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.

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)

 

The great escape

Last week I bumped into an old colleague who mentioned that life in the call centre had become more stressful as the downturn has affected many of our clients – particularly the smaller mail-order ones.  Apparently most of the calls the call-centre is dealing with now are for 4X- a sizable multi-national company, in the business of subscription ‘collections’, whose infamous incompetence results in a never-ending stream of angry customers all queuing up and eager to have a go at you – before leaving with a chunk of your flesh between  their teeth.

This person was probably one of the best, most experienced people at dealing with unhappy customers I’ve ever worked alongside – in fact she was the only person left standing from the whole ‘Team 4X’ experiment, but now, she confessed to me, she was finding it too much and longed to escape. She fancied a career change and had been applying for teaching assistant jobs. I really hope she gets one and manages to escape like I did. Not having to deal with angry people day-in day-out is a pleasure as one of my other colleagues said after leaving “at least I don’t have to deal with (expletive deleted) 4x customers anymore”

We also spoke about another call-centre colleague who had an upcoming leaving-do. This person had opted for the more dramatic option of a one-way ticket to Australia. They were following in the footsteps of another colleague who two years ago, on the cusp of turning 30, felt the need to escape the slog of the call-centre signed up to a life-guard course at the local swimming pool, got a work visa for New Zealand and after a year then hopped over the Tasman Sea to Australia without once looking back.

So that’s two people I’ve worked with who have literally fled to the other side of the world to escape the call-centre. Good luck to them.

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:

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:

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…

T-J….

Customer: Bye

T-J…..

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 http://www.XXXXinc.co.uk

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 http://www.XXXXinc.co.uk”

Well that’s a web address you see, an email address will be something like mail@XXXXinc.co.uk, 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!