Stop that chatter!

Early on a Friday afternoon and the only audible sign that I’m not alone (which sometimes I am at this time of week) is the occasional clicking of my colleagues mouse. From the sound of it she – like me – is deeply engaged in surfing the internet. Whether its checking the news, online shopping or getting ideas for dinner tonight I can only guess. We haven’t talked for hours.

It’s not that we can’t stand each other. We have a typical colleague-colleague relationship. It’s just that we can talk whenever we want – so we don’t. It’s this which makes me realise how far away from the call centre I now am.

In the call centre talking to your co-workers is a forbidden fruit to be bitten into, to have its juices savoured. You talked whenever you had the chance. The reason for this is that when it is effectively the use of your vocal chords which is being paid for the employer expects them to be used only for the pursuit of their objectives. Using them for mere idle chatter is wasting money.

In my last call centre managers would go to lengths to prevent chatter. Not content with waving monitoring reports at you in your six-monthly review, showing how much time you’d spent not on calls they’d seek to catch you red handed. Moving around the floor with stealth they used the wobbly grey partitions, stone pillars and over-sized pot-plants for cover. Observing for a few moments they’d then leap like a lion on their unsuspecting prey.

There was really nothing worse than getting the unpleasant tap on the shoulder followed by a rebuke of ‘get back on the phone’ so against this threat we deployed several defensive strategies. The first thing to do when coming on shift was to find a seat which faced the managers desk cluster. This enabled you to observer the observer, and prevented any unnoticed approach. Adjusting your chair to sit as low as possible was another strategy. Too high and your head is literally above the parapet. Managers sight-lines could also be blocked by careful positioning of a box-file.

Another trick is keeping your headset on and looking straight-ahead, never looking away from the screen, whilst conversing with your neighbour. It goes against all the usual norms of face-to-face conversation, but it’s much easier to conceal an illicit conversation. Finally there is teamwork, which involves warning each other with nudge, or a head nod that a manager is on the prowl.

In my final year at that particular call centre I only got tapped on the shoulder twice.


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


The end of the call-centre as we know it?

News update from the call centre; Peggy the manager has revealed that Big-Al had been attempting to sell the call-centre all along however, a buyer has still not been found.  Staff have also now been told that they will have to ‘give something back’ by working 2.5 hours without pay each week. This all seems rather desperate. Could this be the beginning of the end for the call centre? Maybe it’s simply an isolated case down to mismanagement, but maybe it’s also part of a bigger trend; has the whole call centre industry after some two decades, finally had its day?

For some reason working in a call centre seems to bring forth fantasies of its destruction, not necessarily in any cathartic sense, though Tristen Black’s description of his call-centre being swallowed up into a hell portal is particularly fetching, more I’m thinking in the sense of their obsolescence that one day the whole sorry industry will finally be put out of its misery.I particularly like a passage from the novel Eight minutes Idle in which the protagonist, Dan Thomas, jumps into a conversation between two other characters in a lift, The subject of discussion is the end of the call-centre;

‘So what do you think?’ Glasses asks Moustache. ‘Is it only a matter of time before call-centres are abolished?’

‘I doubt it’ he answers wearily. ‘Mertz wanted to make an impression, that’s all.’

‘Maybe, but he sounded convincing.’

‘Cause he’s a zealot, that’s why. And what better way of thumbing his nose at management? Telling them their world’s about to become obsolete guarantees him a future.’

‘I dunno. He must be pretty sure of himself.’

‘Wouldn’t you be? Half the world’s just converted to his cause and the other half’s terrified of it.’

‘So he’s right?’

‘No, he’s not right. It’s not like TV and telephones. Doing business over the computer completely removes the human element. Most people still need a voice.’

‘But they don’t get a voice,’ I interject, before reciting, ‘all our operators are busy at the moment… please hold and we’ll answer your call as soon as possible.’

‘So why do they keep calling?’

‘Because they’re all crazy old ladies,’ I tell him, pleased to be giving my theories an airing. ‘Look, it’s obvious. Call-centres are really doing three separate jobs. Giving people information, selling insurance, and listening to old people complain. Sure, the first two probably could be managed without operators. But computers couldn’t cope with complaints, not satisfactorily. They’ll keep us around as a public service.’

