Out at 5
A call center tale
Gregory watched the numbers on the screen countdown the last four minutes of his fifteen-minute break.
That’s impressive, he thought, realizing he’d had time to walk the length of the main hallway, take the elevator down ten floors to the men’s bathroom on the second, and back again. A glance and swipe at his iPhone revealed the usual chatter from everyone he followed.
Two minutes left, he thought, looking back at the workstation screen. I better get my headset back on.
He turned around on his swivel chair to look at the other support reps. They sat inches from one another at their workstations — spread out side-by-side at long tables across the floor space. The majority half his age.
“Thank you for calling So Easy Accounting Software, my name is Gregory. May I have your company name or account number?”
The same sentences over and over, hundreds of times per day.
Oops, let’s not forget to change the status to ‘Ready,’ otherwise my reports will be off. He moved the pointer across the support software screen, but this time clicked too late. The status changed to a bright red ‘Ready’ instead of green. They choose the color red to make you own the mistake. Another mouse trap.
Management monitored everything. The backend system tracked all calls on all support personnel workstations. They could remotely watch any workstation screen in real time, so he knew his screen activity could be watched. Every keystroke pressed, scheduled and unscheduled breaks, call lengths, everything done on the computer could be tracked and scrutinized. His weekly one-on-one review meetings with the department Sup felt like a root-canal disguised as a therapy. Like a cat-and-mouse game, with him as the prey. He knew they knew that perfect time scores were not reasonable. But everyone played the game — or so he expected.
“My accounts are completely out of balance,” said the customer. “Your software did this to me. Now you fix it.”
The software program doesn’t go out of balance on its own, someone must have made invalid entries, he thought.
Gregory felt his stress level rise as he wondered how to answer. The company sold accounting software, but it did not provide accounting advice or accounting services. Level one support staff all got a week-long crash course in basic bookkeeping, but they were not accountants, nor were they paid anything near an accountant’s salary. Yet, he had to find a way to appease the customer’s expectations, or he may get a bad review for the call.
Meanwhile, the on-screen ‘In Call’ status timer counted the call length, and all calls beyond five minutes produced red-flags. Sups saw these red-flags in real time on their monitors and would eventually walk down to a support person’s workstation and get on his or her case. Weekly prizes were awarded for shorter call times.
“Sir,” he said in a resolute tone. “This sounds to me like an accounting question and we are not accountants. You need to speak to an accountant in regard to balancing your books.”
He waited for the customer’s reply but only heard breathing. This went on for longer than he expected. Self-doubt began to creep in and he almost began to apologize. Then the customer spoke, in a louder tone.
“Listen, I bought this software because the ad claimed it was easy to use for non-accounting people. Now that it’s all messed up, you want me to hire an accountant at fifty bucks an hour to fix it? Is that what you are telling me? Well, is it?”
Gregory felt a degree of helplessness and tightening in his chest. These types of scenarios raised his stress levels to unhealthy proportions. He could forward the call to level-two tech support, but that was discouraged by management. Transferring too many calls affected one’s weekly performance reports. And due to liability issues, all support personnel were forbidden to give accounting advice.
“I understand your frustrations, Sir,” he said, to appear sympathetic. But he suspected the customer was being unreasonable.
“Do you?” the customer replied. “Let me spe…”
Gregory felt the customer was about to ask to speak to a supervisor and that would make him look like he couldn’t handle the call. So he cut him off before he could finish his sentence.
“I’ll tell you what, Sir. We do not usually handle accounting issues. We are not accountants. But given your obvious level of frustration, I will make an exception and transfer your call to a level-two technician. They can then analyze whether this is an accounting or software issue.”
