Fictional call centre characters #2 Vroom

Vroom's Managerial Matrix

Vroom’s Managerial Matrix

Book: One Night at the Call Centre by Chetan Bhagat

Name(s): Varun Malhotra/ Agent Victor Mell/ Vroom

Employer: Connexions (India)

A struggling outsourcer with a call centre in Guragong Connexions take calls for their one and only client the U.S firm Western Computer and Appliances. Call flow is however dwindling and the future of the firm is in question.

Vroom’s call centre journey:

Young and idealistic the college educated Vroom was originally working as a journalist, but took a job in the call centre due to the better money on offer. This choice is a constant source of tension for Vroom, who finds call centre work hard and though he tries to justify his choice by pointing out that with economic wealth comes greater power  he also reflects on the hollowness of consumer society and the relatively low wages of Indian call centre workers compared to workers in the West.

Finest call centre moment:

Without a doubt developing Vroom’s managerial matrix. In Vroom’s own words:

There are four kind 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.

Worst call centre moment:

Routinely abused by rude, angry and above all stupid customers. Vroom’s worst moment comes when he receives racial abuse from a drunk caller leaving him visibly distressed, trembling and breathing heavily.

What does Vroom represent:

The tragedy of wasted talent. With his education Vroom could be a journalist making a difference in society, but instead he’s wasting this potential in the call centre. Vroom is also representative of the tensions of the outsourcing model where power lies with the big Western companies who profit by paying comparatively lower wages and with the Western consumers who act in an abusive way towards the virtually powerless call centre workers.


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.

I know it’s not your fault, but….

Like many people I’m no fan of bankers right now, but I can’t help but feel sorry for Natwest, or rather the people who have to work in their call centres.

These are the people who are on an annual salary a city banker wouldn’t blink about blowing in a weekend, yet they are the people who must deal with the anger, panic, the hate, and the fury directed at the bank over issues they have had no part in, or any control over.

One Natwest worker I spoke to summarised their ‘stressful’  week by repeating a phrase they had heard again and again – one which every call centre worker will have heard, and may well make them shudder; “I know its not your fault but…”

It’s a phrase that brought back unpleasant memories to me of when I had to deal with wave after wave of anger, frustration, and disappointment on a daily basis; all the times 4X made mistakes with invoices, or sent out a thousand parcels to people who didn’t order them, or the time a client ran out of refund cheques over the Christmas period, or the times when flowers sent for birthdays, Christmases, anniversaries and Mother’s days turned up at their destination a day late, disheveled, with a miss-spelt greeting, or some such combination of these, and not forgetting the time just before one Christmas when a shipment of personalised children’s books and toys was grounded in Chicago because of snow and ice.. “I know it’s not your fault, but..”

If you call Natwest please go easy on whoever answers the phone – It’s not their fault.

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.

Happy Christmas from the Call Centre

Happy Christmas everyone. Hopefully you’ve got all your presents and are not waiting anxiously on an order today; or even worse is hanging on the telephone in queue position 16 in an attempt to find out what’s going on. Hopefully too you’re not one of the people taking those calls. If you are then I hope you’ve got a bottle of wine and an understanding friend or partner waiting at the end of your shift.

Thankfully this year I’ve also got all of my presents courtesy of Royal Mail who I think are unfairly vilified. As someone who has dealt with Yodel (formerly DHL) many times. I can say that Royal Mail are hugely preferable and it would be a shame were they to be broken up, or sold off.

Also I’m not in the call-centre this Christmas. It’s a long story and I will bring it all up-to-date.

Some would say based on this story, an event which took place at the start of our Christmas build sometime in early November It’s a good thing too and I’d not be too inclined to disagree;

I didn’t have a great day today. It started badly when I turned off my alarm causing me to oversleep. I then cycled hard to get in with just enough time to make a cup of coffee and land in my seat right on my start time.

As our instructions are to begin taking calls at our start time at all costs my first action was to put myself  ‘in group’ and start taking calls. Still flustered from the rush I got my log-in details mixed up. One more  wrong move and I’d be locked out one of my main systems. I’d then have to trudge up to my managers desk and admit to my stupidity which is never a great way to start the day. Whatsmore the last time I got locked out of the system (through no fault of my own that time – someone else had been using my log-on for ‘training’) it took a period of weeks for someone in head-office on the continent to be bothered to reset my log-in.

I tried to avert this crisis by trying to scribble my password on a bit of paper, like spelling a word sometimes it just flows that way, and third time lucky. I was in, but my equilibrium was now irreparably out-of-kilter.

This is never a good position to be in. Like a ship navigating choppy waters in this job you need to meet the waves at the right angle else you’ll find yourself buffeted, tossed, turned, and dangerously out of control.

I could sense my slightly testy mood causing some friction as the first waves of calls came in, but I was still in control. Just.

Unfortunately I then got hit by an unexpected wave.

It began as a routine order. Just one of the hundreds I get through without incident each shift.

Sure enough I’d got to the end without my mood causing any problems. I clicked on the card payment button to take me onto the payment screen…

‘Can you read the card number back to me after I’ve given it to you?’ asked the customer.

It’s a question we get asked every so often by some of our more anxious customers, but it’s generally totally unnecessary as even the most basic of systems will tell you if a number doesn’t add up.

But in this case it was even more unnecessary as it was a live system which means that straight after typing in the number I hit the ‘pay now’ button and via the miracle of modern card payment technology the persons cardholder would be contacted for authorisation and payment would go through in 1.5 seconds or so.

