Why oh why is it always the last call of the day?

First day back in the call centre after the Christmas crescendo. Theres a new keycode to get in the building and all around a stillness where there was movement. As I walk along the entrance corridor the room ahead of me, full of people, trolleys, boxes and bubblewrap the last time I was here is now desolate. The shelves are empty and the atmosphere is derelict like a disused Lido where ghostly shrieks emanating from the 1920s resound off the smooth concrete surfaces.

As I enter the office I notice the tinsel around every monitor. It seems strange as the room is quiet and far from festive. Two banks of desks sit unoccupied and the room feels twice as big and spacious as it had just a week or so ago. I recover my paperwork from the alcove where it had been stuffed and grab a desk in the far corner. I’m in no mood work today; I never am after a break it just makes me resent being there. It takes me a few days to get into the groove.

The objective is just to get through the day and as a bonus not to pick up the vomiting bug or swine flu being passed round the office thanks to a culture where if a zombie plague hit would see people show up for work and take calls as their limbs fell off one buy one. Thankfully I’ve got a last slurp of hand gel in my knapsack along with my Asda smart price ravioli to keep the bugs at bay.

The work is easy. A nice break from months of solid wall-to-wall calls. Mostly customers are good natured, they know the snow has caused a lot of problems and are fairly sympathetic to our position. I feel I’m going to make my objective of getting through unscathed.

…… enter my last call of the day

The call from hell. It was one of those calls where they had been speaking to someone and been unhappy with what they were being offered so had put the phone down and called straight back to try to get someone else and I’d drawn the short straw. I instantly recognised the aggressive tone like a bouncer eying trouble swaggering up the street. Trouble was a coming my way.

Why oh why is it always the last call of the day?

 

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The Tesco Encounter

Supermarkets I’m sure are designed to stress me out; Fridays especially when everyone seems to hit the shops. Negotiating the usually badly designed car park and trolley littered aisles leaves me frazzled by the time I get to the check-out. I have no time either for the automated self-service machines they are the route to an instant corony with their insistence of an “unexpected item in bagging area” in a middle class tone probably labelled ‘reassuring’ by a focus group somewhere in Tunbridge Wells.

It was one such Friday which found me in a Sainsburys the size of a small planet. In my frazzled state I presented to the checkout. The assistant couldn’t have been more chirpy and chatty “any plans for the weekend” she chimed as she scanned my bottles of wine. This smalltalk brightened my mood a welcome change from what I had begun to call the ‘Tesco encounter’; something I had come to dread. The reason it is so named is because Tesco seemed to me to be the first supermarket to insist staff say “hello” at the checkout. This is such ingrained practice now that I find myself automatically saying hello as I approach the checkout which can be the cause of much embarrassment on the continent where customer-service remains a gleefully underdeveloped, and more natural, concept.

The reason for my dread is firstly its fakeness; forcing people to be chirpy on a Monday morning, or after a long day, or when it’s just not their inclination and telling people off for not being friendly enough just doesn’t seem right to me. Secondly shops  have expanded the encounter to include a mini sales pitch.. “do you have a clubcard, have you got everything you were looking for today, do  you want a mars bar for half the usual price”. No, I just want to pay for my stuff and go. Reassuringly one Tesco employee at an express petrol station does a great line in subverting the whole encounter “do you have a clubcard, do you have any petrol, do you want to answer any more questions” she trots out dryly. Brilliant!

It took a couple of more trips to Sainsburys to twig what was going on. Staff engaging me in conversation everytime I was at the till with lines like “had a good day” or “looking forward to the weekend”.. I sensed that their staff had received some kind of training and instruction to go forth and engage customers in conversation. It was not an antidote to the Tesco encounter, more of a mutation.

Yesterday as I fought my way through what was the busiest retail day virtually ever of a shopping mall I noticed New Look had also evolved the encounter, its checkout staff creating what the marketeers probably describe as a ‘feel good vibe’ with lines such as “oh I love those shoes, I wanted some myself, but they didn’t have my size left”…. Where are we going with all this, will checkout staff be instructed to add customers on Facebook and take them out on the town before letting them escape with their purchases.

I don’t mean to sound grumpy, but it is all so artificial, I feel sorry for the staff involved who are probably threatened with the sack if they fail to lay on the right amount of saccharine sweetness to every single customer.

How does all this relate to the call-centre? Well we actually recently received a management memo telling us to be less ‘chatty’ to customers. Apparently it means we get through less calls if some person, who probably can’t get out of the house, wants to have a good chinwag with us about what they’ve bought, the weather or whatever else. As I’ve said before I enjoy these conversations. When they are natural they break up the monotony of a day of robot-like repetitive transactions and make me, as well as the customer feel a bit more human. It seems that for good or for bad companies and managers are trying to hijack these encounters, fashioning them to suit their ends whatever they may be; more sales, brand loyalty, or quicker transactions. This makes us all a bit less human

Time to start caring

‘Hello Call Guy speaking, how can I help?’ No sooner had the phrase, repeated for possibly the 1000th time today, left the safety of my voicebox than it met with a  shredding rebuke.

“That’s no way to greet a customer”

“umm…….”

“I don’t like your attitude, you just sound so uninterested… I’m a customer, I don’t want to speak to someone who doesn’t care”

“well, sorry If I sounded that way to you, now how can I help”

“Look, I’m just trying to give you some advice… if I was your manager you’d be looking for another job”

“Well thank you for pointing that out thats a very nice way to begin a conversation, ok…. how can I help you”

Maybe they had a small point, of course the customer service handbook says I should answer every call with a cheery greeting, but then I’m not a robot I’m a human being. Not just that but, I’m a human being stuck in the work equivalent of a battery farm where any uneccesary movement of my limbs is frowned upon; Well excuse me for not being cheery half-way through another tough day!

