What is a call-centre?

It seems an obvious question, but for me the more I think about it, the less clear-cut it becomes  – just what is, and what is not a call centre? and do you have to be in a call-centre to have a call-centre job? Above all is there one single defining characteristic of the call-centre?

One of my first jobs was dealing with  the incoming calls for a department of a local council. There were two, sometimes three of us in the office and our job was to answer the phone and either take messages and put people through to our colleagues and people in other departments depending on the enquiry. It was a tough and demanding job, dealing with often distressed or angry callers, without having any real training in how to handle them, or any power whatsoever over the outcomes but I stuck with it as it was my first proper office job and I was eventually promoted to another role within the team at the time thinking  – quite wrongly it would turn out – that that was the end of me and the phone, but the thing was I never really thought of it as a call centre job – and I still don’t. Though in many ways it seemed to have the characteristics of a call-centre job – It was almost entirely on the phone with my working pattern dictated by the rhythm of the calls coming in.

A few years later when working in my last call-centre job, I reapplied for  my old role which had in the meantime been outsourced to a private sector provider. The surroundings had changed drastically. It was now the classic call centre – the one you see if you close your eyes and imagine a call centre –  with all the operators sat in rows wearing headsets and a display on the wall detailing the number of calls waiting. What had happened was effectively a centralisation of all the people who like me had been taking calls within departments across the council. They were still organised into different business areas, but they were now all under one roof and though the tasks were largely unchanged they had all become unambiguously call-centre jobs and the place was very definitely a call centre.

In defining a call-centre there are two considerations; the tasks of the job and the environment, but can there ever be exceptions to this? What if, for instance, by way of technology a call-centre was de-centralised with operators based at home taking calls and logged in to a system remotely, could it still be regarded as a call centre?  I would be inclined to say yes – so long as a final condition is met regarding the way in which workers are managed. In my old job my line-manager had been the department manager who managed a range of professionals and had little time for the specifics of managing my area. There was no specific monitoring regime, or call handling targets, but after the outsourcing the management structure  became much more specialised. There were team leaders, as well as managers, who were dedicated to managing the flow and handling of calls. New IT systems were introduced which monitored, logged and fed-back and the boundaries between specialist areas were being eroded, so for example one operator could one call about bin collections and the next about housing benefit, possibly for two different councils.

Out of the three elements, task, place and management it is therefore the third which is most important. The call centre comes into existence at the point where the job becomes not doing some other task, but rather becomes the taking, or making calls. Spatially cut off from the rest of an organisation monitoring and call targets become an obsession. It’s in the call centres DNA.

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Fictional Call Centre Characters #1 Boyd Shreave

Relentless

I’m always interested in seeing how call centres are represented in works of fiction. So far I’ve come across several novels based around call centres, or at least featuring a call centre and this short series is intended to be a look at some of the characters found within them and to explore what they tell us about the call centre….

Book: Nature Girl by Carl Hiaasen

Name: Boyd Shreave (a.k.a. Boyd Eisenhower)

Employer: Relentless Inc (USA)

A telemarketing company based in a converted B52 hangar in Texas the main business of Relentless Inc is calling people across the United States to offer them a “unique” real estate opportunity located near the Suwannee river . Operating between 5pm and midnight Relentless call middle-income residential addresses across the country beginning with the east coast and ending with the west coast. The fifty four workers on the shift sit in padded cubicles and rattle through a photocopied sales script. Thanks to the “onerous” calling quotas there is little interaction between them helping to make it a “dreary and soulless job” not made any better by the minimum wage plus commission pay.

Boyd’s Call-Centre Journey:

Boyd came to work in the call centre ostensibly because his voice doesn’t match his face. Aged thirty-five his various careers in sales have largely ended in failure thanks to Boyd’s unfortunate ability to make people feel uncomfortable with his appearance which is described thus:

..their was an air of sour arrogance about him – a slant to one thin reddish eyebrow that hinted at impatience, if not outright disdain; a slump of the shoulders that suggested the weight of excruciating boredom; a wormish curl of the upper lip that was often perceived as a sneer of condescension or, worse, a parody of Elvis.

Boyd however, has the telephone voice of an angel and at the suggestion of one former employer made the switch to the call centre where he has been for six-months and where “for the first time in his life he could honestly claim to be semi-competent at his job”.  Nevertheless Boyd, who uses the moniker Boyd Eisenhower, has grown tired of the environment at Relentless, with the only thing keeping him going being an affair with a colleague, a six-foot blonde, who goes by the name of Eugenie Fonda.

Finest Call Center moment:

Responding to being dubbed a “professional pest” by someone he called by snarling “Go screw yourself, you dried up old skank”

Worst call centre moment:

Having the above call being listened in to and being promptly fired.

