Election day

We’re currently in the middle of an election campaign. No, democracy has not yet spread to the call centre; It continues to be a dictatorship where the fear of losing your job is sufficient to keep most people from speaking their true minds. Our election is not to determine who will represent us, or run us. Instead there are to be two categories of voting the first is ‘best customer service’ and the second is ‘best team player.’ The winners will receive a small prize and probably have their name printed onto a certificate which will be placed on the wall between the call time chart and the  certificates recently awarded for lowest call times and most accessories sold.

It feels somewhat churlish to object to this. After all good customer service should be recognised and so should teamwork. The problem however, is how to judge other people’s performance as I don’t listen in to other people’s calls and the room is arranged in three rows so I only ever hear people on my row, and as for teamwork I was actually told off one time by our manager for assisting someone who had asked for my help, that is until they realised that I was doing this in my break-time.. “carry on” they said when they realised this. I also object to what I feel is a strategy to divide and stratify us. One of the things I had liked about the job in the past was the unity of the floor, we were all doing the same job with the same status. Now some people work only on some clients, whilst others have been issued with internal email accounts and others given extra responsibilities for training.

One person has even assumed what appears to be a pseudo-supervisory role and has begun to issue orders to the rest of us with the tacit consent of the manager whom the wannabe supervisor keeps happy with bars of chocolate. It is this person who has publically stated that they will win the teamwork title.

Hopefully they will be mistaken. When the contest was first announced, inspired by the people of Hartlepool’s collective wisdom in electing a monkey as mayor, I hatched a plan to rig the vote. If we could marshal enough people into a block we could ensure our candidates would prevail. In order to further undermine the contest the candidates would have to be the people we felt least deserved the accolade.

So far it seems the plan has gathered support. Our candidates have now been chosen so all we need to do is wait for the result.




The hard $ell

Today I arrived at my seat in the call centre to find two pieces of paper positioned on my computer keyboard. The first was a memo instructing me to complete the tick sheet located beneath the memo every time I’d managed an ‘upsell’ by loading upgrades and extras onto anyone who dared to place their order by telephone. The memo continued by telling me that this was all part of customer services as apparently the customer may not have noticed all the optional extras on the advert so it was up to me to help them out of this potentially difficult situation.

The memo marks a deep cultural shift in the call centre. Previously a number of my colleagues had prided themselves on the fact that as someone once put it “we do customer services we don’t do sales.” This was an important assertion as it positioned us in the call centre industry hierarchy somewhere slightly above the cold-calling bottom-end. Unfortunately however, before joining us our manager seems to have done quite nicely in sales. So now we have all the fancy dress days, box ticking, and competitions that go with the territory.

For me this all brings back horrible memories of my first ever job on the phones which was cold-calling for a double glazing company. Whenever you’d got a bite (someone who agreed to a call back from a person named the ‘confirmer’ who would apply a hard-sell and book an appointment with two ‘reps’ who would visit and apply an even harder sell) you got to roll an oversized dice and move your name up a snakes and ladder board pinned to the wall with a £10 note  fixed with a blob of blu-tack at the top. The guy who always won this was called Dan. Dan was the best salesperson by a long, long way and would be halfway up the board after just one shift. Even if he hit the biggest snake he was still assured of having the tenner in his pocket by the weekend. On my first day, whilst doing my training he confessed to me the secret of his success. Being left on his own in a large park at night whilst tripping on LSD had, he said, provided a demonstration of his mental strength, the mental strength you needed for a career in sales.

The walls of the room were plastered with motivational slogans and it was all presided over by a youngish woman with a desk facing the rest of us and who did a fine line in motivation herself by screaming “get more f&*$ing bites I need more bites.” If these exhortations failed she could always fall back on other methods. I remember one guy being made to stand on top of his chair until he got a bite. It was done in a jokey sort of way, but nonetheless didn’t do much to uphold any principles of dignity at work. Whilst we worked we could see the reps in the next room. Strangely they all had the leering expression of underfed hyenas making me distinctly uneasy that all that separated us was a flimsy partition and a few large squares of perspex.

I managed to last three shifts, which probably made me a veteran among the mainly teenage workforce whose cold-calling careers could be ended on a whim such as not wanting to get out of bed or playing playstation round a mates house. All in all It should have netted me just above £30, and some on top as one of my bites had I was told resulted in a sale, but in the event I only ever received payment for one shift a paltry £10.

I didn’t make much of an effort beyond a couple of calls to chase-up the missing money I chose just to put it down to experience. I was confident that my life would move on and I would forget about it all.

