Favoritism in the workplace

It’s strange, I told someone yesterday, when I first came to the call centre I thought it wasn’t a great place to work, but now looking back it seems like a paradise, some more innocent time, before events cruelly intervened.

Sudden and seismic changes, the alleged fraud, the return of Big Al and the appointment of our manager, had the effect of reshaping the character of the call-centre. The old regime had fallen and those of us who remained were treated as if we were tainted by association. One theory going round is that our manager favours her people, the ones she appointed, rather than the ones she inherited.

It seems to be true the newbies tend to receive much better treatment, some even acknowledging it themselves. Yesterday I heard one of the relatively new CSAs has been ‘promoted’ to the IT department despite having no experience and there being other people in the call-centre who would be as (if not more) suitable for the role. Nothing against the person concerned, but the way it was done all in secret the post not even being advertised internally leaves something of a bad taste.

Another two of the newer staff members were also training the latest intake of staff who are being drafted in for the Christmas build-up. In my old job I used to train lots of people, I enjoyed this and like to think I was reasonably ok at it, yet like the rest of the old guard I’m never asked to do this, just told to sit in my seat. There is one of the old guard though who has got on well. cozying up to the manager with offers of biscuits and chocolate they were rewarded with the status of ‘pseudo supervisor.’ They didn’t receive a promotion in name, and certainly not in terms of salary, but were treated like a supervisor by our manager, more so than the actual supervisors leading to some confusion among any new starters. They were allowed off the phone for various jobs like putting together a training manual and seemed immune to the ‘bums on seats rule’ being often seen conversing behind our managers desk whilst the rest of us struggled with a huge volume of calls. They also seemed to be exempt from the ‘clear desk’ policy our manager instituted by having a desk which resembled a sprawling metropolis piled high with box files, desk-tidy’s, paper-clips and rubber-bands. In a final ignominy under the new seating plan one of the actual supervisors was relocated to make way for the pseudo-supervisor.

You may think this post has an element of sour-grapes and maybe it does, but I know I’m not the only one to feel this way in fact the opinion that there are favorites is commonly held in the call-centre. Even the favourites happily announce that they are favourites and feel that the ever more draconian rules don’t affect them. Something evidenced when one colleague received a disciplinary and written warning for using the internet at work. Despite this being a widespread practice among staff working the quieter weekend shifts – a fact management were well aware of, or else incredibly naive, only one persons computer was checked with a blind eye being turned to others.

So what we have now is a two-tier work force. Ones who receive opportunity, privelages, and a more relaxed interpretation of the rule-book and others who face working under ever more grinding and oppressive conditions. Perfect conditions for a rebellion.


Team 4x

I’ve been away from the call-centre all week and it feels great. I’ve even managed to fire off a job application for a position in another call-centre so my fingers are tightly crossed waiting on a call early next week. If all goes well I’ll then have the task of getting time off for the interview… do I tell the truth and risk having the request denied, or do I just call in sick? Tough call.

I saw another old colleague last night. One who had put the best part of a decade in at the call centre and who I felt was particularly good at the job. She told me she’s now doing a cleaning job which she told me is much better as “I don’t have to deal with angry xxxx Inc customers.” That’s the thing with the call-centre even the people who seem to be handling it well are feeling the strain too.

This is probably a good point to introduce the story of the fate of what I’ll call ‘team xxxx’ or ‘team 4x’ for short. The background to this tale is one of our main clients xxxx Inc who operate their business on what could loosely be called a subscription model. Their whole way of doing business is however, a shambles and they are notorious for their small print and botched admin. They have a computer system which is also updated once a week so say you place a request on Monday then it won’t be carried out until the next Sunday and the accounts department are based at head office which is on the continent. The lines of communication are so slow it’s like in the days of the empire when some officer acting on initiative would annexe half a continent before anyone in charge back home knew anything about it. Cue lots of crossed wires and customers raging at ‘reminders’ received a month after they sent their payment in, or goods showing up six weeks after they wrote to cancel. That’s even if they ordered them. Some people fail to notice the small print signing them up to an ongoing service, or else the other call centre which takes care of new orders signs people up without filling them in on all the necessary details.

All this makes taking calls for xxxx inc a stressful business. Customers are usually angry and you’ll be dealing with the same issues again ad infinitum…. “I’ve just had a package from you which I did NOT order” or “I cancelled it last month this is all a con” or another classic “I don’t owe you anything and you’ve sent me a reminder how dare you!” Your job is to soak up the crap and then trot out the same explanations that head office is overseas which means communication often ‘crosses in the post’ or that they may not have been told when they placed their initial order that other items would follow unless they cancelled we’re very sorry thankyou.

