There was a point today- sometime in the late-morning, when I let my head drop to my desk; my forehead pressing against the keyboard. Today was all about the sheer frustration of working in a call-centre. Frustration with the workload; force-fed calls for an eight hour shift with no gaps in-between calls. Frustration with having to have the same conversation again, and again, and again, and again, and again. Frustration at the greed of companies taking on more orders than they know they can fulfil. Frustration with the mind numbing stupidity of some of our companies systems (sometimes they just really do defy belief). Frustration with not being able to do a single thing to improve these systems. Frustration with management for spending whole days either a.) Staring blankly at their live-feed call stats display or b.) wandering round chatting, rather than jumping in the trenches and actually feeling what it’s like to do the job…. and finally frustration that somehow all the twists and turns of life and the dice rolls of fortune have led to me being sat here in the call centre.
One thing I’m always on the look out for is stories of call centres in the media. The call centre is such a central part of our lives, mostly as customers, but it seems more and more of us are finding ourselves on the wrong end of the phone line. Despite this we’re rarely given a glimpse inside the call centre. We have our stereotypes for sure, some of which are true and some of which are much wider of the mark, but do we really know what makes the call centre tick? I guess the whole reason behind writing this blog was to open the doors up through my experience of working. For me too it is also a space where I can think things through and let off a bit of steam here and there.
So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across an article in the Guardian online. It briefly describes the experiences of six people all of whom work ‘on the phones’, but each in a very different setting; from a worker in an offshore Indian call centre, to an NHS direct Nurse, a 999 operator, telemarketers and even a phone-sex operator. It really does highlight the diversity of the industry.
Unsurprisingly the one I identify with most is the worker based in India, particularly when he talks about a previous role:
When I worked for HP, we would have 100 to 200 calls waiting in the queue, so customers were on hold for a long time before they reached us. There were 300 to 400 agents – it was a huge operation. It was a good learning curve, but customers were often very agitated by the time we spoke to them. The worst was when people would swear, using the F and B words.
If that doesn’t bring back memories of the couple of months leading up to Christmas then nothing will!
Something else which interests me is how workers in these various industry segments have different levels of status and how this feeds into their daily experience of work even when the surroundings are very similar. Just take the NHS Direct call centre:
Dudley’s a really big call-centre. There are about 23 pods downstairs and the same upstairs, each accommodating six people. We each take 30-plus calls a day
It sounds like your typical call centre; that is right until the bit about 30 calls a day. Of course, the calls will be much longer and more involved that your average call centre, but I wonder how much the workers professional status as qualified nurses impacts upon the way they are treated by their organisation. Certainly it wouldn’t be anything like the experience of shoi2ty who posts in the comments section about their call centre experiences:
I worked for Sky at the technical department and are aim was to answer everyones query everyday. It is a pressured environment, target and stats driven and buttons for wages as it was a outsourced call centre. over 1000 people worked there and they really worked.
Now, that seems familiar again! Come to think of it that is probably the picture most of us have of call centres if we shut our eyes for a moment: a one of vast factories for the post-industrial age. An almost dystopian and nightmarish place where technology is used to perpetuate regimes of aggressive surveillance. Another reader comment from Jdaven101 is especially insightful, talking about a clash of cultures in a Local Government call centre (a similar place to where my own call-centre career began) they suggest that even a strong union is not enough against the power of the panoptican
Obviously there’s a lot here about the nature of the customers, but I’d be fascinated to know a bit more about their working environment, the nature of management etc. Our call centre was local government, with a strong union base and fairly good working principles, but the management brought in was rooted deeply in private sector experience. There was a considerable clash of approaches and opinions at the beginning (still is now really), and the implementation of the first few months was very difficult (at one point we nearly had a spontaneous walkout).
