The tangled web

The relationship between the web and the call-centre is a curious one. You can never fully escape the thought that if in a decade or so we’ll be reminiscing about call centres as if they were coal mines or car factories then it will be the web to blame. Or is the reality less straightforward than that, will the web in fact transform the industry for the better? According to Mark Hillary in the Huffington Post it may well do;

Calls to contact centres are declining and social network interactions are soaring causing an enormous change within the customer service industry. The skills needed to handle customers on Facebook, Twitter, email, instant messaging tools – and the telephone – are far greater than what was traditionally expected of a call centre agent.

So the agents in contact centres are going to be earning more, having a more rewarding experience as they help customers across all kinds of channels and the old days of a script-reading drone will soon be firmly in the past.

In my corner of the call-centre universe it’s fast becoming impossible to escape the impact of the web. Just this week a client has sent out 50 000 emails complete with a web only offer code to direct customers to their website  and recently one of our biggest clients also ran web only discount campaign

For companies the attractions of driving up their web traffic are obvious; The customer does the hard work of inputting their details and clicking through the options so no need to employ the likes of me on near minimum wage. Websites can also deal with far more customers simultaneously so no frustrating waits and no lost revenue from people hanging up.  Customers setting up web accounts also allow companies to track their order history and promote products and offers more effectively and cheaply than expensive scattergun mail-shots

There is a problem though. We just aren’t equipped to deal with it. Let me explain; I have no technical skills to speak of in fact I don’t really do anything. If there is a problem which requires a.) a decision I’m not given authorisation to make, b.) anything which can’t be solved by a click of the mouse, or heaven forbid c.) requires me to leave my seat, then I simply explain how sorry I am for the situation write the details down and pop it in a basket for someone else to deal with, or equally likely for them to put in the bin. Then when the customer calls back angry no one has got back to them I explain how sorry I am before beginning the process over again.

The web customer however,  doesn’t want to play this game. Maybe it’s the immediacy promised by the internet, I don’t know, but I do know they want someone who can rescue their order, or fix their frozen screen with its error message and most importantly can fix it now. The person they really need though is a software technician, not a generic customer service bod like me as the following exchange illustrates;

Customer: Hi, I’m just doing an order on your website and whenever I put in my details It’s telling me that ‘something unexpected has occurred’ and to call this number.

Me; Ok. Would you like me to do the order by phone for you?

Customer: Ummm, not really I’ve just spent 20 minutes on the order. Can’t you just fix it.

Me; I’m afraid not, I’m not able to do anything on the website [which is administered from head office in another time-zone] I can do the order for you now though.

Customer: So you’re telling me you can’t help me then.

Me; I’m sorry….

Customer;  But, it’s just taken me ages to get through to you

It’s very much a case of new technology meets old attitudes in which I play the role of  a WWI cavalry officer slowly sinking into the mud. The conundrum here is that unless I am given the ability and skills to take control and actually do something we have a classic call-centre no, no….. If you ever tell a customer you are unable to help in their minds they automatically replace the word can’t with won’t.

Unfortunately for us this kind of situation is becoming more common as our clients seek to boost their web traffic. Change can’t come soon enough!

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Back to the call centre

Yo may have noticed I haven’t written much recently. There are a few reasons for this, but the main one is that I just haven’t been in the call centre.

Following the ruckus with my manager I was signed off with stress for a month.

Tomorrow that month ends.

I have had no contact from anyone in management so have no idea what will happen when I open the door and tentatively set foot onto the call-centre floor.

Will be leaped upon and dragged into the office where I’ll be issued with the paperwork for a disciplinary? Will I still have my desk? Can I remember all my passwords? I don’t know.

What I do know is I’m dreading it.

Who wants to work in a call-centre?

The group interview seems to be increasingly in vogue. I can see their appeal to employers as they are a great way of sifting through the field with a minimum of fuss – after all it would take the best part of a day to see 10 people individually, but in a group interview it can be wrapped up in just over an hour. Plus they’re a great way of ascertaining how people interact with others.

