My illustrious call centre background.

Having lost a muse in the last month or so, I’m struggling somewhat for things to write about. Experience is a quality that, although clichéd, seems to be essential for many writers. I’m personally at a loss in that I feel the experiences I’ve accrued up to this point don’t really represent someone who is creeping up on the wrong side of 30. So just what was it that I wasted all my time doing?

The answer is… working. And not particularly well either. It’s deeply disturbing for me that while being relatively young, I have such long periods of my life that I’m either not proud of or were completely wasted. So let’s cover the biggest one.

From September 2003 to August 2011 I worked for what I was told is a leading customer outsourcing company. It was in fact the first and only full-time job I’ve had up to this point. Despite working for the same company the entire time, there was at least some variance to the work in the sense that I worked for several different clients over my eight year tenure. Names of people and clients obviously withheld on the off-chance that it might get me into trouble. Let’s go…

The interview

At the time of me applying for the job, a preliminary part of the interview process was a mandatory audio test. Failing to attain a 70% score on the audio test meant that you were disqualified from further interviewing that day, and you couldn’t reapply for two weeks.

I failed it the first time by one point.

Back then I was gutted, but I went on applying for a more interesting position in retail (which if I had gotten that job would also have been a mistake) which tided me over for a week or two. Once that fell through, I reapplied for the call centre, and learning from the mistakes I made last time, I was able to pass the audio test. Embarrassingly, I’d forgotten my National Insurance card because I’d taken it out of my wallet while applying for something else, and so my further interviews had to be put off until the next day.

When I returned for the actual interview, I was led to believe it went pretty well. I was able to use my prior role as part-time bar staff to answer how I’d react in customer focused environments, and the interviewer appeared to be impressed with me. Looking back on it and thinking of the abilities of some of my colleagues there over the years, they’re probably just impressed with everyone.

I passed the interview (again, given the employee turnover that wasn’t much of an achievement), and was offered a position for a leading telecommunications company, a role I imagined I would excel in due to me interest in technology. I accepted the position, and walked out of there comfortable that I would start work in a couple of weeks, and that the people/person pushing me into finding a job would be off my back for a while.

Not so fast.

Not long after leaving the building, I had a new voicemail message on my phone. I wouldn’t be able to listen to it for an hour, thanks to a lack of credit and the way listening to voicemails seemed to cost more than actual calls back then. When I did finally listen to it, I was told the position I’d been offered was given to someone else moments before (a consequence of having a team of interviewers I guess) and that they had some alternative shifts and clients that I could have first refusal on. None of them really appealed to be, so I held out.
To be fair, and looking back this is probably the nicest thing they did, they did call me back every few days with new offers. After a couple of weeks and some ‘encouragement’ from my sister, I ended up taking one of the positions I’d initially turned down. And so it began.

A London-focused utility company

Something that I haven’t been able to shake since I left that job, is how it gives you such a negatively skewed view of the company you work for. Because, fundamentally, people are only really calling in when they have something to complain about, despite how little of the overall customer base you speak to you’ll undoubtedly come away with the impression that your client is utterly crap. This client was of course my first taste of it.

The thing that I always remember first about this client was the software that they used to manage their customer database. To put it bluntly, it was abysmal. You simply weren’t being given the tools you needed to do the job. To make matters worse, management seemed to be oblivious to the issue, and enforce strict handling times on calls (enquiries should be dealt with an logged within four minutes) despite the fact that the systems took upwards of 30 seconds to merely refresh a page. I was often embarrassed when talking to customers, having to apologise over and over for how slow the systems were, repeatedly asking them to be patient. It doesn’t paint the picture that your company is well organised, and of course you’re on the front line.

Fortunately, management eventually grew to accept that they were sending us out to battle with a water pistol filled with gelatin powder and two broken legs, and tried to make some improvements to the systems. Sadly, they completely missed the point and likely wasted a lot of money doing so.

See, when a computer program stalls, and you look to see that the CPU isn’t processing any instructions and the hard disk isn’t even spinning, the problem likely isn’t caused by your actual hardware. No, it’s a problem with the software. When a program uses ten times as much RAM after a couple of hours, necessitating a restart, that again isn’t a problem with the hardware. If a computer takes two minutes to load Windows, but 15 minutes (I shit you not) to load a program, that probably isn’t an issue with the hardware.

