Call Centre Documentary: Help Needed

Towards the end of last year I was approached by Dragonfly Television, makers of’One Born Every Minute, who are in the process of making a new documentary series about complaints and customer service in  Britain.

Among other things they’re going to be featuring call centres and are keen to speak to people who have experienced a negative effect from working in the call centre:

We’re interested in showing just what the toll of being on the end of a barrage of abuse can result in, our episode is going to be surrounding utility companies and at the moment they seem to really be at the very forefront of people’s vitriol. So we’d like to understand just how the decisions that are made at an executive level can have a negative effect not only on the customer but also the call centre worker themselves.

If anyone is interested in sharing their story, please contact Jonathan.Skuse@dragonfly.tv

 

 

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The Kafkaesque nightmare of call-centres

I had a strange experience last week, one which gave me a different perspective on call-centres – the customers view. Locked out of an online account I was in need of help so I contacted customer services…

I first tried emailing, but this met with a generic copy-and-paste response which didn’t even acknowledge, let alone deal with, my issue and directed me to the part of the website which I’d emailed to say I’d had a problem with. It reminded me of my days dealing with incoming mail in which we’d be told to just use templates in order to get through as much as possible. Didn’t even seem to matter which just as long as you got through your pile it was OK.

Frustrated by this I caved-in, I picked up my phone, and dialled customer services. Generally I don’t like calling call-centres, in fact I’d go as far as to say I hate calling call-centres. Mainly because my experiences of working in one have given me such a low expectations – though I have on occasions been pleasantly surprised – step forward NatWest and Southern Electric, but I knew this wouldn’t be the case the instant the automated voice-menu kicked in…. are you calling  to place an order please say ‘yes’. If you want to make a payment say ‘yes’… 

Once I’d negotiated this labyrinth of self-consciousness another automated voice warned me I’d be in for a long wait as ‘all our operators are currently busy’. Really? On a weekday afternoon? I waited… listened to a sales pitch…and waited… listened to some muzak..and waited..

Had someone answered at that point I’d have been angry, very angry. In fact I’d have been just like one of those people I used to hate….

Me; Hello CG speaking how can I help?

Customer: How many people do you have there? Whatever it is it’s not enough. I’ve been on this phone for 15 minutes and I gave up after 20 minutes yesterday it’s disgraceful.

Me; OK how can I help? [now that you’ve successfully wasted 40 seconds in which I could have been dealing with your issue, and therefore holding up the next person in line]

Funnily I always used to think customers exaggerated here, either for effect, or because when you’re hanging on the telephone there’s a sort of Narnia effect where what feels like three years is actually only three minutes back in the real world. I don’t know how long I was hanging on, maybe 10 minutes, probably only three, but I could take no more and hung-up…

I decided I’d call back late on a Sunday evening. My inside knowledge told me that call-centres are usually open for longer than most people think. The phone was ringing, then answered – I was right  After some fun with the automated system, which wanted my date of birth but kept getting just one digit wrong each time, I got straight through.

I explained my problem; that somehow I’d been locked out of my account and the password reset didn’t appear to be working. I was told that this was because they had a different email address for me, but As I didn’t know what this was apparently I failed a security question. I was then told by the operator that they couldn’t help me as they seemed not to believe I was who I said I was. I asked how I was meant to settle my account if I was locked out. They said they understood, but could do nothing more thankyougoodbye.

Click. Gone.

Suddenly I began to feel like a character in a Franz Kafka story.

Call-centres. Love ’em.

The Thrill of the Call Centre

I’ve just spotted an ad for call centre staff online:

INBOUND CUSTOMER ADVISOR

Job description

To apply, email CV to no@dontdoit.com If you have a positive attitude and the ability to talk to people we have Customer Service opportunities to join one of the regions leading employers in a customer service/sales role where you can really shine. In this thrilling, fast paced environment advisers will be answering inbound customer enquires around a range of products and services. Each candidate must: Have an excellent telephone manner. Be personable and customer focused. Have a desire to work in a fast paced call centre environment. Have the ability to complaint/object ion handle. Work within and adhere to policies and procedures. These positions are to start ASAP.
Salary £15 000 pa
Now, forgive me my cynicism, but thrilling…. Is this the very same adjective which the Cambridge dictionary online defines as ‘extremely exciting’, or the Oxford dictionary refers to as meaning “causing excitement and pleasure; exhilarating”?  
Maybe I was in the wrong call centre, or perhaps being sat immobile for eight hours a day at a desk, plugged into a telephone and under strict orders not to move unless an emergency whilst being screamed at and insulted by irate customers is actually thrilling. I however, remain to be convinced. As for being ‘customer focused’, Really? Don’t make me giggle. Customer service/sales means the customer phones for the service, but gets the hard sell, not necessarily what they want, but what the company wants. Maybe I am being unfair though and maybe this place is different, maybe it is a fantastic place to work where the customer service is the number one priority over and above things like average call-times and maybe it is actually thrilling, but hang on….
These positions are to start ASAP.
Hmmmmmm

Interview update

A huge thank you to everyone who has so far contributed to the Call Centre interviews. I Have just added three new interviews which can be seen along with the others here.

All the responses so far have been interesting and thought-provoking  such as passage from friendly pariah, in which they succinctly get to the heart of what is, at least in my experience, the problem with call centres:

unfortunately It’s too easy for a company to outsource and forget about the people taking calls. Why should they care, they paid some other company to care and that company only cares about the bottom line. I know that companies have to care about the bottom line but does it have to be set so low?

Whilst on the other hand K’s description of a celebrity encounter finds itself at the top of the list of calls-I-wish-I’d-taken:

I assisted a small-time Aussie “celebrity” apply for credit, and she was declined. Her reaction of ‘Dont you know who I am?’ was pretty priceless!

