The Call Centre – Inherently Good or Bad?

There are two views of human nature. One optimistic assessment is that human nature is fundamentally good. Sure, on occasion, it could become knocked-off course by bad, but in the end it’s true goodness would be reasserted. The other contrary and far more pessimistic view is that human nature is fundamentally bad and that despite things like civilisation constraining it – like a dam constrains water – it will, when these constraints are loosened follow its true destructive course.

So what about the call centre? Is it fundamentally good in nature, with the occasional outbreak of badness, or is it more fundamentally bad and will it always revert to type?

We’ve heard before about the toxic call centre – the place Niels Kjellerup described in 1999 as

a place you work to make enough money, so you can leave. High staff turnover and sweat shop mentality are key symptoms whereas the underlying cause are best summed up as bad management practices.

But is the toxic call centre a corruption of the call centre, or is it it’s true self? I’m pondering this because of news from my last call centre. It was never perfect, but as call centres go it wasn’t bad; You could make a coffee and go to the loo pretty much when you felt like it and management followed a ‘coaching’ philosophy.

A new senior manager however, has ushered in a new approach. It’s a familiar one in which the whip is cracking, tea and coffee breaks are frowned upon and numbers are rearing their head in a big, big way for both junior managers and staff. Next I’m sure I’ll hear about memos on toilet breaks.

It seems to me that the call centre is governed by an internal logic. People sat at desks, either taking or making calls, are easy to monitor. Therefore the ability to micromanage is inbuilt into the environment, inbuilt into the call centre.

This in turn is re-enforced by IT systems which log and calculate productivity, producing reams and reams of numbers; Calls waiting, idle times, wrap-up times, toilet break times and so on.

Sometimes, and in some places there may be structures which can contain its nature. In my old call centre it was a firebrand of a union-rep who genuinely put the fear into managers at all levels and whose approach meant that toilet breaks went unremarked upon, in others it may be an organisation which takes a more holistic approach. However, as soon as this changes it seems the call centre reverts to type.

Funniest Call Centre Moments

It’s not all grim in the call centre. Sometimes it can even be quite funny. Call centre humour can come in a variety of forms;  bizarre calls, strange customers, headsets slipping off mid-call or agents falling off chairs. As part of the call centre interviews feature I asked interviewees for their funniest call centre moment. In no particular order here are a few (and if you have your own funny call centre story, please share this in the comments section – it’d be great to hear some more!):

Plane Talk

I had to call my ticketing department, which has agents in 2 different cities, so your call could end up in one of two call centers. One of my coworkers was chatting on his line about books with someone, and asking questions. Then I heard the ticketing agent sitting next to the one I was speaking with answer his question, so I could hear both sides of the conversation at once, happening in 2 different cities.

Anna – Credit control

Person calling to tell us they had just had a big poo.

Call Centre Girl

A lady wanted to know if she broke down whilst transporting sheep in a trailer, if we would recover the livestock if she put them into her car! Had visions of about 10 fluffy white sheep stuffed into a Nissan Micra…….

Lee

Lady naming her pet goat after me after resolving her complaint

Jennifer – TV & Telecoms since 2005

An irate customer called in & my friend took the call. The customer refused to be calmed down & my friend wasnt really able to help. The customer went on a tirade and at one point actually said to my friend she’s going to contact President Obama & get her fired!!! We laughed about that comment for days!

Keith

Far too many to think of at the moment, transferring a dour, confused and agitated Yorkshireman on to a chirpy and wonderfully positive American girl in account security is a recent favourite.

MC

Senior lady who was trying to get an x-rated movie to ‘learn something new for her 50th wedding anniversary’… I instructed her on how to set it up, but she kept failing at it and would call back and hang up until she got me again (this happened like 5 times), then I finally made the movie available for her directly from the system and it turned out she had the TV on, on the EXACT channel with the volume crazy high… I could hear her trying to make sense out of what she was watching, then freaking out, then laughing then talking to herself, then the moaning (from the tv of course) went crazy and she started yelling over the phone asking me to turn it off hahaha the whole thing lasted about a minute, it was like 7 years ago but it still cracks a smile in my face when I remember. She giggled, thanked me and wished me a nice day…

Loz

A colleague standing up, tidying his desk and just generally faffing around with his belongings during a call, then leaning over to peer into a drawer, and his headset falling off. He picked it up, put it back on, and said to the customer: “Sorry, I didn’t hear that – my headset fell off!”

Luisa – Financial services

Having an elderly Welsh gentleman call in and tell me he was playing with his “pride and joy”

JP – Inbound sales

When I was talking about my kitten mittens to a co worker. I alsweres the phone with my verification script inadvertently introducing myself as mittens.

