The secret life of a call centre worker: a degree of compassion never hurts
Call-centre workers have it tough. Like retail staff, we are frontline cannon fodder. We have the task of dealing with people who are in the majority of cases lovely and reasonable but also sometimes disgruntled and short of patience. If you work 40 hours a week, the last thing you want to do is spend 20 minutes on the phone to a stranger discussing why your bill has gone up 30%. Who can blame them?
Most people reading this will have at some point experienced a lifeless adviser who drones through a script with all the charisma of a rich tea biscuit. Such behaviour or, worse, being argumentative and short-tempered, is the quickest way to upset a customer and end up in a full-on confrontation. They don’t need it and neither do I. I’d wear myself down quickly without a bit of positivity. That said, no one’s perfect, and you try being enthusiastic at 8am.
Throwing in the occasional “fantastic” or “great”, along with developing a good fake laugh, is the best way to assure customers you are listening to them, and builds up a rapport early on. It’s good to have developed this rapport if you end up having to give bad news later on in the call; when asking a customer to cough up £200, they’re much less likely to raise their voice at the nice young man than the miserable bloke. Besides, if you’re shouting at a call-centre worker, there is always the faint possibility that they have put the phone on mute and are slagging you off to the person next to them.
I fell into call-centre work out of a need for financial stability. I was 18 months out of sixth-form college and didn’t have the grades for university, so cleaned hotel rooms on a zero-hours contract. The only way was up. Due to their poor reputation, call centres tend to pay well – at least £16,000 for new starters – so when offered a permanent contract on a relatively generous wage for a person with no experience and rent to pay, I was always going to say yes. I put my headphones on two years ago and have been plugging away at the same company ever since.
On the face of it, my job is relatively simple. Sit down and take inbound calls about the product. None of the cold calling or sales targets that people imagine; that sort of thing is going out of fashion. The real difficulties of my work stem from the people, rather than the task itself.
If I’m speaking to an angry customer, it is typically about the most important of all things: money. Prices are something over which I have next to no control. Ripping off the customer is left to those at the very top of the company, but in many cases the client doesn’t quite understand that I don’t influence the price of what we sell, and so I find myself in the unique position where I have personally singled out Mrs Smith for a £50 additional annual charge, and must get through the ensuing diatribe with careful measure and no small amount of diplomacy.
To work in a call centre for more than a few months, you need to be a certain kind of person. Common sense, empathy and calmness are worth their weight in gold. Keeping calm is probably the hardest part. I was recently admonished by a man who believed that his job and qualifications made him more important than all of our other customers put together. He told me this with such certainty that I could scarcely believe it. He argued his achievements should mean he had a lower bill, and apparently thought he’d encourage me to agree to this by insulting me multiple times throughout the call. He then finished the conversation by requesting that I place a note reading “VIP – treat with utmost respect” on his file. Funnily enough, I didn’t do this. In a separate incident, a customer refused to confirm who he was and then swore at me repeatedly when I wouldn’t cancel his account. This sort of thing is particularly charming when you’re 10 hours into a 12-hour shift.
Yes, I did choose to work in a call centre. Yes, I did know well enough that choosing a job that brings me into contact with all strata of society will surely mean I talk to a few unsavoury folk. But in reality, most callers are just that: people, with more interesting things to do than talk to me. When people get angry or abusive towards call-centre staff, it is often just because they are afraid – that their car insurance will be cancelled or their electricity cut off. At these times, a degree of compassion never hurts.
I’m aware I am talking to humans who could have all kinds of trouble going on at their end of the phone, and on the increasingly frequent occasions when someone needs a few more days to make that direct debit payment, it’s my job to see if we can help them get away with it. For example, I once jumped through many hoops to help a lady whose mother had just been diagnosed with dementia. We’d made a mess of her mum’s account in the first place, but I’ve rarely had greater satisfaction at work than when she thanked me so profusely for smoothing out the issue.
I have been criticised by colleagues for being “soft”, giving customers money off or giving them extra time to pay. These colleagues are the type who don’t last long in the job. Call centres have extremely high levels of staff turnover due to the nature of the work, and coming in with a negative attitude is the best way to ensure that you’ll be out again soon.
Thankfully, my workplace is largely staffed by good eggs. I can’t speak for every call centre in Britain, but I can say that I work with some of the most intelligent and caring people I’ve ever met. We have graduates, musicians and an array of other characters that reflect the diversity of the people we speak to.
So next time you find yourself on the other end of a line to us, remember: we really are trying to help.