Combining work and play; Can working in a call centre be fun?

Watching the new BBC 3 series The Call Centre, the thing about it that gets me is how much fun the place looks, so much so that halfway through it had me thinking about emailing  the genial boss ‘Big Nev’ a copy of my CV. In just one episode there was a soap-operas worth of romance, plently of laughter and we were introduced to the house band whilst the trailer for the next episode promised even more fun with a glimpse of the bowl of alcoholic punch at the office party. So can the call centre actually be fun….

When you say call centre, you may imagine something like an old airctraft hanger, a grey industrial unit, or a generic glass and steel office block, none of which particularly stir the soul. You’re also likely to imagine an equally dull generic call-centre interior, where workers sit in rows of cubicles and the colour pallate consists of grey, grey, and more grey. Hardly fun.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Why not turn the office into a playground? I’ve heard of one office where a slide has been installed and all prespective employees are encouraged to have a go. Granted it’s not a call centre, but architectural design has been used to make call centres more fun, such as the Thomas Cook Call Centre in Peterborough which includes among its features beach huts and waves. Another Thomas Cook Call centre, this one in Falkirk, also shows what can be achieved just by ditching the traditional rows in favour of clusters and bringing a splash of colour in

Big Nev’s call centre  with it’s a house band and football team showed how fun could be integrated around working routines. There are also ‘motivational games’ based around sales targets like balls of steel where agents begin with five balls and gets to take one ball from another agent when making a sale , or pod wars where the agent making the sale gets to ‘sink’ another agent, but if all that sounds a bit rubbish there are the more illicit games which can be played in a call centre such as the hang-up race , word-sneak or call centre hold-em.

How about some good old office romance? This was certainly on offer in Big Nev’s call centre with office speed dating events and no small amount of flirting . According to one survey call centres are even  a hotbed of romance, mainly due to the young age range of workers who have a predilection for hitting the pub after work and though I didn’t see much in the way of romance in my place a friend who worked in a call centre belonging to a high-street bank did tell me about a male and female colleague who had a rendezvous in the disabled toilet.  Something surprising to me though is the finding that one in four workers reported flirting with callers – not much opportunity for that with my client base of angry pensioners.

For Big Nev making the call centre fun made sense as, in an industry notorious for high staff turnover, it helped with staff retention. So really it’s win-win, staff have fun whilst recruitment and training costs fall.

So why can’t the call centre be more fun?

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Jo Clarke v the Sainsbury’s Checkout Assistant: Is customer service culture killing good manners?

In many ways it’s a fairly unremarkable encounter, but it’s become a story which has got us all examining the way we treat each other in the modern metropolis. Jo Clarke, a 26 year old, is in Sainsbury’s doing a mid-week shop. Reaching the checkout she’s still deep in conversation on her mobile phone whilst she’s being ‘served’. So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Depending on who you are you either think nothing of this interaction, or you tut to yourself and wonder what’s happening to manners and whether it’s the effect of all this new technology which enables people to inhabit a physical space, yet in their minds be somewhere else entirely.

Today though the checkout assistant has had enough. It’s probably the tail end of a bad day and yet another person is treating them as if they aren’t there, as if they don’t matter, and they probably won’t get so much as a thank you before this young woman swishes out of the store with her bags not giving a second thought just like all the others. So the assistant tells her;”I will not check your shopping out until you get off your mobile phone”……

The supermarket’s response is predictable. It’s media department swing into full damage-limitation mode; it apologises profusely, offers free vouchers and states more-or-less that customers have the right to do pretty much just what they want.

And herein lies the problem. Being in a call centre I know just what type of customer Jo Clarke is likely to be. She’s the one who calls up screaming at you, the one who calls you a liar, the one who calls you stupid, the one demanding to speak to your manager, the one    who tells you to “just get on with it” and the one who never says thank-you when you’ve pulled out all the stops to get them what they wanted. Ok maybe I’m being unfair on her here, maybe she does none of those things – and there is, I should point out, no evidence to suggest she does – but her reaction to the incident in which she is quoted as saying “I couldn’t believe how rude she was” , when she herself was acting in a way many people would still consider rude, speaks volumes about the relationship dynamics involved.

Like the shop-floor In the call centre no matter how you are being treated by the customer your job as a representative of your organisation means you must  be friendly, polite and display manners beyond reproach. The Sociologist Arlie Hochschild famously refers tothis as ’emotional labour’ which in less technical terms it means that your employer wants you to smile sweetly even in the face of the kind of excessive rudeness which would never be acceptable in any other encounter. The customer on the other hand – just so long as they’re not swearing – is permitted to act how they choose. The relationship is one-sided, it’s one where the worker is expected to display deference to the customer, where the ‘customer comes first’

By no means am I advocating that customers should not expect politeness, they should, but the point is that they should offer it too. Just because someones got a badge, or a uniform on, or is paid to take calls does not make them any less entitled to be treated well. My golden rule whenever I’m dealing with an organisation is to treat the person I am dealing with as a human-being and to treat them how I would like to be treated. Can’t we all do this?