Call centre work – what is it really like?
Following our last article about call centre work, we have a couple of first-hand accounts about working on the phones.
Elinor Davies tells us her story…
It was my gap year after three years of university and I had few options as not many places were hiring in my area. I hadn’t begun my path on to journalism yet so was looking for something that paid and was quick to get the hang of.
My aim was to save up enough to go travelling for the rest of the year so I worked hard to get an interview and a place on the recruitment day.
After two presentations and various team games and activities, I started at the O2 call centre in Bury on a temporary contract, along with 20 other new advisors.
Two of the funniest weeks I’ve had at work were in training along with these 20 people, who ranged in age from 18 to40. We had a great young trainer with a ridiculous nickname, which I fail to remember.
We each had our own computer in a very well-lit room, along with ominous wipe/white boards – which I soon came to rely on during training.
The weeks passed and I was taken from sharing a desk and calls with another trainee to manning a headset of my own, out of the probation area.
Clocking on and off to take breaks took a while to remember, but soon I began to enjoy the work and the various stalls that visited offering biscuits, books and even jewellery.
The office was a giant hive of activity that even boasted a sleeping/chill area, complete with bean bags and magazines.
After three months my temporary contract came to an end and I decided to jet off to the south of France to work and play.
By Elinor Davies
And our second account comes from Cassandra Bowkett…
It had been a stereotypical bad day. I woke up feeling drained after a late-night argument with my boyfriend, only to discover that I’d slept through my alarm. Perfect. Skipping breakfast was a necessity, skipping my early-morning cup of coffee, a torture. Rushing to the train station, I got to my platform in just enough time to see my train pulling away from the station. I waited for the next one, which inevitably made me late for work. I didn’t have time for a coffee or a cigarette. As I sat at my desk waiting for my computer to log in and my systems to load I slipped my headset on. Good morning, all gas customers. Sitting staring at the slowly loading screen I massaged my temples. Jesus, please don’t let this be a migraine starting. As I pressed the ‘go’ button a beep sounded and my first call of the day came through. A ‘screamer’, someone who was unhappy about a letter she’d received. After calming her down enough to understand what was wrong, I calmly explained the increase to her direct debit. One happy customer, yeah right. Ending the call, I massaged my temples again. Today was going to be a good one.
I took a few more calls, mostly mundane enquiries about bills or about reminder letters, easy enough to deal with. Most people just want to get their business sorted. Calling a call centre is generally a necessity not a pleasure. Just before my break, a call came through. An elderly gentleman. He sounded very put out about his direct debit increase and demanded to know how we could charge him so much. I sighed and looked at the clock. Great, just what I needed before break. A delay to my coffee intake. Sometimes I wished we were allowed to say to customers “Look, I’m having a bad day, so please don’t take your issues out on me”. Instead I looked at his account and found he was several hundred pounds in debit on his gas bill. I took a moment then explained: “Mr Smith, your direct debit has increased because you’ve used more gas this winter and what you’ve been paying isn’t covering it. That’s why it’s had to go-”. He didn’t even wait for me to finish, but jumped in. “We’re on a fixed income. How am I supposed to find this extra money? Do you expect us to starve?”
I took a deep breath. “It has to go up, Mr Smith, to at least cover your usage. I can reduce it a little but not back down to what it was, otherwise you’re going to get even more in debt, and then it’s going to be even harder to pay the balance back”.
Silence down the line. I waited for a response, expecting some snappy comeback or the usual resignation, but it didn’t come. Instead I heard a cough and a breath, and as he responded his voice broke. “We can’t afford it. We just can’t afford an extra twenty pounds a month.” His sentence ended in a plea.
I thought for a second. “Is there anything you can do to reduce your usage? Turn the temperature down on your boiler a little?”
Again silence. He started to cry, quiet and semi-stifled but still tears. “It’s my wife, she – she’s dying.” I sat there stunned. Of all the things he could’ve said this was – well what can you say to a man whose wife is dying?
“I’m so sorry, Mr Smith.” He was silent for a few moments. He didn’t need my sympathy, it wouldn’t help him.
“She gets cold and I won’t, I can’t let her get cold. Not when she-”. Another pause as he collected himself. “I’ve never been in debt to anyone. I’ve always paid my bills but – if I pay this we’ve got no money for food. And there are other bills to pay. She’s not going to be here much longer and I can’t- can’t see her suffer.” He lapsed into silence and I sat staring at the screen.
I cleared my throat, and tried to swallow. “Can you afford any increase?”
His silence spoke volumes. I ran through all the available options quickly, and winced. I had to ask, though. “Mr Smith, I know it’s an odd question, but what income have you got?”
“Why does that matter?” His voice was sharp. I tried to phrase the words diplomatically.
“You obviously get your state pension, but are you getting any other support to help you care for your wife? Have you applied for any other income? Pension credits, carer’s allowance?”
“We get our pensions and we get by.”
I went on the Internet and had a look at the benefits website quickly, opened up an application pack and pressed print.
“Ok, Mr Smith, here’s what we can do. I’m going to send you out some paperwork and application forms for you to read through, and some information about financial support.” He breathed out heavily.
“Firstly, we need you to apply for some extra support from the government, and it sounds like you are entitled to quite a bit of extra support.” I gave him some information about the possibility of getting extra money to top up his pension and help him support his wife. Then I explained that once he’d got this extra funding we could put him on a cheaper social tariff.
“But what about my direct debit?”
“I’ll keep it like it is for the moment, Mr Smith, and I’ll call you back in a few weeks to see how everything has gone. Once you’ve got one of the benefits we can get you onto our social tariff so you get cheaper gas,” I explained, finally confident that I could help, that there was something I could do. Again he was silent.
“Thank you,” he said gruffly, coughing again before he said goodbye. I smiled and told him to expect the package of forms through in the next couple of days, and put the call-back in my diary. As I collected the forms and put them in the envelope I grabbed a slip and wrote a covering note. I noticed that there was a water drop on the paper. I wiped my face quickly on my sleeve and looked up to see my manager looking at me over the desk.
“Are you ok?”
I looked at her. “I am now.” I slipped the note into the envelope and put it ready for posting before logging out. Somehow my missing coffee didn’t seem quite so tragic now.
By Cassandra Bowkett
Have you worked in a call centre. Do these accounts match up with your experiences? We would be interested to hear your opinions…
27 Oct 2010 - Filed under Call Centre Life
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