Call Centre Town

8.25am and the city’s traffic is providing a rumbling soundtrack to the start of the working day. Outside a dull grey 1970s office block two young men smoke. One, in a smart shirt and trousers, brings his right leg around in an arc, scuffing his shoe on the smooth paving slab. Perhaps he is demonstrating the goal he scored at the weekend. Just around the corner three middle aged women stand chatting in a cluster. A girl with a fringe-cut and a stylish black dress purposefully cuts a course between both the boys and the women to pass into the high-ceilinged lobby with its marble floor.

Just down the road a man wearing a leather satchel negotiates a busy roundabout, before disappearing into a four-storey yellow brick office building which had once been the site of a magnificent (but scary looking) Victorian gothic church whose grade II listed status failed to offer much in the way of protection.

A little further on a car’s front wheel sinks into a pot-hole on the dilapidated road which serves a mini industrial estate. Its door opens and a passenger is disgorged. The cars former passenger takes a few steps and enters a small lobby. Tapping in a four-digit-code they gain access to what looks like a warehouse, but which contains, suspended on a mezzanine floor, above an office space.

In five minutes all these different people will be sat at their desks. They will have different surroundings, use different software systems, and may abide by different dress codes, but whatever their differences they will all be spending the next five, six, seven, eight hours, or even longer tethered to their positions by a headset and wire which plugs them into a vast communications infrastructure spanning the entire planet. This is Call Centre town.


How to complain to a call centre

At first glance call-centres and restaurants couldn’t appear more different, but the way I see it they’re really quite similar. Both feature itinerant workforces doing long hours with low pay running the gauntlet of dealing with the general public day in day out. Just take this article in the Guardian on how to complain in a restaurant. It could easily be wtitten about the call centre. In fact so much so that I’ve adapted many of the points as one thing I’m asked quite often is what tips I have for dealing with call centres.

Anyway, here is my adapted list for how to get customer service satisfaction:

Don’t call whilst drunk

Halfway through a bottle of wine is probably not the best time to call a call centre with that problem of yours and is more likely to end in confrontation than resolution.

Don’t ask to speak the the manager

The restaurant article makes the point that in the restaurant  bad service is usually down to poor management, training and recruitment, with staff being innocent victims caught in the crossfire. This definately does apply to the call centre where what agents can and can’t do is often rigidly defined…… by management. Added to the fact that in the call centre the manager doesn’t actually want to speak to you anyway so all you’re doing is messing up my hard-won call stats. Definitely don’t begin a call this way as it will just turn me against you

Make your point plainly and politely

This goes without saying. Quite often the agent knows what the problem is, even sympathises with you. Keep them onside and more they will do what they can to help.

Put yourself in their shoes

The trick here, according to the restaurant article, is differentiating between genuine rudeness and laziness and staff having a genuinely hard time dealing with a crisis, or a surge in demand. In the call centre this means don’t shout at someone because you’ve been hanging on the line for 40 minutes. They’ve probably been having the day from hell and as the article states “picking on people who are clearly having a hard time of it is tantamount to bullying.”

Don’t talk to people as if they’re idiots

In my call centre the chances were you were speaking to someone working their way to wards a MSc in biochemistry. Just because someone works in a call centre doesn’t mean they’re stupid.

The menu is not optional

Again, this applies equally to the call centre – in fact even more so. I once had a row with a customer because I couldn’t fit their greeting on an item within the space which the system allowed. They just didn’t understand that there was a character limit which was set in stone and thought that somehow I should be able to change this and that I wasn’t. Dealing with a call centre you really need to know

Know when to walk away

Sometimes, you will never get satisfaction. I’ve worked for companies which just did not care and would let customers throw themselves onto the rocks of frustration over and over. The customers clearly thought that in the rules of customer service land that something must give, if only their complaint would make it to the right person. This blind belief would lead to them spending hours on the phone, letter writing and emailing.

Anatomy of a Call Centre


I’ve had this diagram in my head for a while so I’m pleased to finally get it down in some form. It shows my view of how the call centre works, and my role in the whole process. My position is very much to counter the negative energy of the customers by diffusing and absorbing their anger (something Arlie Hochschild referred to as ‘emotion labor’) I’m  a conduit for the system, the agglomeration of software and procedures which governs each firms day to day operations and determines the form and limitations of our interactions – If the system won’t allow it it can’t be done. The system though can’t emote, and its apologies – if it could apologise – would be as unconvincing as those tinny automated announcements you get when your train is delayed and which make me wonder if the railway companies are engaged in a secret project to build a computer which is actually sorry for your delay. Until someone succeeds that project we have the call centre.


Secret Diary of a Call Centre: The book!

