The fifth in a series of posts exploring my work history, revealing how I ended up working in a library. This post: working in a call centre.
My first full-time job after graduating from university? Working as a customer service assistant in a call centre. Everyone should do this job once, so you can truly appreciate the miserable existence faced by all call centre employees, everywhere. Let’s face it, there’s a reason why no-one in the world has ever said It has always been my dream to work in a call centre.
This was the call centre for a large retail company, specializing in selling replicas of historical and nostalgic items, including CD players that looked like 1930’s radios, mugs decorated with William Morris designs, Victorian-style nightdresses and cardigans inspired by famous pieces of art. Customers called the call centre either to place orders, or to complain. This was supposed to be a temporary job; I was one of many customer service assistants recruited to boost the size of the team in the lead up to Christmas, the company’s busiest period.
The headset is an ingenious way to chain employees to their desks; we were physically plugged into the phones. As Christmas got closer and closer, the volume of calls increased dramatically; I averaged about 100 calls a day during the peak period. If a supervisor saw that we were not on a call, and there were incoming calls to answer, she would shout “call waiting!”, which meant someone had better pick up that call as soon as possible; lost calls meant lost customers, which meant lost business. We were allocated strict times for breaks and lunch; you couldn’t just take your break when you wanted to, you had to stick to the allotted time, so that there were always enough staff available to answer the phones. Supervisors would glare at you as you walked back to your desk from your break, if you dared to be a minute or two late.
It was a noisy environment to work in; phones constantly ringing and beeping and flashing, staff constantly talking to customers, sometimes shouting so that they could be heard over the din, supervisors yelling out “call waiting!” every few minutes, and we were in such close proximity to each other that we always had other people’s conversations going on right next to us; I’d use my left hand to push the headphones even closer to my ear so that I could hear what my customer was saying.
The customers, oh the customers. Both the bane of my existence, yet also the greatest source of entertainment. Hard of hearing old ladies who couldn’t make out a single word I was saying, elderly people who had apparently never used their credit card before and didn’t know which numbers on the card to give me, furious women (and they were always women) shouting down the phone because their express order had not arrived on time and had ruined their life. For our own amusement we kept a list of funny customer names, featuring the likes of Major Horn, Dr Death and Mrs Higginbottom.
Sometimes the humour would unintentionally come from my own mouth. Consider this (completely true) conversation I had with a gentleman caller, in which I misheard a word:
Me: Can you give me your address, please?
Caller: 14 Vagina Road.
Me: Thank you. Just to confirm, that’s 14 Vagina Road?
Caller: No. Regina Road. Regina, with an R.
The rest of the conversation, as you can imagine, was rather awkward, as I tried to conceal my guffaws and smooth over the fact that I had just unintentionally said the word “vagina” to a customer.
I stayed in the call centre for 18 months. Towards the end, I’d had enough of the phones and requested to be moved to the post room, where I helped open the sacks of mail, process cheques, and sort out postal orders. I felt like I had lost my mind, and finally quit at Christmas, ready to move on to my next job: working as a support worker with young adults. What I learned from this experience: call centres are a cause of human misery for all concerned.
Part six to follow.