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Life Inside a Call Centre


Back in October 1999, I started work at a call centre for a very large UK company.

There were about 1,000 staff there, split into teams which would compete with eachother on sales volumes. Winning teams might get a case of wine to share, or something like that. There was also a personal bonus scheme driven by sales.

I was an "outbound telesales agent". This means we phoned customers at home with the aim of selling the company's services.

I knew that most customers don't like to be phoned while at home, and if any customer clearly didn't want the call, I would end it, and flag their account for "no future correspondence", though we were specifically told only to do this in extreme cases.

The bonus scheme encouraged some of my colleagues (mostly students) to sell aggressively - selling products that customers didn't want - for the bonus. These staff would usually have left the company by the time any repercussions came back.

A lot of customers imagine telesales agents as being spotty idiots trawling phonebooks ringing people as they go through the book. But the company's call system is quite complex. A database of all customers is kept (obviously!) and the computers dial these customers (depending on flags set on their accounts). As soon as someone picks the phone up, the computer transfers it to the next available agent. The agent has no physical control over the call, the headphones beep, and there's a customer on the other end saying "Hello?" and that's it. The agent then performs the schpiel.

There would probably be about 30 seconds between coming off a call, and the next one coming in (when I started, I was told there was about 90 seconds) and this continues throughout the shift.

The call centre is a pretty stressful place, with most of the agents getting as stressed or more stressed than the customers.

Increasingly higher sales targets started coming in, and more products were being introduced. Unfortunately, the training to go with these products was pretty poor, being in the form of glossy - but shallow - Powerpoint presentations. We knew the basics of the products, but we could not answer all questions, and this didn't go down well with some of the more knowledgeable customers. If it was something we might have an idea on, then I'm afraid we would sometimes bullsh*t.

I think telesales calls were targetted not to exceed about six minutes.

So, that's basically the telesales.

One day, they decided to open an inbound sales channel. The idea was to try to sell products to customers who were calling in to us. I signed up, thinking maybe things would be a bit easier. What a surprise to come onto the sales floor and take incessant customer complaint calls, having completed three weeks of training for inbound sales!

We were expected to take all manner of calls. We had to use different systems for logging orders and calls, and those systems were very difficult to use - with DOS-like command-line interfaces.

There would be a command to look up a customers address/general details. Another command would look up an order on a customers account. Instead of having a mouse and clicking things, we had to use commands and order codes to issue products on customers accounts. We would then have to use a different command if we wanted to enter the customers delivery address details. Another command later, and we would then be able to confirm the dates for the order. And after another command, the order would be confirmed.

So, the customer would be waiting impatiently on the phone, thinking the agent was a slow typist. The agent may then get stressed, because they cannot find a particular order code for a certain product, or cannot remember a certain command, or might make a typing error - that sort of thing.

This all had to be done within nine minutes.

After dealing with the complaint, we then had to try to sell them extra products using our inbound sales training. And this is far from easy - nothing like ringing up a company to complain and having one of their agents try to flog you more products!

I started to question my manager as to whether there was any point in this, but got nowhere. Managers in general, seemed uninterested in what we were doing, beyond telling us of the new products we were to try to sell, or relaying irrelevant upper-management news. The general level of management skill seemed low to me.

Eventually, I resigned and was escorted off the premises by security.

Customer services, for me, certainly wasn't a career option.

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