Marilyn and the penguins

“it’s just illogical” observed one of my colleagues today after our manager had left at five on the dot “Six people dealing with hundreds of calls”. Very true I concurred. Yet another day of wall-to-wall calls and even though opportunities to communicate are near non existent you don’t need to talk to people to get a good sense the effect being worked to within an inch of our sanity is having on all of us. My afore-mentioned colleague was seen with his head on his desk at regular intervals and the tone of exasperation was evident in his voice as he spoke to customers explaining the same things, listening to the same complaints and grumbles again and again and again. You can witness it everywhere, the shortness with customers, the weary despair on people’s faces. It really is a vision of hell, in fact one former colleague studying for her philosophy degree once described the office as a ‘ version of Hell in strip lighting masquerading as work’ if only she could see it now I wonder. Now graduated she is currently happily unemployed.

There is something else I noticed today too; the pictures on the walls. In the back-half of the office adorning the walls there are three or four framed black and white photographs of Marilyn Monroe whilst in my half of the office there are several framed pictures featuring cartoon penguins, one even riding a whale, all drawn in a fuzzy, pastely, cutsey-kitsch style you’d get on a cheap greetings card – the kind which shed glitter by the bucket-load. I have in fact noticed the pictures before and even pondered there strangeness, but like a dream I usually forget all about them within five to ten minutes and will then go months unaware they were ever there.

Just sometimes though you can remember a dream, or a nightmare even, it will suddenly pop back into your head when you least expect it. This has happened to me with the paintings. It is very troubling. What seems illogical to me is the juxtaposition of the two sets of pictures, Marilyn and the penguins? Was it intentional, or accidental? Is their positioning  the result of a long forgotten compromise; you have your pictures on that half and I’ll have mine in this half? Or else was one person responsible for placing them there and if so what were they, or their subconscious trying to say???

On one hand a beautiful icon with a tinge of tragedy, on the other cartoon penguins. I don’t think the most surreal of surrealists could have done any better.

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Am I psychic?

Some of my customers seem to think so. Take the lady who called today, the call going something like this;

 

CG: Hello xxxx Inc Call-guy speaking how can I help

Customer: You were sending me a refund cheque last week do you remember?

 

Not without knowing who you are I don’t. As the caller so far hasn’t given me anything that I could use to identify them, not their name, customer number, or postcode I’m forced to rely on psychic abilities alone as I really can’t remember the hundreds, if not thousands of people I speak to each week and I’m pretty sure I haven’t spoken to this one anyway.

Quite often too customers think we know more far more than we actually do which leads them to the belief that we intentionally withhold it for some kind of perverse fun. One customer today branded me ‘unhelpful’ as in a fit of honesty I confessed that I did not know when a product would be back in stock. This led to the “can you put me through to someone who does know…… oh come on someone there, a manager perhaps, must know what’s going on”…… no sir, really they don’t someone at head office might have an inkling, but they’d never tell us even if we asked. I think next time I might just give a vague “oh I hope it should be back in stock soon” line which  has served me well and if they continue to press give a vague “maybe a few weeks” and keep my fingers crossed that it isn’t me that takes the call in three weeks time when the item still hasn’t showed and the caller is surfing a wave of righteous indignation “but, I was told it would be here in three weeks, you lied to me!!!!!”

 

 

So what do you do?

Another nightmare day at the call centre. Despite having our hours back we were overwhelmed, it seems that too many people have left without being replaced. This is pure bad management, not just in my place either. One thing I can never understand about the call-centre industry in general is how badly it blase it is when it comes to retention of good and experienced staff. There seems to be an ‘anyone can do it’ attitude when it comes to call-centres. Sure it is one of the few jobs these days that doesn’t ask for much in the way of qualifications, but not anyone can do it well and it can take almost a year to be proficient in all the various systems we use. This alone is a case for looking after staff, but I think the prevailing culture is for managers see us not as individuals with a set of useful skills, but as parts of a machine which can be easily replaced.