I learnt a lot about call centre mentality and managerial approaches, which tend to be on the authoritarian side and bordering on institutional bullying. This is expecially the case when it comes to monitoring of calls and length of call time (don’t get me started on ‘comfort breaks’). It’s very disappointing as well to see people so easily succumb to those practices, accepting as the the norm.
This is all very bleak, but in a way the article has given me hope by underlining the diversity of the industry. Just like the vast scale of the universe can lead us to conclude there must be intelligent life somewhere the diversity of the industry brings hope that someone somewhere is doing something different, something better, and that this will one day challenge the dominance of what seems to be the current industry paradigm.
Sometimes things happen in the strangest sequences. Only this morning I was having a conversation with a colleague in the gents about the work internet policy. I know full well that the thought of two blokes having a natter in the toilets may seem a little strange as it’s generally a social no-no, but the call centre presents few opportunities to speak freely (or indeed at all) to anyone so the opportunity is grabbed whenever possible no matter what the surroundings. In fact recounting this reminds me of the scene in the film The Lives of Others where to escape the scrutiny of the Stasi listeners a record player is switched on to provide a smokescreen for a discussion, but back to the subject of said internet policies; I expressed to my colleague how strange it was that we were only allowed to view the BBC website during work time.
It has been the source of continued mystery to me why it is only the BBC website which we are allowed to view; is it because our employers like us to be informed about current affairs? If so then why are we not allowed to access other news sites which free of having to be neutral can offer much more in the way of interesting opinion on the events of the day? Perhaps it is because the BBC is somehow a watchword for quality and non-offensive content, so no danger of a risqué picture of Katie Price suddenly flashing up on a screen whilst a visiting dignitary walks by. Whatever the reasons, it suggests to me that my employers harbour a rather Blue-Peter-esque paternalistic attitude towards their staff.
Should we be grateful for this small freedom though? After all it’s not just news but recipes, music news and if it’s a very slow day we can explore the various hinterlands of the BBC web-verse areas like family history or GCSE revision guides. I reasoned to my colleague that we are still a little hard done by, at least compared to other call centres one which I visited belonging to a large outsourcing company, one which monitors their staff to within an inch of their existences, I actually saw staff doing some online shopping via the New Look web site. Maybe other people will have a different view on this, but to me there is something about the nature of call centres. When the calls are not there, there just isn’t much to do. As one of our senior managers recently said on the subject “we don’t like it, I mean obviously it’s not great, but sometimes you can’t make work.” So ultimately some compromise has to be made with the ebb and flow, the lulls and the rushes, that make the rhythm of the call centre.
But why are our managers so grudging about this? Personally I think it’s a case of philosophy. Our managers seem to adhere to the cultural remnants of the protestant work ethic viewing any second not engaged in productive labour as something which will rot the soul, or maybe it’s because they see us as components of a machine which needs to be continually in motion. Their answer to this is to try to fill the gaps with extra tasks no matter how inane or menial. Usually the first thing which happens in a lull is for mail which needs a response to be handed out, but in desperation management will set us to work stuffing envelopes and labelling catalogues. If there is none of this we are grudgingly permitted to view the BBC site between calls.
Having complained about this state of affairs in the morning I returned from my afternoon break to find a memo on my desk. Covering a whole page of A4 it said that with immediate effect we were all no longer allowed to use the BBC site. This was because, according to the memo, we were collectively making too many admin errors on accounts and reasoned this was due to people reading website whilst on calls. Two things immediately jumped out. First the fact that I have never seen anyone on the site whilst on a call, it having been made clear previously that this was not allowed. Secondly the same manager who wrote the memo hands us bundles written correspondence to deal with, even during busy periods and we are judged on how much of this we get through and pressured to do as much as possible so we usually end up dealing with the majority of it whilst we are in calls. Surely if errors are caused by lack of concentration then this is a prime candidate, can they really have it both ways?
In any case it’s never a good sign when a regime bans the BBC
There’s this strange phenomenon in customer services. Mistakes seem to seek eachother out. Not content to live an isolated existence they cluster together making one unfortunate customers life a misery. Before we know it the customer is screaming down the phone that they are the victim of an elaborate con.
