This is something which has been in my head for a while and it’s quite an accurate summary of my current workplace where the huge number of people coming in the door is only matched by the number making for the exit. It’s a situation which is familiar to many call centres where high staff turnover is a almost a way of life – as I blogged about last year.
I never expected to see in my 30th year in a call centre. If you’d have asked me where I’d have been now at the age of 18 I’d have pictured a job in middle-management somewhere with a comfortable salary, certainly enough to pay the mortgage on a nice suburban semi.
But here I am. And what’s worse it feels somehow wrong, like there’s a law that says you shouldn’t be in a call centre in your thirties, just like that quote which is widely reported to have been uttered by Margaret Thatcher that ‘any man seen riding on a bus after the age of 30 should consider himself a failure’
Of course the BBC3 show the call centre didn’t help with it’s emphasis on the call centre as being young, funky and just a little bit spunky. According to the voiceover on the episode which I viewed out of the ‘1 million call centre workers in the UK’ the average age is just 26.
But how true is this? The older I get the younger my colleagues seem to be, but I’ve also seen plenty of people older than me in the call centre and I have my suspicions about claims that the call centre is wholly a young persons environment.
According to the U.S Call Centre Industry 2004: National Benchmarking Report based upon a survey of General Managers from a representative sample of 470 establishments the young call centre is in fact something of a myth
Call center jobs are often viewed as low skilled and clerical, and the workforce is portrayed as young and unattached to the labor force. According to our survey, however, the age and education profile of call center workers is considerably higher. The typical call center worker in this survey is 30 years old and has one and a half years of college education.
However, in a post entitled Do call centres discriminate against older workers? The Call Centre Helper blog presents data from a 2008 YouGov survey of 946 call centre agents which found that 46% of call centre workers are aged under 30. By contrast just 10% were over 50
Whilst this means the median age of a call centre employee would be around thirty plotted in a chart it is quite apparent how the age-profile is skewed towards the younger end of the age range.
In terms of industry sector there is also some variation. Using Data from a 2004 DTI report the CFA Business Skills @ Work Contact Centre Labour Market Report 2012 presents a break down of average age by industry sector. The average age varies from 24 for Healthcare and Entertainment & Leisure to 31 for Utilities and 32 for the category Food & Drink.
Importantly, according the the CFA report, the DTI data distinguished between several different groups of employees:
In terms of identifying patterns, the DTI figures from 2000 draw on evidence from focus groups and site visits and further explanation illustrates that there were at that time several key groups of employees who were agents. The first of these groups was identified as young women under 30 who may not have higher educational qualifications but have significant length of service in the industry. Fewer young men are in that category. A second group is made up of returning workers and those looking for a new start after structural redundancy. This brings in a more mature group which raises the average age. A third group consisted of recent graduates or even students working part time who may not be seeing long term prospects in the industry.
Additionally there also seems to be some evidence that as the economy and demands of the industry change the average age of call centre workers is rising
Newer qualitative evidence is provided by consultation and research undertaken in 2009. Focus groups and site visits indicated that the average age of agents was probably rising as was the average level of qualifications. This came about partly from changing labour markets and partly from the tendency for contact centres to handle more relationship-based work than early call centre routines, many of which have now been automated. Consultees confirmed that their recruitment focuses on candidates with greater life experience and the ability to form a rapport and relationship with a wide variety of clients. Despite the lack of quantified data, this information is clearly relevant to the overview of age of the workforce.
In short there’s going to be a lot more of us turning thirty in the call centre.
I’m always interested in seeing how call centres are represented in works of fiction. So far I’ve come across several novels based around call centres, or at least featuring a call centre and this short series is intended to be a look at some of the characters found within them and to explore what they tell us about the call centre….
Book: Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen
Name: Boyd Shreave (a.k.a. Boyd Eisenhower)
Employer: Relentless Inc (USA)
A telemarketing company based in a converted B52 hangar in Texas the main business of Relentless Inc is calling people across the United States to offer them a “unique” real estate opportunity located near the Suwannee river . Operating between 5pm and midnight Relentless call middle-income residential addresses across the country beginning with the east coast and ending with the west coast. The fifty four workers on the shift sit in padded cubicles and rattle through a photocopied sales script. Thanks to the “onerous” calling quotas there is little interaction between them helping to make it a “dreary and soulless job” not made any better by the minimum wage plus commission pay.
