What’s it really like to work in a call centre?
We often get asked this question – what is it really like to work in a call centre?
We commissioned three young journalists to investigate. The findings are surprising.
Despite the modern sweatshop image, our reporters found a work hard, play hard environment, with rewards, job satisfaction and even love!
The Untold Truth Of Call Centre Life
Behind the negative stereotype there’s a secret satisfaction to call centre life.
By Matthew Brown
Call centre employees know something most people don’t. A dirty little secret that some of them keep from friends and family.
Something that people who haven’t worked in a call centre can’t understand, or won’t believe. But sooner or later, many call centre staff let someone in on their secret. It’s really quite simple.
Many call centre employees love their job.
They don’t feel boredom or monotony. They aren’t upset by angry customer complaints. They don’t even feel that their work is pointless. To them, the stereotype of a call centre as a dull place to work is nothing like their own experience.
“Calling the Account Managers to tell them about a lead is like telling a child that tomorrow is Christmas Day,” says Gabrielle Deschamps, 22. Gabrielle works for an international telemarketing agency based in Bournemouth.
“I do business development for Dell, calling companies in France to talk about the virtualisation of their server and storage systems. My job is to find leads, and it is very interesting because I’m speaking to the IT Directors of the companies I call.”
Speaking to senior staff at a range of companies makes Gabrielle feel that her work is valued. It also uses her language skills. Born in France, Gabrielle speaks both her native French and fluent English. In an increasingly globalised business world, many telemarketing and international companies rely on multilingual employees. Call centre workers with a second language alongside English can often find themselves earning a good wage in a job that values their skills highly.
Sales Agent Nick Upton, 24, finds his personal interests help him to do his job at the Dixons contact centre in Sheffield. Like Gabrielle, he appreciates the value his employer places on skills and knowledge.
“I’m interested in technology and in this job I talk people through the details of laptops, televisions, stereo equipment and all sorts of electrical goods. I’ve gained a great deal of knowledge and I enjoy helping people improve their work or leisure time by choosing the right product,” says Upton.
Creating a good working atmosphere has long been a key part of a call centre manager’s or supervisor’s role. Most call centres have their own motivational games and internal competitions to keep staff productive and relaxed. To outsiders, these can seem silly, but managers use them for a reason. They work.
“I really enjoy the competitive side of my job. Being in sales means the rewards and bonuses are very good,” says Upton.
“This is the first call centre job I’ve ever had and before I started I thought I would hate it. But it’s enjoyable.”
Before working at the Dixons contact centre, Upton thought call centre work would be all about hitting harsh sales targets set by management.
“In fact it is quite laid back. There are targets to hit, but I take inbound sales calls so half the job is already done by the time the customer picks up the phone.”
Of course, every job has a downside, and call centre work is no exception.
“I do speak to the odd grumpy person, but most people are willing to have a conversation at least,” says Deschamps.
Many call centre horror stories feature angry customers venting frustration at faulty products or bad service. In reality, such calls are in a minority, and complaints department staff are specially trained in how to deal with problems.
“It can be quite funny to listen to an angry customer sometimes. Someone having a rant cheers me up if it’s been a hard day. It does throw them a bit when I just agree with what they say and pass them through to the complaints department,” says Upton.
But most people love a good conversation. Call centre work is communication, and talking to a diverse range of people can be incredibly satisfying, whether it’s a great group of colleagues or the chance to have friendly conversations with customers all day, every day, ultimately it’s people that make a workplace into more than just somewhere to grind out a living. The mixture of people employed by large call centres can also make colleagues into lasting friends.
“It’s the people I work with that make the job so enjoyable, and I have some great colleagues. But that’s because they too are happy in their work, and the atmosphere around the office is jovial and fun,” says Deschamps.
Some people even find love. Just like Gavin and Stacey in the BBC comedy of the same name, telephone flirtations can lead to romance. Earlier this year a poll commissioned by Lloyds Pharmacy found that call centre employees were more likely to have had an office relationship than workers in any other job.
Out of 3,000 people surveyed, 29% of those that worked in call centres said they had shared an extra-special connection with a colleague. Finance and HR workers were next on the list, with 28% and 26% respectively admitting to a workplace fling.
An open-plan office can certainly be perfect for making eyes at a cute new colleague or casually flirting with the boss. Many call centres have large staff and organise works social events, always a great time for mutually attracted co-workers to finally cop off. Of course, the office gossip grapevine is sure to spread word of any romance around long before the lovers arrive at work the next morning, whether together or separately!
Office gossip also provides a never-ending supply of amusing anecdotes for happy call centre workers to share with friends who doubt the fun side of the job.
