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.


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