The Call Centre BBC 3 Live Blog

A new fly-on-the-wall documentary called simply The Call Centre  on BBC 3. I had to watch. As I waited for the programme to start suddenly the idea hit me. why don’t I live blog it? Type out my thoughts as I watch the episode. The worst that can happen is that I produce an incoherent mess, so here goes:

 

I’m watching The Call Centre on BBC 3.

The intro tells us that of 1 million UK call centre workers the average age is 26. According to the voiceover call centres are the “new factories”

They’re talking about voices now. Nev, the boss, says you need to be ‘smiling’ down the phone. My big failing.

A two week training ‘academy’ – Luxury! In my old place you’d be lucky to get two hours before being pitched into the fray.

Now it’s about love. The newbies in the academy are like new meat for the prowling cats. Can’t say I’d ever come across love blossoming in a call centre – No one got chance to speak to each other.

Christian – the one the girls all fancy – is comparing the call centre to his last job ‘flipping burgers’ – the call centre wins for him. It’s his first week – he’ll soon learn.

It’s striking me that people seem to be out of their seats – quite a lot.

George, a sales agent, tries to describe the call centre in three words; fun, enjoyable…… can’t think of a third. I can!

The company are organising speed dating.

Despite the constant rejection it’s actually looking like a fun place to work. This call centre seems more like a club 18-30 holiday than work. The polar opposite of my call centre experience

Now it’s become the x-factor as the staff are auditioning for a ‘voice of the Welsh call centre’ contest.

Christian has a girlfriend of 2 years. Romance over.

The first older employee to be shown – quite a way into the programme. A man who looks in his late 30s. He’s not doing bad at the singing contest, but it’s interesting as it’s so far been presented as a young peoples environmnet. Controversy as one judge suggests that the man isn’t photogenic enough for a side of a bus advert – not what we want representing us. Nev disagrees, but it’s interesting as it seems to be an uncomfortable truth that older people are working in a call centre, fits less well with the ‘not really a real job’ line that the programme seems to be taking.

In 6 years the call centre has grown from 8 staff to 700

Nev says ‘it may feel like a holiday camp’, but it’s all about creating a feelgood vibe to cope with the “drudgery” and reduce staff turnover. Nev says you can “feel the buzz.” I’m starting to think he’s a genius.

The call centre has a band and they’re performing live in the call centre.

We’re introduced to the top seller Anya. Sales technique seems to be dancing whilst calling. Anya says she had a wild past, didn’t go to school much. Apparently her attendance record has been plunging. Nev says she ‘wouldn’t get away with it in most businesses.’

Nev is now working as a match-maker for George trying to set him up with someone else from the centre. He’s got Alex to agree to a date. Now George is getting coaching on his chat-up technique. “It’s like sales” he’s told.

One of the call centre workers, who won the audition to go through to the main ‘voice of the Welsh Call Centre’ contest  is an actress who spent a number of years in the Welsh soap opera – people of the valley. she seems to genuinely be enthusiastic about the job.

We’re back to Anya. She explains she’s got anxiety problems which keep her from coming to work and Nev seems keen to try to help giving her the less pressured job of tea lady.

The tea trolley is being taken round. I’m guessing this is to give staff a cup of tea whilst keeping them plugging away on the phones. I remember when I was in the call centre and one cup had to last several hours. A tea trolley would have been brilliant.

Looks like George has been stood up.. again.

Anya’s still not coming into work. The soft, sad music playing in the background -like the old piano in Neighbours – signals what we’re about to be told. Anya has been let go.

Nev is giving advice to George. “It’s like sales” he says SWSWSWN “some will, some won’t, so what, next”

Trailer for what’s happening next week,… a very alcoholic looking punch and the call centre football team.

Well, lots to think about there – a whole new post maybe. I wonder if these working practices would ever happen at an inbound centre where it’s all about dealing with the maximum volume of calls with the minimum of resources and which usually entails a ‘sit down and shut-up’ management philosophy. The sales agents, providing they’re hitting targets (which aren’t mentioned at all), seem to be looked after more, probably as there much more tangibly making money for the call centre owner. Would I want to work there? Not now probably, but if I was in my early 20s then maybe……….. how about you?

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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.

Service Vs Sales

Yesterday was a fabulously sunny day and one which I enjoyed by spending some time in the garden of a Mediterranean-style tapas bar with a couple of call-centre colleagues past and present.

Strangely, and maybe because of the good weather, we didn’t talk all that much about work as can sometimes happen at these kind of meetings where anyone in the party not connected with the call-centre finds themselves in a rather unenviable position among a bunch of people talking shop. Even more strangely as my acquaintance with two of my colleagues pre-dated my time at the call-centre it was occasionally myself in this position.

