The revolutionary movement is weak not because of the lack of a political organisation, a strong union or a communist party. It is weak because of the real conditions of exploitation. The question is why the exploited do not find a fighting, liberating expression of their productive power in this situation. [kolinko, The Subversion of Everyday Life, 1999]
Why did we propose a detailed inquiry into the organisation of work and exploitation? As the quote suggests: statistics about the development of wages and strikes, or expressions of conflict, may reflect the crisis of the movement but they don't explain it and neither do they help us do anything about it. We hope the inquiry will help us understand the background of the crisis and also find out where a new movement begins: in the real conditions of exploitation. These are not reduced to 'the workplace' but include the general organisation of society: from the 'rearing' and reproduction of labour power in households, through their '(de)formation' in schools and universities, their squeezing in various workplaces, to their 'correction' in juvenile detention centres and prisons.
We are interested in the process of production as a place where exploited people from all over the world come together and have to get along - whether they want to or not. Where they are opposed to capital or the state not just as victims or petitioners but where they produce the wealth of this society and thereby materially change it. That is why our attention goes to the back-breaking harvest on strawberry fields, to the metal workshops, to the transport of goods and to the call centre 'service hell'. We ask ourselves how the coercion of work changes and under what conditions we have to sell our labour power. How are we actually being put to work within the combination of machinery, the division of work, and the hierarchy that goes with it?
The organisation of exploitation mirrors the current power relations, and new struggles and their possible self-organisation will be based on it. It is not just that someone else draws profit from our work but also that our entire life is determined by this exploitative relationship. It subjects our rhythm of life to shift plans, adapts our movements to the requirement of machines and changes our social relationships.
In the inquiry into call centres we have emphasised everyday working life. The following section is based on our own experiences and on interviews with other workers.
5.1 Agents - Where they're from and what they are up to
Here is a basic overview: There are more women than men working in call centres, except for some technical areas. Many work part-time, especially many women, parents, university and college students or people on training courses. All workers must be able to speak the local language. International call centres in Dublin, Amsterdam, Paris and Milan also ask for additional languages. Some call centres in the Ruhr area employ second or third-generation immigrants who work in both German and their mother tongue. Most full-time workers have formal skills, often from the commercial, health care or other service sectors but some also from the industrial or commercial sectors.
In one call centre in the 'first level' [see glossary] we found a remarkably high number of female medical and legal assistants who can earn more in a call centre than they can in the profession they studied. Working hours are better in the call centre and they can spend the day with lots of other workers, rather than just two other medical assistants and the boss. In the 'second level' which is staffed only by men there are some former metal workers. They prefer the call centre to the factory or small metal shop job because it is clean, because they have already ruined their backs or because they cannot find well-paid metal jobs any more. Some said they turned their hobby into a profession when they joined the call centre (e.g. computer technicians).
Many workers join the call centre with the idea of getting a quiet, clean job with a 'hip' working atmosphere and not much responsibility. They know that they will have to deal with people, but they won't have to see or touch them. That might be ok for a while. Here are some quotes from call centre workers:
It's easy work. You don't have to think much, you don't get dirty, and you don't have to sweat, carry bricks or anything like that. And you get money... You can pretty much set your own working hours or change them around. As an electrician, obviously you do more physical work. You aren't allowed to make mistakes either. In the call centre you make mistakes but you won't even know about it, there aren't any big consequences. Working as an electrician is more fun, though. [Duisburg, 2000]
It's much less exhausting but also more annoying. I worked as a waitress before and that meant more responsibility and more physical stress. But it's also funny in the call centre. We're allowed to talk to each other a lot. But I also think it burns you out after a while. [Amsterdam, 2000]
On a construction site, you can simply do your work, carry bricks, pull cables, speed up, work ahead to have longer breaks, etc. Somehow you make the day go by without thinking about the work itself. If there is tension you can scream around, yell at the boss, simply say what you think because everyone does it. In the call centre it's different: You have to watch out all the time because it's brainwork. You might find a rhythm but that means switching your head off and thinking simply nothing. Somehow everyone watches their manners. It's the same in other offices. [Oberhausen, 2002]
The first difference from the factory is that the work is not hard physically. In the call centre you don't have to know much or know how to do things, which is different from steelworkers. If they make a mistake, everything's messed up. [Duisburg, 2000]
In those call centres where working hours are more regular and where the same workers see each other more often, cliques form. They are culturally determined and often extend into 'free time'. Often there are the mothers, the students, Turkish people and other groups of workers getting together. They play an important role in organising work - and in coping with it emotionally.
