Call Center Blues

image: call center

Nothing like being stuck in a cube smaller than a cattle pen for over eight hours a day, tethered to a phone like a cow chained to a barn. Humans are not designed to talk for eight hours a day. I will be shoveling cow manure or pig crap before working in a call center again.

[T]hey get on you about AHT “handle time” being too long. So you have to shuffle customers through and blow them off to have your “talk time"/handle time in line and not get yelled at. Also, there is always some nitpicking about how to speak, no matter how articulate you are
- City-Data

Criticising our work and PUTTING US DOWN is the norm. [M]istakes are shared by management both as an internal note on the ticket for all employees to see, and broadcast on an intracompany mail list… The LEVEL of negative FEEDBACK and MICROMANAGEMENT is SUFFOCATING.
- Can’t Find a Qualified US Worker - Redux 2

Negative feedback should be an unusual event: If you run your own business or are in a position of management, you should be aware that your behavior influences the environment of your company. If you and the people in your company criticize and complain a lot, maybe this is a sign that you are providing too much negative feedback, and the risk is that the work environment can deteriorate. Be aware that critiques should be delivered just once in a while, and not permanently, as too much critique ruins the relationships between your collaborators, and risk their disengagement and consequently their performance.
- 10 Good Ways to Give Feedback

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The Worst Job I Ever Had: Working in a Call Center for a Cell Phone Company
It was four straight hours of listening to complaints, a lunch break, and then another four hours on the phone.

By Lucas McDaniel,
Bloomington, Indiana

How I got in

I was just out of college, struggling to find a job, and expenses were piling up - student loans, rent, utilities, food, car insurance. I felt the walls closing in and knew I had to find a job, any job.

I decided to apply for a job at a call center, answering customer service calls for a large telecom provider. The place had a bad reputation - a couple friends had worked there and told me, It sucks, but IT’S A JOB. Which was my exact mindset heading in.

All I had to do was walk in and fill out the application. The next week they invited all the new applicants in for a mass interview, and if you made it that far, you were basically hired.

We had about eight weeks of training, all of it paid at $8 per hour. The training consisted of the new crop of employees sitting in a room for eight hours a day, looking at PowerPoint slides and listening to recordings of people dealing with customers.

Fewer and fewer people showed up over the course of training. They got a couple paychecks, then bailed. It was demoralizing. I had just earned an engineering degree from a four-year university, and here I was among a bunch of high-school dropouts.

The last week of training was spent on the floor, where we watched customer service reps field actual calls from customers. I learned more that week than I did the previous seven. All the other training was a waste.

When I realized it was going to suck

That’s when I realized I was totally unprepared for the job. I watched the customer service reps log their call information in the internal software system, and quickly realized I had no idea how to use it. “What did you just do?” I asked them. “We didn’t go over that in training.”

“Ask your supervisor” they’d say.

The supervisor said if we had any questions, we should just look it up in the internal learning database and follow the script. But the database didn’t account for most of the situations the customers described. Or the customer would give a response not included in the script, and we’d be left flying blind.

I often had to put the customer on hold just so I could call over a supervisor and ask them what to say.

There were about 500, 600 people on the call center floor at once. It was a wide-open warehouse, with rows of cubicles, 10 to each row. The partitions between them were small, so our calls often bled into each others. I worked nights, and it was miserable going from fluorescent lighting to utter darkness.

Our base pay was $9.50 an hour, but you could make up to $12 if you stuck it out long enough. Promotions were on a merit system. You were judged harshly by the customer satisfaction surveys conducted after each call. If you weren’t able to fix someones problem, even if you followed the script, the customer would rate you low and ruin your chance for a raise or bonus.

One of the points emphasized in training was that we were to always keep the customer happy, whatever the cost. This meant giving them lots of free stuff - phone accessories like Bluetooth headsets or chargers, or upgrading them to a better plan.

I worked for the enterprise division - businesses that bought phone plans for everyone in their organization - and they knew they’d get freebies if they complained. Most of the calls were people not understanding their bills, and me having to point them to certain line items.

One time I made a mistake that caused a customer to be charged more than they should have. I was apologizing profusely, and the person on the other end kept saying, “How are you gonna make it up to me?”

After each call, we had two minutes to enter the details into the system and get a quick breather. But there was never enough time for a break. It was four straight hours of listening to complaints, a lunch break, and then another four hours on the phone.

How I got out

I lasted only a month on the floor. I had had a line on an IT job at Indiana State University, and it finally came through. The day I got the offer, I told my supervisor I quit - no notice, effective immediately. He didn’t bat an eyelash because the turnover was ridiculous.

It was the only job I ever got sick of, and that’s including delivering newspapers as a kid. I would sit in my car before each shift started, trying to psych myself up before walking in from the parking lot.

The job forever cemented in my head that its an actual person on the other end of your customer service call, and to treat them with the according respect, no matter how frustrated you are.

Every other job I’ve had has been a cakewalk relative to working in that call center. Whenever I’m feeling down at work, I just think, I could be stuck answering customer service calls all day. Maybe this mandatory lunch meeting isn’t so bad after all.

