Hello, can I help you?

Under cover at a call centre

Actually, I’ve done this sort of thing before. I was in San Francisco – a student on my travels – working as a tour guide and barman. Then somebody told me about a job at a call centre. It was the first I’d heard of such places, so I popped along for an interview.

They liked my English accent. A bloke from Oxford, hired just a few weeks before me, had already established himself as the company’s most successful salesman (flogging subscriptions to Time magazine). With my accent, I too might prove a hit with customers.

Or so they told me, steering me towards a desk and handing over a script and a thick pile of papers on which were printed the names and phone numbers of potential customers, drawn at random from the phonebook. All I had to do was (1) phone the person whose name appears on top of the pile (2) read out the script (3) avoid losing my temper with customers, (4) wait till the customer hangs up before doing so myself, and (5) bear in mind that all calls may be monitored – without my knowledge – by the management.

Easy? Ordinarily it might have been, but my pile of numbers was drawn exclusively from Chinatown. Few of the people I phoned could speak English, but I needed the cash so I stuck to my brief, running through the script as instructed despite frequent and voluble interruption in Cantonese. After that I extemporised, hoping customers would release me from this torture by hanging up. “I assume from your response that you are not, in fact, interested in subscribing to Time for the moment…” I tried, always fearful that managers might be eavesdropping. ”…I apologise for interrupting your evening…” Eventually, in each case, the customers did indeed hang up. But after three days I handed in my notice. If I never came across another call centre in my life, I’d have been delighted.

But in the ten years since then call centres have transferred from America to the UK with great success. One of the most significant developments was the launch of Direct Line: the founder, Peter Wood, realised that running his business over the telephone could reduce overheads by 90 per cent. (It’s even lower if the calls are inbound, from customers. But most call centres also make outbound calls – polite industry jargon for cold-calling.) Other insurers swiftly followed, and so did banks – by next year, one in three of the country’s 36 million-or-so bank accounts will be telephone based. Specialist fundraising companies make hundreds of thousands of calls each year on behalf of charities, universities, arts organisations and political parties. A county council (Surrey) last year announced plans to transfer a large part of its work to a call centre. Call centres work closely with TV programmes – such as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, Comic Relief and Crimewatch. And there are call centres – it’s true, this – where people sit waiting for you to report a problem with motorway traffic cones, or something nasty in home baking products (see label for details).

The British call centre industry, accounting for almost half the call centres in Europe, has attained massive bulk. As many as one person in 30 now earns a living in this sector – making it bigger than mining, shipbuilding or car manufacture. For parts of the country which previously relied on heavy industries, call centres have provided a welcome cushion against unemployment. In Merseyside, for instance, many thousands are employed in call centres run by companies such as Abbey National, Axa Direct, Barclays, British Telecom, Camelot, Halifax and QVC. And when customers of London Electricity query their bills they commonly find themselves talking to a Geordie – because the company’s administrative based is in Sunderland.

In short, call centres are good for consumers, for budget-conscious management, and for politicians worried about joblessness. For individual employees, they’re less thrilling.

The London School of Economics recently identified “sweat shop” conditions in call centres, with workers under intense pressure to meet targets. Computers and telephones monitor every keystroke and every spoken word. Poor seating, lighting and humidity, and high noise levels contribute towards cause health problems. And in some call centres, there’s one kind of call, the call of nature, which you’re not allowed to answer unless it occurs in a scheduled break.

The Health and Safety Executive launched its first-ever investigation, this summer, into just how ghastly these jobs can be. To make a report of my own, I presented myself to a recruitment company in the City of London, Eden Brown, and requested a job. The consultants initially offered alternative jobs they thought I might prefer. But I was firm, and after a couple of days was offered work at a call centre.

