Memories

It’s strange talking to such a huge amount of people everyday; People who spend on average two minutes and thirty seconds in my life. I never see their faces so would never recognise them if we passed in the street or crossed paths some other way, and even if I could I’ll probably have forgotten them. Most calls I forget by the end of my shift. My mind sensibly deems them surplus to requirements and either erases the data or files it away in the mental equivalent of a safe-store lock up on the edge of town never to see the light of day again.

A few calls though refuse to go gently into that goodnight. Like the memory of a former lover they stick around in spite of your attempts to clear them out; only slowly inching out of your consciousness at their own pace.

I have one call like that.

It was a while ago now, how long exactly I can’t remember; Maybe it was 6 or even 12 months, but what I do remember. What is seared in my memory is the venom, the sheer venom. I do remember that it was an afternoon. The busy period had passed and the room had started to relax a bit. My phone indicated a call for a company which was generally a pretty easy gig. The caller asked me how long delivery would take. About 7-10 days I helpfully said. “Oh that’s good because my mother-in-laws been waiting over two weeks.”

I had walked into an ambush. Suddenly I was transported from the relaxed, bland grey office into a hostile environment and there was a 7ft alien with a cloaking device, guns and a bad attitude leaping at me.

Not a good time for your weapon to jam. I couldn’t find the customers order on the system. The callers rage built as I tried putting the name, and postcode into the computer to no avail each failure met with huffing and puffing rebukes. My last-resort was to take the customers card details and find the order through their payment details. This was the last-ditch final check and only when all else had failed as customers tended to “what do you mean last resort?” she continued in her by now familiar heckling tone.

To my relief the order appeared on screen. Someone had made a hash of it, keyed in the wrong address, wrong telephone number and misspelt the name. I explained the situation and apologised for the mistake, but this did little to satisfy my adversaries blood-lust as she continued with her aggressive tone while I set about putting things right.

My cortisone levels were off the scale and I keyed an incorrect code. “oops I’m using the wrong code” I spoke half-aloud “I don’t want to know that, I don’t care” spat the caller. “look all I’m trying to do is help you” I gasped in desperation, “I don’t want to argue with you I just want to help.” Her response to this plea was “oh, I’m supposed to be grateful you’ve helped me am I.”

I promised that I’d speak to my supervisor and now I’d amended the incorrect I’d get them to sort out sending their order. The caller was still not happy, she wanted to know how long it would take “I’m not sure I confessed, but we’ll be doing it as soon as possible.”

By the end of the call I was shaking violently. Physically and mentally in shock. How could someone do this to another human being? What it said about human nature?I wondered if they had a job, how people treated them, how they get through life with their approach.

The memory may be slowly fading but I’ll always be wondering.

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We all hate call-centres

I came across a Daily Mail front page headline this week; It concerns a mooted plan to replace Doctors receptionists with centralised call-centre staff.

Without reading the article it was clear what line the article would take; The article duly trots out every call-centre cliche from what it calls ‘unconcerned’ call centre staff to raising the spectre of the overseas call-centre. It claims that call-centres will eradicate the personal service provided by receptionists based in surgeries and that many more mistakes will occur.

In all it neatly sums up our relationship with call-centres. We hate them, loathe them, detest them. There’s a strange irony here that my job title, like most call-centre employees is ‘Customer Services Assistant’  and that the whole rhetoric of the call-centre industry is about providing a customer centred service, yet what all our systems achieve is seen by most people to be the very opposite.

 

 

 

 

 

Perspective

As I left work yesterday my head was buzzing. The Christmas rush is so full on that I’m taking calls non-stop from the second I start my shift until I clock off. I find myself frantically switching between the systems on my desktop as for each call I put a different hat on, one minute home furnishings, the next gift catalogues and then dealing with a problem with a magazine subscription. Throwing the ‘bear with me please’ line in wherever I can to buy myself a few seconds to get onto the right window. By the end of the day I’m mixing things up. My brain has had enough and stops co-operating. ‘how can I help you… oh sorry I mean can I take your card number… its been a long day, sorry.’

My patience snaps with the last caller. One minute before my shift finishes and I’m hit with a complex one which is going to take about 15-20 minutes for which I won’t be paid. To make things worse the caller is in a mood, they’re unhappy with some previous service and instantly launch into a rant about the company. I snap. ‘It’s the end of my shift’ I tell them ‘well can you put me through to someone else’ they retort ‘no I’ll just get away later’ I tell them. Unprofessional I know and I feel bad, but it’s been a long day. I deal with the call which takes as long as I fear it would as the caller dithers over what action they want to happen leaving the phone to get more info they should have had to hand. I watch the clock in despair. When I eventually step out into the desolate darkness of the near empty carpark it’s cold and raining. I walk out to the street and on the depressing stretch of road directly in front of me stands a girl with an umbrella. She’s not dressed for the weather and looks cold. Our eyes meet for a second and I pass by. I suddenly get a sense of perspective maybe being in a comfortable, safe call centre ain’t so bad.

