Crazy caller of the day 3

As previously mentioned things have been difficult in the call centre lately; despite it now being busy once again we have been told that the period in the doldrums has resulted in a cash-flow crisis and that to avoid layoffs we will all (at least us ordinary workers) have to take a 20% cut in the hours we work for the next 3 months right up until it all goes mad for the  Christmas build-up.

So against this backdrop some light relief was welcome. Fortunately one caller was happy to oblige. I sooooooo wished it was me who’d taken this call as it is the most crazy to date, but I had to just content myself with overhearing it….

A lady had called to complain on the line of one of our clients which deals with gifts. The lady had been sent a box containing a set of bath bombs. To anyone not in the know these are solid concoctions which you throw in your bath they then dissolve and release a fragrance or somesuch thing. Often these days they are made to look a bit like sweets………

And this is where our callers problem lay…..

They explained to my colleague that in their excitement upon receiving their gift they had taken a bath bomb and assuming it was a chocolate had taken a big bite from it…. It had they said tasted bitter and left them with a sore throat.

Their first reaction was to pick up the phone and contact not a medical professional, but us to  complain that it was not made clear enough that the bath bombs were not in fact chocolate.

As my colleague pointed out this was an issue that has never been raised before

Part of me feels bad, but I’m still laughing now!


My work nightmare

Last night I literally had a nightmare about work! It’s not often that I dream of work; usually it happens to me just after starting a new job the result, I assume, of cramming in so much new information into my brain that it all overspills and needs to be mopped up by my subconscious. Those  dreams always tend to take the form of me struggling to perform whatever task it is that the new job involves.

Last night was very similar; It involved me taking a call for a client I had never heard of. The caller wanted to know the address of head office so I tried to look this up, but the info was confusing as there were three addresses listed. I then tried to speak to my manager and ended up in a conversation with the owner of my firm an amiable, but physically imposing man in his sixties (who I’m told was a boxer in his youth) The owner gave me the info I was asking for and we ended up having a general chat. Returning to my desk I then found I’d been logged off my phone. I tried to log back in, but kept keying in the code wrong. I kept on getting the code wrong and became increasingly worried as I knew the owner was nearby and that my manager would know from the stats that I’d not taken a call for over an hour. I then realise I’ve been trying to log into what looks like a toy phone and the reason I haven’t been able to log in was because some of the digits I needed were missing…. and that’s all I really remember

Now, I have one of those stand up calendars on my desk – a promotional gift from some company in the business of safety equipment. It’s a tear-off one which for some reason I find a very satisfying way of marking the passing of time just ripping it off and casting it in the bin. When I’m bored I also use my pen to turn the plain blue number on each piece of paper into a 3-d image and once made a crude flick book animation of a frown becoming a smile as the week progressed from Monday to Friday. Anyway the reason I mention the calendar is that for each day there is a corny nugget of wisdom; one recent one being ‘a dream which is not interpreted is like a letter which is not read’  so I’m going to have a go at interpreting my dream here…..

Though I’m no expert this dream seems very straightforward. My work dreams always take place at times when there is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. Starting a new job is invariably an anxious as well as exciting time. Lost is the comforting blanket of familiarity, and in creep many questions; what do they think of me, will I fit in, can I even do the job? I’m sure that this weeks revelations have torn away the blanket and left me feeling more exposed.

As for the central role of the owner though he’s not a day-to-day part of the job I’m sure there’s a link between the announcement of his forthcoming  ‘retirement’ and the 20% cut in our hours. I spoke to a friend with a background in finance yesterday. I gave him all the juicy details about comings and goings at the firm and have used his suggestions to cobble together a conspiracy theory.

As for the rest I have no idea at all.

The bombshell

As I’ve mentioned in my previous couple of posts things have been very busy in the call-centre owing to a cock-up by one client and an ad campaign from another which seems to have hit a gusher of pent-up demand among well-to-do middle aged women – the kind who have house names rather than numbers and who it seems are happy to fritter away their spare cash on some horrendously overpriced carnation bouquets. In fact they’re queing up to do so and getting rather agitated about spending 20 minutes on the phone.

