How safe are your card details?

With reports that hackers have accessed 2.2million credit card details in a massive security breach many people will be asking just how safe payment systems actually are.

The interesting thing about the Sony case is that the group affected are the younger generation, a generation which has grown up amidst the glitchy 8-bit bilp-bliping of Mario become submerged in the immersive online worlds created by todays consoles like the PS3. This is a generation which has more than any other embraced the possibilities of doing business over the net.

Counting myself among that generation (my first console being an Atari 2600) I often laughed at my generally elderly customers who live in blissful ignorance of the internet, or else tend to see it as a scary unknown personal-detail gobbling monster. Countless times a customer calling in with their order has told me “I’m looking on the website, but I don’t trust ordering over the internet” whilst for others even this measure is not enough; they refuse to use a card at all preferring instead to deal solely by cheque. We actually get quite a few of these people dialling the credit card order line – only once we have done the whole order and ask for their card details do they say “Oh I don’t use cards- I’ll be sending a cheque in is that ok?” This causes us to let out a groan before tell them they’ll need to complete the order form provided in the catalogue.

The irony is that phoning-in your order is probably less secure than using the website as all that happens is that I enter the details onto the same system only there is now an extra link in the chain. As for the cheque-only people well they have another 7 years until 2018 before cheques finally disappear for good. But how secure are card payment systems? In my experience it all depends on the company, their procedures and the software they use. Some will use instant billing services so by the time you put down the phone your bank has been contacted and card debited with any details then encrypted and only ever used again in the case of refunds. Others however, are far less secure. In fact for one company we worked for the procedure until recently was to jot customers card details down on a paper form which was passed to admin who would compile them and  then email the list to head office. I leave you to wonder if a less secure system could ever be devised.

If the reports about Sony prove to be accurate, or if there is another similar incident then it may well be that the lack of confidence in card payments vaults the age barrier. It is unlikely though that the internet generation will want to adopt the Luddite ways of the cheque-brigade in which case banks will need scratch their heads and come up with even tougher security measures something which poses a massive practical challenge.

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All I know is that I don’t know nothing

So far this week has been our quietest of the year. On Tuesday there must have been about only five or six of us in and even then people were being encouraged to take a half-day as there are simply not enough calls to go round. The double bank holidays haven’t really helped us as for one of our principal clients it has caused a lot of disruption around delivery dates so their business has taken a dip. Whether it then  bounces back will be a big litmus test for the business otherwise it will be a pretty bleak summer and we may even see some compulsory lay-offs before things pick up in the final third of the year as we build up to the manic crescendo that is our Christmas period.

We do have one company which sells summer goods and whose business has picked up a bit as the sun has put in an appearance providing us with a glimmer of hope. However, despite us taking on their order-line sometime last year and a  few months back taking on their full customer service we still haven’t been given any training, or even been shown their products – all we have is some info printed off from their website which seeing as most customers are already looking at this info themselves is as useful as, well, it’s just not useful at all and leads to us looking stupid:

Customer: Hi, I was just wondering if you do replacement thingymajigs

Me: What thingymajig do you mean?

Customer: You know the thingymajig which fits into the whatsistname

Me: I’m afraid I don’t know what either the thingymajig or whatsitsname is

Customer: Do you know anything about these products?

Me: I’m afraid not, I’ll have to get someone to call you back.

Customer: How long will that take?

Me: I’m afraid the call-back policy is 48 hours.

Customer: Can’t you ask someone who does know?

Me: I’m afraid company ‘bums on seats’ policy prevents me from leaving my desk if I do I will receive a black mark against my name..

Maybe the last bit is made up, but this is actually how some conversations go simply because I’m not given the tools I need to do my job so I get to look like an obstinate fool all summer long.

Feeling vindicated

It’s always nice to get one over on managers and today I managed to do just that!

