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.
“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.