Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems and information ethics in call centres


Helen Richardson
Information Systems Research Centre
University of Salford


We are said to be living in a new economy, a virtual age where information is power and strategic use of Information Technology paramount. Electronic media can enable organisations to deliver products and services more efficiently and effectively allowing for competitive advantage through internal networks and external customer management (Loebbecke 1998). In this context CRM is the new buzz phrase. CRM systems are about ‘allowing organisations to do a better job in contacting customers, caring for them and providing quality, service and value’ (Yourdon 2000). CRM is increasingly about use of call centres and Datamonitor predicts that the global call centre software market will reach £5.3bn by 2003 (FT 2000). CRM is not without it’s critics. It is popular for those ‘managing’ customers but can stimulate different emotions if you are the ‘managed’. Indeed CRM often raises issues of privacy and accusations of exploitation – ‘where is the R in CRM – it’s all about customer management’ (Professor Stone in FT 2000). There are startling contrasts in the image of CRM systems in call centres. For the consultants and employers, they mean knowledge intensive, strategic use of technology, flexible working and utility of all those new ways of working like flattened organisations, teamwork and empowerment. For others, they are the ‘sweatshops of the 21st century’ (Belt et al 2000).

This paper catalogues the rise and rise of call centres in the NW of England, UK. Ironically these are often housed in the old mills and engineering shops once foremost in the industrial revolution but long since idle. That is until the ‘virtual’ age and we consider whether this is indeed the new economic era heralding the information economy accompanied by new ways of working, or history repeating itself. Call centre work is characterised by temporary, short-term contracts, agency working and casual employment. Nevertheless, in our research, we shadow 4 call centre workers over a period of 2 years to report on their work experience in a number of centres. We catalogue their tales of stress, burn out, sacking, job changes and frustration but also the community, solidarity and collective action that suggest a more rosy future than the ‘dark satanic call centre mills’ seems to offer. The ethical issues we raise lie in the inherent contradiction of CRM systems and their use in call centres. We consider communication richness, privacy, management techniques and general problems of computer ethics in an organisational context.

Even for managers, CRM raises questions of privacy with IT strategic guerrilla’s locking in systems and knowledge of others in the value chain. For call centre workers, issues of privacy are tied up with work practices. Headsets are worn with call after call streaming in – always another one waiting. CRM systems means codifying intellectual capital with software providing ‘scripts’ enabling monitoring and call analysis. This metaphorically, if not physically, welds the worker and machine into a streamlined and controlled knowledge system. No aspect of a call centre workers day is unaccounted for. They are profiled, listened in to, their opening remarks are analysed as are wrap-up time and phrases used. Their sales content of the conversation, achievement of call numbers and sales targets scrutinised. Their off-line frequency, intimate toilet habits are considered and discussed at teamwork supervision sessions as are perceived attitudes displayed during conversations with customers. Ethical issues of workplace privacy generally centre around concepts of personal autonomy and dignity infringed by these practices, yet some would suggest workplace privacy should extend further, worthy of becoming a matter of organisational justice (Introna 1999). CRM rhetoric emphasises quality customer care and how this is related to effective communication, by particularly the gatekeepers – a role delivered by call centre workers. This leads us to a general discussion of communication richness in an organisational context that goes beyond considering Information Communication Technologies merely as information transferors and processors, but constitute new statuses and formation of new identities (Flores 1998). Others have suggested that ‘good’ management should adopt rich media (Ngwenyama and Lee 1997) and how limiting electronic media is in it’s richness. Nevertheless our research reveals how call centre staff circumvent the scripts and controlled phrases and rich human communication and problem solving makes the job more satisfying. This is despite facing frequent and sustained verbal abuse from customers.

We then explore issues of CRM system use in call centres and the adoption of teamwork and empowerment management techniques. Again contradictions are evident with CRM systems designed to dis-empower sales staff. Our qualitative research reports on the ways in which sales roles changed in the 2 years of our study. To start the process of ethical decision making, some have suggested that ‘when it comes to virtual organisations, we must first have a set of commonly accepted values and norms’ (Gotterbarn 1999). We look at the realities of using teamwork and empowerment techniques in call centres and suggest that the gap is too wide between call centre workers and management for this to be achieved. Teamwork sessions in our study included dissemination of orders from the top down and attempts to exert team pressure on the ‘weakest link’. Often these measures backfired with general community solidarity of call centre workers overriding team identity. In an extreme case, headsets were taken off until old shift patterns were restored but more often management techniques were side-stepped, exposed and ridiculed.

We have talked about the contradictions of call centres and CRM systems. They are exploitative and work against communication richness. They increase bureaucracy yet supposedly embrace empowerment. They are about control of communication and yet to provide quality to customers, need to enhance the ”company ambassadorial” role of call centre workers (Frenkel et al 1999). Computer ethics and its adherence to technological determinism and liberalism are problematic for understanding issues of equality and participation (Adam 1999), and moreover power structures play a large part in the making and accepting of knowledge (Adam and Richardson 2000). In this context it is our contention that a debate on the ethical issues of CRM systems, information management and call centres is long overdue.


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