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Trade unions develop call centre operations

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in Flexible Working magazine (UK), July 1998

Hot on the heels of direct banking and direct insurance comes the first British example of the direct trade union.

The Royal College of Nursing's new RCN Direct operation, run from a well-equipped call centre on the outskirts of Cardiff, opened on March 1st 1998 and promptly took 2000 calls during its first week. RCN Direct follows a 1996 decision by the RCN (which combines the roles of both professional association and trade union) to improve the way it provides its 310,000 members with access to support and information.

As Kevin Hasler, RCN Direct's manager, points out, the new service offers the prospect of a closer relationship between the organisation and its members. "We did some market research which showed that a lot of members weren't getting full benefit from their membership," he says. Previously, a member's call to the RCN was likely to be made only if they were facing a major professional or employment problem, he says. "We've had people ringing in and saying, 'I've been a member for fifteen years and I've never contacted the RCN before'," he adds.

Nursing involves working round the clock, and RCN Direct has been set up to reflect nurses' working patterns. At present, the RCN Direct advisers (there are currently about thirty, mainly themselves qualified nurses) work one of three shifts: 7.30am-3.30pm, 1.30pm-9.30pm and a small twelve-hour night shift starting at 8.30pm.

Where necessary, the advisers can call on other resources within the organisation - for example, if RCN representation will be needed for a member's disciplinary hearing, the caller will be linked up to their local representative or regional office. In general, however, the RCN Direct advisers are trained to be able to deal with the full range of likely enquiries themselves. These include not only employment and legal issues but also professional nursing and clinical concerns.

Kevin Hasler and his colleagues undertook a lengthy process of planning for RCN Direct, which included visits to existing call centres including Scottish Widows' operation in Edinburgh and the BBC's Glasgow-based helpline. A project team of about fifteen people was split into sub-groups covering service specification, systems and personnel issues, as well as a communications group set up to make sure as Kevin Hasler puts it that "the organisation owned the project".

The development of RCN Direct has meant that the organisation has had to look closely at the way it holds information. One major task in the run up to the March launch of the call centre was the preparation of 350 briefing notes, now held on an intranet. In addition advisors can call up, through hypertext links, web pages produced by other health service organisations such as the UK Central Council for Nursing, the National Boards for Nursing and the Department of Health. A developing library at the call centre also includes (hard copy) resources, such as those produced by the National Association of CABx.

The RCN had to commission a major new piece of software to develop its membership database, which is used by RCN Direct advisers to verify callers' credentials. The new telephone service is also already being used as a recruitment method for new members.

Kevin Hasler says that, whilst RCN Direct benefits from call centre technology, in management terms the operation is different from conventional call centres. As well as handling calls, advisers share some of the general administrative tasks of the centre and each member of staff is also responsible for keeping their share of the large number of briefing notes up to date. There is no monitoring of calls and no obvious pressure on advisers to curtail lengthy conversations: the average call time is about twelve minutes. "We are not a counselling service, but we are able to be a listening ear," Kevin Hasler says.

RCN Direct has cost the organisation around ú1m and has been financed entirely by an increase in members' subscriptions, a decision taken by the members themselves. As Kevin Hasler remarks, the operation had to be established with no clear way of predicting either the likely total volume of calls or the call patterns. In fact, after a hectic first week, the number of calls has settled down to about 1,500 a week.

Unison, the large public sector union (and a rival to RCN for the recruitment of nurses) also wants to use call centre technology to improve communications with members. It launched Unison Direct on June 1st 1998, initially as a seven-month pilot service for members in east London, though the union hopes thereafter to operate the service nationwide.

Unison Direct is designed to be more closely integrated into the more traditional trade union structure of stewards, branch officers and full´ timers than RCN Direct, and one aim is to help put isolated members back in touch with their local union contact. Where appropriate, stewards in the pilot area are notified when members have contacted Unison Direct, so that support or assistance can be made available locally. Stewards are equipped with pagers, which are pre-programmed for Unison news and messages. Unison Direct is also exploring the advantages of equipping its branches and stewards with hand-held computers, designed to allow e-mail and Internet access. Dedicated palmtop PCs are being produced for Unison by Geofox.

Unison is publicising its new direct operation as the shape of union services for the next century. "If we are to continue attracting and retaining members, particularly young members, we must be able to respond speedily to deal with their problems," says Hector MacKenzie, Unison Associate General Secretary. At the back of Unison's thinking in launching its direct service is perhaps a realisation that it is in potential competition for members not just with other unions, but also with customer service orientated providers offering help, reassurance and advice - organisations such as the AA and the direct insurers.

Unison has chosen to outsource the call centre operation to Capita, and calls to the service are being handled by Capita staff in the company's Darlington centre. The pilot service operates from 6am to midnight on weekdays and from 9am to 4pm on Saturdays.

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