SOURCE

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Toiling Away in ‘White-Collar Sweatshops’ - aka Call Centers

By Maria Verlengia
CRM Buyer
ECT News Network
June 9, 2009

Sarah Betesh’s career in customer service began in box office call centers at venues such as the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia. She moved on to Tickets.com and Vertical Alliance, at one point becoming a call center manager.
Toiling Away in ‘White-Collar Sweatshops’ - aka Call Centers

However, in spite of her success, Betesh left her call center career behind in 2003. She now teaches autistic children at a middle school in Bucks County, Penn. The high stress levels she experienced in the call center environment left her feeling burned out. Ultimately, she found the work unsatisfying because she did not feel she was accomplishing anything.

High Stress, High Turnover

“I worked for Tickets.com for two years,” Betesh told CRM Buyer. “It’s a really high-stress job. You don’t get a lot of money. The only time people call you is if something is wrong. They’re mad. Phones would ring off the hook. Phone centers are typically very busy.”

Another difficult aspect was the repetitive nature of the work. Betesh likened it to a factory. “It gets boring. That’s tough,” she said.

Betesh’s story sheds light on some of the factors leading to the high turnover rates typical of the call center industry. People take on the typically minimum-wage positions hoping to move on to something else, she said. It’s a good way to enter the customer service field.

“They’re using it as a stepping stone, or it’s their second job,” Betesh observed.

Most people consider a call center position as a way to break into a company or field—not a long-term career, echoed Karl Bonawitz, division manager at firstPro, which fills call center openings.

“People look at it as a foot-in-the-door process,” he told CRM Buyer.

Recession Effect

In spite of the historically high turnover rates at call centers, Bonawitz has seen a tremendous slowdown over the past six months—at least in the IT call centers he staffs in the Philadelphia area—which he attributes to the poor job market.

“I think it’s the economy. The economy has everyone scared,” he said. The moving around that typically occurs in the call center industry is not happening as much.

Will turnover become high again once conditions improve?

“That’s the $10 million question,” he said. Once the job market improves, he foresees people once again moving on to bigger and better opportunities.

Higher Pay, Better Training

Working conditions are a factor in the high turnover rate—especially for people who are not prepared for or suited to customer service work, said Bonawitz. “I think it can be a stressful job. Every single call is tracked. Customer satisfaction is tracked. The volume is high. It takes the right kind of personality. You need a little bit of a thicker skin.”

Additional training would help retain people, he suggested. “People in those roles don’t want to feel stymied. They want to continue to learn.”

Higher pay would also help retain the right employees, Bonawitz maintained, but companies are resistant to the extra expense that would entail, typically viewing call center staffing as a low priority.

That is a mistake, he said, because contact with a call center staff member is frequently the first impression a customer has of a company. A bad attitude can have a negative effect on a customer’s opinion.

“I think it makes a huge difference,” said Bonawitz.

High-Turnover Costs

In the long run, high turnover is very costly, said Paul Stockford, chief analyst at Saddletree Research and director of research for the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF CALL CENTERS (NACC).

“The hiring costs are huge,” he told CRM Buyer.

In fact, the cost of attrition was US$5,466 per individual, Stockford noted, based on a 2008 survey of 70 call centers conducted by Furst Person, a company that specializes in call center staffing.

Solutions to the Problem

Impersonal workspaces, tightly controlled staff, and some methods of monitoring performance such as critiquing calls and measuring call times all factored into the high turnover rate, said Stockford.

“It’s pretty much like a white collar sweatshop,” he remarked.

In her experience, companies kept a close watch on the performance of call center employees, observed former CSR Betesh.

“All of your calls were tracked,” she said.

When she moved into a managerial position, she recognized the pitfalls of overmonitoring employees. “No one likes to be micromanaged.”

Some companies are taking steps to improve working conditions, such as measuring performance based on successful outcomes of calls, which Stockford believes is a better indicator of performance.

Some are offering telecommuting to call center employees.

“It’s happening more than you realize,” observed Stockford. “That’s a way of keeping employees.”

JetBlue and Veterans2work are two companies offering work-at-home options for call center staff, he noted.

Still, there aren’t many companies offering an option to telecommute yet, firstPro’s Bonawitz said, likely because companies think they cannot adequately monitor employees who work at home.

Although companies may believe that, the perception is unfounded, Stockford said.

“A lot of monitoring is done online anyway,” he pointed out.

Signs of Change

Surprisingly, Stockford does not believe increased training will help alleviate the call center churn problem. Training is currently highly variable among call centers, depending on the complexity of the product. In a survey of NACC members and newsletter readers Saddletree conducted last year, participants were asked asked if they would like additional training. Half the respondents expressed no interest.

Improving the work environment, however, can help reduce churn. Some companies have less than 10 percent turnover per year, Stockford commented—usually, they are companies that understand the value of customer service.

Yet many call centers are resistant to change; Stockford attributes that to a lack of leadership in the industry and calls for more innovation and initiative.