For an applicant of course it’s an added hoop to jump through as a more in-depth traditional interview will follow for anyone clearing the group stage, but there is one interesting thing; you can see who else is applying. In the traditional interview you may steal a fleeting glance at a nervous applicant in the waiting area as you are ushered to the desk where you hand in your pass. You may even hear another’s voice tinged with nervous laughter through a cardboard partition wall as you wait your turn, but ultimately secrecy prevails.. you’ll never know who that ‘more experienced candidate’ who ‘just pipped you’ was.

As a result I found yesterday, my first ever group interview, was an interesting experience. It was at the call-centre I’ve previously dubbed ‘call-centre paradise’ and even the  HR bod jetted in from a distant office to lead proceedings called it ‘pretty nice..for a call-centre anyway.’

So who was vying for a chance to work there? It seemed everyone from every walk. The ages ranged from a wet behind the ears 19 year old with acne who destroyed his chances instantly by referring to his previous job stacking shelves in Tesco until 4am as ‘tortuous.’ It may well have been, but the golden rule of interviews is never ever criticise a previous job or employer. Hopefully he’ll learn. The oldest in his room must’ve been a chap in his late 40s. Formerly of the  job centre I winced at the horrible irony that he was now himself pitched into the world of jobseeking no doubt by government cut-backs. I spoke to him afterwards as he seemed like a nice fellow and as I have also spent some time in public service myself. He told me of another group interview he’d been to which lasted all day and was he said ‘dog eat dog’ a thoroughly unpleasant experience, but today was not like that. “You did well today” he told me which was nice and reassuring.

The day consisted of two exercises. The first was to interview the person next to you then after 10 minutes about their background, why they want to work here and an interesting fact then present your findings to the room. I got paired with a guy who was likeable, but more interested in chatting about football as if we’d just been introduced in the local boozer. I struggled to keep focused on the task, but got far too sucked in learning only that he had previously played in the Dr Martens league and had played American football professionally in Europe. We also totally missed out on the crucial why you want to work here section. Hearing the other, mostly slick,  presentations I figured we were somewhere near the bottom just above the pair of 19 year olds.

As I was ruing my combination of inexperience and bad pairing I was hearing all about other people’s desire to work in a call centre. Almost all cited ‘career advancement’ which they believed wasn’t on offer in their current posts- for those who held one at least. The most interesting was a salesman in his mid 40s. Short and bald with shaved grey hair he sat as his partner recounted that he was top-salesman among 2500, or somesuch impressive number in his firm. My immediate question then was why was he was leaving? Surely as the top salesman he’d be feted within the company taken to a lap-dancing club on the company credit card and allowed to sleep off the hangover in a Travelodge on the edge of Swindon. Thats what happens right? As I was pondering this he was returning his partners favour, claiming he’d found it “very admirable” that she had previously combined work and study. Salesmans charm I thought to myself. He looked relaxed as he soaked in his round one victory. Then his mobile rang.

To anyone thinking that a university education would spare them the call-centre the stories emerging from the first exercise would have shattered their illusions. No fewer than five of twelve or so people in the room had a degree. Considering that two were 19 then just think about that percentage. Two of them may have been in ‘sports studies’ from the local ex-poly, but still think about that percentage. Three years and who knows how much debt for a job, even a whole industry, that is largely indifferent to that expensive piece of paper.

A lot of people in the room, including the graduates also seemed to be working in sales related jobs. Sales it seems is the one part of the economy which never stops hiring – on the way to the interview I passed loads of people in matching bright blue t-shirts. At first I thought these were chuggers and kicked in with my chugger defence mechanism, zig-zag to the other side of the street keeping people as a buffer between me and them at all times. If no people are available maintain a steely stare straight ahead and do not respond to smiles and waving arms. Then I noticed their clipboards reading ‘Work available £7.50-10.00 p.h’. A closer look revealed that the lettering on the T-shirts read ‘home fundraising’ ahh so they’re sort of chuggers, trying to recruit phone-chuggers. Luckily I’m not that desperate yet that I’d sign up for a job which involves abuse and rejection from clocking-on to clocking-off.

Maybe next week?