Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Call Center Memories

Megan McArdle has a post on whether it is a problem to have a political class with little experience working outside the Academia-NGO-Government sector. In passing she provides the following anecdote:
At a salon dinner in Washington not long ago, I found myself explaining why so many people go into consulting: it's less exhausting than corporate jobs. One of my friends who went into the management training program at a telecom firm out of business school found himself managing a call center. It's a responsible position, but it's also a little stressful and not always interesting.

"I'm sorry," said one of the other attendees, a very smart and insightful person who writes beautifully and knows a whole lot about economics, "but if you get an MBA from Chicago, and you manage a call center, you're an idiot."

This is pretty much exactly wrong. If you are going to someday be a senior manager at a major telecom firm, you should absolutely manage a call center: nowhere else will you get the kind of hands on experience with the firm's customer base in their most irascible, demanding moments, or learn as much about the company's cost structure and operational challenges. And surely it is not actually idiotic, even for someone with an MBA from a top school, to want to be a senior manager at a major telecom firm?

And yet, it's such an unsurprisng remark, because this so often seems to me to be the animating spirit of our governing class. The purpose of an elite education, the thinking goes, is to equip you to design and run the system by which 300 million Americans live together--and to ensure that you never, ever have to actually interact with the 280 million who did not graduate from an elite academic program.
I'd agree that someone who has aspirations of working high up in a telecom company should have some experience managing a call center, because a call center is, after all, typically the only way that most telecom companies customers ever interact with the company itself. Understanding what that experience is like (and the problems it creates) is doubtless valuable.

That said, having spent a little time working in a call center is more generally a valuable experience in our current economy. I was talking with my uncle about this the other day. He works in a call center which answers initial sales inquiries for health insurers, and has dealt with one kind of telephone work or another for a number of years (he's an independent musician, and so the telephone work provides a flexible "day job".) My own call center experience was much more brief: I spent six months as a team manager at an outbound sales call center while I was finishing up my last semester of college.

I had been taking extra credits all through college and so had a light course load my last year and was working full time. At first I had a fairly fun job at a web hosting company, but after the .com bubble burst and I got laid off, I needed a job that would get me through six months before I moved back to California and got married. Training callers for $10/hr, 50 hours a week was grueling but it was more money than I'd ever made before and I was eager to take the job, even though after a couple weeks I'd have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I drove across the Ohio river into West Virginia to work every day.

Several years later I dealt with call centers a little more distantly, working on a team that was tasked with listening to Indian call centers answer tech support calls and then coaching the tech support reps on how to deal better with American customers.

Dealing with people on the phone for a living is a valuable experience in part because it puts you in the position of dealing with people all day who are, it not actually at their worst, certainly not at their best. When you're taking inbound calls, you're still generally dealing with people who would rather not have to talk to you. They have a problem that has caused them to call up an 800 number, wait on hold, get transferred around, and finally talk to you about some situation they wish they weren't in. Outbound calling is typically even more stressful, since there you're interrupting people who really don't want to talk to you and trying to sell them something.

Through it all, you're required to be as polite and professional as possible. If you lose it, not matter how badly abused you were by the caller, you get fired.

If you don't burn out, you learn a fair amount of self control: both making yourself do a job you don't like and dealing with abuse without retaliating. It also builds a certain empathy for the people you have to deal with when on the phone. It makes the person on the other end of the phone when you have to call your phone company another human being rather than a verbal punching bag on whom to express your frustration with having been transferred too many times. And when you get some sales person calling up, you know that you're dealing with some low wage stiff trying to get through a shift who has heard every snappy comeback about calling him during his dinner before a hundred times.

For the record: When dealing with an outbound sales caller, if you want to get through the call quickly and politely, the thing to understand is their scripts are designed to deal with substantive objections. If you simply say, "No, I'm just not interested," without providing any reason at all, they'll go through their two generic rebuttals and get off the phone. Also be aware: if you tell them "This is not a good time" they'll disposition you as a call back, because that's better for their performance statistics than a refusal. And if you say, "Take me off your list," they are legally required to do so (though that also counts against their stats, so they sometimes will pretend not to hear it and just terminate the call.)

1 comment:

Ruby said...

There has been some misconceptions about working in the call center industry. Many think that working in call centers is not the kind of job that someone who graduated from a prestigious college or university would go for. This is definitely not true. It is not as easy as it looks. Like you have mentioned, most call center agents encounter callers who can be rude and abusive. It is also hard to convince people to listen to you when you know they don’t want to talk to you at all. It is stressful and sometimes it makes you really lose your cool --- and then you get fired. I agree that it takes a lot of patience and self control to remain at calm and respectful as possible. But just like any other job, it is something always one should be.

Ruby Chelmsford