RESEARCH AND PRACTICE
IN HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT

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Shah, V. & Bandi, R. (2003). Developing People Capabilities in Knowledge Intensive Remote Services, Research and Practice in Human Resource Management, 11(1), 55-64.

Developing People Capabilities in Knowledge Intensive Remote Services

Vishal Shah & Rajendra Bandi

Abstract

A phenomenon of the information technology age is call centres, and these workplaces communicate interesting challenges for human resource practitioners. This paper presents the human resource practices followed in a technical support call centre. Most of the call centre literature discusses cases where the customer support task is routine and low in complexity. Call centres are considered as modern equivalents of factory sweatshops in this literature. Technical support, however, is an example of a knowledge intensive support service and it was found that in such a service industry, there is a need for a very different kind of HR policy that specifically treats employees as a valuable organisational resource.

Introduction

The rapid evolution of the internet and global telecommunication infrastructure has provided organisations with a choice of service providers which can be located anywhere in the world. In practice, remote customer support services are Information Technology Enabled Services (ITES) that can consist of call centres, e-support centres or fulfillment centres. One feature of the rapid establishment of these workplaces is the scant knowledge of their human resource management operations. Much of the research on call centres is focused on the coercive employment systems adopted in these organisations (Batt 1999, Taylor & Bain 1999). Also, Fernie and Metcalf (1997) describe the high work pressures and high levels of control that the management exerts on the agents. Indeed, critics of call centres have called them the modern equivalent of the factory sweatshops (IDS 1997). However, these studies have focused on call centres which provide customer support for routine tasks requiring minimal skills, for instance, assisting customers with basic banking services (Callaghan & Thompson 2002).

Remote technical support services are an example of knowledge based ITES. Providing customer support for high technology products is knowledge intensive work. Technical support work and technicians have not traditionally been discussed in the knowledge work literature. However, increasingly researchers are studying this class of work due to its growing importance (Pentland 1992, Barley 1996). The important role that IT plays today has made technical support an indispensable part of any technology offering.

This paper presents a case study of a technical support call centre that assists customers with technical problems and queries through e-mail, internet based text chat or the telephone. The work environment and employment practices at this technical support call centre do not conform to the sweatshop stereotype described in the literature. This is an important factor and indicates that there may be a need to differentiate between different types of call centres. This also concurs with the well-developed notion of task/system fit in management literature (Galbraith 1973, Drazin & Van de Ven 1985). In this paper, the focus is on the human resource issues involved in managing such a support centre and highlight some of the practices that a call centre that employs ‘knowledge workers’ can adopt to function effectively.

Characteristics of Remote Technical Support Work

Remote technical support work exhibits many characteristics of knowledge work. Providing technical support involves work that is surrounded by uncertainty. Technical service personnel have to continuously deal with non-standard problems, originating from the customer, try and make sense out of them and then try and provide satisfactory solutions to them (Pentland 1995). They are forced to come up with situation specific solutions and thus they engage in creating and applying knowledge. Technicians resemble professionals and knowledge workers in that their work is sufficiently esoteric that few outsiders can claim to possess their skills or knowledge (Barley 1996).

However, there are also some specific characteristics of technical support operations, which may not be common to all kinds of knowledge work which are listed:

Figure 1
The Technical Support Interaction (adapted from Pentland 1995)
Customer Agent Interaction

With the rise of the remote services industry, such services have become independent businesses in their own right. Hence, organisational characteristics and capabilities for delivering these services have become important foci. The service delivery process is influenced by organisational characteristics like quality of personnel, information technology, internal processes, human resource practices, and even an institution’s own change orientation (Evenson, Patrick & Frei 1999). However, there is little research that focuses on the organisational characteristics of knowledge intensive support services.

The case presented here is that of a third party call centre that provides outsourced support services to client organisations. In this paper is examined an important organisational capability, namely, the people capability and the nature of human resource practices prevalent in the organisation.

Methodology

Site and Participants

The case study is that of a pseudonym call centre, TechHelp that provided specialised outsourced technical support services to client organisations. Because of the call centre’s exclusive focus on the technical domain, it was an ideal choice for studying human resource practices where employees require some expertise and the task is not routine. TechHelp is a mid sized organisation consisting of 80 employees based in India. At the time of the study, the call centre offered chat and e-mail based technical support services to corporate clients and their customers in India and the US. They had also established a temporary, small five seat voice based call centre in the US for a client and had plans to offer full fledged voice based support services from India. Three client accounts, SuperPortal, ModWire and TechMarket (all are pseudonyms), were studied in greater detail as representative examples of TechHelp clients.