So, what’s the point of replacing all the workstations if we’re still going to use the same software?

None. After the extensive upgrade, the system was just as slow as ever. I didn’t notice the slightest bit of difference, with the exception of the few occasions where I required the machine to multi-task.

That didn’t matter to management, who insisted that because the systems had been replaced, the problem couldn’t possibly persist. It wasn’t worth arguing after a while. I kept my head down and soldiered on.

About six months into my employment there, one Monday morning, I came into work to find a group of my colleagues banded together, essentially standing around not doing anything. A manager pulled me aside and told me what was going on. A new client had just opened up and were terribly understaffed, thus they needed to train a team of volunteers to help them out. We’d be seconded to work there for an unspecified amount of time. Given that most of my team were going (ensuring that I’d have no friends left on the unit if I didn’t go along with this) and at the time an actual desire to diversify and improve on my abilities in customer services, I went along with it.

How wrong I was.

A public transport organisation

At the time this actually seemed good. The training was challenging, and a number of HR issues that were ongoing with the previous client (such as your team leader was unable to book your holidays several months in advance, but was able to send you to another client with no idea when you’d be coming back) were conveniently avoided. furthermore, the systems actually did what we needed them to, and quickly. They’d taken care of most of my short-term needs.

A month or so into the secondment, we were visited by our old duty manager, who informed us that the utility company was undergoing financial problems and were choosing to cut 50% of their outsourcing operations. This in itself isn’t much to get alarmed about, clients change their requirements all the time and to its credit the outsourcing company will do its best to set you up on another unit before they start making redundancies. Anyway, as we were still considered to be on loan to the transport company, we were asked if we would consider volunteering to be transferred permanently. It wasn’t said or even implied where, but we were told that by volunteering we would be given a range of options, and that those who didn’t volunteer and still ended up being surplus would get none. Seems like an obvious choice, no?

After volunteering, I was called into a meeting room with several of my colleagues. We were thanked for volunteering, and told that we had been transferred permanently to the transport company. That was it. Despite feeling I’d been mislead, that by volunteering I’d really been given no choice at all, and those who held out either had a number of offers or got to keep their old positions, I wasn’t worried about it. After all, the transport company had taken care of a number of small issues for me that the utility company wouldn’t, so really I was better off in my new position.

Again, it took some time to realise how wrong I’d been.

The apathy had set in by 2005. An requited romance had left my social life in ruins, and I had little but my work to take solace in. However the job didn’t interest me, and in all honesty it never had. The repetitive nature of the calls and lack of administrative duties meant I was essentially dealing with the same enquiries ad nauseam, taking over two hundred calls a day, each requiring little of me other than my ability to type and read numbers of a screen. The areas in which I was failing weren’t because of a lack of ability, but rather that I didn’t see why I should bother doing them.

Often I just didn’t see how we were helping our customers by reeling off a load of scripted bullshit that they didn’t need to know. I needed a change of pace.

It came in the form of another secondment. We were again asked to go over to another client, this time for two weeks, to cover another shortfall in their staff, but merely in a back office processing role.

A book vendor

Enticed by the prospect of, as our manager put it, “tossing it off” for two weeks, about ten of us headed over there to undergo an entire three hours of training. Truth be told, there were only about four different processes, and more often than not you only did one of them.

What’s more, we were almost completely unsupervised. The team leader assigned to us had more pressing issues on the other side of the building, and because we weren’t taking calls, we weren’t logged into the regular time keeping devices, meaning we could walk out early or go on obscenely long breaks without anyone really noticing. I spent most of my time there dicking around on the internet, then logging an exaggerated number of work items before throwing my unprocessed worksheets away.

It was bound to end badly.

Back to the transport thing

A few weeks after the secondment, I was called into a meeting room as part of an investigation. Apparently, some of the correspondence I’d sent out had a number an unauthorised revisions made to them. More precisely, I was sending out letters of apology containing nothing but the phrase “hahahahahahahhahahah” and foolishly forgetting to omit the reference number that implicated me in the process.

It was clear during the meeting that they had something on me, so I decided that rather than lie my way out of the leading questions I was being asked, I’d try and give some modicum of honestly. I told them that, yes, I had doctored my correspondence and described exactly what I’d put.

