The end of the call-centre as we know it?

News update from the call centre; Peggy the manager has revealed that Big-Al had been attempting to sell the call-centre all along however, a buyer has still not been found.  Staff have also now been told that they will have to ‘give something back’ by working 2.5 hours without pay each week. This all seems rather desperate. Could this be the beginning of the end for the call centre? Maybe it’s simply an isolated case down to mismanagement, but maybe it’s also part of a bigger trend; has the whole call centre industry after some two decades, finally had its day?

For some reason working in a call centre seems to bring forth fantasies of its destruction, not necessarily in any cathartic sense, though Tristen Black’s description of his call-centre being swallowed up into a hell portal is particularly fetching, more I’m thinking in the sense of their obsolescence that one day the whole sorry industry will finally be put out of its misery.I particularly like a passage from the novel Eight minutes Idle in which the protagonist, Dan Thomas, jumps into a conversation between two other characters in a lift, The subject of discussion is the end of the call-centre;

‘So what do you think?’ Glasses asks Moustache. ‘Is it only a matter of time before call-centres are abolished?’

‘I doubt it’ he answers wearily. ‘Mertz wanted to make an impression, that’s all.’

‘Maybe, but he sounded convincing.’

‘Cause he’s a zealot, that’s why. And what better way of thumbing his nose at management? Telling them their world’s about to become obsolete guarantees him a future.’

‘I dunno. He must be pretty sure of himself.’

‘Wouldn’t you be? Half the world’s just converted to his cause and the other half’s terrified of it.’

‘So he’s right?’

‘No, he’s not right. It’s not like TV and telephones. Doing business over the computer completely removes the human element. Most people still need a voice.’

‘But they don’t get a voice,’ I interject, before reciting, ‘all our operators are busy at the moment… please hold and we’ll answer your call as soon as possible.’

‘So why do they keep calling?’

‘Because they’re all crazy old ladies,’ I tell him, pleased to be giving my theories an airing. ‘Look, it’s obvious. Call-centres are really doing three separate jobs. Giving people information, selling insurance, and listening to old people complain. Sure, the first two probably could be managed without operators. But computers couldn’t cope with complaints, not satisfactorily. They’ll keep us around as a public service.’

The book was published in 1999 and call centres are still with us some 13 years on. In that time the domestic call centre industry has also defied predictions that it would be decimated by outsourcing and in fact can even be said to have  thrived with the Guardian reporting in 2005  that “the growth in call centre jobs in Britain was almost three times greater than that for overall employment in the past four years.” It seems as that Mertz was wrong, or was it just that he just too early?

Last year telecommunications firm Talk Talk cited falling volumes and the increased use of ‘web based support’ as the reason behind a decision to close their Waterford call centre with a loss of 575 jobs and recently British Gas announced the closure of it’s Southampton call centre with a reported 500 job losses stating that it is now “dealing with more customers through digital channels.”

It seems that the call centre born itself from advances in technological advances in communication systems is now becoming surpassed by their further development and our acclimatization to using tools such as the internet.

As Dan Thomas suggests in Eight Minutes Idle it really appears that the only people keeping call-centres going are the ‘crazy old ladies’. Indeed I’d say that most of my callers seemed to be older people. Amongst older customers there is still a view of the internet as a dangerous unknown entity, a veritable wild-west of stolen card details and identity theft, whilst on the other hand anyone else only really called if the website is down with one lady I spoke to struggling for over half an hour with the website and making two calls before she relented and finally allowed us to take her order by phone.

So Mertz’s vision of the demise of the call-centre will surely eventually come to pass as Dan Fox, a marketing analyst, points out in an online article call-centres will not be able to rely on a diminishing group of internet-phobes;

Those in the first group turn to call centers for a few reasons. The first and most obvious is that the caller isn’t comfortable or familiar with the Internet. This is clearly not sustainable, because at a certain point everyone will be familiar and comfortable with the Internet.

But, before we rush to mourn (or perhaps rejoice at) the demise of the call centre there is perhaps one thing on which the call-centre could pin its hopes. Could emotion be the salvation for call-centres? Dan Fox, like Dan Thomas, concludes that despite all its flaws the call-centre offers something that new technology is as yet unable to..

although the individual customer service representative could probably care less about your late shipment, we assume the voice on the other end has empathy and can understand your problems and what you would like to accomplish by the end of the phone call.