Frustratingly head office seem to be lacking in interest in the UK operation. XXXX inc is actually a massive operation split into multiple subsidiaries spanning the continent and they simply have little time for us. Someone tried using my log-in once locked me out and it took head office three weeks to get round to issuing a new password. Customers have no hope. A constant grumble is with the packaging of their parcels. This has been going on for as long as I’ve been there and we’ve fought hard to get the message across, logging incidences, sending pictures,  but frustratingly all to no avail and we must listen to each new occurence with the right amount of empathy on tap as the customer details every rip, crush, and tear acting as if we haven’t heard it all 1000 times before.

But, back to team 4x. The team was the creation of our then new manager who either acting under pressure, seeking to impress, or some combination of both decided we would need to improve our pitiful retention figures. It seemed when people called to cancel their subscriptions we displayed no real interest in persuading them to stay; Rather unsurprising as we had no incentive to do so and most of us viewed, and still view, xxxx Inc with a degree of contempt for the reasons discussed at length above. Anyway four people were selected from the pool of Customer Service Advisor’s and re-located to the corner. There they discussed strategy and drew charts on the wall showing the percentage retained each day along with a tick signifying an improvement on the day before, or cross if there was a decline.

Team 4x was something of a watershed moment for the call-centre as we’d previously been a generic mass. Something about rubbish jobs breeds a sense of togetherness and we felt we were all in it together. Team 4x though soon began to develop a swagger. They were actually asked their opinions and given responsibilities, however small these were, so felt important. The rest of us began to regard them with suspicion consigning their memo’s to the bin without reading them. Ultimately though team 4x is a cautionary tale. The relentless pressure, the being caught between customers and an indifferent organisation, the strain of being at the front with no respite took its toll. One member had a breakdown, taking a number of months off sick and returning only with the proviso that they would no longer take calls for xxxx Inc. A second member is also no longer taking xxxx Inc calls whilst a third, previous a relatively good employee, lost all interest and just walked. Like a horror movie only one person, a real call centre veteran, made it through to the end.



How not to motivate staff

At the moment I’m reading a rather interesting book ‘Obliquity‘ by an economist John Kay which has helped me to see just what is going wrong in the call-centre. The key point which Kay makes is that by aiming purely to make profit a business sets itself up to fail. He uses a quote from the book Built to Last by Jim Collins and Gerry Porras in which they argue:

Visionary companies pursue a cluster of objectives, of which making money is only one – and not necessarily the primary one. Yes, they seek profits, but they’re equally guided by a core ideology – core values and sense of purpose beyond just making money. Yet paradoxically, the visionary companies make more money than purely profit driven companies.

It’s a very interesting point which goes against conventional wisdom which states that the overwhelming priority of a business should first and foremost to make a profit for its owners, but it is a view which has been gaining some support. In the book ‘Small Giants; Companies that choose to be great instead of big’, essentially a case study of several firms, Bo Burlingham makes exactly the same point

The shareholders who own businesses in this book have other, nonfinancial priorities in addition to their financial objectives. Not that they don’t want to earn a good return on their investment, but it’s not their only goal, or even necessarily their paramount goal. They’re also interested in being great at what they do, creating a great place to work, providing great service to customers, having great relationships with their suppliers, making great contributions to the communities they live and work in and finding great ways to lead their lives.

It all takes me back to when our manager first started and she spoke to us each individually about her background and philosophy.  I’d waited several weeks for my turn, by which time I knew all about her anyway which perhaps she knew as she seemed to be particularly weary when trotting out her biographical details; worked in a high-powered sales job climbing up the ladder, divorced, company bought out, took redundancy, went travelling, wanting a new challenge, then she announced “I’m passionate about customer service.” The cynic in me felt like telling her that she had got the job and that there was no need to still be in interview mode, but a small part of me was hopeful as I felt that customer service had hitherto fallen by the wayside the emphasis simply being on getting through as many calls as possible to maximise our profits.

There were so many things that could be done to improve customer service; providing customer service training, making sure people had sufficient knowledge about the products to be able to help customers, even making sure customers received a call-back within the specified time rather than the enquiry form finding its way to the shredder would be a start not to mention ending the over-emphasis on call volumes and call times which actually provides a disincentive to customer-service.

At the beginning a few changes were made the biggest being that all staff received some basic customer service training . Awards for ‘best customer service’ and ‘best teamwork’ were instituted there was even talk of the focus on call-times being relaxed. The new call-time charts no longer had gold, silver and bronze medals for the three with lowest average times respectively, though they still contained a paragraph at the bottom about the need to keep below a three minute average. This however, was as far as any attempts at improving the customer service we provided were made before the pendulum swung wildly in the other direction.   