They showed me a letter I’d sent that was completely different to the one I’d described.

Really, I’d sent out a bunch of letters with varying levels of condescension, and so it was inevitable that I would have guessed the wrong one. Nonetheless, I insisted that it was “only those two” and whether they believed me or not, another interview would take place the following week to decide my fate.

During the next meeting, I apologised profusely. And to be honest, I really didn’t want to lose my job. Not because I actually liked working there, but rather that I didn’t want to face the shame of being terminated, despite it being comparing to getting fired from McDonald’s. Seven years later, I finally know losing my job would have been a good thing, but I was relieved to find they were going to keep me.

Alas, I did get my first written warning. It wasn’t the last.

Because of the written warning, I essentially had to keep my head down for a year. This meant doing all the tedious shit I’d been struggling with the patience for, and pretending to enjoy it. I’m surprised to say I seemed to get away with it.

With my probationary period over, and now halfway through 2006, I didn’t have people breathing down my neck anymore. However, I was still bored. I needed a change of pace and it wasn’t happening. My written warning had excluded me from transferring units when the opportunity was available, and by the time the probation was over, staffing had frozen and people weren’t being shuffled to other departments anymore. I was trapped.

It took another glimpse of life on a different unit to see just how bad things were. Another secondment, this time a sharply different experience to the one that nearly got me fired, made me realise just how much of a rut I was stuck in.

A popular supermarket

This time I volunteered to help out on the wine and flowers department of a supermarket during the busy holiday period. Only a small group were sent to help out, and a number of them caved to the pressure and increased responsibilities. Personally, I relished. Having long desired a more administrative role within the company, now being back in control of customer accounts and having to do investigative work made the time pass quickly again.

Furthermore, it was without the myriad of system issues that had been a point of contention when I worked for the utility company. I was finally getting the role I felt I deserved, even if it was only on a temporary basis. What’s more, the managers of this indicated that they wanted to keep me on there and would facilitate a full transfer.
I’d been told before going over there that the transport company expected us back to work for them on Boxing Day (typically we didn’t get bank holidays off). However, myself and a colleague had no interest in going back, and no one from the unit had visited us while we were seconded to ensure that we knew to come back.

So on Boxing Day I stayed home. Or rather I went out shopping. No one called me to ask where I was. I thought I was in the clear.

On the 27th I went back to work, but again to the supermarket. None of the managers pointed out that I shouldn’t be there anymore, and neither did anyone from my old unit come to collect me. I thought I had gotten away with it.

Sadly, it wasn’t the case. A couple of days later I was visited by the duty manager of the transport enquiries unit, who gave me about 30 minutes to get back over there. I wasn’t very happy about it. I might have shouted at a few managers who had often been fairly accommodating.

Back on the transport enquiries (again)

I wasn’t happy, and people were going to know about it. I became outspoken in team meetings. I literally wrote “whore” on my arm with a marker pen in block capitals so that everyone could see it. After years of being fairly reasonable and seeing where that had gotten me, as well as how little advancement it had afforded people who were unquestionably better at their jobs than I was, I didn’t see the point in being nice anymore. Frankly, I could have much more fun being a complete asshole and not suffer any consequences. I drove my team leader mad, constantly alternating my performance by not striving to hit goals in one months, only to ace them the next month so I’d be taken off review. Rinse and repeat.

I managed to keep this going for about a year. I was going nowhere, but neither was anyone else and at least I was keeping myself amused. And I knew I’d get off that unit eventually: the client was never happy with the way things were outsourced and constantly made alterations to the staffing level. It was only a matter of time until they pulled the contract.

That came in February 2009. Called into a small meeting, we were told that they were downsizing staff and there would likely be redundancies. I should have been worried, but I wasn’t. It was highly likely that I’d be moved to another unit, and even if I wasn’t, I’d have over five years worth of redundancy pay on top of my regular wage and plenty of time to look for a new job.

One by one, people were called into private meetings with the duty manager to discuss their future on the unit. When it came my turn, I was told that I’d be faced with redundancy, but they had found me a position on another unit. I didn’t really have much choice; by not taking the offer I’d disqualify myself from the redundancy pay. Regardless, the manager was surprised by how quickly I jumped at the offer.

