The Hall of Fame

All is very quiet in the call-centre. No need to be too worried about the economic downturn catching up with us it’s just always a slack time of year for many of our clients. With the Christmas rush and January sales out the way February and the beginning of March is the time when our clients sit in their caves if they’ve had a bad year, or on their private Caribbean island hideaways if they have had a more successful campaign; either way they’ll all be planning the strategies they will pursue for the remainder of the year. The upshot is that during this time very little promotional activity in the way of adverts or catalogues actually takes place. So for us this means a chance to put our feet up for a bit and get to know the people sat around us without the phones getting in the way. Some people find this boring, but personally still recovering from December’s madness I love it!

Management have used this lull in activity to do some housekeeping before the tempest resumes. Personnel files have been brought up to date, appraisals conducted and all of us have been getting long overdue inductions and training. Today it was my turn for customer service training. When I was told in the morning I would be having this my immediate feelings were of being insulted a feeling which deepened when after my manager had wandered off the person opposite me commented “what? Customer service training…… patronising or what?”

As the manager doing the training was the one who appears to be in charge of the HR portfolio, including the hiring and firing I decided to suppress my feelings and affect a look of interest. A quick flick through the course handout left my with no illusions about the difficulty of this task. In amongst the clipart and quotes were the usual gems about the customer being the reason we are in a job and how grateful this should make us all feel as well as the whole tone of voice thing, smile, sound happy, sound interested, don’t use technical jargon, understand the needs of the customer. The first 30 minutes was a trudge through this material.  I also began to feel more anxious about how I appeared; better stop resting my chin on my hand. I shifted on my chair uncomfortably.

Then without warning the conversation moved off-piste.  We’d began talking about our difficult customers, about difficult situations we had been placed in previous jobs; for one person this was calling up 19 people on Christmas Eve to tell them that owing to an admin error the ovens they purchased would not actually be connected up that day, they would need to wait until after Christmas.Certainly not an enviable job. This all led to the manager to open up a folder which she kept. In this was a collection of letters, the spanned a decade and were selected for inclusion in the folder on account of their sheer far-outedness.

The most shocking was a catalogue. It had attached a handwritten (or more accurately scrawled) note explaining incredulity that the recipient had been sent the catalogue. This in itself is nothing spectacular, not even the bad language used. What was though was the threats of sending Anthrax should the company repeat their mailing-list mistake. To ram this message home the sender had written ANTHRAX on the note in several places in coloured felt-tip pen and had enclosed white powder in the envelope. The manager informed us that this powder had gone all over the person, just an average joe in the office, who had opened the letter.

The second one which struck me was a letter from a person unhappy that their overdue account had been passed to a debt collector. Again they had enclosed the original letter in which they had underlined the words ‘Debt Collector’ and menacingly added the prefix ‘soon to be ex.’ In their letter comprising one sheet of lined A4 paper they elaborate on their threats sometimes comically with one particularly memorable line stating that if the debt collectors dare to visit “they will end up looking like an omlette” the letter added “you have been warned.” My initial instinct was to laugh, “it’s as if it’s been written by Biffa Bacon” I said though the reference to the knuckleheaded Viz character was lost on the room. Later though I began to wonder just who was the person who had written this letter. Threats against debt collectors and companies in general are not unheard of, but usually they come from someone at the end of their tether, unable to articulate themselves and facing a massive faceless bureaucracy which is about to run over them with a steam roller. This kind of person may well return a reminder with some choice expletives on it, or a scribbled note written in a fit of anger, but this letter was different. For a start it was written in neat handwriting and the spelling wasn’t bad. It just seemed more calm, calculated and, well, chilling is the word for it really.    

After the anecdotes and letters I was softened up to the message the instructor had been trying to deliver; care too much you’ll only stress yourself out too much which is bad for you, care too little and the customer can tell you’re not interested so you give a bad impression of the firm. What’s needed they suggested is a middle way between the two positions. Customer services then is just like being Tony Blair.