It all started when a customer called last week. They had been on one of our clients website and ordered an item they believed was compatible with an item they already had. Upon delivery they realised that the item they ordered was in fact not compatible so they picked up the phone….

I managed to figure that what had happened was that the customer had an older version of the current model. Though we carry the item she wanted it is not available on the website so I asked her to send the wrong item back and we’d replace with the one she needed.

The customer however, was unhappy that they would have to pay the postage costs and wanted assurance these would be waived. I informed her that company policy was that the company would not, but figured that maybe she had at least a glimmer of a case so with my customer service hat on decided to fill out an enquiry form and pass it onto a manager to decide.

Today the customer called back. Now, it’s not often we get to see what happens when we complete an enquiry form as we receive no real feedback, they just disappear into the ether; that is unless they are returned to us with a rebuke that we should have been able to deal with it ourselves. As I scanned the contact notes my eye was caught by the manager’s response to my initial query:

operator should be aware that as customer ordered item via web customer is then responsible for return postage

This annoyed me for one reason above all others; namely that I was just providing good customer service. I know the rules around refunds, but I also know from experience and training that customers need to be offered a solution, even if that is just speaking to a manager who reiterates what I told them. The manager however, decided that I had not done my job by troubling them with the enquiry. The way I see it it was a case of them not wanting to do theirs.

As I looked at the note beneath however, my mood lightened. When another member of staff had called back to inform the customer of the managers ruling the customer had stood their ground and evidently had a good grasp of legislation advising that as it had not been clear in the information provided on the website that  the item was not compatible (and the customer had a point here as the names were very similar) the company was at fault. The manager hurriedly backtracked and according to the next note had sent the customer a pre-paid postage label which she had called to tell us she’d received.

Nothing like feeling vindicated.

Get to work

The thing about Bank Holiday weekends is that it means I become all out of sync. All day I have fought against the feeling that it is Monday; ‘no it’s a Tuesday’ I constantly have to remind myself even now some twenty hours into Monday, I’m sorry – Tuesday! 

Well, whatever day it is I was expecting a busy one as I entered the call-centre. For all its quietness of late I knew a bank holiday weekend, a double one at that, would mean lots of pent-up demand from customers unable to get in touch over the extended weekend.

I sat down in my usual seat and began the process of logging into the four separate systems I’m currently using for the various companies I represent as well as getting the rest of my desktop in order. This usually takes me about 8-10 minutes owing to the slowness of my computer in connecting to some of the remote stuff. About two minutes into this task  I noticed a manager seemingly approaching in my direction. Sure enough they were heading over to me….. as they reached my desk they said “Can you hurry up logging in we’ve got 18 calls waiting” before disappearing as I muttered something about the computer being slow. 

This was a strange occurrence as in all my time at the call-centre I’ve never had much in the way of contact from this particular manager. Even when they were nominally in charge of us operators they seemed to busy on their main role, dealing with our client companies, to take anything like an active interest to speak to any of us. In fact for most of my time in the call centre they have resided in a far corner appearing like a nervous rabbit wedged in the far recesses of its hutch. With such withdrawn figures the absence of concrete fact creates a void filled with speculation and though there is a school of thought that said manager is ‘nice’ or ‘ok’  legends exist such as one old tale that the manager used to time the data entry staff using a stop-watch. I can just imagine them tyrannically looming over a terrified member of the data entry team, casting a long shadow, whilst the poor team member fought against their shaking hands to key-in an order without errors. Failure to meet the set time would then result in the manager pulling a lever and the team member sliding through a trap-door into a piranha filled pit.  

