The Car Park

"Mercedes-Benz R300 * Intellectual Businessman" by jiazi (Tim Wang), under a Creative Commons license on flickr.

You can tell a lot about a workplace from its car park. The slightly shabby rat infested car park at the rear of the call centre is no exception with the rows of silent cars speaking volumes about life inside the building it serves.

The majority of cars in the car park are a generally indistinguishable mass of various Ford’s; there’s Fiesta’s of varying designs, KA’s, and Focus’s. Cars which when new five, or ten years ago would have conferred a small degree of status on thier owner, now past-their-best were workhorses ending their days employed in the daily struggle for survival. A surprising amount are uninsured; with three of my colleagues this year alone being hauled in front of the courts.

This rather sad parade is livened up by a smart new-mini belonging to one of the data entry team, a person who does the job more for something to do than the financial rewards, along with a boy-racer Fiat complete with alloy wheels; living with the parents having some rewards in the shape of a bit of spare cash. Enough for a fun weekend, or a flash-motor, but never enough for a mortgage.

Theres a BMW, and a compact sporty Peugeot with a private plate which belong to our client-managers, then there’s our customer-services managers car. I remember pulling-in to the car park on their first day wondering whether their car would stick out, or blend in. I can’t say why, but it somehow felt important. It didn’t take long to spot, a big, brash Mercedes convertable with personalised plate.

This though is trumped by the owner Big Al’s Jag; it has a regal prescence, always gleaming, and always, always in the same spot two spaces in from the corner of the car park. But don’t company owners and senior managers usually get the spaces nearest the building? It’s almost as if Big Al wants to take in a wide-screen view of his empire as he steps out of his car in the morning savouring it as he strolls across the asphalt. Despite the almost imperceptable faded parking bays being unallocated (a strange nod to democracy in an otherwise hierarchical organisation) no one else uses it even whn empty. It seems the rest of us have heeded some unspoken rule that the bay is off-limits to the rest of us.

The Meeting

Today I brought some left-over smoked salmon, dill and caper penne pasta for my lunch, a nice treat for the fish lover that I am, but sadly it’s still sat there in the canteen fridge. I just couldn’t face hanging round the building for my break. I desperately needed some fresh air. Stomping out of the foyer my head felt as if I’d drunk several shots of adrenaline  followed by a cortisone cocktail. I could sense my veins throb, my mouth was hang-over dry and my hands faintly trembling.

So how did the meeting with my manager go?

Well I’ve discovered a few things about her, firstly that she doesn’t take too kindly to being questioned. We began with discussing the stats. I said that I have been using the system all the time so am puzzled by why I’m not hitting 100%, let alone 75%. I mentioned the phantom calls I’d got last week as a possible explanation. Instantly she began rifling through her reams of paper trying to prove me wrong. I also said that as the stats she is referring to are produced by taking the number of calls we receive in given period matched against and the number of times we have either recorded a reason for the call from a drop-down-menu, or else processed a payment, or created a new order. I suggested that as one call may result in orders for up to 12 items with each counting as an individual input and as people processing mail would also be creating orders without there necessarrily being a call then the figures are skewed and unreliable so comparisons can’t be made.  I also said that I found being on auto-answer didn’t help me much. Her answer was that it is the same for all of us and added ‘everyone’s on auto-answer they manage it’… umm no they’re not. ‘So tell me who isn’t” she said,, strangely I thought as I’d been told by another colleague that our manager had taken her off auto-answer after she had requested this. I searched my head quickly for an example ‘well John isn’t on auto-answer’. I mentioned that as we all did different shifts suppose a catalogue drops on a Friday, then people on Friday will be taking orders all day and their figures will be higher, likewise the figures will be higher for  people working at weekends who process more mail as it tends to be quieter. “I just want you to hit 75%” was the response, “you’re not doing that right now, you’re not taking responsibility. The accuracy of the figures is my problem not yours” We finally agreed that we’d review the figures for today as I’d been meticulous about logging everything, this would reveal to me at least if there is a bug in the system.