SuperPortal was a web-based portal that provided a wide range of services to customers ranging from news updates, information on topics like finance, technology and health online shopping and communication facilities like email and chat. In the technology section of the portal, any visitor to the website could post a technical query and expect a free e-mail response. All the queries posted in this section of the portal were routed to TechHelp. Since this facility was free and available to any visitor to the portal, the customers ranged from professional system administrators to people who were technical novices. Hence the queries posted on the site spanned across technical domains and ranged from the simple to the very complex.

ModWire has been a pioneer in the wireless industry since the 1960s. The company manufactures and sells wireless modems and has products for laptops, desktops, palmtops and even for mobile police vehicles. TechHelp looked after the technical support function for ModWire. Customer Queries came through two routes email and voice (phone). The e-mail queries were handled from TechHelp’s India office while the voice-based queries were handled from a small call centre that TechHelp started operating in the US. The voice and the e-mail team worked in tandem so that the customer could be offered a seamless service.

TechMarket was a technology support market place for seekers and providers of technical support. TechMarket is associated with technology companies like Microsoft for providing technical support to their customers. Technical support providers like TechHelp in turn formed an alliance with TechMarket and provided support for these applications. Customers posted their queries on the TechMarket website and agents registered on the portal bid for the queries and offered solutions. If the query was resolved to the customers’ satisfaction they were required to make a payment. The agents could belong to an organisation like TechHelp or could be freelancing individuals. The medium for interaction between the customer and the expert was a tool that was a combination of a chat and message board. The site also gave the expert the unique ability to log into the customers’ systems and share their desktops.

Procedure

A total of twenty-four semi structured and unstructured interviews were carried out in the organisation and these spanned across hierarchies and departments. Each interview lasted approximately one and a half hours and was transcribed within twenty-four hours. The interviews were supplemented with observations of support agents at work and observations of the regular weekly meetings. A review of documentary evidence including minutes of meetings, process manual and samples of daily reports was also carried out. About one hundred and twenty e-mails related to support centre management issues were also used as primary data.

Analysis

The data presented are in a descriptive format. In particular, personal commentary of respondents is provided to ‘humanise’ the issues experienced in the work settings.

Results

Task Characteristics

Customer support agents, referred to as experts, answered customer queries through e-mail, text-based chat and voice. The physical layout of the support centre was oval. This enabled a lively interaction and it was common to see agents helping each other out with difficult emails and chats. Resolving a query had different stages such as, (a) gathering information about the problem, type of error and the exact sequence of events that lead to the problem; (b) searching for relevant information, if necessary; (c) escalation of the problem, if necessary; and (d) diagnosing the cause of the problem. When the support agent received a query, an appropriate response was provided based on knowledge of the domain and previous experience in handling such queries. If the query was non-routine, or if the response was not immediately evident, a search was conducted on either the internal company knowledge base or the internet. This was done to customise the information to the particular query which was then sent to the team leader. In many instances, the support agent also simulated the customer’s problem on an in-house system to arrive at the solution. To solve a query, the agent also utilised the expertise of team leaders, other team members and even consultants as claimed by one of the agents, We are confident that if the query is within our domain we will finally get the answer to all the problems. Doesn’t happen that the query doesn’t get solved.

The task variety in this account was high. Queries ranged across all the domains specified in the service level agreement (SLA). Customer queries also differed. Some customers wanted information on specific products and applications while others wanted solutions for specific technical problems. The variety of the queries coming in also added a complexity dimension to the task since there was no specific procedure that an agent could follow while resolving a query. As a team leader stated, There can be ten different ways to approach a problem. The agent needs to quickly analyse the root cause. However, if the support was provided for a particular product, as was done in the ModWire account, it was found that most of the customer queries were repeated and the task became routine. As one agent said, It took a month to figure out that most of the queries were fairly stereotyped. But even in this case, the job requirements kept changing as pointed out by an agent, Nowadays more and more products are being supported with modems so you have to keep updating continuously on that front.