It therefore comes as a bit of a shock to hear through the grapevine (I’m not in today hence my posting now and my lack of details) that our manager told everyone to come off the phones as there was a fire alarm. Once off the phones our manager announced that everyones hours will be cut by 20% for a three month period. Apparently it was this option, or voluntary redundancy and management had decided against that so a 20% cut in hours it is.

This I must say is fairly typical of our firm, no warning, no consultation, people are just handed a fait-accompli and told to get on with it. As I say I don’t know many details just yet, but there was a rumour last week of something happening as (there is a bit of a backstory here which is all rather juicy and involves alleged embezzlement and a failed take-over bid- maybe more on this soon) the owner of the company announced he was to be retiring soon sparking a rumour that as there was no buyer forthcoming the firm would be shut down.

I felt this to be pretty foundationless as the firm appears to be doing well. It certainly seems to be doing well enough to continue to justify a hands-off customer service manager who must be pulling in at least 25k a year – surely they’d have the most to fear as they aren’t actually doing a job job? Anyway, I reasoned that as we’d received a pay rise at the start of the year – the first in 4 or 5 years in fact, and as a couple of temps were taken on after Christmas rather than simply shown the door in January or February, and that as we have been the busiest we have been since December and also that we’ve landed another new client that we were on fairly safe territory.

My first thoughts are for some of my colleagues who I know are struggling. Working in a call centre barely covers the bills particularly if you have a family to provide for. For full-time staff a 20% cut in hours adds up to one day a week which isn’t going to be easy.

Customer Service vs the Aberdeen Angus Philosophy

Today was another busy one in the call-centre  with some of my customers telling me they had been waiting on the line for upward of 20 minutes to get through. On days like these I  sense the tension as soon as my auto-answer kicks in and the first words I hear are a gasped ‘finally’ or ‘at last’. Most people leave it at that, just happy to have finally got to the front of the queue, but some go into full-on rant mode releasing like some overwound clockwork chattering teeth. As I told one customer today I’m really not the person to be having a go at as I’m the one desperately trying to get through all the calls as quickly as possible without taking a breath. I’d dearly love there to be more operators too and in any case having a rant at me is only causing the queue to back up even further. In the meantime as this was all going on management were breaking open the sandwiches and lemonade for some visiting dignitaries.

Thankfully, unlike yesterday, things did quieten down by late morning. Around 11.20 my call display was empty save for the time and my name which it always shows as long as I’m logged in. One of my supervisors, who unlike the more senior management is always there on the front-line, unhooked herself and handed round piles of mail for us to start responding to. It was optimistic as the island of calm didn’t last long and soon I was pitched back into a melee of disgruntled customers.

I only managed to respond to two letters, both using the standard templates we are encouraged to use – writing a bespoke response being seriously frowned upon as being a waste of time and in any case it’s hard to keep track of in the short gaps between calls. This means that even though customers will often  write voluminous tomes explaining their circumstances we without really looking at them will just send a short nondescript letter with a statement of account attached and that’s if they’re lucky as some just get shoved in the bin. It hardly seems like customer service to me.

The third letter I picked up, but didn’t get round to dealing with, was one which was achingly familiar – similar ones have been coming in as long as I’ve been at the firm and you will find several in each bundle of letters we each received. It concerned a dispute over an account. The customer pointed out that previous letters they had written to resolve the issue had not been responded to and that they had got nowhere by calling us. They believed they did not owe us the money we said they did and that furthermore they felt our administration systems and customer service was appalling. They will never use the company again and if we do not resolve this issue they will also go to Watchdog.