MC –Inbound telecoms

A woman arguing with me until she was blue in the face that nobody in the house had been watching expensive (naughty) pay per views because she had been on holiday for the past 2 weeks. Her tone suddenly changed when I asked if she had teenage boys in the house. All I heard was ‘GAVIIIIN’ then the line went dead. I hope that guy’s ok!

Turgid

Someone who didn’t realise i’d taken them off hold who sang me the entire main verse of relight my fire. Or when most people had gone and I was wheeled around in a post bin very fast.

Dr Bob Winston

Drunk calling, thought he was calling his mate to come and get him as he was stuck in the Pub Toilet. Thought I was messing him about.

Karen – Natwest

Some kids called a few times to report a pigeon in a branch, telling us it’s pooped on the desks.

Anonymous Millie

Saying ‘ yes sir ‘ throughout a call then being told by the caller she was a woman- oops!

Joanne – Airline call centre

when the rep from amex wanted to take a pee break and requested to place the call on hold

Disastra

Caller: I’ve had a letter from you Agent: Yes what does it say?

Caller reads letter exactly as printed (It’s a generic letter we have copies of

Agent: You’ll need to reply in writing as they need a signature.

Caller: But I can’t read or write.

Miss m.e. freedom – inbound energy

Seeing a manger who doesn’t know how to work the systems take a call

Insignificant

A quite heavy advisor, dropped pen and leaned down to pick it up, the chair landed on top of the advisor. Hysterical. A shame and it’s not nice to laugh at, but it was funny

Amy – Utility company

We had a customer call in to report low voltage in her neighborhood. Said she had just gotten home and the lights were dim in her house… she also checked outside and said her neighbor’s lights and the streetlights were also all dim. When our troubleshooters got there they found everything to be fine. The woman had forgotten to take off her sunglasses. Seriously?!

Friendly Pariah – Tech support

At the time it was hellish but we joke about it now saying at least it’s not (that guy) The company started supporting Macs, someone went out and got the most powerful macbook pro they could with a thunderbolt display and every random accessory They then proceeded to call up ten times the first day with how to use questions – we received no training on it (training costs) so we were unsure the second day was 20 calls, getting us to try and change settings so that it behaved more like a pc (it isn’t a pc, it won’t be a pc and no matter how much you scream it will never be) We still get a call a week from him with how to use problems and despite repeated suggestions he has not taken a how to use course

K – Australian bank call centre

I assisted a small-time Aussie “celebrity” apply for credit, and she was declined. Her reaction of ‘Dont you know who I am?’ was pretty priceless!

Ronald – Auto insurance prospecting

My group fantasizing about what it would be like to have an amnesty day where we could, with impunity, speak to the rude customers any way we wished.

Muddy_bum

Setting other workers boot up sound to something very loud. (oh the fun we had..)

JL

Playing “word sneak” on last day. Everyone had to sneak a word past an unsuspecting Inland Revenue customer, guy next to me drew the word “rimjob” and did it.

Eden – TV and internet technical support

Now that I’m a veteran at this place, I mostly take difficult technical calls that come in as a transfer from another agent. My greeting is “Thank you forholding. My name is Eden, Operator ID with Advance Internet Support. How may I assist you?” I must’ve been out of it and tongue this particular day and instead I greeted “Thank you for holding me” – immediate burst of laughter from both me and the agent who was warm transferring. I recovered by reissuing the correct statement and hoping I had made her day.

Karyn

“Hi, this is Karyn, can I have your tracking number beginning with 1Z?”

“Um…. I don’t see that on here…”

“Okay, do you see where it says UPS on it?”

“US…P…S… Yeah I see it. USPS.”

“Ma’am that’s actually the post office.”

“… -click-”

Also had someone call us (UPS) shipping a package through USPS using a FedEx box…

Competition time.

CallCentreTurnover cartoon

Having finally managed the settings, until this coming Thursday the Kindle version of Secret Diary of a Call Centre will be available for FREE. I really hope you enjoy the book and if you do then, please feel free to leave a review!

In conjunction with this I am launching my first competition. I have an original version of the above artwork (or rather doodle) – inked by me. To win this just answer the following

What reason do I give for having to be careful when discussing the last call centre I worked in?

To give you a clue it’s a piece of legislation.

the winner will be chosen at random. Answers to my email at diaryofacallcentre@gmail.com

CG

Diary of a Call Centre: Book of the Blog

Those of you following the blog may remember that a while ago I announced my intention to put together a book of the blog, and that I had indicated this would be available in October.

Well, October came and went, and so did November, but I’m pleased to announce that now, in December, the book of the blog is available via Amazon.

I’ve brought together the very best of the blog and some new material – including an account of my very first call centre job – all in one handy volume.