“We get people calling up and asking for dooooves (DVDs) and lucitvs (LCD TVs), like on the Fonejacker TV show. It’s not annoying at all, we’ve all done prank calls when we were younger so we just humour them and act like we know what they are talking about,” says Nick Upton.
“And although I’ve never encountered him, there’s also one guy who calls the contact centre whilst, ahem, you know what.”
Now that is a dirty little secret.
Student work in call centres – what is it like?
Dewi Griffiths investigates.
It’s not exactly the first thing you want to do after finishing a long shift but, only an hour after returning home from work, Richard Thompson welcomes me into his student house with a warm smile. The 22-year-old is currently studying to be an accountant at university but I am more interested in his part-time work.
Thompson works at a call centre in Cardiff and unlike the majority of students and graduates who are struggling to find work, he is thriving.
Firstly, I needed to find out about Thompson’s duties in his current position. “After my employers realised that 90% of calls put through to stores were not being answered, they decided to set up the call centre in order to deal with more queries and to be able to supply an improved level of customer service,” he explained. “Some of my duties include handling customer complaints or queries, tracking delivery orders and assisting with business queries from stores or from different departments within the centre.”
Thompson worked in a local convenience store after finishing school and it was his first real taste of employment. However, after being accepted on his university course he decided to try for something more challenging and successfully applied to work in the call centre.
That was two years ago and I quizzed him on what type of skills he felt he had acquired and developed since joining the call centre. “Firstly my negotiating and interpersonal skills have really developed as most of my duties involve dealing with customers in a courteous and helpful manner. I have also improved my problem-solving skills. There are so many situations where there isn’t a clear solution, therefore I am often required to think on my feet. Thirdly I would say that I have improved my team-working skills as I often assist my colleagues with queries and I also seek the advice of other members of my team. With around 850 members of staff working at various times, there’s always someone there who is ready to offer support!”
Having mentioned team working, I quizzed him about the opportunities he had to build relationships with his colleagues. “I found it very easy to make friends and after a few months I knew about half the staff! There are also lots of different staff working there, young and old, men and women, people of all races and religions – it really is diverse, which is great!”
Thompson continued, “The staff facilities are also quite impressive. When you’re on your break you can either go out for lunch or use the in-house facilities such as the pool table and TV room, so you can catch the Fifa World Cup if you’re really lucky! It means that you can make friends at work in a relaxed environment, which is tremendous.”
It is obvious that Thompson enjoys his work. Also, compared to his last job where he received the minimum wage, he is well rewarded. “My wage is fantastic and because I work weekends I am on a double-time rate. There are other benefits too, such as free shares and discounts on products. You feel like you are being rewarded for your hard work, which is important. There are also awards and achievements, for example employee of the month and rewards for positive customer feedback, which also contributes to your drive for success.”
Even though it is late on a Saturday night and he has just finished a 10-hour shift, his enthusiasm shines through and he explains that his current shift pattern helps him to balance his academic studies and social life. “One thing that has really impressed me is that they have student shifts which cover evenings and weekends. This is an indication that the company is aware that everybody is in a different situation and that they are prepared to cater for our needs.”
One thing he does emphasise is that whilst he is happy in his current position he isn’t taking it easy. “There’s no room for complacency in my position and you are always required to work hard. Everybody has KPIs (Key Performance Indicators), which are statistics that measure your performance, for example average length of call times, your availability for calls and work attendance.”
“I think it’s a good thing,” he added. “It is a clear indication that everybody is working to a high standard. It also means that if you hit certain targets you are eligible for benefits and bonuses. If your statistics are low, you are trained in the areas you are struggling in so there is also plenty of support on offer that can further develop your skills.”
Whilst I understand that he is happy in his current position, I am keen to find out whether there is any capacity to progress within the organisation. “I’m actually applying for a new position at the moment which is a real-time analysis role,” he stated. “This is a more technical role which studies the statistics of our team members and forecasts the number of calls the centre will receive in the coming weeks. I’m hoping to get the position as it is something I have not yet experienced and it will equip me with a greater range of skills.”
Finally, my thoughts turn to whether he would advise someone else to apply for a position in a call centre. “Would I recommend it?”, he asks whilst rubbing his chin in a contemplative manner. “I know that to work in our centre you have to be of a certain standard and I’m sure it is the same in other centres. You have to be prepared to work hard, be able to adapt to difficult and stressful situations and show initiative. You also need to be cool, calm and collected and not get discouraged by the odd ‘difficult’ customer! The position has its positive and negative aspects, much like any job, but if you work hard then you are rewarded accordingly. Working in a call centre certainly suits me and if you are looking for a challenge and an interesting work environment, then I would definitely recommend it!”