What Dan Fox sees is an evolution, a new type of call centre, the emotional centre of a “multi-modal” approach to customer service. Bruno Morriset  a French Geographer agrees with this view that the call-centre has entered a new phase in its development. In an academic conference paper impressively titled The Rise of the Call Center Industry: Splintering and Virtualization of the Economic Space he sets out that;

the call center industry itself is entering an upgrading process, illustrated by new words such as contact center, information center, data center, data processing unit, web call center etc. The future of the CRM industry, especially in developed countries, lies in multimedia, more complex tasks, involving rising opportunities for skilled people. Routine-oriented only sites are threatened by technical developments and automation processes, such as voice recognition. Last but not least, customers themselves will soon ask for more personalized services, not for parrot-fashion messages: fifty million U.S. citizens have already subscribed to the federal “do-notcall” list, which bans unsolicited telephone messages from televendors

It seems therefore that we arrive at a rather positive note. The call-centre can claim a future, but in a new form as contact centre, and for critics of the call centre what does appear to promise to face a slide into irrelevance are some of the worst aspects of call-centres; the dull, repetitive tasks, the overwhelming focus on volumes rather than on the quality of interactions and the accompanying lack of respect for and investment in maintaining happy, motivated, well-skilled staff.

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Crazy Caller of the Day 4

If I miss anything about the call centre it’s the calls and callers that were a little out there- the ones which cut through the monotony of another day being hooked up to the phone-line and stuck on repeat.  My all time favourite still has to be the lady who confused a bath-bomb with a tasty treat which still makes me laugh out loud when I recall it.

The best crazy calls begin with the customer bursting into the conversation with righteous indignation and end with them shuffling out the door slightly abashed whilst feebly protesting that its not actually their fault. Their change in tone from anger to sheepishness is however, the ultimate giveawaythat they know they’re in the wrong.

For us in the call centre it’s a small victory:

Hello XXXinc Call Guy speaking. How can I help?

Well, I’ve been trying to send you an email but the address you’ve given me on your paperwork doesn’t work.

Oh dear, I’m sorry about that, I’m not aware of any problems with the email

I can tell you there is. Everytime I send an email it comes back rejected.

Let me check out for you. Would you be able to tell me what address you have there

It’s just http://www.XXXXinc.co.uk

I mean the email address

What do you mean? That is the email address….

Erm, not quite

But it says ”get in touch with us via the web at http://www.XXXXinc.co.uk”

Well that’s a web address you see, an email address will be something like mail@XXXXinc.co.uk, there will always be an @ in it.

Oh..well, it doesn’t make it clear does it..

How I miss these calls. This was my last ever crazy call, but fear not I’ve found a couple of links to more; the Call Centre Helper blog compiled a list of crazy calls including the most legendary tech support call which has been doing the rounds for years whilst the site The Phone Phunnies has another load of transcriptions and tales of crazy callers.

I still think the bath bomb call is the best ever though!

Bad Job Interviews, Brushes with Fame and the Call-Centre

At the tail end of 2011 desperate to leave my call centre hell I had a number of interviews – mostly in other call-centres. This experience allowed me a glimpse into otherwise closed worlds and to compare them with my own. This post deals with an interview I attended. The day in question was a follow-up interview I’d been invited to after a successful group interview. The story which follows is one of interview disaster, famous callers, and some reflections on the problem with call-centres.

An hour and a half before the interview. I decided that I’d probably need to shave the one days worth of stubble I’d acquired – possibly this conclusion was the result of an internal dialogue with the voice of my Mum “but you’ve got to shave” she’d say “otherwise you’ll look lazy.. Employers don’t like it”…. “but what about Richard Branson” I’d reply “he has a beard doesn’t he?”

Although I didn’t notice it my arm was feeling the tension of the forthcoming interview. Rather than gliding the blade was scraping as if it was screeching down the rusty hull of a long abandoned ship. I managed to nick myself. Nothing major, but it threw me even more off balance. My arm wobbled. This time it was a slice. Just below the lip. Desperately I tried to stem the flow of blood with a tissue… an hour later it was still gushing away blood dripping off my chin. My usual interview preparation of a leisurely stroll with plenty of time to spare allowing space to relax and focus was now out of the window. 15 minutes to go and the blood-flow showing no sign of abating I reached for a plaster, jumped on my bicycle and pedalled hard.

Breathless, dishevelled and not a little self conscious I entered through the revolving door into the marbled atrium and approached the smart looking concierge at the front desk. Unlike last time no one from HR waiting with a smile and a handshake. Things already felt very different. I was directed to the first floor with the minimum of pleasantries the concierge dismissively explaining that this was the reception desk for the building, not the company. Once upstairs I was faced by a choice of two doors. I went through one and was met by one of the group interview facilitators, the one who’d called me back praising my ‘customer service skills’. Seeing me she recoiled with shock.. “what’s happened to your face?” she gasped.