Generally my manager can be found at her desk facing the three banks we work on watching what I assume to be a live feed of our call stats. Very rarely does she leave her post. Occasionally can she be witnessed typing one of her grammatically poor (I know I’m no one to talk) memo’s or ‘newsletters’ which tend to criticise us for one reason or another, or else to remove yet another small liberty or privilege like being able to visit the water cooler between breaks. Just take the most recent memo produced in my managers own unique conversational style:  

As discussed on numerous occasions our priority is to take calls. I cannot stress enough the importance of staying seated for the duration of your shifts. Everytime some one leaves their desk we lose a call, whether it’s for a query, loo break or to get water. This, over a week can equate in excess of 2000 calls lost, with a loss of revenue which we cannot afford in this difficult economic climate.

The memo then goes on to say:

All queries to be placed in the tray. (No visiting client managers to discuss) Even discussing with a colleague will mean 2 people off the phone, which is more calls lost.

There’s a number of interesting points there, firstly there is a strong emphasis that customer service should be subordinate to dealing with as many calls as possible; quantity over quality. There is obviously an argument to be made for efficiency, but just take the example which cropped up earlier today. I took a call for a client (incidentally whose products I have never seen and have very little knowledge of). A person wanted to know if a gazebo featured on our website was in stock. Now, it turns out the client has two websites one which only one person can access – the rest of us having our internet restricted. Both sites have different product lines with different prices.  I had no knowledge of this website, but had a feeling my colleague sat on the next bank would, or failing that the client manager. As we all take incoming calls their lines were busy, and thanks to my manager I could not just tap them on the shoulder so had to take the callers details and promise a call back soon as they needed to place an order straight away. Two hours later my manager came and emptied my query tray. Good customer service? It’s not even efficient as it would have taken me seconds to get an answer and deal with the query.

I’ve also got a big question over the 2000 calls lost claim. I’ve already come to the conclusion that my manager knows little about statistics, so just what technique has she come up with this figure? As there is no way of knowing why someone is ‘out of group’ (our slang for being off-line) then it’s impossible to calculate how many calls are actually lost through toilet breaks or getting water the only way she could have done this was to guess. How good is her guess? Well let’s do some really crude working out and say that on average a toilet break, water-cooler moment or chat with a client manager takes three minutes, the same time as an average call, this means that if we had taken those 2000 calls it would have amounted to an extra 100 hours on the phone. As there is usually no more than 15-20 people in each day I leave it to you to wonder where those 100 hours come from.

And what happened to the notion of team work? Here is the person who instituted a ‘best teamwork’ award telling us explicitly to not help eachother out! It’s almost as if this one time champion of customer service has been corrupted by the stats to the point where serving the stats has become her obsession. Any previous ideals of customer service have now been subordinated to the aim of getting through as many calls as possible to ensure our firm maximises its profits.  In her search for greater profitability our manager has squeezed us becoming ever more punitive restricting us to our seats, stopping us helping each other, stopping us going to the toilet between breaks. There have been disciplinaries and sickness reviews which were unheard of under the old regime. One former colleague who had been at the firm 10 years said shortly before leaving ‘this used to be like a family business and now it feels like working for a big corporation’

I’m not given the stats so I don’t know if my manager’s strategy is working. I suspect not as she doesn’t look happy when she’s staring at those stats. Experienced staff are also becoming increasingly disgruntled losing motivation and voting with their feet – the latest handing his notice in this week. As it takes someone about six months at least to become proficient on all the systems and to begin posting sub three minute call times then it doesn’t bode well.

Maybe in fairness she is being pressured from higher up, but at best she has abandoned the principle of customer service she once purported to have a passion for.  The irony is that according to the philosophy in Obliquity following that guiding principle rather than becoming a slave to the stats would have seen better stats. Instead we are now in a position where my manager, increasingly desperate to justify her salary and  keep her job, takes it out on us, blaming us for her failure something which is evident from the language used in her memo which she ends tersely

The screen behind me is a clear indication of the volume of calls lost or waiting, please look at this so you become aware of how busy we are and the importance of taking as many calls as possible.

I’ll leave the last words however, to John Kay in Obliquity:

The stonemason committed to the glory of God will build a better cathedral than the stonemason who is motivated entirely by the bonuses offered and scourges threatened by his employer. Likewise the Japanese who cared about their company built better cars than the Detroit workers paid according to the number of cars that came off the assembly line.