If this seems civilized in writing, then I do reality a mis-service. Each point was contested and wrestled over. At one point I noticed the MD in the next room glance over as voices were raised and the conversation took on an animated, aggressive tempo. By this point I’d had enough and just wanted to get out of the room so decided not to bother with my points about the arriving early issue and favouritism. My manager clearly hadn’t had enough, probably feeling she’d won the first round on points she continued onto the issue of being ready to take calls at my start time. I offered to be at my desk 5 minutes early. This was not enough, but you need 10 minutes to log in she said. She began on the anecdote about ‘if you worked in a shop’ I re-iterated my offer of 5 minutes unpaid work and added that I felt doing work outside of my contracted hours could be seen as unfair. My manager then went on the attack, pulling out figures saying that I’d been late back from breaks, never by more than a minute, or a few seconds, but it was an effective attack nonetheless. This meeting had been a mistake. Sensing victory my manager added that I often log-off early and that if I am not prepared to come in 10 minutes early then I will be expected to stay late if a call over-runs. This put me off balance, if there is one thing I never do it is log-off early. I refuted this allegation. “well I’ve got evidence” was my managers reply. I decided that enough was enough, I said that 5 minutes was on the table, we’d trial it for a week and review… and there the meeting ended. I got back to my desk and immediately left for my break.

As I walked round the grim streets surrounding the call-centre in an attempt to cool off, I reflected that the meeting had been a disaster. I was shocked at how confrontational it had got certainly nothing like I’ve ever experienced before. I’d billed it as the showdown, so maybe part of the blame for this was mine, I certainly felt I’d got sucked into a tit-for-tat argument, in fact it was like a bad call. My manager should have known better though, surely they should be adept at diffusing situations not arriving at the party with several loaded guns? As I turned back toward the call-centre I wondered just how much the meeting will accelerate my exit.

I was certainly no longer in the mood for confrontation when I got back to my desk, but my manager approached. “Can you take a look at this and sign it” It was a brief outline of the discussion, I turned it over a few times, usually I just sign these things and file them in the bottom of my drawer, but I had a feeling this document may be pulled out at a later date so I asked for a couple of amendments. My manager then presented me with a list of times, some had been marked with pink highlighter, the ones where I’d been late back from breaks. Another sheet marked with highlighter was she said evidence I had logged-off early. I decided to take a closer look, my eye unfamiliar with the layout I asked her to explain…

“well this see.. you took your last call at 17 minutes past.. the call lasted 10 minutes, so you should have been able to take another call in those 3 minutes”

“but, does it say I logged out”

“no”

“So then it just says that I’m not available to take a call”

“yep, you had just under 3 minutes”

“Well as the call was 10 minutes that suggests it may have been quite involved, maybe I was doing something on the system, or an enquiry form”

“but, that could have been done during the call”

“but we can’t say, the data you’ve given me doesn’t say what the call was for, or what I did, why I did it or anything else at all. That’s the problem with quantitative data like this that’s the point I’ve been trying to make.”

My manager was exceedingly unhappy with this “well if you get a call like that and are doing an enquiry form then I want it on my desk and I want you to write how long it’s taken you to do the form written on it.”

I’m considering my next move….

Conspiracy Theories

 

A wise old colleague of mine once had a saying- Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.

It seems conspiracy theories are cropping up in all sorts of places; People hiding behind superinjunctions, phone-hacking, police corruption – only today I read about Keith Allen sounding off about what he believes is the silent conspiracy of the press and establishment with regards to the death of Diana Princess of Wales – our very own answer to the question who shot JFK?

My customers are always keen to create conspiracy theories; A mistake in the despatch system means they are sent the wrong item… well then it’s a con, a fraud, the police need to be informed at once… no, seriously sir it’s just a computer error… ‘but, this is the second time it’s happened its a con I tell you.’ I’d love the tell them that the real reason is  just that company X couldn’t organise a drinking session in a place that manufactures alcohol, but they wouldn’t believe me and in any case it would only spoil their fun.