I wondered what the customer thought my environment was like, something like the Willy Wonka factory perhaps, all bright colours, chocolate streams and oompa loompas cavorting. How dare you not be happy! The reality, for chocolate factories and call centres, is that work is a mentally and physically draining grind and the colour palatte only ever extends to grey.

Should the customer even care though? After all when I’m in Primark enthusing about how cheap my new pair of work trousers is am I concerned about the plight of the garment workers and their exploitative, even deadly, working conditions.

Maybe its time we should all start caring.

Snow II

If you’re waiting for a parcel which has been delayed because of the snow please don’t call and shout at me. It’s not my fault, it’s not even the  companies fault, we are not con artists, fly-by-nights or charlaitains and we haven’t deliberately ruined your Christmas. If you didn’t want a big phone bill you shouldn’t call as you should know what we will say:

IT’S THE SNOW

I’ve got a screamer

The Christmas rush is finally beginning to subside, but there is still no rest in the Call Centre as placing is replaced by chasing which turns increasingly desperate as Christmas approaches.

I’m bracing myself for the ‘screamers’ as they are known in industry terms. Leave aside any notions of goodwill over the festive season, until New Year has cleared this is screamer season.

I can always tell straight away when I’ve got a screamer; like an angler can tell by the first tug on their line how much of a fight the fish will put up.

It’s all in the tone of voice travelling down the line. Years of being screamed at has taught my subconscious to spot that tell-tell agitated tone before the caller has reached the end of their first word. This is the first tug of the line which tells me how the next 5, or if I’m unlucky 10 minutes will play out.

My strategy, an adaptation of the one you’d find in the text-books, is to subtly shift my headset back from my ear half-listening to the callers opening salvo about how rubbish my company is. This method stops my stress level rising and allows me to pick up when the customer pauses: I know then their momentum has gone, they have thrown everything into the attack and now there is a window where I can take control of the call.

I then make my grand entrance, ask what the customer would like us to do then either propose that as the solution or offer an alternative if the first is not possible.

This is effective with most calls. Some customers however, choose to enter what I call ‘the call centre game’. This usually goes along the lines of:

Opening gambit:

Customer: I want to speak to your manager”

Call Guy: “I’m afraid that’s not possible”

Stalemate:

Customer “Why not”

Call Guy “I’m afraid no ones available right now, but I’ll get them to call you back”

Customer attempts to break the deadlock:

Customer: “What is no one available? Why not, don’t you have anyone who can speak to me now, how many supervisors do you have?”

Response – (at this point do not answer any questions, otherwise the customer will then try to pick holes in your responses)

Call Guy: “No I’m afraid that’s not possible,we’re very busy, but I’ll make sure your details are passed on”

Customer resorts to indirect threats:

Customer: “Whats your name”

Call Guy: “Call Guy”

Customer makes final attempt:

Customer: “I’ll just hang on the line until someone is available”

Call Guy: “I’m afraid it will be quite some time until someone will be available and I really need to help other people now. I will take your details down and will get someone to call you back.”

I once saw a reality TV show about SAS training. One task saw the participants trained to withstand interrogation. They were taught to give only rank, blood type and serial number.

They then had to put this in practice during a real interrogation. The interrogators tried to break down resistance by engaging the captives in conversation. This gave them control over the situation which they could then exploit.

Strange how the same principles apply to the SAS and the call centre

Where have all the Factories Gone?

It’s often said that call centres are the post-industrial equivalent of the factory.

There is a lot of truth in this. I remember on my A-level business course learning of ‘speedy Taylor’ and the foundations of what was known as scientific management: Basically factories were places where workers could be monitored and through this their actions controlled. Taylor was one of the first to really start rigourously applying this to the production line in the name of efficiency.

Likewise the call centre is a place where technology is used to monitor the minutae of individual workers actions. Call-times, wrap-up times, toilet break times; all logged by the telephone; at once a tool-of-the-trade and management informant.

Both factory and call-centre jobs have been associated with drudgery: Monotonous, repetitive, soul-sapping work. In fact one of my first experiences of a workplace was stepping into a call centre in the early 1990s aged 12. I was immediately struck by the sheer repetitive monotony of it. A room crammed full of people in headsets repeating the same phrase again and again “Hello Eagle Star Direct how can I help…… I’ll just put you through..Hello Eagle Star Direct…”. I told myself I’d never work in an environment like this.

There is one crucial difference however, the call-centre, unlike the factory is an emotionally demanding place.

There is no doubt that if a machine could be developed to empathise then call-centre employees would all be replaced. A major part of my job consists of measuring the customers mood and providing an emotionally appropriate response. Their angry their order has been delayed, their product is faulty, or something else has gone awry… then I’m very sorry, I adjust my tone to suit.

Sometimes however, emotion spills over and I become an emotional punchbag. “I know it’s not your fault” they cry but, you’re the one here so let me take another pop at you.

My training and experience lets me ride most of the punches, but the occasional one strikes and leaves me shaking, cortisone pulsing through my organs. Then I wonder; wouldn’t it be nice if there were still factories?

Don’t call me s-t-u-p-i-d

If there is one thing which annoys me more than anything else it’s customers talking to me as if I’m stupid. Honestly you’re really not being helpful by spelling names like B-E-N; B for Bertie, E for echo….. N for nuts…. or spelling out words like G-R-E-E-N.

Quite frankly I find it rude and insulting. Fine if the spelling is unusual, but someone today spelt out M-A-R-I-A. It makes my blood boil. I feel as angry as the limo driver in me myself and Irene; I want to scream that I’m really a university professor and doing this job as a sociological experiment, or at least just that I’m not stupid.