Boyd’s Call-Centre Journey:
Boyd came to work in the call centre ostensibly because his voice doesn’t match his face. Aged thirty-five his various careers in sales have largely ended in failure thanks to Boyd’s unfortunate ability to make people feel uncomfortable with his appearance which is described thus:
..their was an air of sour arrogance about him – a slant to one thin reddish eyebrow that hinted at impatience, if not outright disdain; a slump of the shoulders that suggested the weight of excruciating boredom; a wormish curl of the upper lip that was often perceived as a sneer of condescension or, worse, a parody of Elvis.
Boyd however, has the telephone voice of an angel and at the suggestion of one former employer made the switch to the call centre where he has been for six-months and where “for the first time in his life he could honestly claim to be semi-competent at his job”. Nevertheless Boyd, who uses the moniker Boyd Eisenhower, has grown tired of the environment at Relentless, with the only thing keeping him going being an affair with a colleague, a six-foot blonde, who goes by the name of Eugenie Fonda.
Finest Call Center moment:
Responding to being dubbed a “professional pest” by someone he called by snarling “Go screw yourself, you dried up old skank”
Worst call centre moment:
Having the above call being listened in to and being promptly fired.
What does the character represent:
Outbound sales calls are the most reviled side of the call-centre industry so it’s unsurprising that Boyd is presented as a bit of a villain, even if we do feel a little sorry for the working conditions he has to endure. In the call centre among my usual calls I’d receive the occasional business-to business sales call from a person asking to speak to “the person responsible for ordering shelves” or some such thing to which I’d politely take down their details before chucking them in the basket for one of the supervisors to then file in the bin. I’d always feel sorry for the person who called as it must be one of the worst jobs in the world, as no matter how hard my job was at times at least the majority of people I spoke to were quite happy to speak to me and usually grateful for my help. Having to deal with rejection and abuse all day everyday must be so hard, near impossible. Inbound seems like paradise in comparison.
One day, not long after my exit from the call centre, I heard that people arriving for their shift in the morning were greeted by a memo sellotaped to each computer monitor by their manager Peggy, instructing them not to take toilet breaks whilst on-shift.
It was just the latest act in what had been a long running battle in my call centre – A fierce fight over the very right to answer the call of nature. Previous to the sticky-taped missive a number of memos prohibiting the use of the toilet in work time ‘unless an emergency’ had been issued, and subsequently ignored, amid much canteen and car-park whispering of ‘how dare they.’ Even those among us who would usually be the most docile and compliant members of pro-management staff were up-in-arms. We were unanimously agreed; the right to go when we needed to go was an inalienable one which we would not give up easily.
But it seems that it is not just my call centre where the toilet issue created strong feelings; In a blog titled The Secret Diary of a Call Centre Worker Aged 31 1/2 a Scottish Call Centre worker describes their fiery response to receiving a note telling them that they could not use the toilet on their shift:
Imagine being 31 (and a 1/2) years old and being told you’re not allowed to vist the loo. Immature it may be, but I did infact give my “team leader” the extended middle finger after being told this. Who the hell does she think she is?!
Their tone is however, ultimately one of resignation. For them being denied the right to take a toilet break when needed is all part of the call centre:
This is just call centre life unfortunately. We have to be available at all times other than scheduled breaks, needing to pee is apparently unimportant.
And they are right. The toilet issue is not exclusive to the call centre. Check-out assistants and workers in some other industries also have a tough time, but the call-centre has been fairly notorious for waging war on the toilet break with some gusto, in cases going to extreme lengths in finding strategies to control their staff’s use of the toilet.
The main tool in the battle seems to be monitoring the time taken by staff in the toilet. In my call centre the layout was such that our manager would know instantly how long you were away from your desk and you’d very much feel that the clock was ticking. As far as I know however, no times were ever logged; Alan Carr on the other hand describes a ‘log book’ in the Barclaycard call centre where employees were instructed to record the time taken using the toilet complete with a set of guidelines – 5 mins allowed for a number two and 3 mins for a simple wee.
Another call centre in my town – belonging to a major utility – had more sophisticated systems which electronically logged time away from a work-station to go to the toilet, but as far as I’m aware even this system didn’t trigger an alarm with flashing lights, as is the case of the Norweigan call centre , belonging to DNB an insurance company, where managers received a notification alarm if a member of staff spent more than an allotted eight minutes a day away from their desks.
Whilst I myself never got more than a withering stare for abandoning my headset to rush to the toilet, others were asked to produce GP’s notes to account for the time they spent on the toilet. Its also not unheard of for workers to be pulled up on time taken in the loo; In one extreme case which was reported in the national news call centre managers were even threatening workers who spent too long on the toilet with being forced to wear a disposable nappy.
So just why does the call-centre have such a problem with the call of nature?
The key reason, unsurprisingly, is that it’s all about the money. In one of her many memos on the subject our manager, Peggy, lays bare her reasoning for the war on the loo break..
