Stop that chatter!

Early on a Friday afternoon and the only audible sign that I’m not alone (which sometimes I am at this time of week) is the occasional clicking of my colleagues mouse. From the sound of it she – like me – is deeply engaged in surfing the internet. Whether its checking the news, online shopping or getting ideas for dinner tonight I can only guess. We haven’t talked for hours.

It’s not that we can’t stand each other. We have a typical colleague-colleague relationship. It’s just that we can talk whenever we want – so we don’t. It’s this which makes me realise how far away from the call centre I now am.

In the call centre talking to your co-workers is a forbidden fruit to be bitten into, to have its juices savoured. You talked whenever you had the chance. The reason for this is that when it is effectively the use of your vocal chords which is being paid for the employer expects them to be used only for the pursuit of their objectives. Using them for mere idle chatter is wasting money.

In my last call centre managers would go to lengths to prevent chatter. Not content with waving monitoring reports at you in your six-monthly review, showing how much time you’d spent not on calls they’d seek to catch you red handed. Moving around the floor with stealth they used the wobbly grey partitions, stone pillars and over-sized pot-plants for cover. Observing for a few moments they’d then leap like a lion on their unsuspecting prey.

There was really nothing worse than getting the unpleasant tap on the shoulder followed by a rebuke of ‘get back on the phone’ so against this threat we deployed several defensive strategies. The first thing to do when coming on shift was to find a seat which faced the managers desk cluster. This enabled you to observer the observer, and prevented any unnoticed approach. Adjusting your chair to sit as low as possible was another strategy. Too high and your head is literally above the parapet. Managers sight-lines could also be blocked by careful positioning of a box-file.

Another trick is keeping your headset on and looking straight-ahead, never looking away from the screen, whilst conversing with your neighbour. It goes against all the usual norms of face-to-face conversation, but it’s much easier to conceal an illicit conversation. Finally there is teamwork, which involves warning each other with nudge, or a head nod that a manager is on the prowl.

In my final year at that particular call centre I only got tapped on the shoulder twice.

Call Centre Documentary: Help Needed

Towards the end of last year I was approached by Dragonfly Television, makers of’One Born Every Minute, who are in the process of making a new documentary series about complaints and customer service in  Britain.

Among other things they’re going to be featuring call centres and are keen to speak to people who have experienced a negative effect from working in the call centre:

We’re interested in showing just what the toll of being on the end of a barrage of abuse can result in, our episode is going to be surrounding utility companies and at the moment they seem to really be at the very forefront of people’s vitriol. So we’d like to understand just how the decisions that are made at an executive level can have a negative effect not only on the customer but also the call centre worker themselves.

If anyone is interested in sharing their story, please contact Jonathan.Skuse@dragonfly.tv

 

 

Calls may be monitored

Listening-in

 

Angela Merkel might not have been too happy about having her calls listened in to, but to many of us working in the call centre industry having our conversations listened in to, recorded and then fed back to us is an everyday occurrence.

For me, being listened in to is never a nice experience. First there is the paranoia. Spotting a  team-leader sat at a station  you start wondering how long since you was last monitored, then they glance over. Momentarily you catch each others eyes before you both turn away. Convinced it’s you and begin upping your workrate until you’re throat becomes sore with the exertion. You push, prod and cajole customers into buying more, upgrading or whatever it is the company wants you to do – what on paper you should do – but  which under normal circumstances you wouldn’t care less about hassling people for.  Worst of all you have to do everything by the book. No cutting corners the way you do to keep your average call time down, and absolutely no writing off of trifling amounts to neatly circumvent an argument with a customer.

Fortunately I’ve always been quite good at reading the signs and know when I’m being listened-in to and so can take full advantage of the Hawthorne effect which states that subjects being observed act differently due to the very nature of observation. Once however, I wasn’t so lucky. In my defence it was a very, very quiet day, with nothing much happening in the way of calls. I’d decided to put my feet up and take it easy. My big mistake though was  calling up a colleague for a quick chat. Unbeknownst to me they’d just had a run in with their manager and unleashed an anti-management tirade which would have landed us both in hot water were they not already working their notice. As it was it was just me fighting to keep my job. Lesson learnt.

But is monitoring all bad? Of course I’d rather not be monitored and have my conversation style forensically unpicked, but is there an up side? According to this article in Call Centre Helper there is, with the writer pointing out that

Over the years, I have often found that it is possible to gauge a call centre’s efficiency by its attitude to listening to calls. A bad call centre usually has no facilities for listening to calls. In a well-run call centre, senior management will listen to calls on a regular basis and provide immediate feedback to agents.