Graduate employment in a call centre
A growing number of graduates are turning to call centre work in a bid to give their career a flying start – as well as reduce that graduate overdraft of course!
Tom Waller investigates this growing employment trend.
Getting that foot in the door is more vital now than ever as the recession bites particularly hard for graduates. With the number of students graduating steadily rising and the graduate job market shrinking, the sector has become somewhat unbalanced. Recent studies have shown the average graduate job is now attracting more than 100 applicants for each position.
Having had first-hand experience of both industries I can conclude the old adage of it being who you know is also dead in the water. So, no quick fix there either, I’m afraid. Unless you’re one of the chosen few that get through the rigorous recruitment process and scoop that gold-dust-like graduate job, the only way to get ahead now is hard work.
Call centres provide a good way of getting a great overview of a company and its operations, and the results can really pay off. Handily, two of my good friends from my call centre days have used the basis of my theory to prove my point.
Adam just graduated from the University of Manchester and Jim from Portsmouth. We were taking calls for various companies, including Dell, Texaco and The Royal Mail to name a few. I’m not sure their degrees in Sports Science and Forensic Biology were entirely utilised, but they were working and that’s half the battle when leaving Uni.
We were all on the front line as it were. You quickly build friendships in the hustle and bustle of a busy contact centre and rapidly learn to rely on each other’s experience and knowledge as well as your own. It really can be physically, mentally and emotionally challenging. Long night shifts in the depth of a dark winter can be lonely without a friend to get the coffees in, early morning shifts can be busy and testing without a friend to get the coffees in and the mid-morning lull before the lunchtime storm can be tough without a friend to get the coffees in. Adam and Jim were my (coffee) drinking buddies.
There is, however, a sense of camaraderie in this line of work, you have to think on your feet and remember your training. I like to imagine it is a lot like being a soldier, but with less camouflage and gunfire. And more coffee.
Anyway, my point is that you can really develop yourself both professionally and personally in this environment. You now have a demonstrable ability to work in a team. You may have done a presentation at Uni and cited it as an example of teamwork in every interview you have been turned down from, but you now have real-world team-working experience. You can’t get by in this industry without it.
How about an example of how you have effectively used communication? How you resolved a conflict? How you went out of your way to help someone? Check, check and check. What we quickly learned is that a call centre is a great way to enhance your CV and push on. It can be a fun place to work but also provides you with so much more.
Another great advantage of working in a call centre is that you really can get an oversight of the whole company. As CEOs of multinational brands go undercover and back to the “shop floor” for TV programmes to get a feel for their customers, brand and staff; you’re already in a perfect position to get a flavour of all of these. In fact, you can’t help but take it all in. It wouldn’t make for as interesting TV programme I guess but they could just ask their call centre staff…
Taking this experience on board, Adam has since left the call centre to join a national wine retailer and is currently an area manager for the firm. His career has soared Majestically…
Jim progressed within the company to Account Manager, and since then, Account Director. He gets the best of both worlds, full interaction with both the end-customer and staff.
Because he’s been there, done it and got the call centre T-shirt the staff appreciate him and know he’s not guessing his way through the day. And from his point of view, he knows what to expect and what the pressures of call centre working can be. This overview of the business and lesson from the ‘front line’ prevent him from placing unreasonable demands on his staff. As a small aside, Jim owes more than his career to the call centre; “I think my life and my son’s life would have panned out slightly different if I hadn’t met his mother there!”
Graduate trainee schemes are tough to get on to but you can fulfil your journey to the top if you tailor your own scheme in a call centre. It can be hard work, but from experience it is better to be working hard than waiting for a trainee scheme that may never materialise.
The modern call centre has shelved its former image. They are nice places to work, the unionisation of the industry is also a bonus, but above all, if you treat the experience correctly, you can learn and progress. You’re not just taking phone calls; you are networking, managing customer accounts, training others and developing your own skill set that you have spent so much time fine-tuning at university. The rewards are there too if you choose to progress up the call centre ladder. Team leaders in a call centre earn on average £5k more per annum than retail managers and you don’t have to put up with huge deliveries or January sales! Been there, done that too…!
So before you think about waiting for that graduate scheme, taking that job down the local pub or working for minimum wage in a shop, you may want to consider work in a call centre.
Do these stories match up with your experience? Perhaps you have a story to tell? Please let us know in the comments box below, or send your stories into the newsdesk. We will run a follow-up story in a few weeks’ time.
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