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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Everything but the best

Here's something interesting about my job:

I started here about 11 months ago. It's my third call center job. I don't like call center jobs any more than any of you do (or would, if you had one) but in my previous call center experience, I'd discovered that I can generally be a pretty good customer service rep if I have to. And when I say that, I am measuring by the only standard that makes sense to me, which is, that I make the customers whom I provide service to pleased that they called and got me to help them.

This job has been a struggle for me, much more so than either of the previous two call center positions I'd held. Oh, I'd gotten into trouble at both previous jobs, and maybe someday I'll relate some of those anecdotes -- the one where a supervisor took down a poster I had on my cubie wall, before I came into work, put it face down on my desk, with a little note on it advising that it was 'inappropriate', and I didn't know the supervisor was or even that they were a supervisor, so I put it back up again and refused to take it down until someone advised me as to what would happen if I didn't, is kind of amusing -- but still, I'd been able to do the jobs there.

Where I'd run into trouble was not with actual customer service, but with mickey mouse internal call center procedural bullshit. (My call center job previous to this one ended for reasons that readers of my previous blogs know well, which had nothing to do with my actual job performance, and everything to do with my boss and one of my co workers being psychotic bitches. But we'll move along from that.)

This job has been really hard for me, and I just haven't been able to figure out why. Part of it, no doubt, is that I simply don't like most of the customer base I'm servicing here. Our product is somewhat complex, those who use it tend to be affluent folks trying to avoid paying some of their taxes, and a great many of them have serious entitlement issues. It's not that every call I get is from an asshole, but, well, the asshole ratio is higher than at either of my previous jobs, and I start out with less tolerance for it. So, that's been a struggle.

But, still, I'm a good customer service rep and a good guy (in my opinion -- your mileage may vary, but I may well think you're an asshole, too, so that pretty much works out even) and it's really bothered me, trying to figure out why, every time I turn around, I've got my supervisors on my ass about yet another goddam thing I'm doing wrong, and why it often seems to me that this job is dangling by a thread, and on any given day I could come in and find a security guard waiting by the front desk to confiscate my ID, hand me the Cardboard Box o' Doom (which would have all the personal items from my cubie packed in it) and escort me back out into the parking lot.

But then I started to really reflect on it, and I remembered a few things.

When I was still in training for this job, they had a really, really busy day, and asked my class if anyone wanted to volunteer to go on the phones. I said okay, and even though I hadn't even finished my training, within my first hour on the phones, I got a 'kudo'... a customer praising me to one of my supervisors.

Now, that's not that uncommon; people here get kudos all the time, and in fact, I got two more over the next several weeks. But I sure haven't gotten any recently... and that strikes me as strange. In my previous call center jobs, I got them pretty frequently.

More significantly, though, within my first week on the phones, I made a participant so happy with me that she actually baked a cake and dropped it off for my entire team. (None of the rest of them would eat it; they seemed to semi seriously be afraid she might have poisoned it. This attitude pretty well exemplifies the kind of relationship we generally have with our customers here.)

Now, the cake wasn't poisoned, it was delicious. I took it home and cleaned it up pretty quick, with the willing help of the SuperKids. But the reaction of my team members pretty much showed that this was pretty much a unique response in the history of the call center. And in the 10 months I've been here since, I've never seen anything like this repeated.

This would seem to indicate to me that when I first started here, I was giving pretty exceptionally good customer service. And, given that no one is baking cakes or even giving me kudos for a long, long time now, something must have changed.

What? Why am I having such a hard time here?

Well, about three weeks after I got here, I got pulled into a small conference room with two of my supervisors and a hideous troll like creature from Quality -- you know, one of those appalling people who, if they were slightly more competent, would be working in the secret police of some third world country somewhere. Quality's job at every call center in the world is to snoop on your calls and make sure you're, well, 'providing quality service' is what they say, but what they really mean is, 'toeing the company line'. As we'll see.

I got slapped from one end of that conference room to the other by these people. I wasn't documenting my calls properly. I wasn't offering the survey. The Quality troll was especially concerned because she had heard a 'recurring tone' in my voice that she thought could cause me difficulty in the future (although it hadn't as yet).

The 'not documenting my calls properly' turned out to be especially absurd. See, we are under strict orders to document every single call we get, without exception. But the software we use to do this will only file calls by Social Security number, or some other similar unique number that the participant may give us. And the calls I wasn't documenting were calls in which people were refusing to give me any kind of ID number, mostly because they were either wrong numbers, or because some people simply will not give you their SS number over the phone, and when they do that, we can (and are required to) still offer to answer general questions that don't require specific account information. Which I was doing.

And I WAS documenting the calls, or trying to, but the first six times I tried to do what we were trained to do (put in 999999999 instead of a social) the calls wouldn't save. So, I gave up on it, because it didn't work.

Those were the calls that the Quality troll couldn't find documented in the system. So I explained that I tried to doc them, and it hadn't worked. And then was treated to one of the most comically ludicrous displays of supervisor stupidity I've ever witnessed (and I've worked at at least a hundred different jobs, so I've seen some really astonishing stupidity on the part of supervisors):

BIG BOSS BETTY: They put in nine 9s, right? When they get that kind of call.
ME: Doesn't work.
QUALITY TROLL: I always heard they were supposed to put in nine 8s.
SMALLER BOSS SAMANTHA: I remember it was supposed to be nine sixes.
BIG BOSS BETTY: Did you try nine 8s? Try nine 8s. That should work.
SBS: I don't know. I think it's 9 sixes.