The book was published in 1999 and call centres are still with us some 13 years on. In that time the domestic call centre industry has also defied predictions that it would be decimated by outsourcing and in fact can even be said to have  thrived with the Guardian reporting in 2005  that “the growth in call centre jobs in Britain was almost three times greater than that for overall employment in the past four years.” It seems as that Mertz was wrong, or was it just that he just too early?

Last year telecommunications firm Talk Talk cited falling volumes and the increased use of ‘web based support’ as the reason behind a decision to close their Waterford call centre with a loss of 575 jobs and recently British Gas announced the closure of it’s Southampton call centre with a reported 500 job losses stating that it is now “dealing with more customers through digital channels.”

It seems that the call centre born itself from advances in technological advances in communication systems is now becoming surpassed by their further development and our acclimatization to using tools such as the internet.

As Dan Thomas suggests in Eight Minutes Idle it really appears that the only people keeping call-centres going are the ‘crazy old ladies’. Indeed I’d say that most of my callers seemed to be older people. Amongst older customers there is still a view of the internet as a dangerous unknown entity, a veritable wild-west of stolen card details and identity theft, whilst on the other hand anyone else only really called if the website is down with one lady I spoke to struggling for over half an hour with the website and making two calls before she relented and finally allowed us to take her order by phone.

So Mertz’s vision of the demise of the call-centre will surely eventually come to pass as Dan Fox, a marketing analyst, points out in an online article call-centres will not be able to rely on a diminishing group of internet-phobes;

Those in the first group turn to call centers for a few reasons. The first and most obvious is that the caller isn’t comfortable or familiar with the Internet. This is clearly not sustainable, because at a certain point everyone will be familiar and comfortable with the Internet.

But, before we rush to mourn (or perhaps rejoice at) the demise of the call centre there is perhaps one thing on which the call-centre could pin its hopes. Could emotion be the salvation for call-centres? Dan Fox, like Dan Thomas, concludes that despite all its flaws the call-centre offers something that new technology is as yet unable to..

although the individual customer service representative could probably care less about your late shipment, we assume the voice on the other end has empathy and can understand your problems and what you would like to accomplish by the end of the phone call.

What Dan Fox sees is an evolution, a new type of call centre, the emotional centre of a “multi-modal” approach to customer service. Bruno Morriset  a French Geographer agrees with this view that the call-centre has entered a new phase in its development. In an academic conference paper impressively titled The Rise of the Call Center Industry: Splintering and Virtualization of the Economic Space he sets out that;

the call center industry itself is entering an upgrading process, illustrated by new words such as contact center, information center, data center, data processing unit, web call center etc. The future of the CRM industry, especially in developed countries, lies in multimedia, more complex tasks, involving rising opportunities for skilled people. Routine-oriented only sites are threatened by technical developments and automation processes, such as voice recognition. Last but not least, customers themselves will soon ask for more personalized services, not for parrot-fashion messages: fifty million U.S. citizens have already subscribed to the federal “do-notcall” list, which bans unsolicited telephone messages from televendors

It seems therefore that we arrive at a rather positive note. The call-centre can claim a future, but in a new form as contact centre, and for critics of the call centre what does appear to promise to face a slide into irrelevance are some of the worst aspects of call-centres; the dull, repetitive tasks, the overwhelming focus on volumes rather than on the quality of interactions and the accompanying lack of respect for and investment in maintaining happy, motivated, well-skilled staff.

Crazy Caller of the Day 4

If I miss anything about the call centre it’s the calls and callers that were a little out there- the ones which cut through the monotony of another day being hooked up to the phone-line and stuck on repeat.  My all time favourite still has to be the lady who confused a bath-bomb with a tasty treat which still makes me laugh out loud when I recall it.

The best crazy calls begin with the customer bursting into the conversation with righteous indignation and end with them shuffling out the door slightly abashed whilst feebly protesting that its not actually their fault. Their change in tone from anger to sheepishness is however, the ultimate giveawaythat they know they’re in the wrong.

For us in the call centre it’s a small victory:

Hello XXXinc Call Guy speaking. How can I help?

Well, I’ve been trying to send you an email but the address you’ve given me on your paperwork doesn’t work.

Oh dear, I’m sorry about that, I’m not aware of any problems with the email

I can tell you there is. Everytime I send an email it comes back rejected.

Let me check out for you. Would you be able to tell me what address you have there

It’s just

I mean the email address

What do you mean? That is the email address….

