Six months ago I walked out of my job as a customer service representative for a large call center. I found I could not handle the stress of answering phones eight hours a day, with not even a brief second to catch my breath between calls. The “Call Center Blues” had gotten me down.
However, life has come full circle for me. I am now working in the same building, with one important difference. Just as I did before, I am sitting at a computer in a little cubicle. The difference is that this time I do not have to answer the phone. I will only be doing data entry work, which delights me to no end.
Operators are Standing By
When you see a TV ad for a product or service using the phrase, “Operators are Standing By,” do you ever wonder who is “standing” waiting for you to call that 800# to buy that widget you probably don’t need? More than likely, no one is actually waiting for you. They are busy on another call with the customer who wants to buy the product, has a complaint about a product or service, needs technical advice or information about something, or just wants someone to listen to their life story.
When I moved to a new town a couple of years ago, the best employer in town was a company that provided call center services for government contracts. I had experience in customer service from my many years as a social worker, but had never worked in a call center. But, I needed money fast, so I grabbed the job. Call centers typically have a high turnover rate, so it is fairly easy to get hired. Our community has several companies with call centers. I’m aware of some people who were fired for attendance problems at one company and immediately found work with another call center.
What to Expect After You Get Hired
Most call center employees sit in little cubicles, wear a headset, and type on a computer. So you will have to have some typing skills and computer literacy, depending on what kind of project you are on. You will need to speak English well enough to make yourself understood. There is a huge demand for bilingual Customer Service Representatives (also known as CSRs), so you might get paid more if you can speak another language, especially Spanish.
You will receive training in how to use your computer software, customer service skills, and content directly related to the service you are providing. The length of these training sessions varies, depending upon job requirements.
Once you have been trained, you are assigned a cubicle and told to get to work. If you are lucky, you will work with a buddy for a while, until you get used to the process. If not, oh well, you can always put the caller on hold while you call the help desk. Hopefully someone has explained to you how to access this resource before you actually have to put it to the test (which will probably be your very first call).
Most call centers require CSR’s to use a script when talking to the customer. This is meant to standardize the information being provided and discourage long calls. It can be challenging to read something verbatim without making it sound canned. But, once you have learned to locate the appropriate script without fumbling around, it can make it easier than extemporizing.
Calls are monitored for quality assurance. This means that a supervisor will be listening in on a percentage of your calls to make sure that you are providing good customer service, following the script (if your job requires it), providing appropriate referrals, and “managing” the call. This means that you have to obtain all the information you need from the customer, provide the appropriate information, defuse angry callers, re-direct them when they start telling you their story, and end the call within the designated “talk time.”
“Talk time,” also known as Average Handling Time, is the bane of most CSR’s. The time will vary from company to company, but can vary from 2-3 minutes, 6 minutes, or higher if it is a complex operation. These are usually set in a contract, so management watches talk times and will coach you if you go over. Some learning curve is expected, but by the time you have been working for a couple months, you might start to get e-mails stating, “You have been on that call for 15 minutes. Do you need help?” Which translated means, “you are not managing your call efficiently. Please wrap it up so you can take the next call which is waiting in the queue.”
What is a queue?
A telephone queue is a holding place for calls until a CSR becomes free to take a new call. The longer the queue, the more irate the caller can be, which makes your job more difficult. The first thing you might here after answering the phone with “Thank you for calling Company X, how may I help you?” is the angry response “About time. I’ve been waiting on hold for 30 minutes.”
Now this is not your fault, because you have been busy helping other customers who chose to call at exactly the same time. But you will apologize for making them wait, and try to get them to tell you what they are calling about. That sounds like a simple process, but you will be surprised how many people don’t know why they are calling. They might have had an idea before they picked up the phone, but forgot while they were on hold. Or they simply don’t know what question to ask, or exactly what the problem is. Even if they are calling to buy a widget they saw on TV, they might not know its name. So part of your job is to ask what are called “probing questions” to get the information you need to determine what exactly they need.