I have, since then, tried 9 frickin' everything. Nothing works. What I've concluded is, the system simply won't record documentation for a call without a unique number on it, and they could tell us that, but they don't want to. They don't want there to be any calls which are exceptions to the 'doc everything' rule. So, instead, they tell us to doc everything, even though you CAN'T doc those calls, and then, when they don't find documentation, they call you in once and scream at you about it, just to keep people from figuring it out.

Or, alternatively, they have their heads so far up their asses they can count the wrinkles on their colons, and have no clue how their own software works. Which, when you've worked as many jobs as I have, you'll learn not to rule out as a possibility for any batch of supervisors anywhere.

So, after that particular laugh fest, I went back to my cubicle with an entirely different perspective. I was no longer all that concerned with helping my customers. I was, at that time, still a temp trying to get hired permanently, and it had been made plain to me (without anyone ever specifically stating the principle, mind you) that making the customers happy wasn't going to help me much, because the customers didn't make hiring decisions. What I had to do was make Quality happy, while actively avoiding making my customers unhappy.

Now, any of you who have ever worked customer service, or even called customer service, will understand that there is a subtle but profound difference between 'making someone happy' and 'avoiding making someone unhappy'. If you're the customer on the other end of the line, it's not a subtle difference you're going to be pleased with, either.

Since then, I've been called on the carpet regularly by my supervisors, and sometimes, it's been because a customer complained about me, and okay, that's always a problem, even if the customer in question is insane and there's simply no way we can give them what they are insanely demanding, you still have to try to find a nice way to tell them that. And occasionally, when I'm dealing with insane customers, well, I don't.

But most of the rest of the time, it's for completely bullshit internal procedural stuff, like, well, at what point in the call I ask for a daytime phone number, and whether I'm asking for an email address from the participant or confirming back the email address we already have, or idiotic nonsense like that. And here at my current job, we have a lot of idiotic nonsense.

And this, more than anything else, is what I think I'm having such a huge problem with -- because here, all the internal nonsense that I have to adhere to is so much more important than actually providing quality customer service.

Anyone reading this who works in a call center will know what I mean; this is pretty much the way it works at all of them... but it just seems worse here.

So when you call customer service and you feel you're getting jacked around or that the person on the other end really doesn't seem to care about giving you what you feel you should be getting -- well, chances are good that the person you're speaking to is more concerned with dotting all their i's and crossing all their t's and making sure that whoever is currently eavesdropping on their call gives them a passing grade. What they're concerned about as far as YOU are concerned is giving you just enough help to keep you from complaining about them to their supervisors -- and even there, if you complain, but a call review shows that the CSR did everything they were supposed to, they won't get in any trouble.

It's a fucked up system, but, well, we live in a fucked up world. Welcome to mine.


At 4:16 AM , Blogger AaA said...

And you think my job is worse? Well, maybe, but I'm not envying you yours either. I think you'd be a lot happier mopping Kroegers' floors.

At 4:52 AM , Blogger Highlander said...

Well, no, I wouldn't, for several reasons --

(a) the pay sucked
(b) physically, the job was killing me; having to get down on the floor and get back up again forty times a night was destroying my left knee, which seems to have sustained some kind of weakening trauma at some point earlier in my life. It's fine for the day to day demands of a sedentary lifestyle, but that floor maintenance job was wrecking it
(c) it made SuperGirlfriend unhappy to have me working instead of sleeping next to her several nights a week
(d) the schedule was unpredictable, but as the store was open 24/7 and I was low on the seniority pecking order, I never got weekends or holidays off
(e) the working conditions were horrible; imagine having to listen to those same dreadful supermarket ads over the PA system you all mostly ignore when you're shopping, over and over again for an entire 8 hour shift, and then add in, get stopped every ten minutes by self absorbed customers who want directions to the banana loaf mix
(f) the pay REALLY, REALLY sucked

My current job is better than that one, or I wouldn't keep it. But my current job is still several orders of magnitude below fun, fulfilling, or even acceptable.

At 8:15 AM , Anonymous The Aberrant Eye said...

Jeez, your reports from work read like the flip side of Tales from the Phone Center (in that Paul "sclerotic_rings" Riddell dearly loves his cow-orkers, but has a deep and abiding loathing for the "free-range Soylent Green" who call in and "defecate into the phone lines"; those two quotes should let you know whether you want to click on the link itself).

At 4:13 PM , Blogger Opus P. Penguin said...

I've been puzzling about this subject in my head for some months now (a strange and often disorganized place, that gray matter) wondering what happened to Customer Service in general, and specifically, why nearly everyone I call in that area seems so unhappy. I examined my own behavior---I think I'm being polite, I don't yell or get snippy and I always say "please" and "thank you" and about 80% of the time I have my account number handy. But some of the people I have to call - mainly at HMOs - sound like they're one good nudge from throwing down their headsets and stomping out the door. I imagine those are awful places to work. People who call are often frustrated as hell, and the CS staff doesn't really have any power to help. The most consistently helpful and respectful customer service people I've talked to have been at Lands' End and PC Connection. I don't know. I guess, like any other job, how you're treated determines how you treat the customers. Speaking from lots of experience, you don't exactly want to do a bang-up job for people who treat you like crap.

I hope you find something better soon.

At 5:43 PM , Blogger Highlander said...


Haven't had a chance to go over to the blog you recommend yet (or answer comments for a while) but I'll check it out eventually. Thanks for stopping in.


Yes. Working in a call center sucks. When you're a successful novelist, will you put in a good word for me with your agent and/or your publisher? If I get there first I'll do the same.

By the way, Aberrant Eye was also once known as Tuxedo Slack. For some reason, I'm thinking that someone named Opus the Penguin could relate to that.


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