I don’t like Mondays, or do I?

I don’t like Mondays. Well that’s not quite true. I just don’t like the idea of Mondays. The feeling usually starts on Sunday afternoons deep inside the pit of my stomach. It feels as if clouds are gathering in the sky; conspiring to block out the rays of sunlight that are the weekend. This all reaches a crescendo as I make my way to work, key in the door-code, make a cup of tea and sit in the seat I will spend most of the next week in.

The thing is Mondays never turn out to be that bad. My imagination has created such a collage of unremitting bleakness that even a relatively bad day is better than expected and Mondays are hardly ever a bad day. Mostly they’re good.

Like today for instance. I had loads of great customers. Often it is tempting to write about bad customers. Like a bad apple it takes only one, just one, to create a bad feeling for the rest of the day. I had one lady who called to complain about a product. She had every right to be unhappy, but right from the beginning of the call she was polite, courteous and at the end thanked me for my help. These are the customers every call-centre employee loves and will go the extra mile for.

A little politeness definitely goes a long way and helps make Mondays a much better place.

Business is booming

We’re supposed to be in a recession, but from my seat in the call centre you could be forgiven for thinking we are in a boom. Over the past year the number of faces around me has doubled. Still the calls show no sign of relenting. Pounding again and again like storm waves they make small-talk impossible so the new face next to you remains forever a stranger.

There are I conclude two possible reasons for this boom amidst the bust. The first is that most of our business is concerned with mail order catalogues. Overwhelmingly our demographic is well-heeled elderly ladies; the SAGA generation who go on cruises and live in houses with a name rather than a number. The grey pound certainly seems recession-proof. Having already retired they also do not face any concerns like looming redundancy and their benefits, like the winter fuel allowance, have largely been spared the Tories axe. Win-Win if you’re over 60.

The other factor in our success is outsourcing. When you call me I am not an employee of the company you have called. In fact I have a total of about five or six different hats. Which one I wear depends upon the name which flashes up on my screen.  The recession has seen my number of hats increase presumably as companies seek to slash their costs by offloading their call-centres and getting someone else to take abuse on their behalf. Win-Win? Not if you’re me.

How did we get here and how do we get out?

How many people choose to work in a call centre? Has anyone ever wanted to work in a call centre? Was it something they told their school, college or, so we are now told, university careers adviser; did they march in and say ‘yes I choose to dedicate my working life to following the way of the headset’????

Certainly not me and whatever our friends at Hayes Contact Centres say which is:

The majority of contact centre professionals are happy to be working in this industry and the survey results give us an indication as to why. Many, driven by their personal career plans, see it as a rewarding career and one with a clear route of progression, with many of them viewing it as a long term career.”

I’m just inclined to plain disbelieve them. I mean who were they asking? I don’t think it could have been anyone who I’ve ever met.

I’m more inclined to believe people like Anonymous Cog the writer of the blog ‘Call Center Purgatory’ If the title doesn’t scream where they’re coming from at you like an enraged customer then the account of finally getting away from the call centre will.

I remembered the speech Morgan Freeman gave in Shawshank Redemption,

“These walls are funny. First you hate them, then you get used to them, until it gets to you depend on them. That’s institutionalized.”

But I also remembered the one quote from Shawshank that was the real message, “Get busy living or get busy dying.” I’d had enough of this place. A life outside of here had to be better, no matter what. If I failed, at least I failed trying. And I would give all I could.”

There is a line supposedly from the Second World War. Something along the lines of it being every captured officer’s duty to attempt to escape.  It seems to me it is also the duty of every call centre worker to escape.

Welcome to the call centre

According to the authors of a survey for Hays Contact Centres call-centres are no longer the sweat-shops for post-industrial  era. Apparently we now represent 3% of the total UK working population and with 25% of us being educated to degree level the call-centre is now a career choice; not a dumping ground or stop-gap.

I should therefore rejoice that I can call the call-centre ‘work’ and stop trying to rub the words “Contact Centre” or “Customer Services” off my CV with a Stalinesque vigour.

Yes. I should stand tall and stand proud.

I am the call centre guy and welcome to my secret diary.