I was getting off that unit. People were losing their jobs, and because I was getting what I’d wanted for years I didn’t care who got fired to make it happen. I still don’t.

A well-known energy company

Even though I came at the new role with a renewed sense of enthusiasm, the bubble ended up bursting fairly quickly. After a month of training had to be extended because we clearly weren’t going to be ready, it became apparent that we were being trained in a way that would mark a change of direction for unit we were being placed on. It would be my first real experience with sales.

I never considered it at the time, but I’d actually been fairly lucky before not to be placed on a unit that had sales targets. I really have no aptitude for sales whatsoever, and found it infuriating when people would call in with a specific problem which I’d resolve, and I’d be complained at by management for not fulfilling a sales opportunity. It was twisting the very notion of actually helping the customer.

Despite being good with the systems and surprisingly resourceful, my manager didn’t seem to care about this because I wasn’t hitting the sales end of it. I wasn’t about to tell her how I had no intention of doing so either. After my team leader got herself suspended following a dispute with one of my peers, I thought the problem might go away, but it didn’t. I’d survived a number of verbal and written warnings, and I was finally about to get fired over something like this…

Luckily, I had another way out. My company had recently scored a huge win in taking over full customer service operations for an internet service provider, and needed to bolster staffing on that unit. A number of peers who had made the switch a week before said it was a perfect fit for me, and I put my name forward as soon as possible.

A once-popular ISP

As it turned out, the position was excruciatingly dull. Echoing the utility company that I’d started at six years before, it was clear that this client simply wasn’t good at what they did. Furthermore, they were desperate to make sure no one knew about it. We were outright lying to customers, charging for services we weren’t even providing, and pretending we were powerless to do things that we clearly could.

Thankfully, I was able to deduce from the number of active accounts and new registrations that the client was in decline, but that didn’t make it any more pleasant to work for them. I was already grossly unhappy within a month, and it was only about to get worse.

At one point, I got a call from a customer who wanted to know why we were billing her account that she was sure she had cancelled. A reasonable question, right? After checking customer contact records, and also the TOTL (tags on the line, British ADSL term) from BT, it was obvious that she was getting her broadband from someone else, and that that had been the case for over two years. But we’d been charging her month after month in spite of this.
I agreed with the customer that she was due a refund, but the amount to be refunded was way over my authorisation limit. I had to get it approved by escalations. I went over to our highest level escalations team and explained the problem.

They said she couldn’t have her money back.

How was it our fault that her new ISP hadn’t informed us correctly two years ago (when an account isn’t closed correctly it’s assumed to be fault of the incoming ISP)? Even though we hadn’t provided the customer with their broadband during that time, apparently we were still entitled to the money. The irony that most of the services are provided by BT anyway and that even if we had been their broadband provider during that time, we were only really charging them for the pleasure of being billed by us and having one of our crappy email accounts.
I argued with that escalations team for an hour after my shift ended. A team leader eventually had to take it out of my hands when it looked like I was about to cry.

Luckily, a position had opened up for a new back office processing team. I forgot about my previous experiences in this role and signed myself up. The prospect of not having to take calls and stick my neck out for a company I knew was wrong was just too appealing.

The return to back office had its ups and downs, but ended up being my best experience in the company. After six years, I had finally gotten a position that I didn’t outright despise, and was working with people who were genuinely fun and I didn’t mind talking to.

So of course I got shafted.

About a year into the back office role, and after multiple assurances that management that they were committed to keeping the department, we were called into a meeting for some “great news”. Really, that’s how they put it.

As it turned out, the client had upped the contract, choosing to move the entirety of their telephone customer services operation to my outsourcing company (short version: no overseas customer service centres). They were also expanding the opening hours of frontline customer services, meaning they would close at 2300 instead of 1700. The downside? My back office processing department was being moved overseas, and my colleagues and I would be reintegrated back into frontline customer support.

It goes without saying that neither myself or my colleagues were too pleased with this announcement. Ironically, when we had helping to document training material for our processes just a few months earlier, we had no idea that we were actually writing the material that would be used to teach our replacements. Again, a delicious irony that was completely lost on me.

I didn’t want to go back to the role I’d disliked so much without at least trying to get out of it, so I applied for a similar vacancy at a charity that houses their operations there. Brilliantly, I was told that I was overskilled. I couldn’t have the job that I wanted because I was apparently far too good for it, and so I had to go back to the absolute bottom rung of customer support.

