Call Center Purgatory <$BlogRSDURL$>
Call Center Purgatory
Friday, December 30, 2005
  Reality is a Social Construction



I remember sitting in a sociology class and hearing my professor make a statement that just floored me:

"Reality is a social construction."

I thought about that for days and weeks, just mulling it over and trying to wrap my intellect around all that statement entailed. I remember all the questions that it engendered in me.

From that moment on, I could not look at the world the same way. Reality was not something inviolate that existed holy and sanctified, beyond any type of examination. Reality had to be proven, tested and tried before accepted as true.

I often wonder how much of my job is affected by this maxim. Words and images are the creators of this social reality. Call centers thrive on words and the images and symbols they create.

If reality is a social construct, it follows that our own identity as a person is part of this same tainted reality. Who are we outside of the definitions of society?

Maybe its not a good idea to think about such things, maybe it just makes you feel slightly superior to everyone else, yet actually depressed because no one else cares about these things. Then there are other people, who say that the only people that question society's reality are those who can't hack it; who can't live up to society's standards and therefore just whine about it as they get all hopped up on coffee and write depressing poetry in coffee shops. I'm not sure what the answer is, but a world that is never questioned never improves. Many people would rather not ask questions that they can't find the answers to easily. Our culture seems to believe nothing can be taught unless it is in the form of some thirty minute sitcom where we all learn a valuable lesson at the end about love and life, followed by a commercial for McDonalds.

Back to the idea of work. Sure, pondering philosophy is not good for the bottom line. You'll never increase your profits by sitting around discussing reality versus perception, or could you?

It's true enough that there is no profit in pondering imponderables, but there is profit in worker satisfaction. Alienation, depression, and not knowing who you really are after spending eight hours a day hearing voices in your head abuse you can start to whittle down the labor pool after a while, if nothing else your insurance plan will be putting out a lot of money on anti-depressants. Keeping your workers feeling fufilled and happy is profitable.

I wish I knew the correct way to rid all businesses like mine of the loss of individual identity that becomes so entrenched. Probabally the best way to accomplish this, outside of a good EAP,(Employee Assistance Program, counseling sessions provided confidentially and free) is really an attitude check. I think there are some real basic questions to locate whether management is to blame for these feelings, or if they are just challenges in the employee's own mental state.

"How do I see my workers?"
"Are they simply tools to gain profit, or are they partners in something bigger?"
"Do we regularly speak to our employees to locate how they feel about their work?"
"Do employees have a clear understanding of how they are performing, and how they fit in this organization?"
"Does our organization represent any solid values besides simply our own fiscal survival?"

How often we forget that every business, every office, every company is like a living being. All of the people are the cells that define it. If this social organism of a company has no real defined identity, its no wonder that the workers feel lost. Questioning the personality and identity of a corporation is the first step to defining who the workers are and what they stand for.

Thanks for reading,

AC
Anonymous Cog

 
Thursday, December 29, 2005
  The Last Christmas Carol Post For 2005


I promise, really...

This will be the last post about "A Christmas Carol", for this year anyway. In the scene with the Ghost of Christmas Future and the covered corpse, the book has a section that explains how all men can be immortal, how we all have a shared purpose in this world, no matter what our destiny is.

Scrooge glanced towards the Phantom. Its steady hand was pointed to the head. The cover was so carelessly adjusted that the slightest raising of it, the motion of a finger upon Scrooge's part, would have disclosed the face. He thought
of it,felt how easy it would be to do, and longed to do it; but had no more power to withdraw the veil than to dismiss the spectre at his side.
Then Scrooge hears something in his heart, like the voice of God, explaining how death is cheated:
Oh cold, cold, rigid, dreadful Death, set up thine altar here, and dress it with such terrors as thou hast at thy command: for this is thy dominion! But of the loved,revered, and honoured head, thou canst not turn one hair to thy dread purposes, or make one feature odious. It is not that the hand is heavy and will fall down when released; it is not that the heart and pulse are still; but that the hand WAS open, generous, and true; the heart brave, warm, and tender; and the pulse a man's. Strike, Shadow, strike! And see his good deeds springing from the wound, to sow the world with life immortal!