“OK, sounds good.” The customer seemed relieved at the hint of special treatment. Gregory knew these tactics would pacify the customer; thus increased the odds he would get a positive review. Callers had the option to rate the support calls. The problem was that calls transferred to level-two could come back to haunt him. The Sups could re-analyze and playback calls. They could listen to every word, examine the choices made, and claim the support inadequate. He expected the odds of this happening were rare since each Sup had nearly a hundred support reps to manage and there would not be enough time in the day to investigate every call. Plus, he knew good customer reviews would more likely positively affect his performance report. So he often felt obliged to take these chances, and simply transfer unreasonable calls.
After a few hours of dealing with customers, things suddenly quieted down. He decided to change the call status selection to ‘Away’ to get some coffee in the lunchroom. If he left his status selection on ‘Ready’ but didn’t answer within three rings, the call would go back into the support queue and he’d later have to explain why his status was on ‘Ready’ but he didn’t answer.
The ‘Away’ status was also the only option available to choose for bathroom trips. No option for ‘bathroom break’ was available. Gregory thought this design to be overly manipulative. A week before, another call center employee ended up peeing himself while trying to hold on until his formal break, because he was afraid to upset his weekly report figures with too many ‘Away’ statuses. The way management saw it was if a rep’s status was set to ‘Away’ he or she was not taking calls; and if they weren’t taking calls, then they were not considered working
“Hey dude, how’s everything?” Bob said as he hurried into the lunchroom behind him.
“Ah, ya know… the usual” Gregory replied.
“Ya hear what happened to Wallace last week?”
“What happened? Gregory said after taking a sip of coffee from his cup.
Bob shook his head grinning. “He flipped out, man.”
“How do you mean?” Gregory knew of Wallace. He had seen him before in the lunchroom area, eating a sandwich and sitting at tables while talking to other support staff. He also knew Wallace was a level-two support tech who always looked red in the face and likely in a hurry. It was what he’d noticed while passing him in the hallway. But Gregory didn’t know much else and wasn’t even sure where Wallace sat in the big maze of level-two support staff cubicles. All he knew was that Wallace had a level-two cubicle on the other side of the building. Only level-two techs got cubicles. Level-one reps sat next to one another at long narrow tables without any privacy.
“The ambulance guys came to get him,” Bob said. “Mary, who sits at the cubicle next to him, saw what happened. She told me she looked over the cubicle wall and saw him pass out and fall off his chair onto the floor. He seemed unconscious, so she screamed and dialed 911. A nervous breakdown, they say. His Doc told him the job is stressing him out too much. Guess he’s gonna be on sick leave for a while. No pay for him.”
“That’s terrible,” Gregory said, worried he’d transferred one too many calls to level-two; many of which Wallace may have ended up dealing with. There were rumors level-two techs endured incredible stress and excess responsibility. Unfortunately, their pay wasn’t much better than level-one, unless they’d been there for eons.
“Well dude, I gotta split,” Bob said. “Back to the grind. So, hasta la vista cheeky monkey!”
Cheeky monkey? Gregory half-smiled as Bob looked back and left. For a moment he reflected on how little the support employees respected each other. Call center tech support was the lowest rung on the tech industry ladder and the situation had gotten progressively worse as more and more support ended up being outsourced overseas. Now, the call-center support staff was considered a dime-a-dozen and highly expendable. The entry pay was not a whole lot better than the minimum wage.
Walking back down the hallway towards his workspace, he thought of all the time he’d spent at university to get his master’s degree in oceanography. Of how back then he’d imagined it would lead to a great, high-paying respectable scientific career. He’d imagine how proud he would one day feel writing oceanographic articles in professional journals. How he’d get paid a five-figure income, afford a mid-class new car and a decent two-bedroom condo. Unfortunately, no matter how much he had tried to make things happen, the required opportunities, connections, and luck of circumstances never seemed to materialize.
This was never really a choice, he thought.
The timer next to the ‘Away’ status on his screen said he hadn’t been in ‘Ready’ mode taking calls for a little over six minutes. It would be something else he would have to explain to his supervisor in the one-on-one weekly call system status meeting. And that made his stomach ache.
He looked out the window onto the parking lot and thought: At-least I’ll be out at five.
© 2019 e.s. piteau