For a long time I’ve searched for a visual representation of this phenomenon. Step forward Swansea City F.C
Just thought I’d share this one:
Today a colleague took a call from a lady who was unhappy as she’d bought an item from another company and had just noticed our company was selling the same item for a few quid less.
According to my colleague the lady was particularly angry at us! She believed that as the products appeared similar we must be the same company. My colleague tried reasoning with the caller, telling her that it may well have been the case that our company had purchased the item in question from the same wholesaler, but to no avail the customer would just not have it and demanded to speak to a manager.
Just another day in customer services.
All is very quiet in the call-centre. No need to be too worried about the economic downturn catching up with us it’s just always a slack time of year for many of our clients. With the Christmas rush and January sales out the way February and the beginning of March is the time when our clients sit in their caves if they’ve had a bad year, or on their private Caribbean island hideaways if they have had a more successful campaign; either way they’ll all be planning the strategies they will pursue for the remainder of the year. The upshot is that during this time very little promotional activity in the way of adverts or catalogues actually takes place. So for us this means a chance to put our feet up for a bit and get to know the people sat around us without the phones getting in the way. Some people find this boring, but personally still recovering from December’s madness I love it!
Management have used this lull in activity to do some housekeeping before the tempest resumes. Personnel files have been brought up to date, appraisals conducted and all of us have been getting long overdue inductions and training. Today it was my turn for customer service training. When I was told in the morning I would be having this my immediate feelings were of being insulted a feeling which deepened when after my manager had wandered off the person opposite me commented “what? Customer service training…… patronising or what?”
As the manager doing the training was the one who appears to be in charge of the HR portfolio, including the hiring and firing I decided to suppress my feelings and affect a look of interest. A quick flick through the course handout left my with no illusions about the difficulty of this task. In amongst the clipart and quotes were the usual gems about the customer being the reason we are in a job and how grateful this should make us all feel as well as the whole tone of voice thing, smile, sound happy, sound interested, don’t use technical jargon, understand the needs of the customer. The first 30 minutes was a trudge through this material. I also began to feel more anxious about how I appeared; better stop resting my chin on my hand. I shifted on my chair uncomfortably.
Then without warning the conversation moved off-piste. We’d began talking about our difficult customers, about difficult situations we had been placed in previous jobs; for one person this was calling up 19 people on Christmas Eve to tell them that owing to an admin error the ovens they purchased would not actually be connected up that day, they would need to wait until after Christmas.Certainly not an enviable job. This all led to the manager to open up a folder which she kept. In this was a collection of letters, the spanned a decade and were selected for inclusion in the folder on account of their sheer far-outedness.
The most shocking was a catalogue. It had attached a handwritten (or more accurately scrawled) note explaining incredulity that the recipient had been sent the catalogue. This in itself is nothing spectacular, not even the bad language used. What was though was the threats of sending Anthrax should the company repeat their mailing-list mistake. To ram this message home the sender had written ANTHRAX on the note in several places in coloured felt-tip pen and had enclosed white powder in the envelope. The manager informed us that this powder had gone all over the person, just an average joe in the office, who had opened the letter.
The second one which struck me was a letter from a person unhappy that their overdue account had been passed to a debt collector. Again they had enclosed the original letter in which they had underlined the words ‘Debt Collector’ and menacingly added the prefix ‘soon to be ex.’ In their letter comprising one sheet of lined A4 paper they elaborate on their threats sometimes comically with one particularly memorable line stating that if the debt collectors dare to visit “they will end up looking like an omlette” the letter added “you have been warned.” My initial instinct was to laugh, “it’s as if it’s been written by Biffa Bacon” I said though the reference to the knuckleheaded Viz character was lost on the room. Later though I began to wonder just who was the person who had written this letter. Threats against debt collectors and companies in general are not unheard of, but usually they come from someone at the end of their tether, unable to articulate themselves and facing a massive faceless bureaucracy which is about to run over them with a steam roller. This kind of person may well return a reminder with some choice expletives on it, or a scribbled note written in a fit of anger, but this letter was different. For a start it was written in neat handwriting and the spelling wasn’t bad. It just seemed more calm, calculated and, well, chilling is the word for it really.