No voice pronounced these words in Scrooge's ears, and yet he heard them when he looked upon the bed. He thought,if this man could be raised up now, what would be
his foremost thoughts? Avarice,hard-dealing,griping cares? They have brought him to a rich end,truly! He lay,in the dark empty house, with not a man,a woman, or a child, to say that he was kind to me in this or that, and for the memory of one kind word I will be kind to him. A cat was tearing at the door, and there was a sound of gnawing rats beneath the hearth-stone. What they wanted in the room of death, and why they were so restless and disturbed, Scrooge did not dare to think.
People and what we do in their lives is one of the few things that will last beyond death. The call centers and other corporations will disappear, their profits fade away, the awards and goals set by management will be forgotten, the name of the top performers and CEO's that made the big salaries will remain beyond the reach of our failing memories, just on the tip of our tongues, but the good done in the lives of others is what truly makes us live forever.

Thanks for reading,

AC
Anonymous Cog

 
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
  Training

One of our trainers left a couple of weeks before Christmas, so the week before the holiday, I had the "privilege" of training some of the newbies. I don't like training. It seems like you put your heart and soul into someone and then they either end up not coming back after lunch, getting fired, or passing training and forgetting everything you told them.

This is the first time since "Everything Changes" that I have trained anyone. It feels really wierd. I used to be the kind of trainer that nutured all of my trainees along, like some sort of call center Leo Buscaglia(who I admire), but I can't do that anymore. I know if I nurture them and tell them that numbers don't count and you need to just do the best you can, they will get blindsided like I did.

Instead, I try to tell them how things really are. Numbers are important. Do things only well enough that you won't get in trouble, cover your ass, and don't try to help people. We're not here to help people. We're here to make as many trades as we possibly can, as quickly as we can, with as little liability as we can.

Period...

If they leave, good for them. If they get fired, or if they stay, at least they can't say they weren't warned. I wish I had a better way to end this post, but I don't. I'm kind of in a dark mood, hoping the light will shine soon.

Thanks for reading,

AC

Anonymous Cog

 
Thursday, December 22, 2005
  "Interfering For Good"

As some of you may or may not know, I re-read "A Christmas Carol" by Charles Dickens every year. It is an amazing little book with many things to say. Here's some quotes that caught my eyes this year. Let's compare several passages to see how Dickens moves the conversation about the poor through the entire book. This passage is where Scrooge is approached by some people endeavoring to raise money for the poor. Just before this quote Scrooge asks the famous question,"Are there no Prisons? Are there no workhouses?". The brave souls finally ask Scrooge how much he will give and he replies,

"I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "Since you
ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer.
I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't
afford to make idle people merry. I help to support
the establishments I have mentioned--they cost
enough; and those who are badly off must go there."

"Many can't go there; and many would rather die."

"If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they had
better do it, and decrease the surplus population.
Besides--excuse me--I don't know that."

"But you might know it," observed the gentleman.

"It's not my business," Scrooge returned. "It's
enough for a man to understand his own business, and
not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies
me constantly. Good afternoon, gentlemen!"
The part at the end caught my eye. "It's enough for a man to understand his own business and not to interfere with other people's. Mine occupies me constantly."

Mind your own business, and don't interfere with other people's lives. That's a very Western idea, I would venture to say a very bedrock of some parts of American culture. But like any philosophy it can't be the only idea that guides you. Later on in the book, after Marley's excellent speech where he says "Mankind was my business!", we see into the spiritual world that has been around Scrooge all this time, but never seen or heard by those living:
The air was filled with phantoms, wandering hither
and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they
went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley's
Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments)
were linked together; none were free. Many had
been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He
had been quite familiar with one old ghost, in a white
waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to
its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist
a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below,
upon a door-step. The misery with them all was,
clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in
human matters, and had lost the power for ever.

In this part, we see Dicken's answer to Scrooge's philosophy of not interfering in other people's business. We see that humanity was meant to interfere in the lives of others, not to only concern themselves with their own welfare above others. When its too late, the ghosts realize that all their toil in the world caused no positive changes to what was really important, that is, mankind. We all must see our business as being actively involved in changing the lives of our fellow travelers through life. God interfered in the lives of mankind by giving his only son as a gift that others may live. Christmas, on some level, is about interfering in people's lives for good.

Maybe I'll write some more about this on Christmas Eve...