Whatever their age, gender or family background, there is one thing that workers have in common: they like to talk. Most are open and it's easy to get along. Everyone has a story to tell, and once they have taken off their headsets, off they go. These conversations - between calls or in the official breaks - are about life in general, the cruelty and beauty of the world as well as future plans. They are as diverse as the workers themselves. There is talk of problems and joys in relationships, proposals for solutions for Palestine, debate of daily politics... and always work, the absurdity of customers' questions, the fact that the work could be done much better if we organised it ourselves, the blatant rudeness of superiors, that work is hell and how to escape it. There are not many possibilities if you have a mortgage to pay and don't want to lower your standard of living. For some women whose marriages are still intact, having children might look attractive.
Plans like long trips to distant countries remain wishes and there are no serious efforts to realise radical dreams of the abolition of work. Most shattered illusions end with sick leaves or searches on internet career markets. It is interesting that many look for another call centre job. Possibly because it is a well-known terrain?
The average length of service in phone work is low, from what we have seen it is half a year in outbound and between one and two years in inbound. Then people are 'burnt out' or everything has simply become unbearable.
5.2 Hiring - assessment centre
Before you can burn out you have to get hired. Looking at call centre vacancies, the jobs sound acceptable. They ask for the 'smiling on the phone' skill. Obviously, anyone can smile on the phone, it's not that difficult. But who would have thought that while you smile you also have to talk and you have to do it all day long? Then they ask you about your resistance to stress. You wonder briefly, forget about it and apply for the job. Because management are aware of this contradiction between smiling and stress, they often use the only appropriate selection and recruitment process - the assessment centre. - before they hire you. Here are some examples from banking call centres:
The gentleman in the pin-stripe suit asks questions to the applicants sitting around the U-shaped table: He asks the philosophy student why he didn't study theology after he went to a monastery school for eight years. The girl who just finished secondary school and will begin to study business economics in a few months sells bread in the mean time. The gentleman in the pin-stripe suit asks her whether she is able to sell yesterday's bread as today's. The woman carrying an employer's association [IHK] call centre agent certificate has a child. The gentleman in the pin-stripe suit asks her whether she can conceive of having a superior who is younger than her. The young man in the blue suit has been trained in a bank and thinks a lot of his appearance. The gentleman in the pin-stripe suit asks him what he thinks is so great about a bank.
There are eleven people in the room who have applied for a job in a banking call centre. In front of them there are three bosses in suits: the gentleman in the pin-stripe suit - the call centre boss, the woman in the twin set - the human resources dept. boss, the casually dressed gentleman - a team leader. The gentleman in the pin-stripe suit asks the questions. The lady in the twin set with her relaxed femininity calms things down, mediates and even says that she likes to do aerobics. The team leader remains in the background.
Some of the applicants jump around wagging their tails. Most just answer the questions they are being asked. The room is really cold. I don't want to know about the applicants' answers. I don't want to hear some of them lose it while trying to make a good impression. The little blond girl has been getting on my nerves for a while. How can you humiliate yourself like that? I'd like to hit her. Some are pale as a sheet and even the cool ones feel uneasy. Why don't I just get up and leave?
'You wankers, what is this shit!' I think, but I say: 'No, of course I've asked myself why I want to work in a banking call centre...' My story is so airtight and perfect that the gentleman in the pin-stripe suit has no chance to find the weak points and put me down.
When everyone has explained their CV and answered between five and ten questions the suits let us have a break. By now, we have been here for five hours. We get terrible coffee from a machine and then go and spill it in the actual call centre. Six workers sit on tables and talk on the phone. The room is huge but without windows. In a hotel, this would be the store room for detergents and linen. Light grey carpet, light grey 'calling islands' and fluorescent lights.
