Skip to navigation Skip to content Skip to footer

Hanging on the telephone

7 September 2004

Fuel, water, postal services, digital and telecommunications evidence cover

Hanging on the telephone [ 0.67 mb] - CAB evidence on the effectiveness of call centres

Summary and introduction

Throughout Europe today, most large corporate organisations and many public sector agencies use telephone call centres as the primary gateway for communication with consumers.  There is an increasing expectation that you will be able to contact service on a 24/7 basis.  Research recently carried out for Citizens Advice showed that four in five people have used a call centre in the last 12 months.[1]

Call centres work well for a majority of people.  You can phone the service provider or government office from the comfort of your own home at a time to suit you, and many problems can be resolved within a matter of minutes.

Citizens Advice recognises the benefits that efficient and good call centres can offer consumers.  We also welcome the Government’s commitment to modern, responsive and efficient public services.  Too many people today still miss out on welfare benefits they are entitled to and better public services should be helping to improve take up, and thus incomes and well being.

But imagine that you are trying to sort out a problem with your fuel bill.  You are ringing from a call box and are running out of money waiting for your turn in the call centre queue.  Or you are ringing from a ‘pay as you go’ mobile and your credit runs out just as you reach the top of the queue.  Perhaps you ring the call centre number four times without getting through.  And when you finally do get through, the operator tells you they cannot deal with your problem and passes you on to another number.

CAB clients, the majority of whom are on low incomes or are disadvantaged in some way, have often found that the call centre approach has not been capable of meeting their needs.  In this report, we examine CAB clients’ experience of using call centres to resolve their problems across a wide range of government and private sector services in the UK.  Our evidence and analysis of two surveys shows that call centres have not proved to be accessible to all.  And this needs to be considered in the context of the recently announced wide-ranging cuts in civil service jobs, especially in the Department of Work and Pensions.  

We found that when it comes to delivery by call centres in the public and private sector there is a long way to go to achieve the right balance between high volume, resource efficient and consistent standards of service on the one hand and accessible, responsive and personalised services for all on the other.  Too many consumers and CABx report extreme service shortcomings in the delivery of call centres, often incorrectly leaving people living on very low incomes, in debt, out of pocket, feeling frustrated and under extreme stress.

The CAB service shares the challenge of providing members of the public with prompt access to our services, whether callers are seeking face to face advice or can be helped over the telephone.  Recent research for Citizens Advice by MORI has found considerable unmet demand for Citizens Advice Bureaux core services.[2]

For example, many of those people who considered approaching a CAB for help to resolve their problem did not do so because of the waiting times, inability to get through on the phone or inconvenient opening hours of the CAB. Twenty- three per cent of people from a black or minority ethnic background who had used a CAB in the past 12 months were dissatisfied with the opening hours.  This study also found that improved information about what the CAB service can do to help resolve problems and improved access would most encourage people to use our services in future.  A significant proportion of those who have not considered using a CAB in the past year would change their view if there was a 24 hour telephone enquiry service, more flexible opening hours and more internet based information services.  Overall two in five people would have liked free advice on a problem they have experienced within the last year.  There is significant unmet demand for services like those offered by a Citizens Advice Bureau and improving access would assist many to benefit from our services.

As a charity which prides itself in offering advice that is free of charge we cannot simply deal with the access challenge to help more people by passing the costs of expansion and investment on to service users.  And we cannot raise resources to serve the public through taxation.  Nevertheless, our Corporate Strategy to 2008 makes it clear that we are determined to find ways of significantly improving access to our services.[3]. In some areas we need to make the most efficient use of our resources to meet the needs of as many people as possible.  In other areas we need to work with those of our partners and supporters across the public and private sectors that can help us meet this challenge.  As the evidence in this report demonstrates one way that those organisations can help us meet this challenge is by improving access to and the quality of their own services for the public and intermediaries such as CABx.

About the report

This report is based on 1,929 evidence forms submitted by 447 Citizens Advice Bureaux in England, Wales and Northern Ireland from June 2003 to June 2004.  Our evidence is complemented by two pieces of research undertaken in June 2004:

  • a MORI survey of 2,253 adults across Great Britain asking individuals experiences of call centres;
  • a survey of 114 Citizens Advice Bureaux in England and Wales asking advisers their experiences of call centre-related problems.

Chapter 2 sets the policy context of this report.  Chapter 3 examines the common problems experienced by CABx and their clients when accessing services via a call centre.  In Chapters 4 and 5 we look at specific public and private sector examples of call centre provision.  Chapter 6 sets out our key principles for a fully user-focused call centre service.


  1. Attitudes towards call centres, a MORI survey of a nationally representative sample of 2,253 adults (aged 15 and over), interviewed face to face throughout Great Britain between 8-13 July 2004
  2. Unmet Demand for Citizens Advice Bureaux, Research study conducted by MORI for Citizens Advice to be published late September 2004.  The study comprised telephone interviews of 1,181 members of the public between 24 October and 13 November 2003; face to face interviews throughout England with 655 Black and Asian members of the public and focus groups with Black and Asian members of the public from a range of ages and social grades in London and Bradford.
  3. The Citizens Advice service strategic plan 2004-8

Social Policy contact: Sue Edwards

Hanging on the telephone [ 0.67 mb] - CAB evidence on the effectiveness of call centres