Founded in 1995, First Telecom occupies glittering offices beside the London Arena in Docklands. Its business consists of buying bulk “capacity” from the likes of British Telecom and reselling this at cheap national and international rates to businesses and residential customers. The company enjoys a good reputation – in 1997 Morgan Stanley bought a 26 per cent stake in it for £15m; and First Telecom scored highly in a Which? survey for giving honest advice to customers.

Staff, however, have less to cheer about. Like most call centres, First Telecom saves considerable sums by hiring many workers through recruitment agencies. Temps receive no pension or sick pay; and we’re easier to push around – before sending me to First Telecom, the agency instructed me to sign a form agreeing to work more than 48 hours a week. In other words, to sign away the protection of European Union working-time regulations. It was clear that, if I refused, the agency would be less than happy – and that might cost me work in the future.

As part of its on-going expansion, First Telecom had acquired 28,000 customers from a rival firm. My role – and that of 20-or-so other new recruits – was to explain to new customers how First Telecom’s service worked. The last acquisition of this kind took place on a Muslim holiday; thousands of customers were unable to call relatives abroad. “It was a nightmare, bad news, we don’t want that again,” says, Michael, the overweight, sallow – but generally cheerful – man put in charge of training us in an annex filled with new computers and phones.

Our contracts are for just six weeks. As the company grows, Michael says, it may be necessary to establish a special acquistions department. “If you’re good, and still looking for work – you’ll hear about it.

“I want you doing as many hours as possible,” he says. “That was agreed with the agency.” When new contracts arise, he says, First Telecom will look most favourably on people who worked long shifts. Our pay (£7 an hour or £8 after 10pm) is not bad for the sector – but to earn as much as possible several people volunteer for 14 hour shifts. Our team leader, Robert, tells me he once did 96 hours in a week. However long the shift, nobody gets more than half an hour for lunch and a couple of 15-minute breaks. “Try to take half an hour,” says Michael, “or you’ll do yourselves in.”

From nine to five, we must dress smartly. Callers will not know we have made this effort – it’s like 1930s radio announcers wearing evening dress to read the news – but that’s the rule.

Don’t eat at your desk. Don’t read, or make personal calls. “You’re here to work,” he says. “People are regularly caught out calling friends abroad, which is stupid. If you really must make personal calls, ask first.” (We can’t use our own mobile phones either, as these must be turned off.)

Members of the team come from Dorset, Yorkshire, Scotland, Australia, Denmark, New Zealand and Nigeria. The overseas contingent are in their early 20s, students or recent graduates working to pay for their travels. The Brits, with one exception, have few academic qualifications. (The foreigners, incidentally, were predominently white-skinned; the Brits mostly black.)

Most have worked in call centres before. One in his early 20s recently worked in the US on an insurance company’s demutualisation. Another had a job with London Electricity, cold calling the customers of British Gas, but he left after three hours. “It was worse than doorstepping,” he says with a shudder.

Lloyd, in his late 30s, preferred door-to-door sales. But call centres are OK, he says. His previous job was with Cable & Wireless; he took pleasure in winning over difficult customers. One woman took a note of his name and insisted on speaking to him the next time they called – two years after the original conversation.

Only one of my colleagues has no call centre experience. “I lied a bit to the agency,” he tells me quietly.

Talking to customers, we must use a standard greeting, which we practice this for an hour with gradually diminishing self-consciousness: “Welcome to First Telecom. This is John-Paul Flintoff. How can I help you?” Thankfully, however, Michael decides not to issue scripts (“Because let’s face it,” he argues, “everyone’s an individual.”) But he does give us flow charts to follow.

Don’t tell customers the company offers cheaper local calls, because it doesn’t. If you promise to call back, be sure to do so. Never lose your temper, no matter how rude customers may be. And never put customers on hold without first asking if they mind. This all seems horribly familiar. But there’s more.

Watch out for trouble-makers. “Some stupid customers will insist on speaking to a manager, that’s very English. There will be some customers who are genuinely confused and a bit annoyed, and others who sound exactly the same but who are out to pull a fast one by complaining. Some customers think if they complain they’ll be given some money. Well, we’re giving them £5 of free calls up front, and that’s the lot. Some try calling several times for different bits of information, trying to catch you out. They can be very devious.”

