Your Call Is Very Important to Us

The other day I had occasion to call a 1-800 number to get a couple of quick questions answered. The lad who took my call, named Cory, was very friendly, very professional, and got me in and out in less than 90 seconds; so first let me send a little cosmic shout-out to my new pal. I hope his day was fantastic, and that his stats for the week reflect his excellence.

But that call got me thinking about my own time as a call center rep (yep, I have walked those gray halls of shame), and it occurred to me that that was something we hadn’t talked about here yet. So without further ado, please allow me to present…

Mama Buffalo’s Tips for Talking With the Disembodied Voice on the Other End of the Line

1. Please, please please please, remember that you are speaking with a human being. The office where I worked handled incoming calls from folks who wanted to resolve their defaulted student loans. We were the Voice of the Government to these folks, and I imagine that calling our number was scary as heck–I mean, really, who wants to be tens of thousands of dollars in debt to the government?!? So I understood–I really did–that when people called in full-tilt freakout mode, it wasn’t personal. They were scared, or stressed out, or both. So I was profoundly grateful to the people who understood that I was a human being too, just trying to do my job and get my rent paid; and for the record, I started at $8.75/hour. Trust me, I was freaking out about money too.

2. Realize that the human being in question probably has very, very little real authority. As an “average” rep, I had the ability to change addresses, set up payments (under very strict guidelines), offer phone numbers when accounts had been transferred out to collection agencies, answer questions about balances, and request that forms be mailed out (we didn’t even have the ability to send them ourselves–we had to request them from another office altogether). And that was it. Kaput. The end. I could transfer you to someone else if you didn’t like speaking with me; but fer cryin’ out loud, I didn’t even have the authority to hang up the phone, no matter how vile or nasty my caller was being. (Seriously. I had to send the crude callers to a supervisor, because only they were allowed to terminate calls. One of the great joys on the day that I was promoted to a supervisor position was the realization that I could hang up on the people who were being particularly hateful.)

3. And before you think requesting to speak with a supervisor will solve the problem, realize that that’s probably not the case either. As a supervisor, we had the authority to terminate calls, to let a call drag on as long as necessary without worrying about our average talk time (regular reps got yelled at if their talk time was more than four minutes), and to offer a different address for complaints. Ooh la la! Here’s a little hint, kids: the Powers That Be do not trust the call center reps at all. We are the lowest men on the proverbial totem pole. Our input is generally not considered when policies are being made, and we most certainly do not have the authority to make or bend rules. We’re paid just enough to keep us coming back, and given so little respect by the company that it’s actually kinda laughable in retrospect. Case in point: when I did my weekly timesheets, I entered a number instead of my name. My name was just there for verification purposes.

4. Chill. Out. Flipping out on the rep will absolutely never fix the problem. Fun fact: our office had a special queue full of reps who had been identified as being especially empathetic, so that when a caller was in full thermonuclear meltdown, we could transfer the call to one of these special reps. I was one of them. The net result: I got the criers, the screamers, and the raging jerks. On an average day, I got a death threat or two (that’s why we used fake last names), a suicide threat or two (we had procedures in place for contacting local police to do welfare checks), and was usually called the rather rude b-word, the very rude f-word, and the exceedingly rude c-word before lunch. And y’know, you can use those words all you want: at the end of the day, I still only had the authority to change addresses, make payment plans, offer phone numbers, etc, etc. Flipping out gets you nothing but high blood pressure. If you feel that your rep isn’t helping you, ask to speak to a supervisor; if the supervisor gets you nowhere, ask if there’s an address where you can send a written question…and then end your call and go about your day.

5. Accept that playing the “I’m Smarter Than You Are” game just makes you a jerk. I got this one a lot. Here’s the deal: maybe you are a supergenius, and for that, I applaud you. But playing logic circles, trying to use big words, or attempting to find loopholes in policies/laws will get you nothing except eyerolls from the rep, for a couple of reasons: 1. You’re calling because you don’t know the answer, so quit pretending you do; and 2. We actually kinda have the ultimate power here, because you are entirely reliant upon us to get anything changed on your account–so if you’re a jerkface, all we have to do is not hit “save”, and voila! You’ve wasted your time. Besides, there is a very real chance that you’re not smarter than the rep who gets your call: our call center featured, among others, a gal with a Master’s Degree (she got it “just because”), a trilingual chap who’d taken the job as a tie-me-over until retirement, and (my personal favorite) a freakin’ astrophysicist (he had his Bachelor’s and was saving up to start his Master’s, but a B.S. in Astrophysics is pretty much useless, so he had to get a “for-now” job until he could finish his schooling). I’m sure you’re a very smart person, but I reckon the astrophysicist, fer cryin’ out loud, probably has you beat.

Look, I’m not trying to say that every single person you’ll ever catch on a 1-800 number is some sort of saint, or that you need to kowtow to anybody just because they happen to have answered your call. But what I am saying is that I have seen (heard?) some absolutely shocking stories of otherwise decent people who have turned into raging jerkfaces the second they get an anonymous stranger on the phone.

And we all know ‘Tracters are better than that. So be kind. When a person is making $8.75/hour, they could really use the emotional boost. And really, why not take the opportunity to be a little extra nice?


See? Not exactly the most cheerful work environment. Now just imagine that someone is screaming directly into your ears (via a cheapo headset that crackles), and you’ll know what it’s like on the receiving end. Fun, no?


1 Comment

Filed under Don't Make Me Come Down There, Play Nicely

One response to “Your Call Is Very Important to Us

  1. Great piece. Consumers need to know how to value and treat customer service reps on the front lines. They are in fact overly abused. And very much needed to solve problems.

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