Call Center Truths

Six Tough Truths About Being a Call Center Representative

“Mom, Dad- when I grow up, I want to be a call center representative. I hope I can be on the phone all day under fluorescent lights talking to angry people about their bills. I hope my sales quota is this high!” A tiny hand stretches as far overhead as it can reach.

This has never once happened. Ever.

What’s so stressful though about a job in a climate-controlled environment that offers a living wage and good benefit package with no requirements of a college degree?

Plenty actually, if the sheer numbers of people on stress disability at any one time are any indication. Here then are my Six Tough Truths About Being a Call Center Representative, aka An Homage to My First Real Job (“real” in this case meaning, “not at the mall.”)

1.) Fitness goes down the tube. Bad eating habits are a way of life in call centers. Reps sit all day and eat their feelings, often in great secrecy. This is especially true in offices that forbid food at the desk. Nothing tastes as good as a clandestine bag of Doritos or plate of fried chicken, tucked slyly away in a desk drawer and gobbled down with a customer on hold. Couple this with morning donuts and tacos, office pizzas and potlucks, anniversary cakes, candy bars from the vending machine, and what my gym trainer calls “a sedentary lifestyle” when I see her each year for about a week in January. Good thing those office ergonomic chairs are built so sturdily!

But why would they need to wolf anything down? Can’t reps just eat their food between calls?

If a “between calls” period actually existed long enough for a person to eat a bag of chips, well, then maybe we have too many reps working! Layoffs, anyone? The threat is always there. This brings us to the next item:

2.) Uncertainty. The work that’s performed by call center reps generally comes complete with sales quotas, heavily-scripted customer responses, and cloyingly catchy branding phrases. Stray thee not far from these requirements, for thy manager is never far away! Managers (I was one of those, too) are ranked on their team’s performance using key metrics that relate to money: sales figures, efficiency, those sorts of things.

The only thing worse than being a manager on the bottom of that list is being a rep on her or his team. With their own bosses breathing down their necks, desperate first-level managers plead, cajole, and when they completely lose their shit, threaten. 

So why don’t reps just do the jobs they’re paid to do so they can keep their managers off their backs? Well, this leads us to:

3.) Monotony. While changes to procedures and new business initiatives are constant enough in most call centers to ensure a permanent population of both puzzled reps and folks whose job it is to answer their questions; others absorb the changes quickly. Intelligent and highly-intuitive reps grasp key job concepts more easily. This isn’t always a good thing.

As any pet owner can tell you, cats and dogs that aren’t stimulated get into a whole lot of mess. People are much smarter than even the border collies who have their own featured episodes on Animal Planet. Deprived of creative outlets and feeling caged by monotonous work, bored reps get into all sorts of mischief to keep themselves entertained. Crafty practical jokes on office mates are ever-popular, as are singing and dancing among the musically-inclined (particularly popular when no managers are around, and generally following a polite “May I place you on hold?”).

Finding no outlet for their energy in the work they do, and looking to the future and seeing the same monotonous work ahead of them, many find it more and more difficult to drag themselves in every day. This is pretty much the death knell for the job because it tends to interfere with:

4.) Attendance. In the call center world, attendance and punctuality are everything. A rep who’s walking in the door at 7:30am for a 7:30 shift is already late. That rep needed to be taking calls at 7:30, precisely. The 9:30am break, 11:00am lunch, and 2:00pm break must all be taken as scheduled. Anything longer than a short bathroom break or two outside of that isn’t tolerated, and every period away from the phone is logged. So goes the day until the shift ends at 4 or 4:30pm.

That’s assuming the rep has a day shift. Many call centers have extended hours, with shifts determined by seniority. Hopefully, the new people can adjust to this because it often means:

5.) Evening and weekend shifts. Spending every Friday and Saturday night at an office while the rest of the world revels in weekend splendors has plunged many a young, single rep into an existential crisis. Young parents, meanwhile, find themselves strained to balance childcare needs. It’s marriages, though, that may be the biggest casualties of shift work. This is particularly true when the other spouse works during the daytime.

Call centers are generally large social environments, particularly among the young. Working the same shift schedule with the same people week after week, colleagues become friends. Friends become lovers. And so the cycle goes. Anyone who’s worked in a call center understands acutely what Diana Ross meant when she sang “we’ve seen how love can grow, now we’ll see how it dies.”  

Yet in spite of the invariable drama that ensues, the people at the office are what make it fun. This is a powerful antidote for the most difficult feature of call center work:

6.) The customers. No one has ever called an 800 number to express gratitude for the services that a company provides. Many are confused and angry. This is worsened by the fact that finding a customer service number on a website is only slightly easier than spotting Jupiter’s moons with birding binoculars. Long hold times add to the magic, leading customers to ask accusatory opening questions like, “Are you the only one working today?!” to the frazzled rep who’s just hung up with someone else. Customer frustration has often reached such a fevered pitch by this point that the rep has to pull out every trick she or he has short of a lullaby in order to a) get the problem solved, b) use all the required catchphrases, and c) sell the customer all sorts of stuff that have nothing to do with the reason the person called.

Call center jobs for life are not something anyone should expect to be hired for in today’s changing global economy. I know of very few people who started with me 25 years who are still with the same company. That’s to say that a person starting a call center job today is almost certainly not going to retire from that company.

My advice to young people who land in these types of jobs is this:

  • Do it to the best of your ability.
  • Become great at customer service because the skill set will serve you well throughout your professional life.
  • Save overtime money for a rainy day.
  • If there’s a tuition benefit, use it to get your college degree; and
  • Leverage all of the other benefits to get yourself and your family situated.

Then, get out as early as you can to do something that’s better suited to your talents and gifts.   

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