The Memo: When bad managers attack

This is a copy of a recent memo sent to us by our manager. I have re-typed it to faithfully match the original with all its grammatical errors and have only removed the names of  individuals or companies. I feel I don’t need to say anymore as the memo speaks for itself:

To: Customer Service Team

From: Bad manager

Cc: Client managers

Re: Calls

Hi all,

As discussed on numerous occasions our priority is to take calls. I cannot stress enough the importance of staying seated and taking calls for the duration of your shifts. Every time some one leaves their desk we lose a call, whether it’s for a query, loo break or to get water. This, over a week can equate to in excess of 2000 calls lost, with a loss of revenue which we cannot afford in this difficult economic climate.

Therefore moving forward I would like the following adhered to with immediate effect.

All toilet breaks to be taken within your allocated break/lunch time (unless an emergency) Drinks whether hot or cold to be made within break/lunch times

All queries to be placed in the tray. (No visiting client managers to discuss) Even discussing with a colleague will mean 2 people off the phone, which is more calls lost. Queries will be dealt with from now on in, at specific allocated times to ensure minimum disruption. No outgoing calls to be made also.

Checking the diary for holidays/ days off etc to be discussed and checked prior to start times or within your break/finish times. Or place a request in the tray and I will discuss with you when the phones are quieter.

Mobile phones need to be away in the desk and switched off to avoid the temptation of reading, also no web browsing. Focus needs to be given during each and every call.

I will collect all printed documents from the printer/queries along with any envelopes labels that are required and will distribute accordingly. (xxxx will do this in my absence) If a statement for an xxx customer is required due to reconciliation, rather than printing it off, going into Busy wrap up and begin highlighting the query, just write on a query form “statement needs printing and reconciling)

Whilst I appreciate you may find this petty, this really is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed, so I am looking for 100% cooperation form each and every one of you.

The screen behind me is a clear indication of the volume of calls lost or waiting, please look at this so you become aware of how busy we are and the importance of taking as many calls as possible.

Any questions or concerns please let me know, Thank you.

Computer says no

Call-centres are dehumanizing places, so dehumanizing that it is easy to conclude that at some point there won’t be a role for humans at all. In the novel Eight Minutes Idle (currently being turned into a film) the protagonist who is unfortunate enough to work in a call-centre contemplates just that;

The human element of this sort of service is so unnecessary, and it can’t be long before all telephone transactions are conducted by an electronic voice. The only reason we’re here is for people who still need that illusion of human agency, unaware that all we’re really doing is reading from a computer screen. Sure, we serve as a good front for filtering out the flack, yet it can’t be that hard to programme a machine to make pathetic protests and claim it’s sorry but it can’t do anything to help the caller.

The author of Eight Minutes Idle, Matt Thorne, actually worked in a call-centre himself which gives an air of authenticity to his characters musings – I also like to think that he came up with his theories as a way of retaining his sanity in a mind numbing environment as I know I do. But I do doubt the technology is within easy reach. I only need to think of the inadequacy of those train station announcements – the ones with the tinny automated voice which say; The 8;15 to Manchester is now 20 minutes late we apologise for the delay and leave me wondering how an automated voice can possibly be sorry? Has the train company wasted all its money developing  a machine with a voice like a rusty spoon being dragged across a blackboard which spends its time feeling the collective pain of stranded passengers in the depth of it’s circuit-boards? If so is this why there is no money for enough trains?

I have however, come to the conclusion that any idea of human agency in a call-centre is illusory. My role is simply to serve the system which I maintain a constant connection to through my hand on my workstation’s mouse with my headset completing the circuit connecting the system to the customer through me the human conduit. I relay what the system says translating its esoteric language of jargon, or else input  requests on behalf of the customer again translating them into the systems preferred dialect of codes.

I can compensate for some of the systems idiosyncracies by knowing just which buttons to push and click, or where I can sometimes pull the wool over its eyes, but ultimately the parameters of my every action are determined by the system. Philosophically speaking if the system doesn’t have a word for something then whatever it is simply cannot exist.

Not many of my customers understand this dynamic. I remember one time telling a man that something couldn’t be done because of the way the system worked only to be told “yes, but people control systems.” I resisted the urge to reply with the line from Little Britain… “computer says no“, but that would really have been the truth as for many companies the system controls the entire business from orders through to production and despatch with an iron grip. Take on the system at your peril.

I have no power over the system, in fact I am part of the system, like a cyborg, a fusion between man and machine, for the duration of the time I’m plugged in the systems emotional circuitry. Nothing more.