Knowledge

That support agents were referred to as ‘experts’ instead of agents emphasised that technical support required higher expertise than generic customer support and that the organisation valued its employees. All agents were required to have knowledge of various domains from operating systems, software, hardware and networking areas, and over time, moved through stages of expertise with time say from supporting MS Office to supporting Linux. Agents also specialised in different domains according to their preferences and aptitude. However, this type of knowledge acquisition occurred within a certain band of technical domains. One could not expect the same technical support agents to provide support on higher end technology areas like Oracle or Solaris, unless they acquired additional formal qualifications.

Most of the support personnel had a college degree and a technical diploma in computer applications. However, the support centre manager emphasised that there was no degree or diploma that really prepared candidates for a career in technical support. The knowledge required for technical support was contextual. Most of the information necessary to solve the problem has to be pieced together from the situation itself. As put by one agent, A fresh engineer may be a good programmer but for problem solving, you need experience. Hence, a technical diploma or degree only ensured that the candidate would be comfortable with technology and technical issues and agents needed intensive training before they could perform satisfactorily.

Problem Solving Skills

Technical support primarily consisted of problem solving and hence problem-solving skills of the agents were constantly under scrutiny. Some of the problem solving skills that were emphasised included ways of asking the right questions from the customer to get information quickly, the use of different approaches for tackling a problem, ability to think of workarounds, recognising wrong assumptions quickly and the ability to recognise patterns in error messages.

Searching and information retrieval skills were considered especially important problem solving skills. The remote technical support agent worked very differently from an onsite technical person. In many cases, the remote support person worked almost like a reference librarian. Instead of employing a hands-on problem solving approach, the agent would quickly conduct a search through an in-house knowledge base or on the internet. The agents then customised the results to the problem situation and sent it to the customer through the team leader. Instead of solving a query from first principles, this approach utilised existing information and significantly reduced the response time to queries. Searching was particularly useful when the technical problem had a specific error since many product vendors had knowledge bases on their websites that contained comprehensive information on error messages. Team leaders and agents, however, insisted that this did not mean that technical support agents did not have any knowledge. They clarified that for routine queries it was best to use existing solutions instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. What differentiated the high performing agents from the others was the effort they put into solving a non-routine query through logical analysis and simulations, proper trouble shooting, instead of cut and paste.

Customer Handling Skills

The technical support agent required more than just problem solving skills. Since the task requires interaction with customers, agents needed to develop customer-handling skills to deliver a satisfactory service performance. Customers appreciated the empathy and concern shown by the agents for their problems and agents needed to develop their ability to demonstrate this. For instance, while suggesting solutions for hardware problems, an agent needed to suggest lowest cost options to customers keeping their interests in mind. The ability to gauge the expertise of the customer was another important skill. For example, in one support encounter, a customer wanted ‘drivers for his speaker, since it was not working’. The agent politely wrote back saying that it was probably the sound card of the system that needed the driver and not the speaker, since speakers did not have drivers. The agent felt that if such cases were not handled properly, customers were likely to get defensive and feel insulted.

Training

Employee training was the most preferred route to formal knowledge acquisition within the support team. Training was frequent and spanned multiple areas. The problem solving skills training consisted of different facets of query handling such as probing customers and getting information in minimum time, skills for searching the internet and databases quickly, and framing the reply in a way that the customer understood. Training programs had specific sessions on information searching skills because in a remote customer support environment, information searching ability was an important skill for the agent. Process training consisted of familiarising the support agents with client and SLA specific processes. Non-technical training was also important and consisted of training on soft skills like customer handling skills and customer relationship building. Agents were also trained on United States culture and ‘Americanisms’ so that they would be comfortable speaking to their customers. Once the new agents were on the operations floor, further training was frequent and conducted in various formats. Self-training, for instance, was conducted through training CDs. Refresher sessions would be held through formal classes. Hardware training was through hands-on sessions since familiarity with products was considered important, especially for remote support. Agents were usually recruited directly from technical institutes that provided technical diplomas. Candidates were tested for their problem solving ability through technical questions as well as puzzles. Agents were also checked for communication and customer handling skills. Mock chats were also conducted to test live interaction skills. The recruitment process focused more on testing a candidate’s potential to learn new knowledge quickly rather than testing existing knowledge. The company also encouraged employees to enrol in formal technical courses and sponsored such initiatives. As a result, many employees who had joined the organisation with just a basic level technical diploma later acquired advanced level certifications that had an industry wide recognition.