The customer right when they question the administration. The company in question has appalling accounting systems and is constantly sending out items to people who didn’t order them (by mistake I must point out here) or else upselling people without them being fully aware (the jury’s out on this one)  then sending the unpaid disputed accounts to a debt collectors so I wouldn’t be at all  surprised if the customer was wholly in the right and did not owe anything. In its defence the company would probably eventually clear the balance, but only after the customer expends a huge amount of energy. Some people I’m sure just pay up to end the hassle.

If you’re shocked by this you may think that if not karma then the law of market economics would catch up with a company so determined to upset its customers, but still new orders pour in and the company which operates across Europe has been going for decades. It all reminds me of a recent column by comedian David Mitchell who wrote this about the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse chain:

These restaurants are unique to British culture and yet they’re under threat. Not for them the business model of repeat custom, these steakhouses’ fortunes rely on the much tougher technique of trying to dupe everyone once. It’s harder and harder for them to do, as the British tradition of culinary incompetence is eroded by pressures from abroad. When even Little Chef is recruiting Heston Blumenthal, these restaurants, now rarer than the Siberian tiger, are all that we have left of a proud heritage of serving shoe leather with Béarnaise sauce to neon-addled out-of-towners.

This made me laugh as I remember my first ever visit London sometime in the late 1980s ending in one of these places and my parents being very unhappy with the fayre we received for the huge amount of money they parted with. Maybe as the Aberdeen Angus experience shows the market does catch up with firms eventually, but to me its scary how firms can survive for so long whilst treating their customers so badly.

Just Another Manic Monday

Wish it was Sunday? Well, I really don’t care; Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday.. whatever, just no more manic Monday’s please!!!!!!

When I hooked up today I was oblivious to the day I was about to have.  The first call appeared on my screen the instant I hit the available button, but this was nothing unusual for a Monday.

Like any Monday the calls kept coming. I ploughed through them and looked forward to coming up for air when they thinned out later in the morning, usually around eleven, then putting my feet up in the afternoon in the quiet time which seems to come around three in the hour before the peak day-time operators log-off at four. If I was lucky I may even be able to have a chat to the person opposite me.

Not today. One of our clients happened to have a major ad campaign in the weekend papers, and another made one of their customary monumental ‘computer errors’ which saw several thousand people being sent things they hadn’t ordered. Owing to our managers sectioning up of the office into teams thankfully I didn’t have to deal with th fall out from the misfiring mainframe, just deal with routine orders, again, and again and again and again.

Not one second between calls at any point today. I don’t know why I’m typing this, I really should be giving myself a break from the screen and keyboard, but I have something to get off my chest. It’s something of a mystery to me about just what function my manager performs.

Today, like any other she just sits at her desk facing the rest of us and stares at her screen. She doesn’t seem to be typing or doing anything else, just staring with a semi-glazed expression. Occasionally one of several ‘chosen ones’ will be invited behind the desk to stare at the screen as well. So far I have not been invited to partake in this pursuit so I can only guess they’re looking at real-time call-stats.

The thing I really fail to understand is what staring at stats achieves? Maybe it’s like when you get a stain on your favourite shirt and you find yourself staring at it in the hope that it will somehow go away, or maybe its like that film ‘Men Who Stare at Goats’ in which they try to kill goats by staring at them, could that be what my managers doing trying to kill us, or at least those of us with high call-times, by staring at our call stats?

It’s not as if anything productive ever emerges from this staring business, there’s been no new ways of working, or anything which would remotely improve the stats. Our manager never stands on her desk and begins imploring us to work harder and faster like some Soviet commissar and today there was no signs of frantic calls to get more people in and on the phones. What gets me most though is that when it’s busy, surely wouldn’t it improve the stats if our manager stopped watching them and grabbed a headset. I know then I’d have some respect for her for pitching into the mire experiencing the job from the front-line, feeling our pressures, but she doesn’t she just goes on watching.

