Where’s my headset?

I thought I’d post this piece I wrote about just one of the many small annoyances which make working in a call centre even harder than it has to be – headset swiping.

For a call-centre worker the headset is the most essential piece of kit much like a marines rifle.. “This is my headset there are many like it..” Officially, in the call centre, we were all individualy issued with our own headset which we were entrusted with the care of. I never got round to naming my headset, but, well, it was mine and I looked after it, neatly wrapping the lead around the headpiece and placing it snugly in my drawer at the end of each shift .

For much of my time in the call centre this arrangement continued untroubled, but  as the busier Christmas periods approached headsets would start to vanish. The call centre bulging at the seams with temps dragged in off the street outside (and then spat out with a P45 just before Christmas) the problem was always there is never enough headsets to go on all these extra heads as the company was just too miserley to buy any more. This led to desperate agents rifling  through drawers for other peoples headsets, often with the encouragement of management who just want to get you on the phone as quick as possible.

Predictably, before very long, things would degenerate into a never-ending cycle. For example I arrived one Monday morning, full of enthusiasm as usual, only to find my headset was missing from my drawer. At my managers suggestion promptly stole a headset and a connector unit from someone elses drawer in another desk. When that person eventually came in to find they had no headset they would then have to steal someone elses. the cycle would continue. Annoying.


Call times; A call centre obsession

Call times. Two words guaranteed have anyone who has ever worked in a call centre holding their head in their hands whilst loudly groaning.

In the call centre call times are a management obsession and the bane of agents who can suffer anything from a rap on the knuckles to losing their job for not dealing with calls quickly enough.

As the Dilbert cartoon points out call-times seem to take a much higher precedence over the quality of call handling.

How could such a situation come about?

Well, we have to look at call-centre managers, in my experience these aren’t the smartest bunch of people (firmly inhabiting the stupid/evil quadrant of Vroom’s matrix)

Thanks to the technology available they have very little to do in terms of collecting data on call-times, this is done automatically. If they had to time each agent manually with a stopwatch then see how quickly call-times would lose importance.

In terms of analysis, to call-centre managers the average call-time is seemingly a simple and objective measure enabling the manager to make an easy comparison between agents. This is of course a mistake, any agent will tell you that average call times are affected by many things; the day of the week, the client you are working on, computer glitches, and just plain luck  – anyone could have been landed with that long and complex query that took you over 20 minutes to deal with, but it was your phone which rang.

Monitoring quality on the other hand takes time, lots more of it. One single manager can glance at the call time charts produced by the phones, but to measure quality would mean listening-in to calls –  even if a manager spent an entire day listening in they would only hear a small selection of calls.

If an agent knows they are being listened-in to they can also simply adapt their behaviour (a well known phenomenon known as the ‘Hawthorne effect’ ) Of course this effect can be overcome by using various methods however, these take more time and effort on the part of the manager.

Quality is also a much more problematic concept to define far less objective. Who decides what good quality means? – say for example an agent bends the rules to help a customer and that customer leaves the call delighted… Is that a good, or bad call?

There is also with such a qualitative measure no simple way of ranking agents. Assigning a quality ‘score’ would be regarded with suscpicion. Therefore the feedback process is also more involved. Feedback about quality involves a 1-1 conversation which again thakes up more time.

The main reason, of course, for the emphasis on call-times is simply (and perhaps unsurprisingly) money. In my case the call centre received payment per-call so the more calls we could get through the more money. Even if it’s not on a per-call basis the more calls a single agent can handle the lower the number needed to meet demand.

It’s a very short-term way of thinking. The problems of which are best summed up by my old colleague T-J.

T-J routinely topped the monthly call time chart. Like a cyclist on a breakaway she posted a way out in front average time of just over 2 minutes.  A couple of others in a chasing group trailed just behind T-J and would maybe try to mount the occasional challenge, but would always fall back. T-J was a one-off.

(Personally I was happy to be just a domestique in the main peleton which ran from somewhere around 2.30 to 2.50. I reasoned that was the best place to keep my head down. In the end I chose a deliberate strategy of apathy – I just stopped looking at the monthly list.)

How did T-J do so well?

I realised the answer one shift when we were both taking calls for our flower delivery client. We were heading towards a bank holiday which added an extra day to delivery times however, we handled this in very different ways;


Me: Hello Flower Delivery Ltd

Customer: Hello, I’d like to order some flowers for Tuesday please.

Me: I’m afraid as its a bank holiday that means the card won’t be delivered until Wednesday at least.

Customer: Oh..

Me: If you choose the express option we could just about get it there for Tuesday.

Customer: How much is that?

Me: It will be an extra £3.50

Customer: No, that’s too much, I’ll go with the ordinary delivery please. Wednesday will be o.k.

(What I’ve done here is by offering the customer options Ive actually increased my call time).


T-J: Flower delivery Ltd

Customer: Hello, I’d like to order some flowers for Tuesday please.

T-J: You do realise they won’t get there until Wednesday.

Customer: Oh ok…


Customer: Bye


Good Manager/ Evil Manager; The Managerial Matrix

It’s well documented in this blog that for a time I suffered at the hands of a bad manager in the call centre. I was therefore very intrigued to come across a theory espoused by Vroom – a character in Chetan Bhagat’s novel; One Night at The Call Centre.

Vroom explains: ‘there are four kinds of bosses in this world, based on two dimensions; a) how smart or stupid they are, and b) whether they are good or evil. Only with extreme good luck do you get a boss who is smart and a good human being. However, Bakshi falls ino the most dangerous and common category. He is stupid, as we all know, but he is evil too,’

I know where I’d place my old manager Peggy on the matrix.

Where would your boss go?