After the break the three really pick up speed again and present their job offers. Now we may choose if we want to do inbound or outbound. Does anyone still want to? The philosophy student has sadly failed. He has not made the appropriate impression when he told us why he studies philosophy instead of consistently studying theology. Anyway he lacks banking spirit. The girl who just finished secondary school has passed. If you can sell yesterday's bread as today's you can also sell credits that nobody needs. Mothers with children are out anyway. And a trained 'banker' will see through the job too quickly and make demands, so he is out. On the way out I meet the nice flight attendant again. She tells me she was so sick of the job because she hadn't been able to smile automatically any more. But here it hasn't worked out either. She was told she hadn't radiated enough 'warm heartedness'. [Essen, 2000]
Human resources woman, team leader and drinks: Total horror. They play 'good cop, bad cop'. Obviously, the bad cop is my potential superior. I fuck up right at the beginning because I have no idea what job I really applied for. The bad guy really spoils the job for me then, telling me it's so damn hard and that I'll be dead by the end of the day. That he'll lose his temper if I'm late, that there will be trouble if I don't clean up my desk. Aye aye, Sir! I just give him a nice smile thinking, my God, what is he so worried about. I don't even have the job yet, and I don't even know if I want it. And then I do have it... [Duisburg, 2000]
At the bank they made a huge effort with an assessment centre. For one hundred jobs, they invited three hundred people - in groups of about fifteen. Those people then had to pass several 'tests' all day (eight hours). The oral tests were evaluated by four bosses (two with a psychology background from a personnel service agency, one from the human resources dept. and one team leader), the written ones were evaluated by a computer. There was 'fun stuff' like:
- a group discussion on a given subject, with four observers judging how people behaved (loud, shy, dominating, passive...);
- an intelligence test (which was not called that), where people had to answer questions, put words in order and recognize drawings on a piece of paper;
- a test conversation with the human resources manager playing a nagging customer on the other side of a partition where you are assessed on how you react and if you ask all the important questions that they taught you to ask;
- a questionnaire with four hundred questions including all kinds of rubbish ('Do you like fat women'...) that was to test your 'personality' (do you lie, are you conservative...);
- an individual conversation where they asked why you want the job.
Then there were company presentations etc.
In the end there was another individual conversation where they told you about your 'personality'. The computer was usually really off the mark but that was not the point. It was obvious they wanted to check out if you go along with the rubbish without losing it or turning off your head.
For a lousy telephone job which consists of giving account balances and taking transfer orders and information it was a complete joke. But then I remembered that Johnson Controls had summoned up a similar effort for a factory job (making car seats)... [Duisburg, 2000]
5.3 Skills - Who's got them, who hasn't
During the initial phase of call centres, as during any introduction of a new organisation of work, the agents of capital had the problem of not knowing how to get the place running without major problems. It is precisely in these phases when they have to experiment and appropriate workers' knowledge which workers have acquired in the daily work process.
In order to hide their dependency, capitalists call work 'unskilled' and try to give the impression that they already have a fully functional organisation of work going. Many left-wing or union critics of 'telephone taylorism' who also emphasise that the workers are only appendices of the 'Call Master', help them by making call centre work look 'unskilled'. Looking at things more closely though it turns out that workers actually bring many skills with them and also get more 'skilled' during their work - not through the official training sessions but through experience and exchange during the work process.
All workers who start this job know things that management simply take for granted: the vernacular, communication skills, experience with keyboard and mouse. Still you must pass a training course before you enter 'service hell'. This may take between two days and six weeks. They train you in the internal software for the customer data entry and the products. Sometimes there is communication training, but really it is all based on training on-the-job, that is, you 'learn' most things later at work. Training is about having heard of everything rather than having understood everything or really knowing things inside out. Training often only serves as motivation, a.k.a. brainwashing, to make you identify with the company and the product. And the pleasantly labelled 'communication training' often turns out to be a standard wording drill. Here are some impressions:
Of course it was necessary to learn the in-house program with its data input masks. After that they placed me next to a co-worker so I could listen in. She was the one who really trained me. But the most important skills: communication techniques and the company processes are things you learn as time goes by. [Medion, Muelheim]
Other training sessions like speech training, communication training or how to deal with people, rules of courtesy, those are things you have to develop on your own or ideally you know already. Nobody will show you that. You just do it somehow. [Client Logic, Duisburg]
When we finally started to use the stock exchange order software, taking orders and placing them on the stock exchange we didn't get any further training. Those who caught on first passed it on to the others. Still a lot went wrong during the first days. After a few days the team leaders said there would be no more training because we had learned it by now and could pass our knowledge on to those who hadn't. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg]
In the beginning we had the pleasure to get some training which went on for four days. The first two days were a sort of brainwashing. 'Citibank is your family. Work in the team so you'll get on in life as well.'... I guess the reason is they don't want people to be turned off by the boring work. (...) Many had been enthused by the drivel and were disappointed accordingly when they found out that work still means work (...) Everyone expects you to represent Citibank with all your heart and soul. [Citibank, Duisburg]
So there we were. Ten people, all glad not to have to talk on the phone for two days. Two days of communication training. The teacher knew all the rules. The training was to be interactive. We were supposed to get involved, shape things, ask questions, participate. First of all we were asked to tell her all we wanted to learn during the training: understand customers, listen, express ourselves better, deal with stress... The teacher wrote our proposals on big sheets of paper, filling in what was missing and cancelling out what didn't fit in. She did that for two days.
