140-141 Back

23   C&AG's Report, para 4.4; Q 155 Back

24   C&AG's Report, para 2.2; Qq 44-45, 103-104 Back

25   Q 154 Back

26   Q 66 Back

27   Qq 144-149 Back

28   Qq 147-159 Back

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