Chained to the Headset

Chained to the Headset

For the past ten months I have worked in an outbound in-house sales call centre, during which time I have been alternately ground down by stress, elated by adrenaline-induced satisfaction, held up as an example of probity by management, and castigated for my poor attitude and ‘reluctance to accept criticism’. However, during all that time I have kept my eyes open, made sure I never crossed ethical lines, and frustrated management constantly by achieving a 100% score in quality/compliance monitoring despite my lack of adherence to their desired sales ethic. This, as Robert Tressell would have put it, is the story of ten months in hell, by one of its inhabitants.

Most difficult to recognise at first (indeed, some never realise it) is that the entire premise of the job is based around a legal fiction. For companies operating within the UK, cold-calling is illegal. Therefore, in order to sail under the radar of legality, companies offering their services via outbound telemarketing are required to only call customers if they have technically consented to receive marketing calls relating to the service in question.

Legal fiction

In theory, our bosses pay data-gathering companies to conduct ‘lifestyle surveys’ over the phone in which a customer gives their name and address, gives an indication that they are eligible for the service our company will later offer them (despite at that stage not yet knowing the nature of that service), and consents to having their details passed on to the relevant third party, i.e. us. In reality, we use companies which outsource most of their work to the under-developed countries of the world, using low-paid English-speakers to call someone, ask them rapid-fire questions which are hard to understand due to bad phone line quality and poor proficiency in the English language, and then record consent for details to be shared regardless of the customer’s response.

All this is of direct relevance to us, because (despite periodic lapses of discretion among our more human bosses when they acknowledge that our work is, in actual fact, cold-calling) the nature and regulation of our work is based around this fiction, i.e. that we are calling ‘qualified’ leads and can therefore be reasonably expected to generate sales from a proportion of them. Our targets are set fairly arbitrarily at three sales from seven hours on the phone, but even this is complete lunacy given that it is occasionally possible to gain [many] more than one deal from each client; thus our productivity, recorded and measured every day according to five key metrics, is more dependent on luck than anything else. Of course, this is how management like it; if productivity lacks any discernible correlation with effort, then it is easier for the boss to attribute poor performance to intangible considerations such as attitude, positivity etc., and demand an improved approach in that regard.

Treated like children

Another feature of the workplace is the relentless battle by management to infantilise and patronise the workforce, for instance by endlessly sub-dividing us; first on a logical basis by department depending on the product we’ll be selling, then into teams of 10-15 people whose only raison d’etre is to enable heavier oversight by a layer of low-level management and encourage irrational competition against neighbouring teams on the same call centre floor. This is compounded by the never-ending stream of productivity drives (some incentivised, some not) which seek to focus attention on a particular product, metric or aspect of call quality; sometimes competing groups in these short-lived initiatives can be no larger than two or three people.

If, however, by some unfortunate quirk of character a worker manages to have an aptitude for the work, and manages to make it past the innumerable deficiencies of the workplace (whether by buying into their shit wholesale, ignoring it while feigning interest, or recognising its true nature), then there is the pay and commission structure. The basic salary is comparatively good for this sector, and for those who somehow squeeze out more than double the minimum sales target in any given week there can be meaningful sums earned in commission. This is of course a key factor in driving sales, as despite the more recent attempts to monitor a range of more complex metrics via digital monitoring, inevitably the agents’ eyes remain focused on the simple tally chart which indicates intelligibly how close they are to commission.

For agents achieving neither more nor less than the targets set for them, this chart becomes an irrelevance to them personally except in its use for comparing them to others – perhaps comparable to an office fantasy football league: for over- or under-achievers, the chart is the most visible reminder (used as a prop either in loud, round-of-applause congratulation or in sotto voce admonishment disguised as encouragement) that this is a sales-driven environment. We all laughed at how management resembled nothing so much as frightened rabbits when it was discovered the official regulatory body for our industry was planning an audit; we were briefed beforehand that the more ostentatious practices of the sales environment (applause for agents hitting commission, high-fives for deals) would be suspended for the day.

This company is based in an economically depressed part of the country, so as an emerging SME (small- to medium-sized enterprise) emerging several hundred people in four towns across the region it is generally well-regarded locally – apart from by our local Labour MP who now and again talks shit about how the whole industry is a blight on society and should be shut down, which he follows up with his detailed and eminently sensible alternative plan for creating jobs in the region (just kidding, only the first part is true!).

Kept in the dark

However, not only is the company so dysfunctional that even management based at different sites cannot effectively communicate essential business information to each other in a timely manner, we are also largely kept in the dark about where else the company’s tendrils extend. For instance, by subterfuge we learnt that some of the outbound call centre work is outsourced both to professional call centres nearby, and also to two sites in even more depressed locations in far-flung corners of the United Kingdom, where conditions and working environment are rumoured to be even worse than our own. Contact with workers in these outsourced operations is, however, impossible; all their output is logged onto different computer systems and we only learnt of their existence by chance.

I referred previously to the nature of our outsourced data-gathering operation, and feel it is important I stress that my description was not based on assumptions or stereotypes of the “Indian call centre”. One day in November 2013, the automated dialler was dragging its heels excessively until it finally ground to a halt; the senior manager five tiers above our level (whom we suspect shows his face periodically for no other reason than to irritate us) strolled in and instructed us to log off the computers, as he had an announcement. He proceeded to tell us that due to the effects of Typhoon Haiyan (in which over 6,000 Filipinos died) the department had run out of data, and he had no idea when we might take delivery of more. This led to a really interesting discussion among us workmates on the ethical implications of this, and was to me a real-life demonstration that however much social change and reforms we might achieve in our country, capitalist enterprises like this one will still rely on exploitation of low-paid labour elsewhere in the world in order to maximise profit margins.