There is also a woeful lack of progression, especially in a small to medium sized operation like mine where you might wait the best part of a decade to be promoted to the ranks of admin. Even our HR manager when she was doing our inductions made it clear that she didn’t think of the call-centre as a career choice, more of a stop-gap like bar-work or restaurant work in other words something to keep you afloat until something better comes along.

If you work in a call centre you dread the moment at parties, or other social gatherings where people invariably ask “so what do you do?”.  It really is a horrible thing to face, most other jobs have some sort of status attached, even working in a shop can be cool if it’s selling the right sort of thing like clothes, records or I-pods. As a teenager, or even in your early twenties people would always ask what sort of music you listened to, although also designed as a social sorting mechanism this was something much more democratic, but as an adult it is all about what you do; So what do you do? Run away maybe, or more usually you try to bury it deep in amongst other information “well I do a bit of writing, a bit of photography, but y’know to pay the bills.. well I sort of, y’know sort of just work in a call-centre really. Oh yes it’s just for a bit hopefully I’ll be getting out of it soon.”

Job hunting

I haven’t been in the call centre this week. Normally that would mean I’m happier and more relaxed, but things haven’t worked out that way this time. Instead the call-centre has been ominously hovering above me like that space ship in District 9. 

The reason is because things have got so bad. The latest thing is the new seating plan our manager has come up with which leaves me, for the majority of my shifts, sat on my own in a hinterland of unoccupied seating like a soviet era dissident sent to Siberia.

Our great leader has also prohibited us from using wrap-up as apparently we should be dealing with system issues like leaving notes, processing refunds etc whilst on the phone…. and that’s at the same time as dealing with stacks written correspondence too. It really defies all logic. When I’m on a call I find out what the customer wants, or what the issue at hand is, then agree and confirm a course of action. This done I end the call there and do anything I then have to do on the various systems we use. It is impossible for me to do this system admin ‘whilst on the phone’ as I finish the call as soon as possible in order to as my employer insists keeping call times as low as possible. I have no need to keep the customer on the phone so what do I do ask them to hang on whilst I type and click through system menus? Ok, but then my call time goes up.

Sadly this is typical of my manager who doesn’t actually do the job and just watches a live stats feed day in day out. I feel she is out of her depth and taking it out on some of us making our jobs and our lives harder.

My stress levels have been continually rising as what was a bad job becomes an unbearable job. Even typing this is stressing me out so I know that I have to make a huge effort to leave.

Anyway, better get back to job hunting.

Hanging on the telephone

This may sound strange, but sometimes I’m secretly pleased when I get a shouty customer. It can be just the thing to break the monotony of order taking allowing me to lean back, give my fingers a rest from the key board and surf the wave of rage.

I was also delighted this week my ‘Hello XXXX inc call-guy speaking how can I help?’ spiel met with a furious response. It was like opening an airlock door the anger pouring into the empty space knocking me slightly off balance….. ‘Oh thank you I’ve been waiting for 20 minutes to get through to you and I’ve been trying to get through for three days now, what is going on there, why don’t you employ more staff if you’re so busy?’

I wish I could tell the truth; that a supposed cash flow crisis has led to us having our hours cut despite us being busy and even though we are being worked mercilessly by management who are piling on the pressure on us to make up for their mistakes we have no chance of keeping up with it. That to top it off we get the flack from customers angry at having difficulty getting through. I have however, developed a strategy. What I do is to agree with the customer, very loudly placing emphasis on certain points “yes, yes I’m so sorry you’ve been WAITING 20 MINUTES and I will happily pass on your comments to my managers that WE NEED MORE STAFF, yes, you can be assured I will” I say as I look towards my manager sat in her position facing us her eyes, as usual, glued to her stats feed.

It’s not just for my managers benefit either. I know some of our clients listen to recordings of the calls so I want to draw out as much as possible “you couldn’t get through on Tuesday you say, so how long were you waiting on the line?” Enough of these and surely they would be demanding my managers get more people on the phones pronto.