Call Centre History: Dreams and Nightmares

If there is one advert I can remember from when I was a kid it is the one with the red telephone on wheels irreverantly whizzing around. It held a promise almost of a brave new world; a dream, along with microwave chips and frozen pizza of ever increasing convenience courtesy of modern technology. As an excellent article on the history of the call centre in the blog callcentre helper points out developments in call handling technology were crucial in enabling the call-centres rise to prominence. The Blog states that by the mid 1980s systems became sophisticated enough to allow pioneering firms such as Direct Line to “base their entire business model on telephone sales.” The call-centre as we know it had arrived.

The whole unique selling-point of Direct Line was based on it’s convenience – how easy it all was to just call up and arrange your car insurance from the comfort of your own home rather than having to call into an office in person. Importantly it was a huge success, so much so that some 25 years on the now-iconic red telephone is still on our screens.

I particularly love how the telephone is the same 1980s design and been joined by a smaller computer mouse sidekick, but there is also an irony in there; they may well be friends on screen, but will the mouse turn on the phone, will technology some 25 years on from giving birth to the call-centre turn from creator to destroyer? It’s another irony perhaps that where once call-centres promised convinience they are now seen as a unwelcome hassle- Just look at this ad from another car insurance firm Swift Cover. With their ‘little Iggy’ adverts they are very much treading the irreverant upstart path as Direct Line did all those years ago, but their most telling ad doesn’t feature the slightly knackered looking 70s icon and his latex likeness sidekick it features a cast of chickens….

This is a vision of call centre hell; a hell for customer and employee alike. The subtext of the ad is clear call-centres are bad so cutting them out is a good thing. Where did it all go wrong? It’s a total change from 1985 when the call centre promised us the same liberation from hassle as the website promises now; it seems we need to be liberated from our liberators. But is it really this bad? Drawing an analogy between the call centre and a battery hen farm is certainly something which has gained currency in popular culture in recent years. Alan Carr in his autobiography ‘Look who it is!’ makes the link explicit in his own unique style when talks (often hilariously – at least to this fellow call-centre employee) about his experience of working in a Barclaycard call-centre:

If you ever needed proof that your skin gives out telltale signs of how you’re feeling inside, then look no further than me in that call centre, a scabby battery hen. I suffered with plaque psoriasis, a skin condition which covers you in scaly red blobs, which on my flabby body looked like I’d been self-harming with a bingo dobber

Working in a call centre myself it’s easy to see how the link between my workplace and the battery farm works; a grim industrial shed, restrictions on movement, force feeding (in my case of calls) and aggressive monitoring; mind on this last point I haven’t, at least as of yet, got it quite as bad as Alan Carr at Barclaycard:

But even going to the toilet was becoming a cause of concern for the eagle-eyed, penny-pinching Barclaycard bosses. They introduced a time-saving initiative where you had to put down how long you were in the toilet and write down what you did in there, ironically, in a log book. We were told it was three minutes for a wee and five minutes for the other.

I beleive that here Alan Carr hits the nail on the head – in short it’s all about the  money, or at least it’s about the dominant paradigm of management thinking as to how to make money- that of scientific Fordism; Little wonder this BBC article asks ‘are call centres the factories of the 21st century?’ . In its chase for efficiency the industry  has long been building up an unenviable reputation for its attitude to staff welfare as this BBC article which appeared way back in 2001 highlights and with some  arguing that the conditions typical of the industry have a de-humanising effect on workers it is little wonder that comparisons are made between call-centre employees and industrially farmed animals and that these comparisons seem to be sticking.

But isn’t this whole chicken analogy offensive to anyone working in a call centre? The Call Centre Association Ltd certainly thought so, enough to bring a complaint against the Swiftcover advert, along with 51 current or former call-centre workers. Whilst the Call Centre Association no doubt had publicity on the mind and the interests of the industries image as a whole some of the individual complainants referred to how the advert would add to difficulties staff face dealing with customers. There is a lot validity to this arguement. If a customer calling already beleives that I can’t, or worse won’t help them with their problem this can make things particularly difficult and leave me facing an uphill struggle from the very start of the call.