Every time some one leaves their desk we lose a call, whether it’s for a query, loo break or to get water. This, over a week can equate to in excess of 2000 calls lost, with a loss of revenue which we cannot afford in this difficult economic climate.
Fuzzy math aside (2000 calls at an average of 3.5 minutes per call – means collectively we’d be spending just shy of 120 hours a week on the loo) it speaks volumes about the priorities of the call centre.
Sat at their desks call centre workers are like a part of a machine. Like a piston in a machine whose movement generates money there is a loss of revenue each time the piston, and the machine stops. Call centre managers main concern is to keep the machine running and therefore there priority is to keep workers at their desks for as long as possible.
Viewing workers as part of a machine dehumanises them, to the point at which bodily functions are denied, or viewed as a threat to the machine and which must therefore be the subject of control.
Finally, as many people may ask; what is the legal position? Can an employer try to prevent workers from using the toilet during work time? Whilst legislation exists in UK law determining the rules for the provision of toilet facilities there are no specific rules about when these facilities can be accessed, apart from an employers general health & safety responsibilities. The TUC who have long campaigned on the issue of a workers right to take a toilet break, arguing in their 2010 report ‘Give us a (loo) break’ that “a worker’s right to use the toilet is a human right!”, state in the the report that there is a need for further legislation to protect workers stating:
There is also a need for a specific legal right to use toilets in the employer’s time without a deduction in pay, and without any harassment.
In the meantime the battle will rage on in call-centres up and down the land.
Congratulations to my friend Mr E. for escaping the call-centre. One of the nicest people I had the pleasure of working alongside Mr E. was friendly, helpful, had a great moral sense, and was above all conscientious in all his dealings with customers – all qualities which made him shine as a human being, but which left him hopelessly out of place in the cut-throat world of the call-centre.
Like all of us Mr E. deserves better than the call centre.
Good luck to him.
I’ve had an idea. It may not work, but I’m going to give it a go. One thing I’d really like to feature more of in this blog is the perspectives and stories from everyone working in call centres whatever industry and wherever in the world. To this end I have come up with a short questionnaire. I have used myself as a guinea pig and completed the first one which I have typed out below. I have created a new page on the blog which will host these. I have also stuck up a template there so anyone can copy and paste the questions. Give as long or as short answers as you’d like. Please email completed questionnaires to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively I’ve set up a questionnaire on Survey monkey
Name/ Nomme de plume:
Time wearing the headset:
Type of call centre (e.g inbound/ outbound/ insurance/mail-order/ etc):
Inbound customer services for multiple clients – mainly mail order. Including household names.
The best thing about working in a call centre is..
Being able to switch off knowing that ultimately the job you’re doing doesn’t matter – except to make someone somewhere richer than they already are.
If I could change one thing about my call centre it would be..
My manager Peggy.
Most callers are..
Nice, reasonable, patient people. It’s just the 1% of them who can mess up your day.
I took a call from a lady who’s mother-in-law was waiting for a vacuum cleaner she had ordered. It had been delayed as someone had made an error putting in the postcode so I initially had trouble finding the order on the system. I managed to identify the problem and to get it resolved within about 10 minutes, but had the person being so nasty to me – really spitting venom that it left me shaking afterwards. It was a long time ago, but the thought of it still makes me shudder. It left me wondering what kind of person feels that having a vacuum cleaner delayed by a few days is justification for making another human being feel that way.
Funniest call centre moment:
The time a lady called to complain. Someone had sent her a set of bathbombs through the flower ordering company we took calls for. She had mistaken them for chocolates and had swallowed part of one. First call she should have made was NHS direct.
Call centres – good or bad?
I’ve had great service from call-centres and have (though some may disagree) also in turn given good service, but I have also seen countless examples of bad service, bad attitudes, customers being messed around and lied to.
It’s not the call centre per-se that is bad, but rather I feel there are two call centres. The call centre of dreams and the call centre of nightmares.
The call centre of dreams is what the call centre was originally meant to be in its idealized form – a place focused on quality customer service a place where agents have the right training, support, motivation and the ability to make a difference. The call centre of nightmares is focused more on its revenues – a place where the primary concern is not customer service, but simply getting through as many calls as possible. In this call centre agents are poorly trained, poorly motivated and suffer with empathy burn-out.
In reality, there are examples of both types.
Does the call centre have a future?
Yes, but things will be different. there will be less routine transactions and more dealing with complex issues and handling customers in a volatile emotional state. I think customers expectations will also be higher – the faster paced life gets the more people want things yesterday.
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?