Logging-in has become a big bone of contention in the call-centre. Virtually every memo since the end of last year has contained a line about ‘being ready to take calls at our appointed start time’, in other words we are expected to put in about 10 minutes unpaid at the start of the day just to log into the various systems we use (not to mention the unpaid time we already do if calls over-run our finish times). Our HR manager also raised this during our recent inductions (all done in a batch as no-one had had one for the last 20 or so years!) and justified it with the argument that ‘if you go to a shop at its opening time the staff aren’t waiting at the door with you’. As this was being said I had to bite my tongue and not say ‘presumably their employers have the foresight to ensure their contracted working hours extend to 15-30 minutes before the opening time.” Instead I opted for my favourite tactic of pretending to agree, but actually doing the opposite. This tactic has so far been succesful with most of us still showing up at our desks no more than a few minutes before our start time, but it seems management will not give up and maybe today was part of applying extra pressure on us.

I am determined however, to stand my ground on this issue. I feel it is a moral issue as not long after the first memo appeared some bread went missing from the kitchen. A memo was put out about how theft was such a serious issue and went as far as to include a definition of theft; taking something that you haven’t paid for. I pointed this out to a colleague at the time…. if I sell my labour on a contract basis and the company is forcing me to provide some of this for free, then according to their own definition, then surely that’s theft?

Service Vs Sales

Yesterday was a fabulously sunny day and one which I enjoyed by spending some time in the garden of a Mediterranean-style tapas bar with a couple of call-centre colleagues past and present.

Strangely, and maybe because of the good weather, we didn’t talk all that much about work as can sometimes happen at these kind of meetings where anyone in the party not connected with the call-centre finds themselves in a rather unenviable position among a bunch of people talking shop. Even more strangely as my acquaintance with two of my colleagues pre-dated my time at the call-centre it was occasionally myself in this position.

What we did briefly talk about was how we were less than content with our manager and don’t see things improving under the current regime, but only getting steadily worse; worse being  a much more target-driven culture with even more emphasis on things like upselling, or in the case of subscription type services ‘retentions’ – that is keeping customers who call to cancel. Fortunately however, we didn’t dwell long enough on this pessimism to sour the good mood of the day.

What also came up during this brief conversation was  the ways in which we resist these pressures. One way is to simply fake a retention for the stats to chalk it up when it never happened in the hope that no-one will actually bother to take the time to check, or similarly logging an unrelated call – one where the customer has not expressed any wish to cancel as a retention. This logic also works for upsells; someone calls to order a product in a larger quantity or size; then log it as an upsell.

There is an issue of ethics here; can such a deception ethical? The answer is in terms of loyalty to our employer and our client firms possibly not, but it must be remembered that our contracting-out status makes these relationships more abstract. I don’t think anyone sees it as deceiving our employer, instead it is deceiving the firms we take calls on behalf of; firms with which we often have a difficult relationship with. As front-line staff for instance we take the flack when one of these companies messes up and also take flack over issues with a firms products or services which come up again and again, yet are powerless to affect any sort of change. It is also very rare for these firms to say or do anything by way of thanks after a particularly busy, or turbulent time though it must be said there is one exception to this who after their busy period sent down a few large boxes chocolates, a small gesture maybe, but one which shows there is at least some thought of us whilst they’re busy counting the cash from the orders we’ve handled.

This one example of good-practice aside it is factors such as these above which serve to re-enforce our distance from the companies we take calls for. In general we are treated as mercenaries and in turn adopt a mercenary attitude, if we don’t receive an incentive for upselling, or retaining, then there’s little chance of us bothering as loyalty simply doesn’t exist in our relationship. Our management recognise this feeling and try to counter this by insisting that by pleasing our clients we are securing our firms position and therefore our jobs, this they argue should be our incentive. Some people may subscribe to this, but in the main I believe there has a degree of scepticism around this just so long as people get the feeling from the volume of calls we handle that the firms are doing quite well as it is (possibly something which may be about to change as it gets quieter and quieter)

Whilst so far I have provided an excuse for our acts of resistance, I have not, at least I feel, provided an adequate justification. I will now turn to this. The justification, the prime justification, for our manipulating of the statistics is that there is at present a clash of cultures. On the one hand we have our manager, from a sales background, who is keen to use her experience in this area for the benefit of our clients and our company. On the other we have a team of people whose job title is ‘customer service’ where a colleague once memorably put it, with a hint of pride, “I do customer service I don’t do sales.” Our reading of customer service, and the way it has hitherto been practiced among us, is in the main, giving the customer what they want; if this is a smaller size, or if this is to cancel a subscription, then our job is to carry out this request. Quite plainly our role is to serve the customer.

