Sunday, June 03, 2007

How not to lead a company

First of all: Yes, I know, I'm terminally bad at leading companies (at least in business simulations), but I have worked in various companies in the lowliest places and seen a lot of things bosses better should avoid.

Being a telemarketer and working in a call centre is probably one of the lowliest jobs in the world. In that job you actually have to look upwards to see the bottom feeders. But that's not the worst part of the job, the worst part is how the team leaders try to 'motivate' you.

Motivation is an important thing for someone working in telemarketing. In order to sell things over the phone, you have to sound convincing and friendly. And "a smile can be heard over the phone" as you're often told on your first day. Scientists by now say that this 'forced happiness' workers in a call centre or at the reception of a company or hotel have to keep up the whole day can lead to serious psychological problems. In other words: The less forced the happiness, the less dangerous for the employees.

Unfortunately the bosses haven't learnt that yet. They only know one tool to work with: fear. And today, with a lot of people unemployed and the laws of the country changed in a way that mostly forces people to take up every job, no matter how badly paid or morally questionable, fear of unemployment is a powerful tool. But there's one thing bosses should keep in mind: powerful doesn't equal perfect.

Why I am thinking about this right now? Because I had a nice chat over the phone with my friend Heike and she's currently working in a call centre with a boss who probably wouldn't even know he's doing something wrong.

First of all, bosses seem to think that by increasing the pressure, putting up more rules and making life at work miserable for their employees, they can get more results. That's about as effective as killing half of your chicken and expecting the rest to lay more and better eggs afterwards.

Let's take my friend's job as an example, shall we? She tries to make dates for the salesmen of her company, so they might go out to the customer and sell them wine. Not difficult as a such. In order to make dates, she needs data: addresses, telephone numbers and so on of people who actually are interested in wine. So the company she works for also has telemarketers who do a 'poll' on the interest in wine. Those who say they're interested, get a phone call from my friend and her colleagues. But instead of counteracting the dwindling number of successes by increasing the number of people doing that 'poll' and finding new potential customers, the company increases the number of people working the old addresses and expects them to be successful where they failed before. (That's pretty much like one company I worked for buying addresses so old some of the companies had been out of business for 5 damn years. I would demand my money back, if I got sold addresses like that - and I'm not even a businesswoman.)

The company my friend works for increases the pressure on it's workers, making more and more new rules to make life more miserable for them. By now they're not allowed to have anything on their desk except for one piece of paper and one pen. No coffee, no water (even though people who spent six, seven or eight hours a day talking really need something to drink), nothing personal. They are also changing their places every day. So you never know who'll be sitting beside you tomorrow or where you'll sit. Sick days are no longer paid, instead people are forced to work those hours afterwards. That's not really conform to law in Germany, because an employee who's sick and has a recipe from the doctor to proof it, normally can't be treated like that. But again, people are afraid to loose work and so they put up with it. If they have to leave three minutes early, fifteen minutes are taken off their working hours. The employees on the other hand have to record every minute they don't spent at work (going to the toilet or taking a break, for example). Oh, they also have to be in ten minutes before they officially start working ... and those ten minutes don't count, of course.

On short term this even works, but in the long run it only leads to trouble. A call centre can quickly get a bad name and that makes it more difficult to get new workers. "Walter Telemarketing" for example, a company in my area, does have such a bad name. They always tell they're hiring new people, but avoid to tell the real reason. It's not because they grow so fast - it's because their employees quit the job as soon as they're finding something new. But obviously, as long as there's enough work in telemarketing, they don't think about the reason for this.

And sometime in the future, things will change. Call centres have grown fast over the last years, with many companies outsourcing their telemarketing and service hotlines, opening a call centre was pretty much like printing your own money: good projects, employees who often only worked a few hours and didn't cost much and not too much competition. But by now there's too damn much of those companies out there and sooner or later the market will shrink a lot.

That's mainly because they already don't work completely legal. Simply calling people and trying to sell them something is illegal in Germany and I think that sooner or later the consumer organisations in Germany will press on to really put those laws to good use. That would then mean that a lot of the current projects will no longer exist. What will remain probably will be some work in service hotlines and other inbound calls (meaning the customer calls the telemarketer, as opposed to 'outbound' where the telemarketer calls the possible customer), maybe with some outbound calls to customers who want to be informed about new offers to the side.

It has already started, a lot of smaller call centres which often were opened in quite a hurry have gone bankrupt already (actually, I was glad I hadn't started working in one of them). And those who remain really should stop using fear as a tool to get success. In the long run work only increases sick days and quick changes in the personnel, not something a company should hope for.

Currently a lot of work is done with fear, using the high rate of unemployment and the insecure job situation to keep the employees down and make them work for less money and under worse circumstances than in the past. Nevertheless, the companies should be careful: one day the unions might get strong again (though personally, I don't believe that) and the job situation might get better (especially with less employees growing up because of less children being born). Then the companies will suddenly be the ones on the other side of the sword - the employees will make the rules and they will have to obey.

That's a vision of the far future, probably, but I'm still sure about the call centres dying like flies in the next couple of years.

Still, I wonder why managers find it so hard to understand that a happy worker is a good worker and will bring them more money. That's so easy to see, even for someone like me who fails miserably at leading simulated companies.

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