I explained this to the customer saying that as it was such a live system it really wouldn’t be necessary. It would far be easier and more secure for me to just type the number and click the button. if the number was wrong the transaction wouldn’t go through…..

“But I just want to be sure” says the customer

I’m sure the text-book says something along the lines of ‘just humour the customer’ i.e Just read the number back and they’ll be happy and no more problem.

The problem is the text-book doesn’t deal with moods and I wasn’t in a great one. I decided to dig in.

“Well If I click pay and two seconds later it says ok, then I can assure you it will be ok.

It all seemed too logical to me. I also find that if you do read the number back the customer will mis-hear a number like and loudly shout “NO, NO” at some point, then you go through it again and so on…. easier to press the button and trust in the tech. Plus in my more testy moments I resent the thought that I’m incapable of being trusted to take down a number it’s what I do all day everyday after all.

The customer however, was too busy digging her trenches for any appeal to logic to succeed…

“So you won’t read the number back”

It had approached an irreparable point.

“No I don’t need to, as I’ve explained….”

“So you won’t do this for me”


“I can’t believe this. Just forget it. You’ve lost a customer.”


The line goes dead.

Customer demands

Fancy a call-centre job in a nice sunny location? According to the Guardian the Foreign and Commonwealth Office have created one in Malaga and from the sounds of it you’ll be in for plenty of laughs courtesy of some poor deluded souls…..

The government had to set up a special call centre in Malaga, Spain, to filter inquiries. Recent ones included a request for Phil Collins’s telephone number and someone wanting to know the heir to the throne’s shoe size so she could send him a pair as a present. A caller in Malaga wanted to know in September where she could get Christmas lunch because everywhere she had rung so far was already full.

As funny as these things are the thing is I can well imagine that dealing with these calls isn’t always a pleasant experience as the callers are deadly serious and can become angry when you can’t actually help…. ‘but, I’m a customer’ I hear them cry…..therefore you should be making all my dreams come true… Isn’t that how customer service works?

I remember half chuckling and half wincing on hearing someones teenage sister had called ITV to complain about a contestant they liked being voted off the X-factor…I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the poor person in the call-centre being paid to take a verbal battering from waves of disappointed teen-girls all with an overdeveloped sense of entitlement.

A few times in my call-centre career I’ve had to scratch my head in wonder as to what planet some people are on. Once I had a lady get really, really angry that I couldn’t send flowers to Australia… when I explained that it was because of customs restrictions, and anyway the flowers wouldn’t survive, she came back with ‘well you should get them from a florist over there then why don’t you do that?’


The tangled web

The relationship between the web and the call-centre is a curious one. You can never fully escape the thought that if in a decade or so we’ll be reminiscing about call centres as if they were coal mines or car factories then it will be the web to blame. Or is the reality less straightforward than that, will the web in fact transform the industry for the better? According to Mark Hillary in the Huffington Post it may well do;

Calls to contact centres are declining and social network interactions are soaring causing an enormous change within the customer service industry. The skills needed to handle customers on Facebook, Twitter, email, instant messaging tools – and the telephone – are far greater than what was traditionally expected of a call centre agent.

So the agents in contact centres are going to be earning more, having a more rewarding experience as they help customers across all kinds of channels and the old days of a script-reading drone will soon be firmly in the past.

In my corner of the call-centre universe it’s fast becoming impossible to escape the impact of the web. Just this week a client has sent out 50 000 emails complete with a web only offer code to direct customers to their website  and recently one of our biggest clients also ran web only discount campaign

For companies the attractions of driving up their web traffic are obvious; The customer does the hard work of inputting their details and clicking through the options so no need to employ the likes of me on near minimum wage. Websites can also deal with far more customers simultaneously so no frustrating waits and no lost revenue from people hanging up.  Customers setting up web accounts also allow companies to track their order history and promote products and offers more effectively and cheaply than expensive scattergun mail-shots

There is a problem though. We just aren’t equipped to deal with it. Let me explain; I have no technical skills to speak of in fact I don’t really do anything. If there is a problem which requires a.) a decision I’m not given authorisation to make, b.) anything which can’t be solved by a click of the mouse, or heaven forbid c.) requires me to leave my seat, then I simply explain how sorry I am for the situation write the details down and pop it in a basket for someone else to deal with, or equally likely for them to put in the bin. Then when the customer calls back angry no one has got back to them I explain how sorry I am before beginning the process over again.

The web customer however,  doesn’t want to play this game. Maybe it’s the immediacy promised by the internet, I don’t know, but I do know they want someone who can rescue their order, or fix their frozen screen with its error message and most importantly can fix it now. The person they really need though is a software technician, not a generic customer service bod like me as the following exchange illustrates;

Customer: Hi, I’m just doing an order on your website and whenever I put in my details It’s telling me that ‘something unexpected has occurred’ and to call this number.

Me; Ok. Would you like me to do the order by phone for you?

Customer: Ummm, not really I’ve just spent 20 minutes on the order. Can’t you just fix it.

Me; I’m afraid not, I’m not able to do anything on the website [which is administered from head office in another time-zone] I can do the order for you now though.

Customer: So you’re telling me you can’t help me then.

Me; I’m sorry….

Customer;  But, it’s just taken me ages to get through to you

It’s very much a case of new technology meets old attitudes in which I play the role of  a WWI cavalry officer slowly sinking into the mud. The conundrum here is that unless I am given the ability and skills to take control and actually do something we have a classic call-centre no, no….. If you ever tell a customer you are unable to help in their minds they automatically replace the word can’t with won’t.

Unfortunately for us this kind of situation is becoming more common as our clients seek to boost their web traffic. Change can’t come soon enough!