You never call…

After a brief conversation with an old friend today, on the book of faces, I’ve managed to successfully spark a bundle of memories I thought I’d buried for good.

Call centres…

You may think theres nothing worse than getting a call from a call centre, or needing to call the faceless masses entombed within one. But there is… Working in one.

My third job after leaving school was at a large direct insurance company. The direct part was important, because it meant that in theory the lack of a middle man meant that prices could be cheaper. That wasn’t actually true though, the only difference being you could get things done quicker without a middle man.

Anyway. After killing my braincells working in a mass mailing room for two years, I found myself made redundant when the large banking company decided that outsourcing was cheaper. In my quest for employment a friend suggested I try this Insurance company. The only qualification I really needed was the ability to talk on the phone and be able to successfully communicate. I could do this, more or less. They liked me, so they employed me.

We (My training course contained 29 other hopefuls) sat through 3 weeks of training on insurance law, phone manner, and other things too dull to mention, culminating in a buffet with alcohol, in which I consumed too much, and midway through the afternoon watching health and saftey stuff, popped out to the loo to be ill. Of course I denied it at the time, but I don’t think anyone believed me.

I spent 8 years working at this company. Moving sideways between various departments because I wasn’t considered the right type of person for promotion, and sideways moves meant they could pretend I was valued. 6 of those years were on the phone, handling calls that should last no more than two minutes. If more than 2 calls were waiting, and for longer than 20 seconds, the few members of staff who’d been accepted as ‘potential management’ would stroll the floor yelling that calls were waiting. Because… The big flashing beeping callboard didnt give that away.

6 years of this, 60-80 calls a day, communicating with people for no more than 2 minutes at a time.. I’d say I don’t know how we coped, but the truth of it was that pretty much everyone there was aged between 19 and 25. It was one of their first jobs, and their social life was heavily tied in their jobs. first break of the day, arrange who you’re lunching with. Lunch time, grab lunch, play poole/hit the pub/sit in the park. Second break, arrange a group to hit the pub with after work.

The CEO knew his staff, and their habits, and when he planned for a new office, he made sure he rented the ground floor to a weatherspoons pub. To this day I still believe he may have had shares in the pub.

To pass the time during the day, we’d make up games (and internal email chains that we’d get caught out on once or twice a year, and resulted in one of my only written warnings). The most frequent game was to try and insert words into sentences. Obviously we had to keep it clean, because no one wants to be fired for using the word Butt Plug.

The computers we were using weren’t windows based. This was pre Windows 3.1.1 days. Or perhaps not pre 3.1.1 but, licencing 500+ machines would have been a nightmare, so the system we’d use ran some kind of Unix based OS. We had an email client built into it, but it wouldnt allow attachments, however it would allow you to colour sections of the page for highlighting in either white or green.
Thus began one of my first attempts at using software for the wrong purposes. I worked out that by highlighting different sections of the screen, and working out where the next page would show when enter was pressed, I could create crude animations. I only really remember two off hand, one was a duck that slowly sank, with a speech bubble which said “tell me the truth, am I sinking?” and the other was a glass of beer that slowly emptied. In order for these to animate, the receiver had to hold the enter button.

It was for the creation of these, (and showing others how to do it) that I got my first written warning. I think I created them in the first year or so of working there. 3 years later, the emails were still making the rounds. It was brought up in every annual review, even though by then I’d learnt my lesson and stayed well clear.

Since working there, I’ve worked in a number of phone-based tech support, including in a management role, and to this day I still think that management there had the wrong idea. They were penalizing people who were working perfectly with the correct number of calls each day, and a good phone manner, who were basically looking for a way to stave off the tedium. At other companies we’ve used nerf guns, out of hours (late shift) gaming, and a huge number of other tactics to keep staff amused, while ensuring that they got the job done. Churn in call centres is always an issue. and at approx 3k per person for training, you’d think staff motivation would be quite high on the agenda.

Anyway… Call Centres. Love them or Hate them, I’d much rather the companies were spending money here, than outsourcing them abroad. At least our younger workers could then get to experience the social experience I did.

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