Which I did, until the memo……

Alors on Danse

Today I was told by one of my call centre buddies that I don’t seem too cheerful. I replied that the call centre has been grinding me down. Our management have discovered  new love of getting us to tick boxes and hand these in so we can be even more closely monitored and the companies we work for are still pinballing from crisis to cock-up with us having to pick up the shards of their customers shattered expectations.

Sometimes you just have to dance.

Why science says working in a call-centre is bad for your health.

Many people try to live by the philosophy that work is work; something necessary to pay the bills and let us get on with the rest of our lives beyond the 9-5. According to this way of thinking we should be able to shed  the hassles and pressures of the office as we put on our coats on and walk out the door. But, is it that easy, or does the job we do exert a reach far beyond the office door, or factory gate to exert an effect on our health and wellbeing?

I’ve recently been reading a book called ‘The Spirit Level: why equality is better for everyone’ The books central theme is that people are healthier in societies with greater equality. One piece of evidence they put forward for this claim is the Whitehall II study of civil servants carried out in the mid 1980s. The study found that poor health was related to low status at work. A good summary of the findings is presented here, but undoubtadely the big revelation of the study was on the link between stress and lower levels of autonomy at work:

Conventional wisdom has it
that a stressful job is one characterised by a high degree of
pressure and responsibility. New research, to which Whitehall II
has contributed, notably shows that that is incorrect.
A way of thinking about stress at work that more closely accords
with people’s experience is that it results from an imbalance
between the psychological demands of work on the one hand
and the degree of control over work on the other. Many jobs
involve high demands. It is not demands themselves that are the
major cause of illness although high demands are independently
associated with ill health. It is the combination of high demand
and low control.

This reminded me of a discussion in the call-centre earlier in the week. The conversation was about which clients calls we prefer taking. There is one client where the calls can be particularly demanding, but for which we have a high level of autonomy; In fact we’re virtually given carte blanche to do whatever actions we feel are necessary to resolve the issue at hand, even writing off fairly reasonable amounts of money. These actions are rarely scrutinised and virtually never questioned by our management or the firm we act for. So despite the calls being demanding, as one colleague simply put it “we have power”, so most people express a preference for taking these calls over those of other clients which are generally less demanding, but for which most actions beyond the mundane must be approved by a supervisor, or even in some cases proceed down a long chain to head-office. On the phone all we can do is tell the customer that we’re very sorry, but we are unable to offer anymore than an apology then subtly shift the headset away from the ear as the inevitable tirade comes in. 

It seems that intuitively we have a preference for the client where we have the most autonomy. Sadly however, autonomy is a rare luxury for most call-centre workers. In an illuminating piece of research by two UMIST based academics, Lynn Holdsworth and Susan Cartwright, appearing in the Leadership and Organization Development Journal,  a study of call-centre workers in the UK reached similar conclusions to to the Whitehall II study, namely that poor health is related to low levels of autonomy. They also find that working in a call-centre favours less comparably to what they refer to as a ‘traditional’ office environment. In their conclusion they state:

The evidence from this research indicates that working as a CSA is more stressful, less satisfying and a less psychological and physiological healthy occupation than that performed by the general working population. Furthermore CSAs perceive themselves to be less empowered than other workers in an office environment. The empowerment dimensions seem to be differential predictors of job satisfaction and may have an indirect influence on mental and physical health.

Although meaning and impact contribute to the overall feeling of job satisfaction the most significant relationship is with self-determination. Self-determination, or the belief that one has autonomy or control over how one works, is not part of the role of the CSA. The organisational structure, climate, culture and processes seem to limit perceptions of self-determination. The use of performance monitoring, reliance on quantitative statistics and the ensuing negative questioning combine to dictate management practices. Although an indirect relationship was found, previous research suggests that these factors tend to have a major influence on mental and physical health.

Though you can’t see me I was nodding along as I was typing the above particularly the final few lines. I am continually frustrated by my managers continual use of call times as their sole measure of how good we are at our jobs. Monthly a list is produced, circulated for peer-review and then pinned to the wall in two locations in the office. Despite many people insisting thay care little for this and a widespread acknowledgement of the problems with which the statistics are compiled (a simple aggregated average which discriminates against people who take more calls for clients where more information is required for an order to be placed) most people feel that that the table indicates their position in the office pecking order and that high average call times will result in lower job security. As for team meetings, never had one in over a year, and opinions, well I’ve been asked how I felt about my job once and even then I wasn’t given a chance to respond.

It all adds up to more stress… and so it seems worse health.


Isn’t it funny how we judge people by their voices? How we build up a mental picture of what they look like, the kind of people they are and the sort of lifestyle they lead.