You see, we all love a good conspiracy theory and fortunately for us right now the call-centre right is awash with them. Especially since our hours were cut Every going-on, every utterance  is now fed into a black-box marked conspiracy, we all take a turn to rotate a handle on the side and new theories emerge from a slot like ticker tape. Earlier this week a colleague whispered that they’d seen a lorry being loaded with goods, upon enquiring they were told the shipment was not for customers, but was part of a clear-out. Perhaps an innocent, mundane explanation exists, but could it mean something more sinister? A departing colleague also told a group of us that we should all be on the lookout for new jobs by the end of the three months we were told the reduced hours would be in force adding momentum to the theory that the cut in our hours is being used to lower the redundancy bill the firm will face when it’s retiring owner closes it down.

It’s hard not to get caught up in all of this. My pet theory, as I’ve mentioned before, is that the cut in hours is to make a potential take-over easier, but now it’s all going much further, much deeper…. I feel the conspiracy is becoming more personal. Just take the issue over the statistics; I have the last week been pretty meticulous about logging something for every call, sometimes even double counting to be on the safe side, yet I get a memo telling me that I’ve shown “very little improvement” (doubtful as I never bothered logging calls before last week) and am not hitting the 75% target. Of course there are issues with the measurement which I’ll be querying in my meeting with our manager tomorrow, but finding out who else received this memo, well it’s hardly a list of our managers BFF’s….

I’m starting to wonder if they are out to get me

The Showdown

The atmosphere at work is very strange ever since the cut in hours was announced. Morale is the lowest I have known it not helped in the slightest by the oppressive workload. Defections continue and rumour has it that one of the supervisors will be the next to depart. They’d been slogging out a 50 hour week so were particularly hit hard by the blanket 20% cut.

One thing which hasn’t helped is my managers lack of tact. Not long after the cut in our hours came into effect, many of us still wondering how we would survive, we were handed a memo imploring us to work harder as we were now dropping too many calls. All the usual clichés were rolled out; ‘bums on seats’, be logged on (a 10 minute process because of all our systems) and ready to take calls at your start time, but the most ridiculous thing was that busy/wrap up (the button you press after a call so you can deal with system stuff or filling out an enquiry form) should not be used. Ever… Now, I’ve heard of call-centres setting targets for wrap-up times, but to insist on doing everything within the call whilst speaking to the customer is just ludicrous. Once I’ve got to the bottom of an issue and/or decided on my action, I don’t need to keep the customer on the line whilst I click through menus and type notes. It’s just a no-brainer.

We’ve also been getting a hard time over a call-logging exercise we are supposed to be doing for one client. For a while we have been told to record the reason why each customer calls. The problem with this is that I have to click out of the system that client uses, click on the toolbar, then click on a tab and finally pick a reason from a scrolling menu. If it’s a cancellation I need to fill in 3 separate fields. My phone is also set to auto-answer so by the time I’ve brought the call-logging system up I’ve got the next person shouting a customer number into my ear.

Like most people I struggled with it for a couple of days until I realised no one would tell me off for not doing it and duly stopped bothering. Most people came to the same conclusion which was great for a bit, but suddenly management decreed that we would have to do it. They also decided to use their favourite ploy, the public table. A list was produced with everyone’s percentage of calls against calls logged. I was rather proud that without bothering at all I’d been managing 30% (this was because payments were logged automatically), though some people were curiously scoring 110%. The reason was, as ever, there was some statistical cut-and-shut going on. If one person called and placed an order for two items it would be logged as one call, but two entries on the system. The system was also unable to differentiate between entries made which came from dealing with mail and entries from dealing with calls, so if you got a batch of mail with orders or up-sells these would also count as logged, but without corresponding calls.