After the anecdotes and letters I was softened up to the message the instructor had been trying to deliver; care too much you’ll only stress yourself out too much which is bad for you, care too little and the customer can tell you’re not interested so you give a bad impression of the firm. What’s needed they suggested is a middle way between the two positions. Customer services then is just like being Tony Blair.
I actually come from a long line of shopkeepers. For three generations the men of the family have been their own boss, but despite this pedigree no one is really surprised that none of my generation have chosen this path. For over a decade its been apparent that small businesses are in rapid decline. The signs are everywhere; once every main road in the city was lined with shops, record shops, barbers, butchers, bakers, newsagents, shoe repairers, all sorts of shops, but look now and you’ll find many of these shops have long been converted into flats the only signs of their former use a frontage looking oddly out of place with its surroundings. Then there’s the empty precincts designed as community hubs, but more often than not menacingly silent. Some independent shops remain, clustered together as if they are huddled-up trying to draw strength from each other in the face of what seems like an inevitable fate, but overall the prospects for many small businesses are not good.
You can argue that this is just market forces giving people what they want, and to an extent this is true, but there are many things which have been lost perhaps that people didn’t even realise would be lost until it was too late. The most significant of these is undoubtably the change in the relationship between a business and its customers. At the heart of this relationship was a personal bond between the proprietors of a business and its customers. With a small business the two would often be on first name terms and for the proprietor a quality product and good service was a matter of personal reputation. For my great-grandad when affected by wartime shortages this impulse was so strong that he preferred to close his doors and take early retirement than to supply what he felt would be a substandard product and in thus doing lose the reputation he had strived to build over many years.
Contemporary customer services aims to mimic this relationship, but whilst the very best may bear some resemblance on the surface deep down it can never come close. It’s almost clichéd to say, but most businesses over a certain size cease to see their customers as individuals viewing them instead as if they were some kind of indistinguishable specks viewed from the top floor of the corporate skyscraper.
Sometimes it’s almost heartbreaking to see how much a customer invests in a business emotionally demonstrating this sometimes by taking the time to write a letter of thanks, or to make considered suggestions for improvements to products as they want the company to succeed only for the letters to be fed into a shredder lucky if they receive the briefest of standardised letters in return. Recently one of the companies I take calls for decided to offer its most loyal customers a ‘loyalty bonus’ of 13p on an average spend of approaching £20. The fact that they thought this would help retain customers shows just how out of touch they can be as quite rightly most customers felt insulted.
Most common of all it’s when someone who is clearly a loyal customer has a genuine grievance and rather than it being dealt with gets messed about by a series of call-centre operators they’ve never spoken to before and to whom their years of custom mean nothing. I don’t blame the call-centre operators here, at least not all of them, it’s the call-centre system which is wrong. Operators are never encouraged to take charge of issues and see them through to completion, rather it’s an assembly line system where one person bolts in the steering wheel and another fixes the windscreen; then in the blink of an eye they’re onto the next one. Ok if it is well-coordinated and everyone does their job, but in the call centre it is rarely like that and in my view the customer really suffers from lack of continuity and consistency.
Yep, call-centre land is very different, relationships between the customers and the company are, transient, ad-hoc and anonymous. As an operator the hardest part of this all is not being able to offer the customer certainty. They want to know what will happen, when it will happen and where. In short they want re-assurance. Unfortunately we can’t ever give this as we have little power to make anything happen, all we can do is pass them along the line and hope that at the end of it something which vaguely looks like customer services drops off the end of the conveyor.