So maybe I should be glad that there is something of a fightback going on in the shape of an advert for the telephone bank First Direct, interestingly according to their ad the firm began in 1989, only four years after Direct Line, so was presumably one of that wave of firms which were able to blaze a trail thanks to the new call handling technology.

The advert is keen to emphasise the difference offered by First Direct. Direct Line may now be part of the establishment and part of the problem, but according to the ad First Direct remains refreshingly unconformist. This is all emphasised by the the easy rapport between customer and employee; “You don’t sound like a bank Michelle” says the customer in a voice which if it could be personified would be attired in a smoking jacket and enjoying a post-coital cigarette whilst lounging on a chesterton sofa.  We’re meant to take this easy tone to mean that the customer is satisfied with the events which took place prior to our arrival. As for the operator Michelle she also appears relaxed and responds in a friendly Yorkeshire accent “Oh yeah, we’re not like other banks. I’m like a fish out of water me. We’re all like that here” just as a colleague places a mug of tea on her desk.  Maybe a bit of this is about banks, but it’s also a lot about call centres. The advert stresses that most important of all it’s about people.

This is the call centre dream; the antidote to the nightmare of the battery hen. I don’t want to work in a call centre, but if I had to I’d work there. The office seems light and airy with a large window, the cup of tea from a colleague speaks of cameraderie, and the movement, yes the movement…  it’s like free-range staff, but this is the part of the dream where I realise it’s a dream. No one moves around in the call-centre like that unless their management and they would never make you a cup of tea. The bubble pricked it all begins melting away… if you’re worried about call times would you really add that line on the end the “fish out of water” bit no, I’m sure it’d be “thankyougoodbye.” Still I do hope somewhere like it exists. that someone cares more about the customer and staff experience that cold, impersonal statistics and the numbers which appear on the bottom line

As for the call centre industry as a whole its survival hangs in the balance between these dreams and nightmares. Unless it convinces us all that the dream is true then it can only look forward to sliding into oblivion as we ditch the phone for the mouse.

What a day

The call-centre is a funny place. Two weeks in the doldrums with hardly any calls to go round and suddenly we’ve been hit by a hurricane. As usual I was given an advance heads-up by my confidante who serves among the weekend staff that something was coming our way for Monday morning, but still I  was nowhere near ready for anything quite of the severity that actually hit us.

The reason behind this tempest is that two of our clients have launched major campaigns. I knew one  client was sending a catalogue out; known as a ‘drop’ in industry terms. A drop tends to cause a spike in activity for at least a few weeks, but it’s been so quiet of late that I thought the drop would just get us back to our normal activity levels. Maybe it would have too had it not been accompanied by a huge national ad campaign. Then one of our other clients joined in with a national ad campaign of their own. Of course our managers knew about this, but such knowledge never makes its way to the floor.

Maybe I should be happy that business is, at least for now, booming again and that all our jobs will be safe (overtime is on offer once again), but after weeks of slumber its more an unwelcome experience, one which literally feels like drowning. A few hours into my shift on Monday and I got my first pause in between calls; it felt like coming up for air. I almost took a gulp.. a few seconds passed…. and the phone begins ringing again… back into the fray once more.

I can handle this.. for one day. Today day 2 of the campaign I began feeling the pressure. This manifests itself both physically and mentally. Physically my throat began to feel raw from the strain on my vocal chords from constantly talking. In fact the group I take my break-time with sat in an uncharacteristic silence today with none of us being able to face the rigours of speech. The muscle above my right eyelid has also begun to twitch – a sure sign that I’m feeling too much stress.

The mental effects have an air of the surreal. I begin randomly coming out with the lines I’ve been repeating all day “ok that’s all gone through fine” I say then I realise I’m only halfway through the order that line is for the end of the call once I’ve charged the customers card. I also begin mixing up the clients I’m taking calls for “where would you like the flowers sent?”… there is a pause before the customers confused voice cuts in “flowers, what flowers?”  The whole thing makes me feel like a malfunctioning robot and I wonder what it’s all doing to my brain.