There is another way of viewing this which is the sales-person’s way; that is in terms of a cancellation we do customers a service by offering alternatives and incentives to continue which they may wish to take up, and when upselling we provide them with an opportunity. Quite possibly this is the view espoused within ‘the BIG book of sales’ a voluminous tome which resides on, or around my managers desk. Maybe there is some point to it, but personally it doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I know that when I call a firm to cancel I have given the matter some thought and made up my mind before picking up the phone, and I know I certainly didn’t appreciate a call from my new car insurance company offering me (or attempting to scare me into – again depending on your viewpoint) extra cover over and above my fully-comp policy.

Maybe though this is me. Are customer-services and sales two reconcilable philosophies, or are they fundamentally contradictory?

It’s oh so quiet

and peaceful until…..  the phone rings.

Problem is that this week it hasn’t been ringing much at all. It’s all a complete contrast to just a few weeks ago when managers were begging people to do as much overtime as possible as one of our clients was building up to Mother’s Day their single busiest day of the year. Although the job has always been cyclical, following the pattern of the mail-order industry with an intensely busy Christmas period followed by January sales and then a much more subdued March before picking up again, I’m struggling to remember such a lean time.

It seems that the economic downturn has finally hit our clients and in turn is hitting us and hitting us hard. One of them, a home-furnishing company, has struggled for a couple of years and late last year decided to give up on catalogue mail-outs to go web only which means only a trickle of calls for us. Not much of a problem whilst we were busy with other clients, but as their first major campaign of the year was always Spring, incidentally the time the rest took their foot off the gas,  it has now left a major gap in our schedules. At the moment it seems that unless something drastic happens over the summer, or failing that a major ad campaign from one of our other clients, then people’s jobs will be under threat; Now I know why my managers were laying on the smorgasboard of sandwiches when they were courting new clients not so long ago it must have been desperation.

For us at the moment it means a lot of thumb twiddling. Since the use of our only internet outlet the BBC website was banned not so long ago many of my colleagues, supervisors included, have been resorting to playing solitaire (or patience as my Grandma called it) as there has (as yet) been no memo prohibiting it. I myself have opted for a low-tech approach of either doodling or slipping a book inside one of the client catalogues we are issued for reference purposes; this owes much to a recent scandal over internet use details of which I will post about before too long.

As for fiddling whilst Rome burns; our manager has jetted off to Thailand today. She left us all with a memo excitedly informing us of this two-week trip complete with a stock photo of an island basking in glorious sun. As I was tearing it up I asked my colleague next to me ‘how much do they pay her to sit and write stuff like this?’

Why worry?

Maybe it’s the product of having grown a little older and wiser, or maybe it’s just adaptation after a long period of having no disposable income, but I at least feel as if I have grown somewhat less materialistic over the past couple of years. Things which are just things matter a lot less to me then they once did and I certainly don’t try to chase status through my possessions. In fact I’m even growing fairly disdainful of this trait in others.

Sometimes I wonder as I’m being shouted at by a customer who hasn’t received their order when they expected it, or when it hasn’t turned out to be what they expected, or if there’s been some other issue why it all matters so much and how they can justify treating another human being so appallingly over something which in the scheme of things doesn’t matter? Don’t get me wrong in some instances their anger is righteous, when they’ve really been let down, when they’ve been misled, or when something was important as it was a gift then I can empathise, but in the cases when it’s just, well just a thing, a thing which serves no real purpose, then that’s when I struggle to understand their anger.