In context, then, let’s look at a typical day. Work starts at 11:00am (although effectively we are obliged to clock on at least 5 minutes earlier in order to start our computer, log on briefly and then log off at “Meeting” status. There then follows a 20-30 minute meeting, the format of which is highly dependent on the team leader’s personal style but which will usually include a review of the previous day’s performance, some sharing and discussion of strategies for improvement, any other business or relevant news, and mixed in throughout various strategies designed to motivate us. Every team member is obliged to pledge a number of deals they think they can hit by the end of the day; failure to achieve this is not a disciplinary matter unless it becomes a habit, but it is constantly referred to as a talking point in one-to-one performance reviews, and collectively a team’s pledges form the basis of what the team leader will then in turn pledge to the Sales Manager.

So many calls

The first call of the day is always the same; despite pulling perhaps 300 calls per day, five days a week for the past few months, there’s always that stumbling reluctance on the first – quickly followed by the familiar patterns rushing back, probably like riding a bike for the first time in years. A call is pulled as follows: a green ‘waiting’ screen is followed by a brief ‘pip’ in our ear at which point the recipient is on the line, probably having said “Hello?” at least once, and we must use their name and address details appearing on the screen to begin the conversation: “Hello, could I speak to Mrs Smith please?”. Sometimes, the ‘pip’ will be followed by one of the five standard robotic answerphone messages used by the public which we now recognise instinctively, in which case we move quickly to end the call and move on. Below the address details are our script (having been there a long time, I no longer rely on this) and various buttons used to end the call and in the process record the ‘Customer Response Code’ or CRC. CRCs are colour-coded either as green (clicking these will in some way feed the recipient’s data back into the system after a period of hours or days), or red (which will result in the recipient’s data being scrubbed from that database).

Many but by no means all answerphones are automatically detected by the dialling system and therefore are killed off before being fed to us agents, but inevitably we cannot always be working exactly in time with the dialler; this is the point at which calls are dialled, someone in their home answers, but an agent pulls the call just too late to catch them before they put the phone down. We are connected by wireless headsets, which means we are encouraged to move about while on calls and thereby come across as especially enthused in order to impress customers.

In an average day an agent might perhaps pull 300 calls, 150 of which will not result in any contact, i.e. “Answer Machine” or “No Answer” etc. Out of the other 150, a large number will be “Hung up” which we are encouraged to use whenever the recipient ends the call without a “clear idea” of the service we are offering. There is a CRC labelled “Not Interested” but this is red, whereas “Hung up” is green; one of our key metrics is the number of red CRCs clicked proportional to how many deals we achieve; this is expressed informally as the number of datasets we “burn” per deal. Of course, this means it is clearly in the agent’s interests to click “Hung up” resulting in an uninterested person receiving another call in seven days’ time, rather than “Not interested” which would serve only to increase pressure from management and benefit only the irate recipient who was probably rude anyway.

The day is broken in order to ensure that an agent in theory never spends more than two hours on the phone continuously; seen in light of the fact that a common way of resigning is simply to throw one’s headset down and walk out, it is not hard to understand why management instituted this system! The fact that in our particular department we tend to be calling wealthier people simultaneously increases the frustration inherent in the job, yet also inhibits any sympathy we might have to the recipients of our calls. In essence, the entirety of our labour process is centred around working-class people, with an average age of perhaps 25, supplicating upper/middle class people at least two decades older, hoping merely to get enough information to sign them up preliminarily to a service which at the opening stage doesn’t even require them to part with any money.

Still, the hostility not only to our attempts to engage them in conversation, but also at our having the temerity merely to call them in the first place, violating the bourgeois sanctity of their little castles, is palpable. This also means, excepting the very old or vulnerable clients who many of us endeavour to get removed from the calling database (often in defiance of management’s wishes), we have very little sympathy or compunction in feeding a rude recipient’s data back into the system, passing the buck down the line for one of our colleagues to try their luck later. Swearing or abuse is rare, although petty rudeness and impatience is not.

Constant scrutiny

As the business is fully regulated, all calls are recorded, and every aspect of our work is monitored electronically, meaning management can if they choose review every call made by every agent on any given day; in circumstances like this, the ‘mute’ button on our headset is a godsend as it affords us at least a limited opportunity to swear, mess about, share jokes etc. However, given the relatively rapid-fire rate at which calls are pulled, the opportunities to communicate free of management interference or surveillance are few. Only management several levels above our team leaders have their own offices, which means our line managers constantly present, floor-walking, checking up on us – and they use the same staff room as us for breaks too. In circumstances like these, independent action or organisation is incredibly difficult, reliant upon spontaneous expressions of dissatisfaction against specific injustices, or discussions and informal pacts to ‘say something’ and ‘back me up’ formed outside the office between friends.

This is not union territory; most of the workers are young and have worked mostly in retail, admin or manual work beforehand, and have never been members of a trade union. In any case the lack of job security and the high turnover due to stress means that most people view it as more or less temporary anyway, and so the long-term prospects for organisation are low unless unions generally find a way of overcoming these organisational challenges.

So what are the long-term prospects for workers in this industry? Call centres, after all, have been held up as the ‘modern-day factories’ of the working class in our shiny new service-oriented economy. Clearly acts of subterfuge and petty resistance are at once more common in such a stressful environment than elsewhere, yet also potentially more significant due to the intensity of surveillance and higher risk of discovery followed by disciplinary action.

However, it will take a significant shift in activity of the working class and confidence of the labour movement more widely before we are likely to see anything like the organisational drive and innovatory methods which would be needed to truly represent and articulate our grievances in this industry characterised by precarity, poor conditions and middling remuneration.

Postscript

Three days before the publication of this article, I quit.

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