Our performance on the phones, he says, will be monitored. Sometimes managers will make test calls. Showing us what he means, Michael makes a few test calls – on speakerphone – to see if established staff use the correct greeting. More than half fail to give a surname (believed to put customers at ease).

Familiarising myself with the computer, I look up customers at random, examining their credit history and the history of calls they have made. I search by name for celebrity account holders, but without success. I start a competition with Rachel, the Australian girl beside me: who can find the highest-spending customer? In the course of this search, I come across several accounts flagged with warnings about attempted fraud.

It’s impossible, I discover, to access customers’ credit card details. What’s more, I can’t look up PIN numbers, though I can reset them. Later, when doing this for customers, I’m amazed how few seem concerned about security. Many insist on giving me their PIN number – though I never ask for it – obviously unaware that I could use this to run up calls on their account. (If I used payphones, I would never be discovered.)

Astonishingly, we will not have headsets on our telephones, just ordinary receivers. “Headsets are hard to order,” says Michael with just a hint of embarrassment, “and there’s a long delivery time. If more headsets turn up, there’ll be pigs taking off at Heathrow. But anyway, the ones we have aren’t brilliant – they’re all crackly – and people sometimes wonder why they bothered asking for them. So take your time,” he advises, “and type one-handed rather than hunch up your shoulders.”

I’m horrified. This is like giving a carpenter a blunt saw, or asking a mechanic to change your tyres with a spoon. I wonder what the Health and Safety Executive would say.

One morning, I turn up exactly on time, but Michael says I’m late. I attempt to slip quietly to my desk, but he stops me in front of everybody – as if this were the army, or a prison – and demands: “Show me your watch.” I present my wrist, he examines the evidence, then asks if I have deliberately reset it. “I don’t want you here on time. I need you here early, ready to answer the phones at eight.”

As the final part of our training, we’re sent to sit beside established staff and listen to their calls in the vast call centre, where the desks are clustered in fours and overlooked by a closed circuit camera. I’m paired with Annette, a plump, dark-haired young woman from the Midlands. “If you’re remotely intelligent,” she reveals, “it’s a piece of piss. If you’re thick, it might be a bit of a challenge – you know, like the Krypton Factor. As soon as you’re used to the telephone and the PC system, it’s boring.”

Annette’s first calls are routine inquiries about call-charges to India, or Spain. One woman from the north wants to change her registered telephone number. A woman who calls Nigeria a lot says she wants to make a payment, but sounds as though she’s got her arms full of babies, and cuts herself off.

A Scottish woman wants details of calls made to Canada during the last few months by a friend staying at her home. These amount to £1.41. “Shouldn’t break the bank,” she says cheerily, and rings off.

‘I’m getting too old for this,” says Annette, who is in her early 20s. The worst thing is that the job requires her to concentrate all day on callers’ trivial concerns: old-fashioned factory lines, though by no means fun, at least allowed workers to keep their minds to themselves.

The next call is relatively exciting. The caller has been experiencing problems, he wants a refund. Annette, bringing up the notes on his account, finds he has made the same complaint before. He wants to speak to the manager.

Annette goes to find her team leader, a wiry twentysomething with blonde hair standing at the far side of the room. Coming to her desk, he reads the screen notes before putting on Annette’s headset. Listening to the customer, he taps a biro impatiently on the table. After offering apologies, he asks the customer to follow an elaborate procedure, using the * and # keys on his phone, to help get to the bottom of the problem. Somewhat mollified, the customer rings off. The manager borrows Annette’s keyboard and quickly types up a note of the conversation. Doesn’t look too difficult to me.