It got worse. With the operating hours expanding into the late evening, staff had to be chosen to cover the night shifts. Because the people already on customer support were already working 9-5, it was up to the reintegrated teams to cover the shifts that no one else wanted. And of course if you refused you were going to be out of a job.

So not only was I being forced back into a job I didn’t want, I was going to be doing it with the worst shifts too. Believe me, you really haven’t wasted a Friday evening until you’ve had the pleasure of working to 1900, going straight to the gym, and finishing there at 2230. I was devastated that this was what my life had become.

What’s more, I just couldn’t do it anymore. After a year of not having to talk to customers, I really couldn’t go back and start lying to customers about how great they had it with us. When I was faced with another instance like the one I’d had before, with a customer being billed for a service we hadn’t provided in years, I told him to file indemnity claims and contact OFCOM. I’d had enough of cleaning up their shit. And again, I was setting myself up to get fired.

Fear and desperation led me to get myself transferred to another department, this time on technical support. I had to make one more sacrifice to do it: even worse hours. Working had finally taken precedence over my personal life, and I’d gladly accepted it. Besides, I’d decided at this point that I had to make a break for it somehow, and this would make it a little easier. I’d been unhappy with that job for seven years, but for the first time I knew that this had to be the last year of me working there.

I figured I should at least have free time in the mornings to go to the gym, look for work and attend interviews. It didn’t work. I’d spent so long working in that environment that I hadn’t accrued experience that could be used elsewhere, and the only people trying to recruit me were doing it for rival call centres.

I told them I was done with that. The offers stopped coming in eventually.

I’d gotten to about February 2011 and it was becoming increasingly obvious that the job hunt wasn’t going to work and I’d have to retrain, which is when I started making serious enquiries about going back to college. I’d been accepted onto the NCTJ course by April, and was finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

I was going to leave in August and all I had to do was keep my mouth shut.

I plugged away at my anti-social working hours, and basically kept my head down. I was on my third written warning, but it didn’t matter anymore. Even though I hated the job, knowing I was getting out of there eventually and the lack of scrutiny I was under on my new department (no one wanted to interfere with us for some reason) meant the whole thing was surprisingly tolerable.

I wore a suit on my last day. I thought that was kind of cute.

***

In retrospect, after eight years of working at a call centre, all I really learned is that you probably shouldn’t do it. Really, you shouldn’t do any job that makes you unhappy.

Working there had an odd effect on my life, that even now I still feel the repercussions of. I hated my job so much that merely not being there was bliss, and as a result all I wanted to do on my days off was pretend I was unemployed. I had five weeks of vacation time every year, which I pretty much spent sat on my ass playing videogames, and didn’t feel like I’d wasted a minute of it. Meanwhile, the people I’ve talked to over the last six months were either at university, backpacking across Australia, and sleeping with more women in six months than I have in my entire life.

I wasted eight years of my life, I don’t have anything to show for it, and I can’t even give you a good reason.

In the end the only advice I can ever give anyone at this point, is that if you don’t like your job, just quit. It’s not going to get better, and you’re better off pursuing something you actually want to do. I made more money in a call centre than I’ll probably ever make as a journalist, but I wouldn’t go back there for all the money in the world.

Going back to being a student hasn’t strictly paid off yet, I’m about five thousand pounds in debt and I’ve driving myself up the wall staying in all day. But I can honestly say that the last six months have been better than the eight years that went before them. I wouldn’t change any of it.

Don’t waste your life doing things you don’t have to do. Please.

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One response to “My illustrious call centre background.

  1. Just spent most of my morning reading these post. Found this one most entertaining and identifiable, I agree with your conclusion. I also left the mentioned contact centre after spending 7 years solely on the ‘once popular ISP’ my new job isn’t as well paid but I progressed more in 10 months here than I ever did at the contact centre. I enjoy the work and actually look forward to my shifts, even though I don’t finish until 4:00am three nights a week. One thing has rang true with me, I forget who to credit with telling me this, but the best career advice I’ve ever heard is find something you love doing then find some one stupid enough to pay you to do it. I realised this 7 years too late. But as you have I implore people not to repeat our mistakes.

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