From a statistical purity point of view the stats are worthless anyhow as there is no consistency among which calls are logged as what; one persons ‘account query’ being another persons ‘payment already sent’ and some people, wisely perhaps, just make it all up. In fact I’ve been making them up myself, but it seems I’m not doing enough – now that could be due to the phones malfunctioning giving me loads of dead calls last week, but anyhow I, along with several others received a memo chiding me on my performance, handed to me by my manager as she scooted out on her lunch break.

Just before I left I scribbled on a piece of paper

Manager,

Would it be possible to have a meeting to discuss some issues

Call-guy

Later my phone rang. The showdown will be on Monday morning.

Stay tuned!

The Call-Centre Promised Land

I met up with a former colleague today who was positively on a high since leaving the call-centre at the end of last week and starting her new job the beginning of this week. It’s still in a call-centre, but this place is in a proper office building, as opposed to a seedy shed in the wrong part of town, with a reception desk and no doubt pot-plants too. As I waited for my friend outside I spotted smartly dressed bright young things practically skipping out of the office. Maybe I was looking at this through rose-tinted specs, but that’s really how it seemed.

My former colleague eventually emerged, beaming as she told me she’d been put forward as a team-leader. I reflected that in our place it would take 10 years before you’d even get a sniff of a supervisor role, maybe play your cards right and you’d find yourself in an admin role after 5, but as a general rule promotions just don’t happen.  She also mentioned  a team meeting… a team meeting! The concept of democracy at work seems revolutionary after so long. Whatsmore, my colleague who consistently logged the lowest average call time in our place said that the focus was on building relationships with customers, not on call times. You could, she said, easily spend 20 minutes talking to someone and it’s great.

Then she said it… ‘why don’t you give me your CV tomorrow?’

Better get back to it

Favouritism in the Workplace

Today I really had to drag myself into work. I’ve lost almost all my motivation since our hours were cut and was dreading another yet another manic monday. When I arrived at the office there seemed to be a lot more people in than last week, mainly people who don’t usually work Mondays. It seems this is because as has been rumoured people are being offered overtime to make their hours back up. Typically this is only offered to the privileged with some of us  not hearing a peep. I know I’m not my managers favourite and in some ways I enjoy this. If I ever got a certificate with a cartoonish clip-art smiley face clutching a champagne flute I’d feel more shame than pride. I actually like being on the margins as it helps me feel that I’m not really part of the call-centre that I’m only passing through and I like the perspective it gives me; that of an observer filing despatches from the front-line.

Even so I do have a real problem with the seeming unfairness and opaque workings of the call-centre. Favouritism has become a real issue since the appointment of our manager last year. In her role as link between us and the ever distant senior management our managers main power is the power of patronage; who gets their holiday requests approved, who gets the best jobs, and now who gets the precious overtime. One of her early acts was to create a team-within-a-team dealing with one of our major clients – previously we’d all taken calls for all clients. The new sub-team moved to their own corner of the office and before long began to grow apart from the rest of us some displaying a slightly aloof attitude believing themselves to be the chosen few. Others just dash around on special projects, given responsibility for training, conducting surveys or some such other task. This frees them from the shackles of the headset allowing them to move around the office all important as in the call-centre movement = status.

The criteria used for choosing who gets allocated these projects is like that of being selected into the team-within-a-team one which is never spoken about let alone explained. There is no application process, not even an informal one where people are asked if they are interested and then a choice made from the applicants. There is no semblance of transparency people are simply quietly tapped on the shoulder and invited to join the club pretty much how the Freemasons do their recruitment.

For the rest of us it leaves us feeling slightly disgruntled. Like citizens in a post-communist state we can only stand and gawp as despite our sliding standard of living some people are managing to grow, if not super-rich, then at least much better off under the new regime. That there is no explanation for why we have been denied opportunity it leaves us feeling as if we have nothing to work towards. An identity as outsiders takes-root and we start to rebel becoming critical of the management, the organisation and offering token resistance wherever we can; subverting the vote for best-customer service and the award on offer for best team player (this award really was ironic given our managers actions in dividing the team) and generally taking an indifferent view to targets.