Probing questions can be a two-way sword. They are necessary to find out what your caller’s issues are, and supervisors usually like when you ask them. But they also tend to make your talk time go up, because it opens the door to the caller telling you his life story, hoping that you will glean the information you need from his tale of woe. As interesting as these stories may be, they do not help you get your job done. You have to become efficient at getting the caller back on track.
Life is very structured at a call center, as opposed to more relaxed office situations. Because call volume is monitored, management is aware of peak times and schedules accordingly. Thus your breaks and lunches are staggered with other agents to allow for phone coverage. You are not free to tell your friend, “Let’s get together around noon,” when your scheduled lunch is 11:30 am. You are usually required to log in and out of your phone, even when going to the restroom. I am aware of one contract that deducts bathroom breaks from regular breaks and lunches and will even require a doctor’s note if you need to use the bathroom frequently. Hint to applicants – this might not be a good place to work if you use a diuretic!
I mentioned the cubicles that most CSR’s sit in (although they may be standing if they have gotten tired of sitting and are talking to a caller who just won’t hang up). The cubicles are not soundproof, so you will hear the conversations of all the CSR’s around you. This can be quite amusing when a CSR hits his/her mute button, yells at the caller for a minute, then un-mutes the phone and sweetly says, “So you were saying?” This is not recommended, however, because there are times when the mute button does not work!
Most of the time you try to tune everything out so you can concentrate on your own call. Since your co-workers are using the same script you are, this is usually not hard. Sometimes a CSR will “go off script,” which means they insert information that has not been approved by management, or engage in personal conversation. I’ve done it myself at times. It can provide you with some chuckles when you hear the conversation of your neighbor and you wonderi, “Where the heck did he get that information?” If you have attention deficit disorder and find that you have to listen to everything said around you, you might not want to work for a call center.
Many of your customers will be appreciative of the service you provide. If you give them the information they need, solve a problem, deal with their complaint, or order their product, they may even thank you. On the other hand, some people are yelling when you answer the phone. They are already mad, and they need to vent to someone, even though you personally had nothing to do with the situation. You are representing your company, however, so it is your job to calm the person down so you can help them. Therefore it is important that you do not take anything said personally. If you aren’t able to develop a thick skin, you might not want to work for a call center.
You will also find that there is a group a people, often those with a mental illness, who feel compelled to call 800 numbers and report all kinds of strange things, like the FBI is wire-tapping their home, they are being watched at work, etc. These can be pretty interesting calls as well, but due to that infernal talk time requirement, usually have to be handed off to a supervisor to deal with.
How Do I Know Whether to Take the Job?
According the website, Call Center Consultants, the necessary skills for working in a call center include:
1. Patience – Do you like to talk on the phone? Do you find people interesting? Can you do it all day and find the patience to act professionally with even the most frustrating customers? It may seem obvious, but there are people, like me, who do not like to talk on the phone. I don’t talk on cell phones, or call my friends or family a lot. This should have been a tip that I wouldn’t enjoy call center work. But if you like talking with people and don’t have a phone phobia, chances are you’ll be able to adapt to working in a call center
2. Upbeat Outlook – Working in a call center can be very stressful. It helps if you try to maintain a positive attitude. Sometimes, even the most difficult customer will come around when you’re able to remain calm, upbeat, and focused. It is very easy to get into a negative mindset, especially if those around you are already burned out. This makes the workday very long and increases your stress level.
3. Helpful Problem Solver - If you are a person who likes to help people solve problems, this may be a good job for you. People usually respond well when they know the person on the other end of the line is doing their best to help them. Of course, there are always those people who are never satisfied, but they come with the territory.
4. Hold Your Ground - There will be times when a customer will try to get you to violate company policies. or even ask you to do something illegal. You’ll need to hold firm to your training and refuse to do anything unethical. If you have trouble saying “I’m sorry, I am not able to do that,” you might want to rethink working in a call center.
In my new job, I still have access to the other call center areas. So at times I walk the halls, listening over the cubicles to CSR’s as they talk to their customers. And I am extremely grateful to those who decided to hire me for my data entry job, for I no longer have the “Call Center Blues.”
Website: Call Center Consultants
Website: Centerserve’s Call Center Learning Center