But when the job really starts, I can barely answer the simplest inquiries. “I come down heavily on people who make things up,” Michael told us, and I’ve taken his words to heart. One caller wants to know the rate for telephoning Russia from Switzerland: I promise to find out and call him back. Others want me to transfer cash between different accounts, or to arrange for monthly bills. One asks why he must wait so long before his account is credited with money from a postal order. I haven’t a clue.

The difficulties are compounded by the computer system ‘crashing’ in the middle of calls. This happens several times. And I’m still not familiar with the phone – which one’s the mute button?

Paradoxically, in the short moments I’m not actually on the phone I start to feel edgy. I don’t feel comfortable just sitting here, with everybody around me chattering away purposefully. I wish the phone would ring. And my wish is soon answered.

After five hours, I suddenly realise I haven’t moved from my seat. I’ve been talking virtually non-stop, and my throat is extremely sore. My back feels wonky from turning my head towards a computer at the side of my desk, my neck is killing me from cradling the telephone under my chin to type with both hands. I could really do with a headset. And on top of all that, my eyes are sore from staring directly at the bright screen without a break.

And this is just the first morning. How can anybody put up with this for a year?

A large proportion of customers are from overseas (after all, the company specialises in international calls). One caller is almost entirely incapable of speaking and understanding English. I try to explain the purpose of his PIN code – but he just can’t understand ‘PIN’, and becomes wild with frustration when I tentatively suggest the number is ‘secret’.

Many other customers speak terribly quietly. To hear them above the loud buzz of the call centre requires me to press the receiver hard to my head. By lunchtime my ear too is in pain. I had never imagined that working in a call centre could be so physically arduous.

In the afternoon, I make a big mistake. We’re only allowed to accept money from account holders, but I find I have taken a Visa card payment from somebody’s son. Michael – getting up from his desk with a look of horror – can’t understand how I made the mistake. I’m not sure I understand it myself, but it didn’t help that the computer kept crashing. I promise to save the situation, setting up a new account for the son, transferring the money, and changing the PIN number on the father’s account so the son can no longer access it.

After a twelve hour shift, I have handled roughly 80 calls. Taking account of breaks, that means the calls averaged eight-and-a-half minutes each. The short period between calls – in which I type up a note of the conversation that has just finished – generally lasts less than a minute.

I was taking too long. Calls should average seven-and-a-half minutes, Michael says. Several hundred customers, he reveals, gave up after waiting too long in the queue. “That’s about a third of all callers,” he says, seriously unhappy.

By the second week, I’m much more confident. I take calls as soon as the phone rings, without first taking a deep breath. And I no longer feel silly using the standard greeting message.

But with the initial excitement behind us, the job has become as mind-numbing as Annette predicted. With nothing better to do between calls, I find myself looking up my own post code to see if any customers live in my street. I scroll casually through their accounts – and others in the surrounding area – and set about correcting addresses where I know these have been misspelled. That is how bored I am.

On the first day, five hours passed in seconds. Now, I keep thinking my watch has stopped. I got up at 6.00am to be here on time, and I won’t be home again till 11.15pm. and with that kind of timetable, it’s plainly impossible for me to lead what most people would call a life. Each morning, glimpsing the glassy tower of the call centre from the elevated Docklands Light Railway, my heart sinks to the pit of my stomach.

Perhaps I should be grateful that the call centre industry is under serious threat. Handling calls by computer can reduce by ten the cost of call centres. Computerised systems can alienate vast numbers of customers at great speed, so companies such as Microsoft and Intel have invested millions of dollars in pioneering software capable of understanding queries and answering them satisfactorily. Then there’s the threat from the Internet.

If the job retains any interest at all, that lies in taking calls from angry customers and turning them into happy ones. It doesn’t happen often, but after one such call, a woman from Lancashire makes a point of taking down my name, spelling it out with care. I wonder, will she call again in a few months and ask for me by name? It’s a gratifying thought, but I can tell her this now. My ear hurts, my eyes are red, my mind is blank. I won’t be there to take her call. Thank you for calling First Telecom.