What we did briefly talk about was how we were less than content with our manager and don’t see things improving under the current regime, but only getting steadily worse; worse being  a much more target-driven culture with even more emphasis on things like upselling, or in the case of subscription type services ‘retentions’ – that is keeping customers who call to cancel. Fortunately however, we didn’t dwell long enough on this pessimism to sour the good mood of the day.

What also came up during this brief conversation was  the ways in which we resist these pressures. One way is to simply fake a retention for the stats to chalk it up when it never happened in the hope that no-one will actually bother to take the time to check, or similarly logging an unrelated call – one where the customer has not expressed any wish to cancel as a retention. This logic also works for upsells; someone calls to order a product in a larger quantity or size; then log it as an upsell.

There is an issue of ethics here; can such a deception ethical? The answer is in terms of loyalty to our employer and our client firms possibly not, but it must be remembered that our contracting-out status makes these relationships more abstract. I don’t think anyone sees it as deceiving our employer, instead it is deceiving the firms we take calls on behalf of; firms with which we often have a difficult relationship with. As front-line staff for instance we take the flack when one of these companies messes up and also take flack over issues with a firms products or services which come up again and again, yet are powerless to affect any sort of change. It is also very rare for these firms to say or do anything by way of thanks after a particularly busy, or turbulent time though it must be said there is one exception to this who after their busy period sent down a few large boxes chocolates, a small gesture maybe, but one which shows there is at least some thought of us whilst they’re busy counting the cash from the orders we’ve handled.

This one example of good-practice aside it is factors such as these above which serve to re-enforce our distance from the companies we take calls for. In general we are treated as mercenaries and in turn adopt a mercenary attitude, if we don’t receive an incentive for upselling, or retaining, then there’s little chance of us bothering as loyalty simply doesn’t exist in our relationship. Our management recognise this feeling and try to counter this by insisting that by pleasing our clients we are securing our firms position and therefore our jobs, this they argue should be our incentive. Some people may subscribe to this, but in the main I believe there has a degree of scepticism around this just so long as people get the feeling from the volume of calls we handle that the firms are doing quite well as it is (possibly something which may be about to change as it gets quieter and quieter)

Whilst so far I have provided an excuse for our acts of resistance, I have not, at least I feel, provided an adequate justification. I will now turn to this. The justification, the prime justification, for our manipulating of the statistics is that there is at present a clash of cultures. On the one hand we have our manager, from a sales background, who is keen to use her experience in this area for the benefit of our clients and our company. On the other we have a team of people whose job title is ‘customer service’ where a colleague once memorably put it, with a hint of pride, “I do customer service I don’t do sales.” Our reading of customer service, and the way it has hitherto been practiced among us, is in the main, giving the customer what they want; if this is a smaller size, or if this is to cancel a subscription, then our job is to carry out this request. Quite plainly our role is to serve the customer.

There is another way of viewing this which is the sales-person’s way; that is in terms of a cancellation we do customers a service by offering alternatives and incentives to continue which they may wish to take up, and when upselling we provide them with an opportunity. Quite possibly this is the view espoused within ‘the BIG book of sales’ a voluminous tome which resides on, or around my managers desk. Maybe there is some point to it, but personally it doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I know that when I call a firm to cancel I have given the matter some thought and made up my mind before picking up the phone, and I know I certainly didn’t appreciate a call from my new car insurance company offering me (or attempting to scare me into – again depending on your viewpoint) extra cover over and above my fully-comp policy.

Maybe though this is me. Are customer-services and sales two reconcilable philosophies, or are they fundamentally contradictory?

The hard $ell

Today I arrived at my seat in the call centre to find two pieces of paper positioned on my computer keyboard. The first was a memo instructing me to complete the tick sheet located beneath the memo every time I’d managed an ‘upsell’ by loading upgrades and extras onto anyone who dared to place their order by telephone. The memo continued by telling me that this was all part of customer services as apparently the customer may not have noticed all the optional extras on the advert so it was up to me to help them out of this potentially difficult situation.

The memo marks a deep cultural shift in the call centre. Previously a number of my colleagues had prided themselves on the fact that as someone once put it “we do customer services we don’t do sales.” This was an important assertion as it positioned us in the call centre industry hierarchy somewhere slightly above the cold-calling bottom-end. Unfortunately however, before joining us our manager seems to have done quite nicely in sales. So now we have all the fancy dress days, box ticking, and competitions that go with the territory.