Erm, not quite

But it says ”get in touch with us via the web at”

Well that’s a web address you see, an email address will be something like, there will always be an @ in it.

Oh..well, it doesn’t make it clear does it..

How I miss these calls. This was my last ever crazy call, but fear not I’ve found a couple of links to more; the Call Centre Helper blog compiled a list of crazy calls including the most legendary tech support call which has been doing the rounds for years whilst the site The Phone Phunnies has another load of transcriptions and tales of crazy callers.

I still think the bath bomb call is the best ever though!

Shhh… don’t tell the customers the system’s down!

It seems I’ve spent today in battle with a number of IT related gremlins. To top it off some time late this afternoon the order system of a major client who we do overflow for went down. As companies never like losing out on potential revenue and customers never like calling back  it’s back to pen and paper on these occasions, but as the hastily photocopied templates were handed out we were told categorically “shhh don’t tell the customers the system’s down.”

The reasons for this radio silence appear to be down to the fact that for the orders we take we use our in-house developed and maintained IT system as opposed to the cliens own. Creaking at the seems with volume arising from a recent catalogue drop the system has however, been exceedingly slow of late and it’s subsequent failiure will presumably not make for a happy client if they were to find out that our system conked out like an old banger overheating in a bank holiday traffic jam.

But what do we tell customers, and is it ethical for us to pretend to them that everything is hunky dory when the signs are it is not? Above all Isn’t that the kind of farcical plotline you’d find in a comedy script; like the scene in the Peter Jackson film Braindead where the hapless protaganist Lionel pretends nothing is wrong with his mother who is visibly turning into a zombie to particularly gross effect round the dinner table and the film Goodbye Lenin where a boy pretends in the face of extreme practical difficulty that the Berlin wall remains in place for the sake of his sick mother.

And so it was – not just being unable to know how much the products were (the catalogue in question being pretty voluminous and us having next to zero product knowledge anyway) the funniest situation was where a man called to check on some stock availability……


Me: Hello xxxxx Inc, How can I help?

Customer: Hi, i’m just calling to find out if you have any of  product code whateveritisX in stock

Me: Ummm I’m afraid I don’t know

Customer: Can you check?

Me: Ermmmm well you see I’m afraid not quite right now

Customer: Why’s that?

Me: Ummmm, errrr well I’m not really at liberty to… I’m not able to I’m afraid

Customer: Is it because I’m too late?

Me: Yeeeeahh, well errr not really.

Customer: Oh, so how come you can’t?

Me: Errrrrrrr well I’m uh, not really sure

Customer; So I’m too late then?

Me: Well, err I suppose, it’s just that..

Customer: Why didn’t you just tell me in the first place…..   I’ll call back tomorrow. Goodbye.

Me: Err bye.

Team 4x

I’ve been away from the call-centre all week and it feels great. I’ve even managed to fire off a job application for a position in another call-centre so my fingers are tightly crossed waiting on a call early next week. If all goes well I’ll then have the task of getting time off for the interview… do I tell the truth and risk having the request denied, or do I just call in sick? Tough call.

I saw another old colleague last night. One who had put the best part of a decade in at the call centre and who I felt was particularly good at the job. She told me she’s now doing a cleaning job which she told me is much better as “I don’t have to deal with angry xxxx Inc customers.” That’s the thing with the call-centre even the people who seem to be handling it well are feeling the strain too.

This is probably a good point to introduce the story of the fate of what I’ll call ‘team xxxx’ or ‘team 4x’ for short. The background to this tale is one of our main clients xxxx Inc who operate their business on what could loosely be called a subscription model. Their whole way of doing business is however, a shambles and they are notorious for their small print and botched admin. They have a computer system which is also updated once a week so say you place a request on Monday then it won’t be carried out until the next Sunday and the accounts department are based at head office which is on the continent. The lines of communication are so slow it’s like in the days of the empire when some officer acting on initiative would annexe half a continent before anyone in charge back home knew anything about it. Cue lots of crossed wires and customers raging at ‘reminders’ received a month after they sent their payment in, or goods showing up six weeks after they wrote to cancel. That’s even if they ordered them. Some people fail to notice the small print signing them up to an ongoing service, or else the other call centre which takes care of new orders signs people up without filling them in on all the necessary details.