Priceless indeed.

A Hard Day in the Call-Centre

The following is taken from an online discussion thread started by one of my old supervisors from the call centre. I have decided to put it up here as almost more than anything else it captures the essence of working in the call centre; the physical and mental exhaustion from battling through a day in the face of overwhelming pressures, the pulling together and the desire to get the job done. Names of people and companies have been changed.

Sarah is so knackered after a horrendous shift at work, thanks to those who stayed late and came in at such short notice you’re my stars x

Alistair: was it that bad? I was in Birmingham this weekend… got no call… would have been able to come in…

Sarah: It was absolutely hell we thought you were in Coventry, you were probably the only one we didn’t call, you could help out tomorrow if you have any spare time

Alistair: Whats hit? Why was it so busy? System crash or just a drop? I’ll definitely see what i can do for tomorrow

Sarah: 4X Inc, next parcel drop everyone wanting to canx, others just mega busy, anything would be really appreciated, know there will be calls that could’nt get through today, thanks ..

Alistair: Ok.. I’ll come in and knock out 4x Inc… just cant commit to a time… but will get in and stay for a few hours

Sarah: Thats great, whenever you can, cheers x

Beth: You didnt call me..

Sarah: Of course not your on your hols! I’m not that mean!

Beth: Always happy to help tho!
Phone me tomorrow if you need me! 🙂

Sarah: That’s good of you i’m not in tomorrow (hopefully) but will let Kelly know, will you be able to get there tho?

Kelly: Hectic day, best part though was when sarah told a XXXX customer who’d just bought a vacuum that their order would be delivered in the next ‘5 minutes’… :’) so funny! :’)

Sarah: You were’nt supposed to tell anyone about that lol x

Julie: None of my lovely XXXX customers causing havoc then?? Hope all is well otherwise Sarah and in an odd way I miss all those arsy phonecalls! Still remember Mr Flowers who abused me for being a woman and incapable! lol xx

Call Guy: So glad I left ;o)

 

Is working in a call-centre worthwhile?

Now for something topical. Causing much excitement in the news today has been the results from the Office for National Statistics research on the nations well being. Here we take a quick look at what it reveals about the soul of the call centre.

As part of the Office for National Statistics research on wellbeing respondents were asked provide a rating on a scale of 0 – 10 for the question “to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile”  with researchers noting in the results that a persons occupation had some impact on the scores:

Of those people who are in employment, the type of occupation people have appears to have an effect on people’s subjective well-being ratings.

So, can we ask,  is working in a call-centre worthwhile?

Though the ONS data do not specifically refer to call-centre’s call-centre agents are themselves included within the occupational classification category ‘sales and customer service occupations’ along with telesales workers and shop assistants.

According to the analysis the answers of this group contrasted strongly with the responses given by those in caring occupations who came top in terms of rating what they do as worthwhile:

For the ‘worthwhile’ question however, people in the ‘caring, leisure and other service occupations’ gave the highest average ratings, along with people in ‘professional occupations’ (8.0 out of 10). The lowest average ratings were given by people in ‘sales and customer service occupations’, ‘process
plant and machine operatives’, and people in ‘elementary occupations’ (7.5 out of 10)

It’s perhaps unsurprising that people in caring occupations, people whose day job is helping others, report that they feel the things they do are worthwhile, but isn’t that what customer service is about too – helping people – So why are call centre workers among the bottom group?

The customer service ethos is one which is about helping people, but I can’t help thinking this has a hollow ring to it – after all it’s not like we’re helping people to do anything more worthwhile than flex their consumerist muscles as opposed to helping people in some more fundamental way.

And then hasn’t the ethos been corrupted by our call-centre employers pure pursuit of profit? I know from my time in the call centre I really didn’t feel that I did much apart from making a few people with expensive watches and flash cars a little bit richer – in fact helping people was almost actively discouraged – oh so very worthwhile…

The Call Centre Olympics

With only 7 days until the Olympics opening ceremony I thought I’d get in tune with the Olympic Spirit; I present to you the inaugural call-centre Olympiad. This will consist of three call-centre games:

1.)  Call centre hold’em:

This game utilizes both the telephones hold button and an agents fine-tuned judgement, and though it comes from a work of fiction, the book eight minutes idle,  the writer Matt Thorne himself worked in a call centre so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that this game was once played for real.

The protaganist Dan explains the rules:

Keeping callers on hold is a fun game, if a hard one to judge. The temptation is to hang on as long as possible, but then if they hang up you lose all your points, and as we’ve got an open-ended competition running between our team, it’s sometimes safer to settle for a run of small scores. Ade has the record for longest single hold (43 minutes 18 seconds), but in the overall competition I’m leading with an accumulative score of nearly two hours.

2.) Word-sneak:

This game comes courtesy of JL who was one of the interviewees for the call centre interview series. The object is to write a word down on paper and then “sneak” that word into the conversation without raising the customers suspicions.

To make this into more of an Olympic style event the rules have been codified to include a points system with the most challenging words attracting the highest number of points.

3.) Mute button hold:

This is my personal addition to the call centre Olympics. The mute button hold is loosely related to call-centre hold-em, but has a number of key differences with the main difference being that  in the mute game you simply take the call with your mute button on. The challenge is then to hold-out for as long as possible without being noticed by management. It is a test of nerve. The prize for winning is 10-15 seconds breathing space and an improvement to you call average for the day. On the other hand losing can mean your averages go up as the mute time is added to your call handling time.

Again for the Olympics a few rule changes are needed. The format for this will be a knockout with agents facing-off against each other. Both answer on mute with the winner being the agent who holds out the longest. Bouts can also be won by achieving a hang-up.

Let the games begin.