For me this all brings back horrible memories of my first ever job on the phones which was cold-calling for a double glazing company. Whenever you’d got a bite (someone who agreed to a call back from a person named the ‘confirmer’ who would apply a hard-sell and book an appointment with two ‘reps’ who would visit and apply an even harder sell) you got to roll an oversized dice and move your name up a snakes and ladder board pinned to the wall with a £10 note  fixed with a blob of blu-tack at the top. The guy who always won this was called Dan. Dan was the best salesperson by a long, long way and would be halfway up the board after just one shift. Even if he hit the biggest snake he was still assured of having the tenner in his pocket by the weekend. On my first day, whilst doing my training he confessed to me the secret of his success. Being left on his own in a large park at night whilst tripping on LSD had, he said, provided a demonstration of his mental strength, the mental strength you needed for a career in sales.

The walls of the room were plastered with motivational slogans and it was all presided over by a youngish woman with a desk facing the rest of us and who did a fine line in motivation herself by screaming “get more f&*$ing bites I need more bites.” If these exhortations failed she could always fall back on other methods. I remember one guy being made to stand on top of his chair until he got a bite. It was done in a jokey sort of way, but nonetheless didn’t do much to uphold any principles of dignity at work. Whilst we worked we could see the reps in the next room. Strangely they all had the leering expression of underfed hyenas making me distinctly uneasy that all that separated us was a flimsy partition and a few large squares of perspex.

I managed to last three shifts, which probably made me a veteran among the mainly teenage workforce whose cold-calling careers could be ended on a whim such as not wanting to get out of bed or playing playstation round a mates house. All in all It should have netted me just above £30, and some on top as one of my bites had I was told resulted in a sale, but in the event I only ever received payment for one shift a paltry £10.

I didn’t make much of an effort beyond a couple of calls to chase-up the missing money I chose just to put it down to experience. I was confident that my life would move on and I would forget about it all.

Which I did, until the memo……

The Tesco Encounter

Supermarkets I’m sure are designed to stress me out; Fridays especially when everyone seems to hit the shops. Negotiating the usually badly designed car park and trolley littered aisles leaves me frazzled by the time I get to the check-out. I have no time either for the automated self-service machines they are the route to an instant corony with their insistence of an “unexpected item in bagging area” in a middle class tone probably labelled ‘reassuring’ by a focus group somewhere in Tunbridge Wells.

It was one such Friday which found me in a Sainsburys the size of a small planet. In my frazzled state I presented to the checkout. The assistant couldn’t have been more chirpy and chatty “any plans for the weekend” she chimed as she scanned my bottles of wine. This smalltalk brightened my mood a welcome change from what I had begun to call the ‘Tesco encounter’; something I had come to dread. The reason it is so named is because Tesco seemed to me to be the first supermarket to insist staff say “hello” at the checkout. This is such ingrained practice now that I find myself automatically saying hello as I approach the checkout which can be the cause of much embarrassment on the continent where customer-service remains a gleefully underdeveloped, and more natural, concept.

The reason for my dread is firstly its fakeness; forcing people to be chirpy on a Monday morning, or after a long day, or when it’s just not their inclination and telling people off for not being friendly enough just doesn’t seem right to me. Secondly shops  have expanded the encounter to include a mini sales pitch.. “do you have a clubcard, have you got everything you were looking for today, do  you want a mars bar for half the usual price”. No, I just want to pay for my stuff and go. Reassuringly one Tesco employee at an express petrol station does a great line in subverting the whole encounter “do you have a clubcard, do you have any petrol, do you want to answer any more questions” she trots out dryly. Brilliant!

It took a couple of more trips to Sainsburys to twig what was going on. Staff engaging me in conversation everytime I was at the till with lines like “had a good day” or “looking forward to the weekend”.. I sensed that their staff had received some kind of training and instruction to go forth and engage customers in conversation. It was not an antidote to the Tesco encounter, more of a mutation.

Yesterday as I fought my way through what was the busiest retail day virtually ever of a shopping mall I noticed New Look had also evolved the encounter, its checkout staff creating what the marketeers probably describe as a ‘feel good vibe’ with lines such as “oh I love those shoes, I wanted some myself, but they didn’t have my size left”…. Where are we going with all this, will checkout staff be instructed to add customers on Facebook and take them out on the town before letting them escape with their purchases.

I don’t mean to sound grumpy, but it is all so artificial, I feel sorry for the staff involved who are probably threatened with the sack if they fail to lay on the right amount of saccharine sweetness to every single customer.

How does all this relate to the call-centre? Well we actually recently received a management memo telling us to be less ‘chatty’ to customers. Apparently it means we get through less calls if some person, who probably can’t get out of the house, wants to have a good chinwag with us about what they’ve bought, the weather or whatever else. As I’ve said before I enjoy these conversations. When they are natural they break up the monotony of a day of robot-like repetitive transactions and make me, as well as the customer feel a bit more human. It seems that for good or for bad companies and managers are trying to hijack these encounters, fashioning them to suit their ends whatever they may be; more sales, brand loyalty, or quicker transactions. This makes us all a bit less human