POOR training, outdated technology and second-rate management are making travel’s call centres some of the worst in the business.

Hot on the heels of news that Thomas Cook is axeing hundreds of telephone sales staff (Travel Weekly, February 24), a report into the nation’s call centres claims holiday companies are losing sales worth millions of pounds a year because their treatment of customers is so bad.

The figures reveal 41% of callers to travel companies ring off before speaking to an agent. And while most make it past the recorded welcome message, the bulk give up waiting when held in a queue. The average holidaymaker waits just 14 seconds in a holding queue before hanging up, according to the data.

Paul Scott, business development director at report authors Dimension Data, said: “Tour operators are trying to service an increasing number of brands with fewer centres and fewer staff. This has a real impact on the quality of service.”

The Dimension Data Merchants Global Contact Centre Benchmarking Report, which analysed more than one million travel enquiries, found customer satisfaction rated at just 72%, ranking travel way below other sectors such as financial services and telecoms.

Much of the blame for travel’s poor performance is placed on declining levels of training, which in turn drives up staff turnover. On average, travel companies spend just five hours a month increasing agent knowledge – way behind technology companies, which spend around 13 hours a month.

Scott said travel’s ‘creaking’ technology also puts agents at a disadvantage because staff are unable to get hold of vital customer information quickly enough.

“However, the main problem is that call centres are seen as ‘profit centres’, and not judged on the value they add to the booking process,” said Scott.

“Agents are put under pressure to meet targets, but you can’t base performance on call length. It’s ancient thinking and is all down to poor management.

“Travel has a very long way to go before it reaches the level of other industries.”

On Holiday Group chief executive Steve Endacott, who previously owned call centre operation Holidays by Phone, said long opening hours of travel call centres is a reason for high staff turnover.

“For the first six months on the job, no agent is fully productive. That means service is not as good as it should be,” he admitted. “Travel is difficult to outsource because the subject requires a lot of knowledge. Also, you have to demand a certain target in terms of calls answered because margins are so low.

“We know what’s wrong, but the industry is struggling to fix it.”

Thomson head of call centres Neil Hardy said the company’s investment in technology has improved call centre performance, with a failure rate ‘well below’ the 41% quoted in the Dimension Data report. Meanwhile, Thomas Cook said it is installing new technology in its Peterborough and Falkirk call centres next month. It claims staff turnover is comparable to other industries.

However, Holiday Express managing director David Powell said the big operators’ performance is still lacking. He said: “Our agents never hold customers in a queue. We take a number and call back. It’s something we learned after bad experiences from calling operators. You can be waiting forever with them.”