The DWP’s outdated call centre methods are a disgrace- and here’s why

It’s not a story that needs a lot of explanation or requires a devil’s advocate. This article in the Guardian, if you’re anything like me, will put you in a very angry and sour mood. Our Department of Work and Pensions, who’re often the first point of contact for citizens in need of financial aid, are not giving vulnerable customers the time, care and understanding that they need. It’s easy to underestimate the power of a reassuring voice on the line- and there’s no easier way to make somebody feel unwanted and misunderstood than a script.

The story, however, annoys me on another level. I’ve worked in call centres for companies who do deal with vulnerable customers. They don’t use AHT, or Average Handling Time, as a target. This wasn’t a rule explicitly used for when vulnerable customers could come on the line, but for all customers. These businesses were solely aimed at making profit, but understood the value of having real and valuable conversations with customers. Often, the one thing that a customer will want when going through to a call centre is a ‘real conversation’. Terms and Conditions and required statements are necessary when they need to applied, but a script with a vulnerable customer cannot fit every situation. There’s protocol that needs to be followed, but it needs to be done with care and consideration.

The fact that the DWP, an organisation working on behalf of the government to assist claimants, is still using AHT as a target whilst companies working for profit do not completely baffles and astounds me. In all the time I spent working in those environments, AHT was only ever mentioned in passing as an “old target” which you only needed to worry about if you were waffling on about the football with a customer, but not if you were establishing a dialogue about a real and terrible problem.

I’ve spoken to customers with Alzheimer’s, cancer, and customers who’ve been recently widowed. These are all horrible situations to be in at a call centre, as there’s no way you can express anywhere close to the amount of empathy you want to over a phone- so the least you can do as somebody the caller is confiding in is to listen to their situation.

If it was just another company we were talking about with shoddy targets and questionable service, it wouldn’t surprise me. And, in a way, I’m not surprised to hear this about the DWP. It’s actually quite sad that when I think of government services, I think of long hold times, disinterested call handlers and an altogether dismal experience.

Call centres can be, and should be, more valuable than that. They’re a nexus for so much activity, especially with an organisation like the DWP.

“A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” We have to hold this to heart and improve our services, and reach out to the most vulnerable and make them feel respected, valued and, most importantly, heard.