Thanks for reading,

AC
Anonymous Cog

 
  Lies That Never Work

I understand the use of lying in our culture, I don't think its necessary to use it as often as some politicians do,(both Republican and Democrats). Lying protects people's feelings, and can be a type of social WD-40. That said, I really can't stand bad liars, the sort of people who insult my intelligence with the sort of lies a third grader could top.

Here's some common lies that people tell call center workers:

"They didn't need that information the last time I called!"
This one just floors me. Not only does it assume I just started here off the street with no training at all, it assumes I am stupid enough to believe everything that people tell me.

"I've been on hold for two hours!"
What? Are you so stupid you don't know when people are ignoring you? Here's five dollars, go buy a clue! Kidding aside, all call centers have screens all over the building that show how many people are holding, and for how many minutes and seconds. There is a very slight possibility you may have got lost in a phone system and been on hold trying to get to an option that was not plugged in yet, but no one will believe you. Even if we did, by announcing this, you have put us on the defensive, and ruined any chance of really good service. What makes this a lie is that there are callers that think we will feel sorry for them when we find out they have been holding "forever"-bad move, it has just the opposite affect.

"Uhh...Joe promised me that I would get a discount the next time I called."
Puuhhleeze! Have you heard of computers? Any call center in existence will have a computerized system with the ability to keep notes on every customer transaction, especially those where there was a financial mistake. The next thing out of the agent's mouth will be, "Did they give you a control number?", so don't even try to pull this one.

"I have been hung up on three times and the last agent was very rude!"
The majority of call centers record every call, and keep track of calls lost, or terminated. This is one of the few lies that you might be able to get away with, but only if you have a name or operator number. The thing is, this is another one of those statements that immediately sours your chances for friendly service. The agent will be nervous and on their guard, because they think you are already mad, or you are the sort of person that deserves to hung up on.

All in all, you need to be extra creative if you are going to lie to a call center agent in order to get great service. If you must lie(it is a sin, you know), I suggest you lie in such a way that the agent will feel sorry for you, or make them think they are going to be a hero to you. Don't go over the top, something like "I'm sorry I can't remember that right now, I'm kind of sad after my cat died", or "I just flunked my math finals". If you give the agent a reason, a genuine motivation to go the extra mile, they will. If they can pull off some sort of customer service miracle and think they were the hero that made your day, both of you will hang up from that call happy.

Thanks for reading,

AC

Anonymous Cog

 
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
  Informal Networks and the Blame Game

I'm not really sure why I have not been writing much about the call center lately. Nothing really monumental going on. People are coming and going and things are moving along ok. No raises yet,(no surprise there), but no substantial problems with management either.

All I have been experiencing is that incredible boredom that sucks my soul dry from time to time. The love of my wife, the love of good music, and a continuing obsession with finding the perfect breakfast, are the pleasures that make life worth living for me.

Lately, I've really noticed how management has a habit of going off half-cocked at the slightest scent of trouble. Last month, there was a problem with how billing was prepared for our mutual fund customers. Instead of asking around, and listening, they just yelled at everyone connected. It was really a shame, because the informal network that existed in all the offices already knew what the problem was and was handling it fine.

Many managers don't understand this network, it exists outside of a mission statement, outside of the chain of command. It consists of the "little people" who move the paper and enter the data everyday. It could be the relationship that three clerks within three different departments have. As purchase orders flow from purchasing through the departments that receive and sell stock, those three people actually take care of making sure everything runs smoothly.

Yet, if you get their bosses involved, they don't know about the relationships that make things run smoothly. Instead, they get involved and bluster and cuss, and try to make sure blame is placed squarely on someone's shoulders besides theirs.

If you are in management, take the time to talk to the people that actually process things, ask questions in a manner that shows your desire to understand the flow of work, instead of appearing like a prosecutor trying to find the guilty party. Sometimes there is no one guilty party, or even two. It may be the result of many factors that may not be related to you or your department. Most of the time, you'll find you look better when you facilitate the relationships that already exist, instead of making everyone play the blame game.

Thanks for reading,

AC

Anonymous Cog

 
Sunday, December 18, 2005
  IVR Cheat Sheet


Consider this link an early Christmas present from yours truly. Click the link above to see a cheat sheet that helps you get to a human as soon as possible when calling many of the major call centers. Kudos to Paul Smith.