I really hope you all enjoy the book and check back here for future giveaways and competitions I will be running, as well as continuing to post my thoughts and and experiences of the call centre.

Thanks

Call Guy

Eight Minutes Idle DVD Review

8mi

Sometimes it can be difficult to watch a film, or TV series when you’ve read the book beforehand. I’ve actually had to take the decision to no longer watch Game of Thrones for this very reason; I can’t just sit and enjoy it without picking up on every difference, at which I exclaim “but that didn’t happen in the book”, much to my partner’s disapproval.

I was though looking forward to watching 8 Minutes Idle, the film adaptation of Matt Thorne’s novel of the same name, since it arrived from Amazon last Saturday. Of course there would be differences – as Matt himself mentioned this to me in a Q & A published on here last year ahead of the films cinema release.

There were indeed a few noticeable differences between the two versions with the film focusing more on one particular plot strand from the novel, that of the relationship between Dan and co-worker Teri. The story though is mostly faithful to the novel: Dan is a twentysomething content to drift through life, but an unfortunate turn of events sees him end up living at his workplace – a call centre.

When it appeared in cinemas earlier this year the film was greeted by rather mixed reviews, such as this one from the Guardian, but I wonder if any of the reviewers had ever worked in a call centre?

A real strength of the book is the descriptions of the minutiae of call centre life so I was especially keen to see how authentic the call-centre scenes were; The call centre both outside and inside is as bland as could be expected from a real-life call-centre. On the occasions where we hear callers the dialogue is incredibly true-to-life, and quite funny. My personal favourite scene is where Dev the ‘Car insurance king’ instantly drops an irate caller who comes on his line (something I’ve done, and seen done, more than a few times). Immediately though he falls foul of his boss Alice.

Alice is superbly played by Montserrat Lombard and represents the archetype call centre manager who manages her charges with a combination of metrics and Machiavelli. At one point she asks Dan to nominate which of his teammates should be fired at pain of facing the can himself. There is a difference between the Alice in the novel, who is slightly more nuanced, but in terms of the film, and in terms of the one figure almost all call centre workers love to hate it’s a great depiction, and is quite worth watching for alone.

Throughout the film there is also a sense of Britishness, or to be more accurate Bristolian-ness. The characters, dialogue and locations are all well used to give the film a sense of place and characters like Teri’s flatmates are achingly familiar. One key theme in the book, which also made it into the film – but seemed to which escape the critics – is the sense of transience in the call centre. Dan remarks at one point about how close he is to being on the street. Call centre life is both transient and precarious: people pass through frequently, leaving without trace and even call centres themselves can be set up and dismantled with ease. The characters in both the novel, and the film reflect this – not least by their housing status: They are not settled suburban types, more rootless drifters clinging onto a toe-hold in the city.

Stop that chatter!

Early on a Friday afternoon and the only audible sign that I’m not alone (which sometimes I am at this time of week) is the occasional clicking of my colleagues mouse. From the sound of it she – like me – is deeply engaged in surfing the internet. Whether its checking the news, online shopping or getting ideas for dinner tonight I can only guess. We haven’t talked for hours.

It’s not that we can’t stand each other. We have a typical colleague-colleague relationship. It’s just that we can talk whenever we want – so we don’t. It’s this which makes me realise how far away from the call centre I now am.

In the call centre talking to your co-workers is a forbidden fruit to be bitten into, to have its juices savoured. You talked whenever you had the chance. The reason for this is that when it is effectively the use of your vocal chords which is being paid for the employer expects them to be used only for the pursuit of their objectives. Using them for mere idle chatter is wasting money.

In my last call centre managers would go to lengths to prevent chatter. Not content with waving monitoring reports at you in your six-monthly review, showing how much time you’d spent not on calls they’d seek to catch you red handed. Moving around the floor with stealth they used the wobbly grey partitions, stone pillars and over-sized pot-plants for cover. Observing for a few moments they’d then leap like a lion on their unsuspecting prey.

There was really nothing worse than getting the unpleasant tap on the shoulder followed by a rebuke of ‘get back on the phone’ so against this threat we deployed several defensive strategies. The first thing to do when coming on shift was to find a seat which faced the managers desk cluster. This enabled you to observer the observer, and prevented any unnoticed approach. Adjusting your chair to sit as low as possible was another strategy. Too high and your head is literally above the parapet. Managers sight-lines could also be blocked by careful positioning of a box-file.

Another trick is keeping your headset on and looking straight-ahead, never looking away from the screen, whilst conversing with your neighbour. It goes against all the usual norms of face-to-face conversation, but it’s much easier to conceal an illicit conversation. Finally there is teamwork, which involves warning each other with nudge, or a head nod that a manager is on the prowl.

In my final year at that particular call centre I only got tapped on the shoulder twice.