I’ll never love monitoring, and will always continue in the belief that monitoring is another part of the power imbalance in the Call Centre, but this something I’d agree with. In my worst call centre job I was monitored only once in two years. The reason for this quite simply is that for management monitoring calls is a time-consuming hassle they’d prefer not to do, particularly in the kind of call centre where everyone is over-burdened to the maximum.  To listen in to half an hour of calls takes half an hour of a managers time, in addition to the time taken to feed-back which is likely to be at least another half hour and even then they’d probably only hear a very narrow range of scenarios – not enough to really gauge performance. Faced with a call centre of even twenty agents regular monitoring becomes a huge task. The problem which then occurs is that managers will always be desperate for some way of measuring the performance of their staff and without monitoring they then turn to the dreaded call stats.

 

 

Fictional call centre characters #2 Vroom

Vroom's Managerial Matrix

Vroom’s Managerial Matrix

Book: One Night at the Call Centre by Chetan Bhagat

Name(s): Varun Malhotra/ Agent Victor Mell/ Vroom

Employer: Connexions (India)

A struggling outsourcer with a call centre in Guragong Connexions take calls for their one and only client the U.S firm Western Computer and Appliances. Call flow is however dwindling and the future of the firm is in question.

Vroom’s call centre journey:

Young and idealistic the college educated Vroom was originally working as a journalist, but took a job in the call centre due to the better money on offer. This choice is a constant source of tension for Vroom, who finds call centre work hard and though he tries to justify his choice by pointing out that with economic wealth comes greater power  he also reflects on the hollowness of consumer society and the relatively low wages of Indian call centre workers compared to workers in the West.

Finest call centre moment:

Without a doubt developing Vroom’s managerial matrix. In Vroom’s own words:

There are four kind of bosses in this world, based on two dimensions: a) how smart or stupid they are and b) whether they are good or evil. Only with extreme good luck do you get a boss who is smart and a good human being.

Worst call centre moment:

Routinely abused by rude, angry and above all stupid customers. Vroom’s worst moment comes when he receives racial abuse from a drunk caller leaving him visibly distressed, trembling and breathing heavily.

What does Vroom represent:

The tragedy of wasted talent. With his education Vroom could be a journalist making a difference in society, but instead he’s wasting this potential in the call centre. Vroom is also representative of the tensions of the outsourcing model where power lies with the big Western companies who profit by paying comparatively lower wages and with the Western consumers who act in an abusive way towards the virtually powerless call centre workers.

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.

Combining work and play; Can working in a call centre be fun?

Watching the new BBC 3 series The Call Centre, the thing about it that gets me is how much fun the place looks, so much so that halfway through it had me thinking about emailing  the genial boss ‘Big Nev’ a copy of my CV. In just one episode there was a soap-operas worth of romance, plently of laughter and we were introduced to the house band whilst the trailer for the next episode promised even more fun with a glimpse of the bowl of alcoholic punch at the office party. So can the call centre actually be fun….

When you say call centre, you may imagine something like an old airctraft hanger, a grey industrial unit, or a generic glass and steel office block, none of which particularly stir the soul. You’re also likely to imagine an equally dull generic call-centre interior, where workers sit in rows of cubicles and the colour pallate consists of grey, grey, and more grey. Hardly fun.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Why not turn the office into a playground? I’ve heard of one office where a slide has been installed and all prespective employees are encouraged to have a go. Granted it’s not a call centre, but architectural design has been used to make call centres more fun, such as the Thomas Cook Call Centre in Peterborough which includes among its features beach huts and waves. Another Thomas Cook Call centre, this one in Falkirk, also shows what can be achieved just by ditching the traditional rows in favour of clusters and bringing a splash of colour in

Big Nev’s call centre  with it’s a house band and football team showed how fun could be integrated around working routines. There are also ‘motivational games’ based around sales targets like balls of steel where agents begin with five balls and gets to take one ball from another agent when making a sale , or pod wars where the agent making the sale gets to ‘sink’ another agent, but if all that sounds a bit rubbish there are the more illicit games which can be played in a call centre such as the hang-up race , word-sneak or call centre hold-em.

How about some good old office romance? This was certainly on offer in Big Nev’s call centre with office speed dating events and no small amount of flirting . According to one survey call centres are even  a hotbed of romance, mainly due to the young age range of workers who have a predilection for hitting the pub after work and though I didn’t see much in the way of romance in my place a friend who worked in a call centre belonging to a high-street bank did tell me about a male and female colleague who had a rendezvous in the disabled toilet.  Something surprising to me though is the finding that one in four workers reported flirting with callers – not much opportunity for that with my client base of angry pensioners.

For Big Nev making the call centre fun made sense as, in an industry notorious for high staff turnover, it helped with staff retention. So really it’s win-win, staff have fun whilst recruitment and training costs fall.

So why can’t the call centre be more fun?

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.