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.


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!

Team 4x

I’ve been away from the call-centre all week and it feels great. I’ve even managed to fire off a job application for a position in another call-centre so my fingers are tightly crossed waiting on a call early next week. If all goes well I’ll then have the task of getting time off for the interview… do I tell the truth and risk having the request denied, or do I just call in sick? Tough call.

I saw another old colleague last night. One who had put the best part of a decade in at the call centre and who I felt was particularly good at the job. She told me she’s now doing a cleaning job which she told me is much better as “I don’t have to deal with angry xxxx Inc customers.” That’s the thing with the call-centre even the people who seem to be handling it well are feeling the strain too.

This is probably a good point to introduce the story of the fate of what I’ll call ‘team xxxx’ or ‘team 4x’ for short. The background to this tale is one of our main clients xxxx Inc who operate their business on what could loosely be called a subscription model. Their whole way of doing business is however, a shambles and they are notorious for their small print and botched admin. They have a computer system which is also updated once a week so say you place a request on Monday then it won’t be carried out until the next Sunday and the accounts department are based at head office which is on the continent. The lines of communication are so slow it’s like in the days of the empire when some officer acting on initiative would annexe half a continent before anyone in charge back home knew anything about it. Cue lots of crossed wires and customers raging at ‘reminders’ received a month after they sent their payment in, or goods showing up six weeks after they wrote to cancel. That’s even if they ordered them. Some people fail to notice the small print signing them up to an ongoing service, or else the other call centre which takes care of new orders signs people up without filling them in on all the necessary details.

All this makes taking calls for xxxx inc a stressful business. Customers are usually angry and you’ll be dealing with the same issues again ad infinitum…. “I’ve just had a package from you which I did NOT order” or “I cancelled it last month this is all a con” or another classic “I don’t owe you anything and you’ve sent me a reminder how dare you!” Your job is to soak up the crap and then trot out the same explanations that head office is overseas which means communication often ‘crosses in the post’ or that they may not have been told when they placed their initial order that other items would follow unless they cancelled we’re very sorry thankyou.

Frustratingly head office seem to be lacking in interest in the UK operation. XXXX inc is actually a massive operation split into multiple subsidiaries spanning the continent and they simply have little time for us. Someone tried using my log-in once locked me out and it took head office three weeks to get round to issuing a new password. Customers have no hope. A constant grumble is with the packaging of their parcels. This has been going on for as long as I’ve been there and we’ve fought hard to get the message across, logging incidences, sending pictures,  but frustratingly all to no avail and we must listen to each new occurence with the right amount of empathy on tap as the customer details every rip, crush, and tear acting as if we haven’t heard it all 1000 times before.

But, back to team 4x. The team was the creation of our then new manager who either acting under pressure, seeking to impress, or some combination of both decided we would need to improve our pitiful retention figures. It seemed when people called to cancel their subscriptions we displayed no real interest in persuading them to stay; Rather unsurprising as we had no incentive to do so and most of us viewed, and still view, xxxx Inc with a degree of contempt for the reasons discussed at length above. Anyway four people were selected from the pool of Customer Service Advisor’s and re-located to the corner. There they discussed strategy and drew charts on the wall showing the percentage retained each day along with a tick signifying an improvement on the day before, or cross if there was a decline.

Team 4x was something of a watershed moment for the call-centre as we’d previously been a generic mass. Something about rubbish jobs breeds a sense of togetherness and we felt we were all in it together. Team 4x though soon began to develop a swagger. They were actually asked their opinions and given responsibilities, however small these were, so felt important. The rest of us began to regard them with suspicion consigning their memo’s to the bin without reading them. Ultimately though team 4x is a cautionary tale. The relentless pressure, the being caught between customers and an indifferent organisation, the strain of being at the front with no respite took its toll. One member had a breakdown, taking a number of months off sick and returning only with the proviso that they would no longer take calls for xxxx Inc. A second member is also no longer taking xxxx Inc calls whilst a third, previous a relatively good employee, lost all interest and just walked. Like a horror movie only one person, a real call centre veteran, made it through to the end.