Thanks for reading,

AC

Anonymous Cog

 
Friday, December 16, 2005
  The Christmas Program

The Christmas program was last Sunday morning. The church was packed, more than usual. Everyone's children, grandchildren and nieces and nephews had rehearsed for the last two months and was stepping up to entertain us. All dressed in their Christmas best, red velvet dresses and Mary Janes, white dress shirts with tight collars and a crooked clip-on ties, everyone was polished and shining.

I like these events. It always brings out the moist old guy in me. I love to watch kids in my family try their best, or not try at all and just horse around and wave or make faces while everyone else is so serious like it was Carnegie Hall. Those kids that wave and make funny faces are the kids I root for. Almost everyone got a chance to do a little speech, or sing a small solo, or play something on the piano. Some of it was very good, and some of it wasn't.

As I watched all of the children in front of us on stage, I could see some of them were in utter fear about the whole thing, and others were just basking in the attention of everyone looking at them. Some were singing along as serious as could be, and the others were just jumping up and down and clapping along.

I know it seems like a stretch, but as I watched them all, I could almost see the ones that you could tell were not going to fit in at school, at work, and in life in general. Not just the "strange kids",(they could grow up to be Bill Gates), but the good looking kids too. There is a way about people, a certain way they carry themselves that tells the world that they don't feel like they belong.

I remembered when I was a little kid, how I hated these events. I was kind of shy, and sort of dorky looking. I sang off key sometimes and don't remember getting a solo, at least not until a play in High school.

Alienation is not just something that people who work in call centers feel, it's everywhere. In every part of society, in every country, in every city, in every village, there are people who feel like they just don't belong.

Age is no difference, in fact, not having any real perspective makes alienation even worse. When you are young, you don't have the ability to look back and tell yourself that bad times don't last forever. Every broken heart, every taunting, is like catching a virus for the first time, you have so little to compare it with, it feels like the end of the world.

This Christmas season, if you get a chance to go to a children's concert or program where a child you are related to or know personally is participating, go to that event. Afterwards, find that child and tell them they did a good job, or that they looked great up there. It may seem like a small thing, but its not. Its the sort of selfless act that makes Christmas a great time of year. Those are the adults that meant the most to me growing up, made me have hope that all of life would not be just an uncomfortable place in uncomfortable clothes.

Thanks for reading,

AC

Anonymous Cog

 
Thursday, December 15, 2005
  Techie Psyche


Check out the link above.

Sorry for the lack of posting lately, a little holiday drama going on. Come back tommarow and I will have something of substance for you to read.

Thanks for reading,

AC

Anonymous Cog

 
Saturday, December 10, 2005
  Blissful and Smelly...


"As life gets longer, awful feels softer,
then it feels pretty soft to me.
and if it takes shit to make bliss,
well, then I feel pretty blissfully...
~Modest Mouse, "The View"


Thanks for reading,

AC
Anonymous Cog

 
Friday, December 09, 2005
  Holiday Links


Check out these two great blog posts about the holidays.

"When in Doubt, Throw Hard Candy"

"This Year, Everybody Gets Myrrh."

Thanks for reading,
AC

Anonymous Cog

 
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
  Old Fezziwig


One of my favorite parts in A Christmas Carol is the scene with the ghost of Christmas Past where the ghost and Scrooge are watching the Christmas party at Fezziwig's warehouse, Scrooge's first employer. After a huge meal and a great party with dancing and music, Fezziwig and his wife wish everyone a Merry Christmas as they leave for the night...

"A small matter," said the Ghost, "to make these silly
folks so full of gratitude."

"Small!" echoed Scrooge.

The Spirit signed to him to listen to the two apprentices,
who were pouring out their hearts in praise of Fezziwig:
and when he had done so, said,

"Why! Is it not? He has spent but a few pounds of
your mortal money: three or four perhaps. Is that so
much that he deserves this praise?"

"It isn't that," said Scrooge, heated by the remark, and
speaking unconsciously like his former, not his latter, self.
"It isn't that, Spirit. He has the power to render us happy
or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a
pleasure or a toil. Say that his power lies in words and
looks; in things so slight and insignificant that it is
impossible to add and count 'em up: what then? The happiness
he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune."

He felt the Spirit's glance, and stopped.

