One thing I’m always on the look out for is stories of call centres in the media. The call centre is such a central part of our lives, mostly as customers, but it seems more and more of us are finding ourselves on the wrong end of the phone line. Despite this we’re rarely given a glimpse inside the call centre. We have our stereotypes for sure, some of which are true and some of which are much wider of the mark, but do we really know what makes the call centre tick? I guess the whole reason behind writing this blog was to open the doors up through my experience of working. For me too it is also a space where I can think things through and let off a bit of steam here and there.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I came across an article in the Guardian online. It briefly describes the experiences of six people all of whom work ‘on the phones’, but each in a very different setting; from a worker in an offshore Indian call centre, to an NHS direct Nurse, a 999 operator, telemarketers and even a phone-sex operator. It really does highlight the diversity of the industry.

Unsurprisingly the one I identify with most is the worker based in India, particularly when he talks about a previous role:

When I worked for HP, we would have 100 to 200 calls waiting in the queue, so customers were on hold for a long time before they reached us. There were 300 to 400 agents – it was a huge operation. It was a good learning curve, but customers were often very agitated by the time we spoke to them. The worst was when people would swear, using the F and B words.

If that doesn’t bring back memories of the couple of months leading up to Christmas then nothing will!

Something else which interests me is how workers in these various industry segments have different levels of status and how this feeds into their daily experience of  work even when the surroundings are very similar. Just take the NHS Direct call centre:

Dudley’s a really big call-centre. There are about 23 pods downstairs and the same upstairs, each accommodating six people. We each take 30-plus calls a day

It sounds like your typical call centre; that is right until the bit about 30 calls a day. Of course, the calls will be much longer and more involved that your average call centre, but  I wonder how much the workers professional status as qualified nurses impacts upon the way they are treated by their organisation. Certainly it wouldn’t be anything like the experience of shoi2ty who posts in the comments section about their call centre experiences:

I worked for Sky at the technical department and are aim was to answer everyones query everyday. It is a pressured environment, target and stats driven and buttons for wages as it was a outsourced call centre. over 1000 people worked there and they really worked.

Now, that seems familiar again! Come to think of it that is probably the picture most of us have of call centres if we shut our eyes for a moment: a one of vast factories for the post-industrial age. An almost dystopian and nightmarish place where technology is used to perpetuate regimes of aggressive surveillance. Another reader comment from Jdaven101 is especially insightful, talking about a clash of cultures in a Local Government call centre (a similar place to where my own call-centre career began) they suggest that even a strong union is not enough against the power of the panoptican

Obviously there’s a lot here about the nature of the customers, but I’d be fascinated to know a bit more about their working environment, the nature of management etc. Our call centre was local government, with a strong union base and fairly good working principles, but the management brought in was rooted deeply in private sector experience. There was a considerable clash of approaches and opinions at the beginning (still is now really), and the implementation of the first few months was very difficult (at one point we nearly had a spontaneous walkout).

I learnt a lot about call centre mentality and managerial approaches, which tend to be on the authoritarian side and bordering on institutional bullying. This is expecially the case when it comes to monitoring of calls and length of call time (don’t get me started on ‘comfort breaks’). It’s very disappointing as well to see people so easily succumb to those practices, accepting as the the norm.

This is all very bleak, but in a way the article has given me hope by underlining the diversity of the industry. Just like the vast scale of the universe can lead us to conclude there must be intelligent life somewhere the diversity of the industry brings hope that someone somewhere is doing something different, something better, and that this will one day challenge the dominance of what seems to be the current industry paradigm.