The Memo: When bad managers attack

This is a copy of a recent memo sent to us by our manager. I have re-typed it to faithfully match the original with all its grammatical errors and have only removed the names of  individuals or companies. I feel I don’t need to say anymore as the memo speaks for itself:

To: Customer Service Team

From: Bad manager

Cc: Client managers

Re: Calls

Hi all,

As discussed on numerous occasions our priority is to take calls. I cannot stress enough the importance of staying seated and taking calls for the duration of your shifts. Every time some one leaves their desk we lose a call, whether it’s for a query, loo break or to get water. This, over a week can equate to in excess of 2000 calls lost, with a loss of revenue which we cannot afford in this difficult economic climate.

Therefore moving forward I would like the following adhered to with immediate effect.

All toilet breaks to be taken within your allocated break/lunch time (unless an emergency) Drinks whether hot or cold to be made within break/lunch times

All queries to be placed in the tray. (No visiting client managers to discuss) Even discussing with a colleague will mean 2 people off the phone, which is more calls lost. Queries will be dealt with from now on in, at specific allocated times to ensure minimum disruption. No outgoing calls to be made also.

Checking the diary for holidays/ days off etc to be discussed and checked prior to start times or within your break/finish times. Or place a request in the tray and I will discuss with you when the phones are quieter.

Mobile phones need to be away in the desk and switched off to avoid the temptation of reading, also no web browsing. Focus needs to be given during each and every call.

I will collect all printed documents from the printer/queries along with any envelopes labels that are required and will distribute accordingly. (xxxx will do this in my absence) If a statement for an xxx customer is required due to reconciliation, rather than printing it off, going into Busy wrap up and begin highlighting the query, just write on a query form “statement needs printing and reconciling)

Whilst I appreciate you may find this petty, this really is an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed, so I am looking for 100% cooperation form each and every one of you.

The screen behind me is a clear indication of the volume of calls lost or waiting, please look at this so you become aware of how busy we are and the importance of taking as many calls as possible.

Any questions or concerns please let me know, Thank you.

Computer says no

Call-centres are dehumanizing places, so dehumanizing that it is easy to conclude that at some point there won’t be a role for humans at all. In the novel Eight Minutes Idle (currently being turned into a film) the protagonist who is unfortunate enough to work in a call-centre contemplates just that;

The human element of this sort of service is so unnecessary, and it can’t be long before all telephone transactions are conducted by an electronic voice. The only reason we’re here is for people who still need that illusion of human agency, unaware that all we’re really doing is reading from a computer screen. Sure, we serve as a good front for filtering out the flack, yet it can’t be that hard to programme a machine to make pathetic protests and claim it’s sorry but it can’t do anything to help the caller.

The author of Eight Minutes Idle, Matt Thorne, actually worked in a call-centre himself which gives an air of authenticity to his characters musings – I also like to think that he came up with his theories as a way of retaining his sanity in a mind numbing environment as I know I do. But I do doubt the technology is within easy reach. I only need to think of the inadequacy of those train station announcements – the ones with the tinny automated voice which say; The 8;15 to Manchester is now 20 minutes late we apologise for the delay and leave me wondering how an automated voice can possibly be sorry? Has the train company wasted all its money developing  a machine with a voice like a rusty spoon being dragged across a blackboard which spends its time feeling the collective pain of stranded passengers in the depth of it’s circuit-boards? If so is this why there is no money for enough trains?

I have however, come to the conclusion that any idea of human agency in a call-centre is illusory. My role is simply to serve the system which I maintain a constant connection to through my hand on my workstation’s mouse with my headset completing the circuit connecting the system to the customer through me the human conduit. I relay what the system says translating its esoteric language of jargon, or else input  requests on behalf of the customer again translating them into the systems preferred dialect of codes.