All this makes taking calls for xxxx inc a stressful business. Customers are usually angry and you’ll be dealing with the same issues again ad infinitum…. “I’ve just had a package from you which I did NOT order” or “I cancelled it last month this is all a con” or another classic “I don’t owe you anything and you’ve sent me a reminder how dare you!” Your job is to soak up the crap and then trot out the same explanations that head office is overseas which means communication often ‘crosses in the post’ or that they may not have been told when they placed their initial order that other items would follow unless they cancelled we’re very sorry thankyou.

Frustratingly head office seem to be lacking in interest in the UK operation. XXXX inc is actually a massive operation split into multiple subsidiaries spanning the continent and they simply have little time for us. Someone tried using my log-in once locked me out and it took head office three weeks to get round to issuing a new password. Customers have no hope. A constant grumble is with the packaging of their parcels. This has been going on for as long as I’ve been there and we’ve fought hard to get the message across, logging incidences, sending pictures,  but frustratingly all to no avail and we must listen to each new occurence with the right amount of empathy on tap as the customer details every rip, crush, and tear acting as if we haven’t heard it all 1000 times before.

But, back to team 4x. The team was the creation of our then new manager who either acting under pressure, seeking to impress, or some combination of both decided we would need to improve our pitiful retention figures. It seemed when people called to cancel their subscriptions we displayed no real interest in persuading them to stay; Rather unsurprising as we had no incentive to do so and most of us viewed, and still view, xxxx Inc with a degree of contempt for the reasons discussed at length above. Anyway four people were selected from the pool of Customer Service Advisor’s and re-located to the corner. There they discussed strategy and drew charts on the wall showing the percentage retained each day along with a tick signifying an improvement on the day before, or cross if there was a decline.

Team 4x was something of a watershed moment for the call-centre as we’d previously been a generic mass. Something about rubbish jobs breeds a sense of togetherness and we felt we were all in it together. Team 4x though soon began to develop a swagger. They were actually asked their opinions and given responsibilities, however small these were, so felt important. The rest of us began to regard them with suspicion consigning their memo’s to the bin without reading them. Ultimately though team 4x is a cautionary tale. The relentless pressure, the being caught between customers and an indifferent organisation, the strain of being at the front with no respite took its toll. One member had a breakdown, taking a number of months off sick and returning only with the proviso that they would no longer take calls for xxxx Inc. A second member is also no longer taking xxxx Inc calls whilst a third, previous a relatively good employee, lost all interest and just walked. Like a horror movie only one person, a real call centre veteran, made it through to the end.



The Memo: When bad managers attack

This is a copy of a recent memo sent to us by our manager. I have re-typed it to faithfully match the original with all its grammatical errors and have only removed the names of  individuals or companies. I feel I don’t need to say anymore as the memo speaks for itself:

To: Customer Service Team

From: Bad manager

Cc: Client managers

Re: Calls

Hi all,

As discussed on numerous occasions our priority is to take calls. I cannot stress enough the importance of staying seated and taking calls for the duration of your shifts. 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.

Therefore moving forward I would like the following adhered to with immediate effect.

All toilet breaks to be taken within your allocated break/lunch time (unless an emergency) Drinks whether hot or cold to be made within break/lunch times

All queries to be placed in the tray. (No visiting client managers to discuss) Even discussing with a colleague will mean 2 people off the phone, which is more calls lost. Queries will be dealt with from now on in, at specific allocated times to ensure minimum disruption. No outgoing calls to be made also.

Checking the diary for holidays/ days off etc to be discussed and checked prior to start times or within your break/finish times. Or place a request in the tray and I will discuss with you when the phones are quieter.

Mobile phones need to be away in the desk and switched off to avoid the temptation of reading, also no web browsing. Focus needs to be given during each and every call.

I will collect all printed documents from the printer/queries along with any envelopes labels that are required and will distribute accordingly. (xxxx will do this in my absence) If a statement for an xxx customer is required due to reconciliation, rather than printing it off, going into Busy wrap up and begin highlighting the query, just write on a query form “statement needs printing and reconciling)

Whilst I appreciate you may find this petty, this really is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed, so I am looking for 100% cooperation form each and every one of you.

The screen behind me is a clear indication of the volume of calls lost or waiting, please look at this so you become aware of how busy we are and the importance of taking as many calls as possible.

Any questions or concerns please let me know, Thank you.