I was re-directed to door number two. The person doing my interview, Vicky was, so I was told, sat somewhere at the far end of the open plan office. I stepped out onto the floor. Despite being greeted by the call-centre soundtrack of ringing and hubbub I was so used to the environment somehow contrived to feel very alien, hostile even. As I passed each row I became aware of the appraising stares, or was that just paranoia brought on by having a great big plaster across my chin like a loser on Mallet’s Mallet? I reached the end of the floor without spotting Vicky an asked one of the operators who pointed to a girl sat one row back.  The obligatory handshake done Vicky explained that as there were no rooms available she would do the interview right here on the floor. The contrast to the well-ordered group interview was being stretched to breaking point. Vicky was a team-leader and in her mid 20s appeared to be one of the oldest in the office. The company had put her on an NVQ in customer service she told me.  She then began to tell me about the bonus system. I would need to hit so many targets and if I did I could expect a bonus; “You need to be driven by money here” she told me before adding for effect “the bigger the pile the wider the smile.” I’m not sure if she noticed my uncomfortable grimace.  She asked me what I did in my current job “any sales experience?” she enquired. I grimaced some more.

After 10 minutes it was all over. I knew I hadn’t hit it off with Vicky and the plaster was only partly to blame. The rest of the afternoon would now be a formality. I was escorted  two rows away and told to sit with Steve, a portly, friendlyish chap currently in the middle of a call. I was handed a headset whilst Steve was handed the split adaptor. Vicky then disappeared. Finishing his call Steve turned to me with a grin of not unimpressive girth.

“I’ve just been speaking to David Guest” he said gesturing to the name still on his screen.

Obviously unhappy with my murmured response Steve repeated it more loudly sucking in the attention of a couple his colleagues. Pausing to briefly bask in the adulation he broke the news to us all that it wasn’t really the David Gest.

“I had someone famous once” I cut in.

“Who?”

“Frank Carson”

“Never heard of him.”

“You would know if you’d heard the voice.” Or maybe not.. Steve had the look of someone only recently out of sixth-form. Taking this into account I decided against shouting out Frank’s “It’s the way I tell ‘em” catchphrase in my best mock Northern Irish accent.

Steve began showing off his two screened workstation as he dealt with the wrap-up. I admitted the system looked like a nice piece of kit and could do with one in my current job where I had to deal with a windows desktop so crowded it resembled a Where’s Wally picture.  Demonstrating its capabilities he whizzed his mouse cursor from one screen where he was booking the appointment to the next screen where he opened an email from Vicky congratulating her team on some positive feedback they’d got from some big-shot regional manager about how following issues they had successfully improved their customer service “we rarely get praise so this is really good news. Well done” she’d added at the bottom of the message.

He explained to me that he’d just arranged a valuation. This was a good thing. It meant he got to stand up and ring a bell hanging from the ceiling which he then did. Faint applause emanated from his nearby colleagues.

Steve plugged me in and we waited for the next call to come in. I took the opportunity to do some digging about the job; what kind of calls? How busy? One positive appeared to be that at least there were gaps between calls and unlike my place the atmosphere was more, well you could say, lively   some ‘banter’ started between Steve and some of his colleagues including a skinhead with menacing narrow eyes had a bag of M&M’s. A contest began to throw the M&Ms over a partition and into Steve’s waiting mouth. Another guy on the row behind joined in the fun. It began playing out like a testosterone fuelled version of the Maltesers advert where a bunch of women in a call centre roll maltesers into a the mouth of a colleague who is taking a call.

A call came in. The display read ‘Wakefield’;

“Hi could I speak to Josie please”

“I’m afraid she’s not available”

“Do you know when she’ll be about?”

“I’m afraid I don’t we’re the overflow centre. Could I help?”

“oh no it’s ok I’ll just call back later thanks.”

Steve told me this was fairly typical of a call at least for this particular one where overflow was a fairly new thing. I reflected on an opinion I have long held that this was what’s wrong with the call centre. Customers want to know who they’re dealing with, they want some kind of relationship with them… they wanted a Josie, or a Julie, or John, or Alan, or Mike and they wanted to be able to pick up the phone and call them… the call-centre with its faceless mechanical impersonality just gets in the way of this. In any case it struck me that customer service was less important in this gig than hitting the targets.

Wakefield called again and hung up straight away.

“It happens a lot” Steve sighed.

Wakefield called again.

Steve answered with an air of resignation. Click. Gone.

Steve explained his target was for one viewing for every 100 calls. “That’s why these ones are so annoying.” Steve was behind on his target already and Wakefield had just cost him a couple of chances to get back on track.

Just when I thought I’d seen and heard enough Steve hit me.

“From 6.30 until 9 we do outgoing.”

What? Funnily enough no one mentioned this before. Turns out the last 2 and a half hours of every shift are spent calling customers who are selling their properties and “just asking how they are, is there anything we can do etc”. The kind of call most people hate being on the receiving end of. Steve confirmed a big problem with this was it was the time most people were having their dinner. It was he said his least favourite part of the job.

Vicky  re-appeared. I feigned the requisite amount of enthusiasm and Vicky told me to expect a call in the next few days. We played our roles to perfection.

On my way out the skinhead was waiting in the lift. I got in and we rode to the ground floor. As we stepped out he looked at me and uttered “good luck mate.”

The next few days came and went. I didn’t ever get a call, or even a letter. I was indeed lucky.