By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD
I’ve been in many situations lately where people ask me what I do for a living. It’s a query I dread, not because I’m embarrassed but because I find the follow-up questions exhausting. Here’s an example:
“What do you do?” the woman asks.
“I’m a writer, and I publish magazines.”
Her eyes brighten. “What kind of magazines?”
“Trade publications for the call center industry.”
Her smile fades. “What?”
Like most people, she’s either stumbling over “trade publications” or “call center,” but she doesn’t say which one.
“I produce specialty magazines for call centers.”
“Why?” she asks. “Are there any call centers left?”
“The call center industry is alive and well,” I explain.
“I thought they all went overseas.”
“Some did, but many have come back.”
“Why?” She’s more confused than curious.
“In some cases the cost savings weren’t as good as projected or offshore management was too difficult. Another reason is to improve quality.”
“They care about quality?”
“Yes, it’s what customers want.”
Her blank look tells me she doesn’t understand, but she has run out of questions. I change the subject. “So, what do you do?”
In another conversation, at the point where I mention call centers, my interviewer asks, “You mean like telemarketing?”
I shake my head. “Some call centers place calls, but most answer calls.”
“Like calling a company to place an order.” He doesn’t react. “Or calling with a question about a product.” He shakes his head. “How about a nurse advice line?”
There’s a glimmer of recognition. “They’re worthless,” he says. “It’s like they’re just following a protocol.”
“That’s exactly what they’re doing! They’re following a carefully devised, time-proven process to determine a proper course of action.”
“But they always tell me either to take two aspirins or go to the ER.”
Apparently he calls often, but I wonder why since he claims they’re worthless.
Another time the guy knows exactly what I was talking about. He had worked in several call centers during college and for a few years after. This was in the 90s. His experiences weren’t good. He decries the rows of cubicles, the hovering supervisors waiting to pounce on the tiniest of mistakes, the pressure to hit unreachable productivity numbers, and the sweatshop conditions of his environment. He shudders in horror.
“There aren’t too many like that anymore. The focus is now on quality and customer service.”
He looks at me as if I’m delusional.
At the mention of call centers, other people launch into a tirade. “I hate it when they call during dinner,” says one woman.
Apparently she still has a landline and hasn’t heard about the do-not-call list. Instead of explaining, I say, as calmly as possible, “You don’t have to answer the phone.”
She glares at me as if I’ve just suggested that she murder someone. “But it’s ringing!”
“Let your answering machine get it.”
“What if it’s important?”
“Don’t you have caller ID?”
Other times people share specific horror stories of calls gone bad: rude agents, poor connections, being disconnected, double orders, delayed shipments, billing errors, and wrong (sometimes harmful) information. They complain about accents they can’t understand, robo calls, and hang-ups. They grumble about the agents’ inability to comprehend what they’re saying or answer simple questions.
The phrase call center evokes many reactions from those outside the industry, none of which are good. The public view of the call center industry – for all its successes and countless positive outcomes – suffers from a public disconnect. Past wrongs and negative press paint a picture of call center incompetence and irritation. All the good we do to help people and contribute to the economy is largely lost.
Next time someone asks what I do, maybe I’ll say, “I’m a writer” and then see where that conversation goes.
Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Connections Magazine, covering the call center teleservices industry.