"What is the matter?" asked the Ghost.

"Nothing particular," said Scrooge.

"Something, I think?" the Ghost insisted.

"No," said Scrooge, "No. I should like to be able to say
a word or two to my clerk just now. That's all."
Throughout the first part of the book, every time Scrooge speaks to his employee, it is to upbraid him, to degrade him, to correct him, and essentially, just chew his ass. All day long, Bob Cratchit works in an atmosphere of harsh words and greed.

I know how he feels sometimes. Many times my boss Larry is not unpleasant, but that's the closest he gets to actually being nice. Friday, he was in a foul mood. He screamed over the floor at every minor grievance that came.
"There's 10 calls holding in customer service! Start picking them up!"
"I expect you to do more than one thing at once! Do you understand me?!?"
"Don't you take any extra time with that customer! Get off the phone now!"
"Why are you still on the phone? There are other calls waiting!"


I know yelling can be part of business some times. I didn't go home and cry and ask God why Barney wasn't my boss. But it still gets to me. I'm almost 40, I'm a grown man, I'm educated and not an idiot. Being yelled at like I'm some pimply faced kid who burned some hamburgers during a rush is just wrong.

Not only does it leave me tied up in knots, it makes me want to hate my boss. I just feel like shit inside. It makes me want to jerk the phone out of the wall and see how far I can....well, you get the idea.

A Christmas Carol is not about creating a welfare state, its not about running a business at a loss, its about being a good human. Its about living for more than money. Its about good karma. Its about seeing people as valuable and precious, not as simply human resources on the road to greater profits.

Thanks for reading,

AC

P.S. Click on the title to download a public domain version of a Christmas Carol.

Anonymous Cog

 
Thursday, December 01, 2005
  High Drama

A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in the local coffee shop blogging away on the WIFI in the corner booth, enjoying an extra frothy Latte made with Kona coffee with an extra shot of espresso and flavored with a shot of Caramel syrup,(Who needs alcohol with this kind of coffee?). I had Miles Davis on the MP3 player, my comfortable shoes and softest flannel shirt on, punctuated by a smile on my face and joy in my heart.

Idyllic...

I decided to check my sitemeter. I only do that more than I care to admit. An query from Google read, "Financial Services Call Center Blog". The query had spent about twenty minutes on the site and had viewed 15 pages, I was only a little concerned at this point to say the least. I pulled a little folded up piece of steno paper I keep in my wallet that has the IP address of my company on it. They were the same number! In one fell swoop I had gone from a state of caffeine and jazz induced euphoria to a state of hyper-ventilating paranoia.

The rest of the day I was kind of a mess. I wondered if I would get a pink slip in the morning, what would my wife do if I got fired, especially for something as stupid as a blogging?!

By morning, I had made peace with the fact that they might have caught me. I remembered I have good references with other companies, and that being fired is not the end of the world. In fact, I was almost hoping it would happen. I could finally be as honest in person as I have been here. In some ways, it would be some drama to an otherwise mind-numbing, ass-kissing, state of non-existence. I would finally feel like a criminal, when most of my life, I have been the model student, obedient son and all around good citizen. Maybe I'd even get a tattoo after I got fired, and start wearing an earring! Drinking beer from the can, instead of some sissy-ass Latte! Yeah, Damn straight!

Hold up...Guys over thirty-five should not try to become dangerous. The minivan and the Ralph-Reed like haircut have already taken away that possibility. I just sound extremely stupid when I try to say things like "Don't talk that shit to me Beeatch!" . I know my limits...

Well, like so many times in my over-anxious little life, nothing materialized. Not only did nothing materialize, I wrote down the wrong IP address! So nothing happened, I just created my own drama and ruined a perfectly good afternoon.

Thanks for reading,

AC

Anonymous Cog



For those of you new to this blog, here's a post that is sort of related:
How to Blog Anonymously

 





Exploring the mind numbing insanity and childish corporate culture of an unknown call center employee.
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Purgatory: A place of suffering and torment with an unknown duration. In Roman Catholic Theology-the place where the dead are purified from their sins.
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Email:anonymous.cog at gmail.com
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"One must know oneself, if this does not serve to discover truth, it at least serves as a rule of life, and there is nothing better." -Blaise Pascal
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"Wake Up"
By Rage Against The Machine
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