Right when I started this blog, my main aim was to reveal to as many people as possible what it felt like to be inside a call centre, to be a part of its machinery. It also helped me to feel a lot better, as if my daily trials had some wider point apart from dealing with endless complaints about self-combusting vacuum cleaners.

Some four years on I’ve ended up with a whole load of posts covering many different aspects of call centre life. As it is in blog format though it can be quite hard to navigate and pick out the more interesting bits. For quite a while I’ve been contemplating producing a ‘book of the blog’ type publication and now it feels the time is right.

I’ve actually been working on it for a good few months and it has been quite fun and more than a little illuminating reading through posts which I wrote a few years ago. I’ve also been adding in more biographical material about my relationship with the call centre, and have included a type of running commentary which captures where my views may be different with the benefit of hindsight.  There are still a lot of outstanding details – mainly technical ones – but I’m aiming for a release around October.





First taste of the call centre

It must have been sometime in the early nineties. My Dad had a business selling fresh cream cakes and these were particularly popular with offices where people would place bulk orders for birthdays and other special events. As the delivery boy it meant I’d seen the inside of many offices. This one was from the outside fairly unspectacular. It had a façade of yellow-ish stone and sat on the outlying part of the office district where a busy roundabout separated downtown from the down-trodden part of town. Next door was a derelict Victorian Gothic church which always struck me as a little creepy.

The inside was gloomier than the airy new buildings I’d been used to. This feeling of difference though did little to prepare me for what I was about to see. I was directed with my tray of cakes into the middle of a high-ceilinged room. All around me sat people in headsets, the nearest a smart-looking man pressed a button “Hello, Eagle Star Direct, how can I help you?” Then a pause, followed by “I’ll just put you through.” Then again “Hello, Eagle Star Direct, how can I help you?” a pause, followed by “I’ll just put you through.” And again. and again, and again. The repetition seemed endless. I watched and listened, transfixed. What was this place? I wanted to get out and couldn’t get rid of the cakes soon enough. As I opened the passenger door to the van and swung myself into the seat ready for my next office I made a mental note. I never ever want to work in a place like this.

The Toxic Call Centre

In 1999 Niels Kjellerup coined the term ‘toxic call centre‘ identifying four key characteristics:

  1. Disregard for potential of staff. Use of terms like ‘agents’ to dehumanise people. Burn-out accepted as inevitable cost of a tough job. No or little training to improve communication & relationship skills of reps
  2. Lack of strategic vision for the Call Centre and how it adds-value to the organisation paying the operational cost. Call factory measurements substitute for meaningful benchmarks which could help senior management relate to the value created in call outcomes.
  3. Management role is that of enforcement rather than coaching & skills development.
  4. New Technology viewed as the only way to improve productivity

Needless to say this sums up my old workplace – and just about every grievance I had with it – very nicely.

The good news though is that Kjellerup beleives the  Toxic call centre is by it’s very nature unsustainable, at least in the long-run:

Short term endless pressure for productivity improvements. Staff retaliates by bringing in unions and labour relations sour ( the modern day sweat shop concept is born) Impossible job to manage, resulting in high turn over of Managers depleting the little Call Centre Know How existing. Finally as Senior Management gives up trying to make sense of the escalating call centre costs the activity is outsourced.

Long term, no company or organisation can afford to distance themselves from their customers and Toxic Call Centres will be restructured with a new management team with a view to develop a Coaching Culture Call Centre where Call Outcomes are given priority and the customer contact is integrated with the rest of the organisations with measurement and benchmarks which clearly demonstrates the way improved customer interaction benefits the organisation. In terms of increased revenue, lower operational costs and better customer access resulting in significant lower sales and marketing costs.

 I’m not sure how much I share this view. I’ve seen at first hand how companies can still do very well despite upsetting people with bad call centre service. Take our worst company, one which had been in business over 20 years. I’d spend all day listening to customers telling me over and over and how awful we were and that we’d lost a customer, but still new ones kept coming to take their place. Even more puzzling if you did an internet search you’d uncover very little in the way of negative comments.

For a company looking to cut costs they may well be be safe in the knowledge that only a small portion of its customers will actually interact with the call centre, and of those who are unhappy with the service only a very small minority will be motivated to do anything about it whether that’s an angry tweet, or going elsewhere. Of course companies would do much better and get much more business if they did improve their call centres, but it’s a link they seldom seem to make.

 Just take car insurance. How many people think of call centre quality when making a purchasing decision, especially when you only have any contact with the centre when changing details, or making a claim. How bad would the service have to be before a customer would actually switch to another provider who is charging, say £20 extra a year?

And that’s why the Toxic Call Centre will be around for a while yet.