In my old job a few of times I met people who I’d spoken to almost on a daily basis on the phone. The last time being when I’d dropped in on a leaving-do and spoke to a person who had joined the team after my departure. I found their voice familiar, but didn’t quite have the complete certainty and courage to mention it. Later on after they’d left I asked someone if they had happened to know if they’d previously worked at the organisation I recognised the voice from and it turns out it was the same person. Some six or so years on I still recognised the voice. In each case though when I met the person behind the voice it confirmed the picture in my head was way off the mark.

I was caught out by this again today whan I took a call from what sounded like a lovely old lady. She had a voice I’d describe as ‘Vicar’s wife’ that is middle-class but not haughty middle-class. I could imagine her in a floral apron presenting her grandchildren with a treat of fairy cakes and lemonade.

She’d called as she had not received the catalogue she had requested a week ago. I advised her that the catalogues were only sent out in bulk mailings and that the next one would be when the new catalogue is launched in a couple of weeks. She told me that she hadn’t been made aware of this when she had made the request and that she had wanted to choose a present for someone who had a birthday coming up. I was about to suggest looking at our website, or else I’d help her to make a selection, but was prevented by her sudden outburst of “well that’s not very helpful.. you’re just a waste of space” before slamming the phone down.

I was dumbstruck! How wrong my minds eye was again.

Later on in my shift I had another elderly lady tearing into me. I detected a theme to the day and was reminded of this Father Ted episode which illustrates the dangers of what seem on outward appearances to be nice old ladies.


The call centre prison

On rare occasions the drab grey interior of the call centre,  the tedium, the scruitiny, and the lack of movement lead me to compare call centre life with being in a prison. This is of course a ridiculous comparison as the call centre is in reality a very different place, or so I imagine, to a prison.

In the case of a prison near Hyderabad, India, however, the two seem to have been succesfuly combined. Hyderabad is an area famous for its outsourcing industry so in a way the call-centre-in-a-prison has a certain logic far beyond my earlier comparison. In fact it is interesting how, as one prisoner featured in the article states, the call centre is providing him with hope for the future.

Another participant in the project points to the enviable lifestyles of those employed in the industry outside the prison gates. An industry the article suggests many young Indians are clamouring to be part of.

Not so much a prison, the call centre is for these people very much a route to freedom.

Who are we?

Who are we? This is a bit of a deep and complex philosophical question, but one which has recently come up in the call centre.

This is all because a memo has been circulated instructing us to stop referring to the companies we outsource as ‘they’. We have, we have been told, now got to make sure that we refer to them as ‘we’ whenever we speak to customers; we have been reminded that we are they

There is some logic here. For the customers calling they believe they are speaking to (or screaming at) a representative of company X. The fact they are speaking to an employee of company Y who is contracted on behalf of company X is a deception which they must not become party to.

However, as an employee of company Y this deception is often rather problematic for the following reasons:

1.) Communication

We have no real connection to the company X’s we work for. We have never stepped foot in, or even seen a picture of their offices. Most of us have also never met or even spoken to any of their in-house staff. The one communicative conduit is through our management, but they never really speak to us either. We are given very little product knowledge, so often customers think that we are just stupid as they wonder why when they’ve called a firm the person they are speaking to doesn’t know the spec of the products. In fact I’m taking calls for two companies at the moment which I have been told nothing about I’m simply just left to bluff my way through the calls. 

2.) Influence

As there is no communication we feel that consequently we have no real influence over the actions of the company X’s. So when customers are consistently unhappy with an aspect of the companies products or services, our job is to fire-fight each complaint on an individual basis. This is wearying as we deal with the same issue again, and again, and again, knowing full well that we have zero ability to influence the companies to actually improve their systems and stop the problems occurring. The companies for their part have a disincentive to act as we provide a convenient buffer for customers anger. In this situation adopting the ‘they’ defence distancing ourselves from the company, gives us a little breathing space and helps us with our frustration that we are powerless to improve things for their customers.  

3.) Ethics

I won’t say too much here but, lets just say that the companies we work for have a range of corporate cultures and operate with very different sets of ethics. After working on some of their behalfs I’ll find it very difficult to trust the claims made by companies in the future. 

So there you have it, the contradictions of being a customer service mercenary. If I was running a company I don’t think I’d ever outsource my customer service. Customers want, or should I say deserve, staff who are knowledgable and even passionate about the products, and for companies it’s like putting on a pair of giant foam hands (the kind you used to see on Gladiators – the ones with the big pointy finger) as it gets in the way of you feeling your customers; how they are, what they want and what their problems are.

As I said to someone today though “If companies actually cared about customer service they wouldn’t outsource”