Centre stage

At just after midday, call centre employee Kate Brumpton is dealing with her 22nd inquiry since starting work at 9am

The Lloyds TSB office has already received more than 100 calls from all over the UK, and lines are expected to remain busy for the rest of the day.

But none of the calls received by Brumpton or her colleagues at the bank’s Bristol headquarters concern direct debits, standing orders or customers’ balances. Instead, the inquiries are mainly from Lloyds TSB managers, including personnel professionals, and are more likely to be about maternity leave, sickness benefit or employment contracts.

The Lloyds TSB personnel call centre opened in August 1997 at the same time as the newly merged banking group was restructuring its personnel function. Most business units, which previously had their own HR teams, are now served by central administrative, payroll and recruitment pools.

By setting up a centralised call centre to deal with personnel inquiries, Lloyds TSB aimed to relieve the pressure on managers and ensure that the same message was being delivered throughout the group.

“We wanted to give a level of consistency in responding to queries, and discover what people are concerned about,” says Geoff Booth, who heads the call centre.

At first the centre dealt only with calls from personnel staff. But earlier this year it was opened up to line managers. Several thousand people now have access to its services.

As well as handling general queries on employment issues, the call centre runs specialist helplines four times a year to deal with inquiries on the group’s Sharesave and profit-sharing schemes and the annual pay award. During busy periods, this can mean that the centre deals with more than 1,000 calls a day.

Brumpton, who has been working at the centre for 10 months, enjoys the variety of calls she receives, as well as the chance to pass on useful advice. If she does not know the answer to a question, or cannot find it in the staff manual that sits open on her desk, she either refers the caller to one of three “knowledge specialists” in the office or promises to look into the matter and ring the caller back.

Many calls concern benefits issues. For instance, a manager in London rings in to find out whether it is possible to claim back from an Employment Service fund some of the money that a branch has spent on equipment for a visually impaired employee. Another call concerns an employee’s discounted loan. A display screen on the main wall reveals the precise number of calls taken that day, as well as the number of callers waiting for a reply.

“Even if we answer questions about the same topics, the circumstances may be completely different,” says Brumpton, who used to deal with investment banking before she moved to the personnel call centre.

The centre, which is open from 9am-5pm five days a week, has strict standards. These include answering 80 per cent of calls within 10 seconds and returning all calls left on the out-of-hours message system by 10am on the next working day.

Booth can follow exactly what each consultant is doing on a computer screen. But he stresses that his team does not work under the kind of pressure that is common in some call centres, and that managers only ever listen into calls for training purposes.

“This is not a call centre in the sense that we have hundreds of agents providing transactional services and all working from the same script,” he says.

“We don’t target people by stating that they must complete so many calls per hour and we certainly don’t police individual consultants, because the nature of the calls is so varied.”

Brumpton confirms this: “A lot of call centres have products to sell. We don’t have the same pressure or targets, though we do have standards to meet.”

Most of the consultants were recruited late in 1997 and, since then, only one of the team has left. Another has taken maternity leave. But there is a steady stream of people in and out of the call centre under a three-month rolling secondment scheme for other Lloyds TSB personnel staff.

“We see the value of people coming in from the field to keep us abreast of what is going on,” Booth says. “And a secondment is also beneficial to them in terms of personal development, as it helps to broaden their knowledge of the personnel function.”

Lloyds TSB employees are told that they should not contact the call centre directly about a personnel issue, but should go through their line manager.

“We don’t want to destroy that relationship,” he adds. “If the line manager cannot resolve it, they can give us a call and we will sort it out.”

Whereas personnel professionals are normally given detailed advice and guidance, line managers are usually given the facts alone. “We tell them what is available, but they still have to take the decision. We don’t act as an arbiter or referee,” Booth stresses.

The calls taken at the centre also give senior managers the opportunity to uncover any gaps in the bank’s existing policies. During the past year, issues raised through the call centre have led to the revision of policies on career breaks, parental leave and the employee share option scheme, Sharesave.

“We have direct channels to the bank’s policy-makers,” explains Nick Taylor, the operations manager. “If we have a query that is unique, we can go back to the policy-maker and ask them to take a decision based on the facts.”

Lloyds TSB reckons it is saving more than £100,000 a year by switching telephone inquiries from operational personnel staff in the field to the centralised call centre.

“It’s a one-stop shop for information on personnel and other issues,” Taylor says.

It has also helped to cement the Lloyds TSB merger, sometimes in apparently minor, yet important, ways. When, for example, the profit-sharing helpline was running in February, calls revealed how the term “file number” was in common use among former Lloyds staff, but alien to former TSB employees. As a result, forms relating to the profit share now refer to “file number/employee number”.

During the past eight months, the number of calls taken by the centre has increased from about 100 to 2,000 a week. Internal surveys suggest that 94 per cent of callers are satisfied or very satisfied with the service.

“It’s a very radical approach to running HR,” says Paul Turner, Lloyds TSB’s human resources business director.

One of the most interesting inquiries came from a branch manager who explained how one employee was unable to get to work because his guide dog was ill. Discussions centred on whether the employee should be asked to take a taxi (paid for by the bank) or whether he should be given the day off in the same way as someone with a sick child. The manager eventually decided on the second option – without requiring a sick note from the vet!

Most of the training for call centre consultants is ongoing. Issues raised by callers are discussed at weekly team meetings, where the knowledge specialists on reward and performance management and employment law can pass on useful tips to other staff.

The call centre is also about to expand to cover training issues. “The principle of having a single point of contact has been accepted,” Booth says. “An increasing amount of training is delivered remotely, so it makes sense to have somewhere where managers can discuss the products that are available and whether they meet training needs.”

Award background

Lloyds TSB

Main locations Branches throughout the UK. Group headquarters is in London. Head office is in Bristol. 

Number of employees Around 77,000.

Recent history Lloyds TSB Group was created out of the merger between the two banks, approved by shareholders in 1995. A bill confirming the merger went through Parliament this year.

Judging panel’s comments By using the call centre format, Lloyds TSB found an innovative and highly effective way to provide personnel information and advice to HR staff and line managers alike. And this was at a time when it was important, because of the merger of the two banks, to establish consistent policies and practice across the company.