What does the character represent:

Outbound sales calls are the most reviled side of the call-centre industry so it’s unsurprising that Boyd is presented as a bit of a villain, even if we do feel a little sorry for the working conditions he has to endure. In the call centre among my usual calls I’d receive the occasional business-to business sales call from a person asking to speak to “the person responsible for ordering shelves” or some such thing to which I’d politely take down their details before chucking them in the basket for one of the supervisors to then file in the bin. I’d always feel sorry for the person who called as it must be one of the worst jobs in the world, as no matter how hard my job was at times at least the majority of people I spoke to were quite happy to speak to me and usually grateful for my help. Having to deal with rejection and abuse all day everyday must be so hard, near impossible. Inbound seems like paradise in comparison.

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)

 

Calling call centre workers: The call centre interviews

I’ve had an idea. It may not work, but I’m going to give it a go. One thing I’d really like to feature more of in this blog is the perspectives and stories from everyone working in call centres whatever industry and wherever in the world. To this end I have come up with a short questionnaire. I have used myself as a guinea pig and completed the first one which I have typed out below. I have created a new page on the blog which will host these. I have also stuck up a template there so anyone can copy and paste the questions. Give as long or as short answers as you’d like. Please email completed questionnaires to me at diaryofacallcentre@gmail.com

Alternatively I’ve set up a questionnaire on Survey monkey

Name/ Nomme de plume:

Call Guy

Time wearing the headset:

2 years

Type of call centre (e.g inbound/ outbound/ insurance/mail-order/ etc):

Inbound customer services for multiple clients – mainly mail order. Including household names.

The best thing about working in a call centre is..

Being able to switch off knowing that ultimately the job you’re doing doesn’t matter – except to make someone somewhere richer than they already are.

If I could change one thing about my call centre it would be..

My manager Peggy.

Most callers are..

Nice, reasonable, patient people. It’s just the 1% of them who can mess up your day.

Worst call:

I took a call from a lady who’s mother-in-law was waiting for a vacuum cleaner she had ordered. It had been delayed as someone had made an error putting in the postcode so I initially had trouble finding the order on the system. I managed to identify the problem and to get it resolved within about 10 minutes, but had the person being so nasty to me – really spitting venom that it left me shaking afterwards. It was a long time ago, but the thought of it still makes me shudder. It left me wondering what kind of person feels that having a vacuum cleaner delayed by a few days is justification for making another human being feel that way.

Funniest call centre moment:

The time a lady called to complain. Someone had sent her a set of bathbombs through the flower ordering company we took calls for. She had mistaken them for chocolates and had swallowed part of one. First call she should have made was NHS direct.

Call centres – good or bad?

Both

Why?

I’ve had great service from call-centres and have (though some may disagree) also in turn given good service, but I have also seen countless examples of bad service, bad attitudes, customers being messed around and lied to.

It’s not the call centre per-se that is bad, but rather I feel there are two call centres. The call centre of dreams and the call centre of nightmares.

The call centre of dreams is what the call centre was originally meant to be in its idealized form – a place focused on quality customer service a place where agents have the right training, support, motivation and the ability to make a difference. The call centre of nightmares is focused more on its revenues – a place where the primary concern is not customer service, but  simply getting through as many calls as possible. In this call centre agents are poorly trained, poorly motivated and suffer with empathy burn-out.

In reality, there are examples of both types.

Does the call centre have a future?

Yes, but things will be different. there will be less routine transactions and more dealing with complex issues and handling customers in a volatile emotional state. I think customers expectations will also be higher – the faster paced life gets the more people want things yesterday.

Where’s my headset?

I thought I’d post this piece I wrote about just one of the many small annoyances which make working in a call centre even harder than it has to be – headset swiping.

For a call-centre worker the headset is the most essential piece of kit much like a marines rifle.. “This is my headset there are many like it..” Officially, in the call centre, we were all individualy issued with our own headset which we were entrusted with the care of. I never got round to naming my headset, but, well, it was mine and I looked after it, neatly wrapping the lead around the headpiece and placing it snugly in my drawer at the end of each shift .

For much of my time in the call centre this arrangement continued untroubled, but  as the busier Christmas periods approached headsets would start to vanish. The call centre bulging at the seams with temps dragged in off the street outside (and then spat out with a P45 just before Christmas) the problem was always there is never enough headsets to go on all these extra heads as the company was just too miserley to buy any more. This led to desperate agents rifling  through drawers for other peoples headsets, often with the encouragement of management who just want to get you on the phone as quick as possible.

Predictably, before very long, things would degenerate into a never-ending cycle. For example I arrived one Monday morning, full of enthusiasm as usual, only to find my headset was missing from my drawer. At my managers suggestion promptly stole a headset and a connector unit from someone elses drawer in another desk. When that person eventually came in to find they had no headset they would then have to steal someone elses. the cycle would continue. Annoying.