I can compensate for some of the systems idiosyncracies by knowing just which buttons to push and click, or where I can sometimes pull the wool over its eyes, but ultimately the parameters of my every action are determined by the system. Philosophically speaking if the system doesn’t have a word for something then whatever it is simply cannot exist.

Not many of my customers understand this dynamic. I remember one time telling a man that something couldn’t be done because of the way the system worked only to be told “yes, but people control systems.” I resisted the urge to reply with the line from Little Britain… “computer says no“, but that would really have been the truth as for many companies the system controls the entire business from orders through to production and despatch with an iron grip. Take on the system at your peril.

I have no power over the system, in fact I am part of the system, like a cyborg, a fusion between man and machine, for the duration of the time I’m plugged in the systems emotional circuitry. Nothing more.


So what do you do?

Another nightmare day at the call centre. Despite having our hours back we were overwhelmed, it seems that too many people have left without being replaced. This is pure bad management, not just in my place either. One thing I can never understand about the call-centre industry in general is how badly it blase it is when it comes to retention of good and experienced staff. There seems to be an ‘anyone can do it’ attitude when it comes to call-centres. Sure it is one of the few jobs these days that doesn’t ask for much in the way of qualifications, but not anyone can do it well and it can take almost a year to be proficient in all the various systems we use. This alone is a case for looking after staff, but I think the prevailing culture is for managers see us not as individuals with a set of useful skills, but as parts of a machine which can be easily replaced.

There is also a woeful lack of progression, especially in a small to medium sized operation like mine where you might wait the best part of a decade to be promoted to the ranks of admin. Even our HR manager when she was doing our inductions made it clear that she didn’t think of the call-centre as a career choice, more of a stop-gap like bar-work or restaurant work in other words something to keep you afloat until something better comes along.

If you work in a call centre you dread the moment at parties, or other social gatherings where people invariably ask “so what do you do?”.  It really is a horrible thing to face, most other jobs have some sort of status attached, even working in a shop can be cool if it’s selling the right sort of thing like clothes, records or I-pods. As a teenager, or even in your early twenties people would always ask what sort of music you listened to, although also designed as a social sorting mechanism this was something much more democratic, but as an adult it is all about what you do; So what do you do? Run away maybe, or more usually you try to bury it deep in amongst other information “well I do a bit of writing, a bit of photography, but y’know to pay the bills.. well I sort of, y’know sort of just work in a call-centre really. Oh yes it’s just for a bit hopefully I’ll be getting out of it soon.”

Job hunting

I haven’t been in the call centre this week. Normally that would mean I’m happier and more relaxed, but things haven’t worked out that way this time. Instead the call-centre has been ominously hovering above me like that space ship in District 9. 

The reason is because things have got so bad. The latest thing is the new seating plan our manager has come up with which leaves me, for the majority of my shifts, sat on my own in a hinterland of unoccupied seating like a soviet era dissident sent to Siberia.

Our great leader has also prohibited us from using wrap-up as apparently we should be dealing with system issues like leaving notes, processing refunds etc whilst on the phone…. and that’s at the same time as dealing with stacks written correspondence too. It really defies all logic. When I’m on a call I find out what the customer wants, or what the issue at hand is, then agree and confirm a course of action. This done I end the call there and do anything I then have to do on the various systems we use. It is impossible for me to do this system admin ‘whilst on the phone’ as I finish the call as soon as possible in order to as my employer insists keeping call times as low as possible. I have no need to keep the customer on the phone so what do I do ask them to hang on whilst I type and click through system menus? Ok, but then my call time goes up.

Sadly this is typical of my manager who doesn’t actually do the job and just watches a live stats feed day in day out. I feel she is out of her depth and taking it out on some of us making our jobs and our lives harder.

My stress levels have been continually rising as what was a bad job becomes an unbearable job. Even typing this is stressing me out so I know that I have to make a huge effort to leave.

Anyway, better get back to job hunting.