The need to keep oneself updated was important. One agent emphasised the need for this. You don’t have a choice. You have to find the time to update yourself. Customer queries belonging to new technical areas spurred the agents to update themselves regularly through different information sources. For instance, when the number of queries for Linux, UNIX, Star Office and Win XP increased, agents acquired the capabilities to resolve these queries. Team leaders also had their own methods of agent development. One team leader made sure that new agents got challenging queries that were stretched their skills. Another said that he regularly discussed escalated queries with his team so that they could learn from his experience. New software products were installed regularly in-house to increase team knowledge. A lab that had computers installed with numerous combinations of software and hardware was set up to encourage experimentation among agents. Agents could simulate and test various problems and hypotheses on them. One personal computer (PC) was designated as the guinea pig where the agents could carry out all kinds of tests and simulations even if the PC crashed.

Human Resource Management Issues

The team members for a particular customer account were chosen after taking into account their technical and personal traits. The goal was to have teams that were balanced in all respects. However, TechHelp also trained its agents to be multi-skilled and to handle queries for more than one account. This increased the resources available to the support manager and hence the flexibility of the overall operation. An agent who demonstrated initiative, maturity and reliability was promoted to team leader. A team leader was responsible for the team’s overall performance. However, as the manager said, His role is still 80 per cent technical and 20 per cent managerial. A team leader needed to be technically sound in order to gain the team’s confidence. The team leader functioned as a team coach as well as a human filter since all the query responses were routed through him. In a knowledge intensive task such as this, the team leader functioned more as a facilitator than an authority figure.

TechHelp paid salaries that were above average compared to the industry standards. The salaries started with US$2,000 per annum and went up to US$4,000 per annum for experienced people. Apart from the salaries, performance related incentives were an important remuneration component in TechHelp. High performers got incentives that were equal to their salaries. The organisation regularly held contests to motivate employees with awards given on different criteria such as technical expertise or exemplary customer handling. However, these awards were more for recognition for monetary gain.

TechHelp had a very informal culture. Agents could listen to music and even chat with friends on the internet while solving queries. Agents also played computer games and TechHelp even held matches for some of these games. This level of informality was only possible in the Indian office, which did not have a voice call centre. One agent even complained in the interview that such an atmosphere made it difficult to concentrate, but this type of complaint was not very common.

The tacit knowledge paradigm views knowledge as residing in individuals. From this point of view, the organisation’s ability to retain employees played a role in the retention of valuable knowledge within the organisation. Employee attrition rates in TechHelp were less than 15 per cent which was half the industry average. One reason for this was that the higher than average salaries. But apart from that, TechHelp’s strong focus on the technical support domain also reduced employee attrition rates. TechHelp projected itself as an organisation that supported technologies and not just particular technology products. Technical agents preferred working in such a focused organisation compared to working in a normal call centre with generic customer support accounts. The work culture at TechHelp also contributed to the high employee retention. Employees appreciated the informal atmosphere and the approachability of senior management.

Conclusion

The case study presents evidence that in knowledge intensive IT Enabled Services, human resource practices that treat employees as valuable resource are the ones that are likely to enable development of organisational capabilities. Considering that it is the agents’ interactions with customers that determine customer satisfaction with a service, HR policies can differentiate a firm’s performance from its competitors. TechHelp implemented practices that were very different from the sweatshop model of a call centre. The organisation recognised that the customer support agents were experts, possessing a high degree of knowledge and skills. This understanding was reflected in the HR practices. Training was a highly developed function, geared to equip employees for the knowledge intensive business environment characterised by speed. The informal culture of the organisation, the strong technology focus, the above average compensation packages and role expectations all served to accentuate the belief that the agents were valued for their expertise. These policies and practices ultimately contributed to a high level of service performance.

Authors

Vishal Shah is a doctoral student at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore. His research interests are in the area of IT enabled services, knowledge based services and knowledge management. He has presented papers in international conferences such as International Conference on Globalization, Innovation and HRD for Competitive Advantage, HRD in ASIA: Trends and Challenges, and Web 2002.

Dr. Rajendra K. Bandi is Associate Professor (Information Systems) and Chairperson of the Center for Software Management at the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, India. An engineer by training, he received his Ph.D in business administration (computer information systems) from the Robinson College of Business, Georgia State University, Atlanta, USA. His research interests are in the social impacts of computing, knowledge management, IT in government, software engineering, object-oriented systems, and software development process models. He has published several research papers in international journals and presented papers at many international conferences.

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