Do you want fries with that?

Over the years, I have had more than my share of jobs. Listing them would take a blog post in themselves. Early on in life I worked at Mickey D’s flipping the greasy burgers. It wasn’t the worst job I ever had. To be honest, they were good enough to keep me away from the registers, which meant that I didn’t have to be happy and cheerful to the drunks holding it together as they ordered their for burger. This was the bottom end of the regular job selection. The benchmark for employment was set low and most of the time I felt I was little more than a cog.

I moved on from burger flipping and as I grew older, the need for funds became more important. I tried my hand at many different things in the hope of finding something that would lead to a career. One job that became a staple in my fluctuating fortunes was the humble call center. My first call center was an inbound call center for insurance. It was a general insurance line so I basically was providing the one stop update-your-details and provided some basic information about the insurance policy. It was my first experience of the modern McJob.

Booths, a brief few seconds respite between calls, and then the happy greeting comes again. Though tedious, it was not as demoralizing as some people say; however you really become conscious of how little you are in the grand scheme of the company. “Welcome to – fill in the blank – you’re speaking with Mark.” Over and over again. Tethered to a small piece of plastic (yes folks, this was before cordless headsets.)

It’s not all bad though. Like with any job, you take your kicks where you can find them. Some of my favorites kicks include, fake accents. So long as you speak an approximation of English, people are willing to put up with just about anything.

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Tools of the trade

Sometimes I would annunciate. Every. Single. Word. Try saying a sentence that way. Then imagine doing that for a 5-minute phone call and watch it become several minutes longer. Accents can be fun too and so long as you sustain it for the call, people are too polite to comment for fear of offending. I one time did an entire call mimicking Mumbles from the Dick Tracy movie. I made certain to make enough words clear enough for the conversation to progress but I couldn’t get over how the customer said nothing about the fact that what I was saying barely qualified as communication.

Not all customers are polite, mind you. Sometimes you get the ones who just need a target for their frustration and you are it. They hate the company you work for, or perhaps they had a bad day at the office. Perhaps they are just an asshole. It doesn’t matter, tethered to that phone you have to grin and bare it till they start swearing and you have a legitimate excuse to hang up on them. Years ago, I remember a call taken by a young Asian gal from Ballarat. (For those of you outside of Australia, that is about as dinky di as one can get. For those of you now wondering what dinky di means, allow urban dictionary to help:

dinky di. Australian Bush Vernacular: To stress truth; true blue; for Real; speaking the truth. No! SHE came onto ME mate, dinky di, I wouldn’t lie mate, really!

Back to our story)

Ling got a call from a gentleman who decided that he didn’t want to speak to no Asian (despite she had a real Aussie accent). He wanted to speak to someone else. Being the bastions of customer accommodation that we were, Ayashkantha was more than happy to put the guy on speaker for our collective entertainment as he answered the call. The gentleman subsequently decided he might call again after unleashing a steady stream abusive frustration.

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Fee range

I also tried outbound. Outbound is a completely different beast. It didn’t take long for me to realize I really wasn’t cut out for outbound. At least with inbound, people are calling because they need you. Outbound, for the most part you are a pain in the ass that needs to be dealt with. I was lucky that the product that I was selling was at least one that I liked but I didn’t last very long and was never really successful. A friend of mine was desperate for a bit of work and had decided to have a crack at outbound sales. He was mid interview and just about to have a crack at answering “Where do you see yourself in five years?’ when a salesman stood up and rang the bell in the middle of the room indicating he had got a sale. He looked at his interview and prompt answered “Anywhere but here.” The interview was over. Clearly outbound sales aren’t for everyone.

Call-centers can vary significantly, but what they are looking for rarely does. You apply, prove you can articulate a sentence or two and boom you are back on the phone. “Is there anything else I can help you with?” Call volumes vary and the quality of the coffee does too. Most of the time, you aren’t there to provide customer service. I’m mean the people who call believe you are there to service them but really, you are there to, upsell products, send them to the company website to do their business, make certain all their contact details are correct (so that the company can keep their meat hooks in them) and just maybe, deal with the customer enquiry all within the allotted time of 3 minutes. More than three minutes? Well then you should have directed them to the website so they stop calling.

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The giant evil.

Contact centers themselves vary. They all have the standard tools of the trade. Head set, computer, call recording warning signs and walls to minimize noise and distractions. If you are lucky you have access to a view of the world outside, (though this has been discovered to be a flight risk and many call centers try to dissuade you from fleeing by making certain all appealing views are allocated to Upper Management. Don’t believe me? I once had computer login issues that forced me to sit at my desk for a 4 hour stretch with nothing to do, whilst waiting I was looking out a large window seeing the world before me, by the time I could log in, I had handed in my resignation. The flight risk is all too real and retention can be a challenge.

That being said, people elevate the world that we inhabit and this is the same with contact center’s. They tend to hire people who are chatty and often are young in mindset (and age) and as a result, when there are brief moments of respite from the calls the banter is first rate. You and your fellow phone jockeys are doing the best that can be done, under resourced, under siege from callers and sometimes even management, (who have their bonuses tied to how many calls get answered within the first 30 seconds.) Some outsourcing companies value this so highly that I have seen managers calling the call center in quiet times to tweak the stats to their benefit. No, it is far from a perfect job. After all, it’s hard being all smiling and happy call after call 80 times a day and then heading home and trying to be nice to your friends and family. With all of that we keep on smiling and there is an overall sense that this is just a brief stop on the road to something better, but in the meantime, is there anything else I can help you with?

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Gearing up for the day

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