Although firstPro’s Bonawitz reported a definite slowdown in call center staffing, Stockford has not noticed a drop in the turnover rate or many layoffs during the recession in the call center hot spots he monitors such as Phoenix, Dallas and Florida.

That is because companies are doing everything they can to maintain their customer base, he suggested, and they want to keep their call centers running efficiently.

“I think attrition is still an issue,” he said.

The Right Fit

Although working in a call center was ultimately not the right career for her, Betesh acknowledged that a call center job could be the right fit for some people.

Working in a well-managed call center can be a pleasant experience, especially with respect to the social aspects.

“For some people, it’s their niche,” she said. “There’s definitely camaraderie if the office is run right. Huge camaraderie. We had fun.”

SOURCE

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The Last Bullying Frontier
Call center representatives take a beating.

By Guy Winch
Psychology Today
March 31, 2011

Bullying of LGBT youth has received well deserved attention over past months and raised public awareness about every other societal manifestation of bullying-except one.

There is one group that contends with bullying with alarming regularity and although no lives have been lost as a result, the psychological, emotional and financial consequences of their bullying is staggering in scope. They are CALL CENTER REPRESENTATIVES.

Call-center representatives are the people who answer the phone when we call customer service or municipal hotlines to report problems, make complaints, or request technical support. They are entry level employees who receive a few weeks of training before being deployed to the front lines of their industry where they encounter an impatient and highly aggressive public.

Many of us associate call-centers with out-sourced facilities in India or the Philippines but there are thousands of call centers across every state in our nation that employ hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens.

How Abusive Do Callers Get?

In doing research for my book The Squeaky Wheel I interviewed many call-center representatives and heard many stories of terrible verbal and emotional abuse (the most dramatic of which is described in detail in Chapter 7 of the book). “People burst into tears here all the time,” a woman at one call-center said. “I was cursed at, called stupid, slow, moron, retard and idiot so many times a day-I cried myself to sleep every night.” Why didn’t she quit? She was a single mother and she needed the job.

Call-center employees can average up to 10 hostile encounters a day in which they are subject to vile and personal insults, screaming, cursing and threats. Imagine being treated abusively in your job numerous times a day, every single day.

While in-store employees can call security if a customer becomes threatening or belligerent, call-center employees enjoy no such back-up. They are required to stay on the line and ‘salvage’ even the most abusive and hostile calls as best they can. Further, they are forbidden to ‘fight back’ as responding in kind to such provocations can cost them their jobs.

The Bullying Power Dynamic

This grossly uneven power dynamic between caller and call-center representative is something of which we the public take full advantage. After going through automated menus or waiting too long on ‘hold’ we take out our anger and frustration on people whose job prevents them from fighting back-in doing so we are bullying them in every sense of the word.

What is striking from a psychological and sociological perspective is how common it is to hear otherwise decent people confess to treating call-center representatives in a manner they would consider verbally abusive and reprehensible in any other context. In fact, we are so desensitized to the plight of call-center employees, such stories are often related without a hint of remorse or recognition of the mental anguish the representative in question might have endured. In other words we demonstrate a problematic lack of empathy (read How to Test Your Empathy here).

Why We Dehumanize Call Center Representatives

There are several reasons why we allow ourselves to bully call-center representatives:

1. We tend to view them as literal representatives of the companies responsible for our frustrations and problems-thus we hold them personally responsible (even though they had nothing to do with our problem) and feel they are fair targets for our anger and frustration.

2. Never seeing their faces allows us to switch off psychological filters such as civility and empathy. As a result, we typically feel no remorse for our actions and have little sympathy for the plight of the call-center employee who was subjected to them. In other words, we are in denial about the emotional and psychological distress our bullying might cause.

3. Our complaining psychology is such that we are convinced (often erroneously) the ‘company’ will make it as difficult as possible for us to resolve our problem or get through to a live person. As a result we get into a veritable battle mentality even before dialing the toll-free number.

The Consequences of Bullying Call-Center Representatives

The impact of our bullying has severe consequences for call-center employees as well as the industry as a whole. Call-center representatives typically experience severe and chronic stress and have high rates of medical absenteeism, burnout and depression. As a result, call-centers have one of the highest employee attrition rates in any industry because few workers can manage our psychological and emotional assaults for long.

The annual costs to companies of having to regularly hire and train new call-center employees can run hundreds of millions of dollars or more. The rapid turnover also creates a vicious cycle in which a chronic influx of new workers increases the likelihood of us encountering hesitant and inexperienced representatives, which then frustrates us and inflames our tempers even further (read about Complaint Handling: Why Companies and Customers both Fail: here).

Dehumanizing call-center employees and treating them as emotional punching bags represents the kind of societal bullying that should be as intolerable as any other form of bullying we decry today. It is a behavior that causes staggering financial losses to companies and untold emotional and psychological ones to tens of thousands of our fellow Americans.

It is up to us as citizens and as consumers to acknowledge victims of bullying wherever they exist. Let’s remind ourselves that call-center representatives are there to help us and that treating them with respect and civility will make our encounters with them less frustrating for us, less painful for them and more productive for all.

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