And so it appears to have proved. I got a call from my manager on Friday afternoon “just to let you know after next week we’re back to normal” First thought is great, second thought is what about my holiday and all the arrangements I’ve made, we were told this situation would be until the end of August and I’ve planned accordingly. I know a few other colleagues have been enjoying having a day off each week and don’t want to go back to their old hours.

In other separate, or possibly very related developments Big Al and Steve-o were dressed in their finest business garb, all pin-stripes and cuff links, for a meeting on Tuesday with two mystery men who seemed to be taking a good look around after they emerged from the office in the far corner of the centre. Now, a couple of weeks ago the firm was also been giving away stationery with our logo the official story being it was a warehouse clear out and in addition to this I have learnt Big Al has dissolved some company names relating to us which he had held. Looks like our company name is surplus to requirements. My money, as it had been right at the start, is on a take-over.

The 10.30 club

On my arrival at the call centre Monday morning I spotted a colleague sat on a chair among the pallets and assorted industrial debris which littered the cracked surface of the yard having a morning cigarette break. This sight brought back a few memories; If there is one thing I miss about smoking it’s the cigarette breaks. Once upon a time, elsewhere, I was part of the 10.30 club a group of people who would congregate around the side door of the office roughly around 10.30 brought together by the peak in our collective cravings. It had the vibe of a 10 minute social-club and was the only time you’d ever speak to people from other floors of the building. Eventually the practice was stubbed out by our employer issuing a diktat instituting a blanket ban on cigarette breaks during working hours. We defied this for a while, but eventually those with greater control of their habits fell into line stayed at their desks whilst those of gripped by the claws of nicotine scattered further from the building to evade detection by anyone senior enough to cause a problem. The 10.30 club was over.

For my employers the demise of the club was a cause of celebration. Firstly they gained at least an extra 10 minutes out of all of us and secondly it enabled them to feel they had done something not to oppress us but conversley to liberate us from the tyranny of our cravings. Along with the withdrawl of tacit permission to smoke on work time my employer offered extra help to stop smoking as if that was what the 10.30 club was really all about. It was about far more than that to begin the 10.30 club was an opportunity to sound-off, to speak freely, to set our grievances out, to moan, grumble and shake our heads reassuringly.

At the call-centre it seems to be the smokers who are the best informed. It’s the only place staff from warehouse and call-centre mix, the warehouse staff rarely venturing into the canteen they share with us, allowing gossip to cross-polinate. Outside the risk of being overheard by the wrong person is also much lower. For those of us who lunch in the canteen its cardboard walls create an ever-present risk a manager or one of their associates may be lurking nearby. Free speech is efinately not a feature of the call-centre and dissent, however mild is not-tolerated and may cost you your job.

Lately though pressure has been building, the 20% cut in hours has led to us losing 25% of our calls. Rather than re-instate our hours our manager has placed the blame on us for not working hard enough and issued a memo calling on us to work harder. How much harder can we work when already we are taking calls constantly without respite? If our manager showe at least a willingness to don a head-set and help out when the going gets tough rather than keeping her eyes glued to her stats feed as five of us try to placate customers who have been waiting 20-30 minutes to get through then I may take notice of what she says…. This is what I talked about to my colleague as they puffed on their cigarrette, our heads nodding in agreement. It felt good to get it out thee, to be able to share what we were really thinking. It may have been smoky, but at least the air felt clearer.

My wonderful customers

If anyone tells you a job in a call-centre is interesting ignore them. It is the most dull job in the world. Rarely does anything out of the ordinary occour and you find yourself repeating the same phrases again and again and again and again. Just sometimes though this tragic monotony can be dissapated by a ray of comedy light. Take this customer for instance who called to ask me:

 

“You know it says here free gifts worth £30 I don’t have to pay for them do I?”

 

 

I don’t think I need to say anymore.