In other news today I was told by a colleague that a delegation of visiting dignitaries who took a look around the call-centre last week were in fact not current or potential clients, but were from one of our competitor firms. The implication is that the firm is very much up for sale which confirms my earlier suspicions that the cut in our hours is to make the firm appear a more attractive proposition.

The Customer is Always Wrong.. Just Don’t Tell Them

Whoever said the customer is always right? I’m 100%  sure that if they were in my position dealing with customers all day everyday they’d soon change their minds and admit that they were in fact wrong. In my world the customer is never right.

Of course telling a customer they’re wrong is never a good idea. Not just for ideological reasons, but practical ones too. Telling a customer they are wrong will almost always descend into the telephonic equivalent of a bar-room brawl and soon becomes a spectacle. One of my colleagues last week must have spent at least twenty minutes arguing with a customer they pointed out was in the wrong whilst the rest of the centre struggled to keep their minds on dealing with their callers as they listened intently and it has to be said judgementally; losing control of a call being the sign of a bad operator.

The golden rule is to stay objective and detached at all times which means dismissing notions of right or wrong. Ok, so the customer messed up their online order all by themselves and are now screaming at me about it in a fit of righteous indignation. Telling them they are wrong would only mean them coming back with how they feel the system should have anticipated their stupidity and had a failsafe (in case you are wondering this example is drawn from experience). In any case they are almost certainly wrong, but to tell them this directly is to risk the ‘blame-game’ which had sucked my colleague waist-deep into its stinky quagmire. No, a good operator remains objective and simply skirts around the issue of right and wrong whenever possible moving direct to the solution.

But sometimes telling a caller they are wrong is hard to avoid; for instance one firm I take calls for adheres closely to the  ‘customer is always right’ philosophy offering a no-quibble complete satisfaction guarantee which covers almost all eventualities thus avoiding any need for blame to be apportioned. However, at the opposite end of the spectrum another firm uses a lot of  small-print to hoodwink customers enticing them into its clutches with too-good-to-be true offers; a business model made famous by Ryanair. As an operator you know the customer is probably, at least morally speaking, in the right, but the company and small print state categorically they are in the wrong. All this right and wrong gets very confusing.

sometimes it’s clear-cut. I had one this week; a man phoned and told me he had ordered a jacket which he now wished to return, he spoke to someone in our office who said they would send a pre-paid label. This had not arrived and he was phoning to find where it had got to. ‘Um, I’m not sure we do jackets’ I told him ‘You must do, I spoke to Jane a few days ago and she told me she’d send me a label’ was the response the indignant tone suggesting I was wrong. I was pretty sure we didn’t do jackets, but then there was a Jane here, he had the number and the clients business is built around importing random container loads of  goods from China from teddy bears to pillows and deep fat fryers. As I’m always the last to know anything really could be possible. I keyed in his postcode and hit return.. blank. Oh crap.

I tried again with the caller’s name, still nothing. Ok I’ll try the postcode again… the caller repeats this loudly and deliberately slowly. I can tell he’s getting annoyed now. I’ve mentioned before, but this always happens when someone can’t be found on the system. They take it as a personal affront, as if me not finding an electronic record means they will suddenly cease to exist a bit like the bit in Back to the Future where Marty McFly has a Polaroid photo of his family and having messed about with the past is slowly fading out of the picture.

Still nothing.. “well I spoke to Jane” the caller reiterates “adding “you had an advert in the Mirror a couple of weeks ago”. I spot an opening “do you have a copy of the advert” I say hoping it hasn’t been consigned to the dustbin. “Actually I do” he says. The caller retrieves the ad. “Does it have a company name on it anywhere” I ask. “yes it says Premier Man”.  Definitely not us, but convincing the caller I was right would be another matter the caller refusing to believe me “but it has your number he said” adding “what is your number?” This may seem strange, but  I deal with at least 10 companies and have no idea of their numbers.  I scrabbled about on my desktop for the link to the external website I’d be able to get the info off that…, but then suddenly….

“oh, I’m sorry, I do beg your pardon..”