Then she told us how the two days would proceed: Learning how to greet customers and listen to them, dialogue technique, leading a conversation, how to say good-bye. Then we had the privilege of watching a scene with Robert Redford ('Isn't he just great?'). A scene where he enters an office building and there are only dead bodies lying around. He runs out and calls some emergency centre from a telephone booth. The guy there takes the call and asks short, precise questions in order to find out quickly what happened. Here the teacher stopped the film. Everyone was restive. Would have been nice to go on watching that... 'So, what did you notice here?' We made an effort again, she wrote everything on one of those big sheets. Too 'unfriendly', to 'curt', but 'precise'... All that as a preparation for the first graph: 'There are four kinds of people and their kind of phone service.' Freezer is unfriendly and not very efficient, Friendly Zoo is friendly but not very efficient, Factory is unfriendly and efficient, Quality Member Service is friendly and efficient.
'And how do you judge yourselves?' Then we had to simulate phone calls with our neighbours and tape them. Afterwards we listened to them and our neighbours had to critique us. The critiques were then discussed among all. It was beginning to get boring. We were saved by the first break.
It went on in the same style. In two groups, we were to write down all the things one should not do while talking on the phone. 'Sleep', 'eat', 'talk to co-workers'... We were very creative here and found fifty things. The teacher murmured something like 'subversive', we had some fun. The company had given us folders and we got awarded stamps that we could put on the folder when someone had said something really smart or when one's group had won a competition ('Who knows more no-no-words we're not supposed to say on the phone? Write them all down on a sheet quite spontaneously!').
Sure, at some point we got to the list of all the things you should do when you are talking to a customer on the phone: 'Smile', 'listen', 'let the customer finish speaking'... We already knew that stuff. It wasn't the first training course for some of us. Then there was a graph about 'thinking' and 'feeling' and the importance of the 'nonverbal' impression for communication, later 'open' and 'closed' questions, feedback techniques, 'active listening', problem solving... all kinds of things.
Once we went out into the courtyard and played some kind of 'musical chairs'. Everyone runs around and must form groups of two or three at the teacher's command. One person always remains alone and leaves the game. In the end, two people remain. The winners. Very funny. Sometimes it was like a children's' birthday party, sometimes like the last hour of school: Everyone is tired but you have to remain seated. It all had little to do with daily telephone work. But that was not the point. Rather, it was some kind of motivational training. In between some people spoke their minds: 'We have different problems. The software sucks. Often we cannot look up anything. People on the phone get annoyed because they do not get any info...' The teacher looked concerned but carried on with her curriculum. And obviously staying friendly and interactive. Afterwards she forwarded the complaints to one of the team leaders... [Fiat, Milan]
Like many things in capitalism, this is another contradictory strategy of capital: The claim that workers were 'unskilled' led to them identifying with their work even less. . For a long time, call centre representatives have been complaining about excessive worker turnover and blaming it on the lack of 'career perspectives'. At that point the usual drivel about the creation of 'occupational descriptions' and formal skills set in. The union has been directly involved in this, demanding 'decent professions' for call centres as well: 'Skill the workers! Bosses, use the creativity of those creatures for your own success. Workers, be smart, you have deserved better.'
So union representatives, employers' associations [IHK] and employment offices got together and created a profession: The Call Centre Agent. In that phase many call centre academies were created. They hand out a certificate for a two to twelve month course. There are advantages for the employers: upon hiring a person with a certificate they already know that person has turned up regularly somewhere for a while and has already seen a keyboard and a headset. More importantly, the introduction of these formal skills serves to create hierarchies within the labour market: call centre workers are divided into 'skilled' and 'unskilled' with respective differences in working conditions, especially wages. This is a tendency which is not yet really all-pervasive, but more and more often people are being asked for these 'certificates' in job interviews.
Workers taking these courses hope for better jobs but also see it as a way of getting away from that annoying telephone job for a while - if the company pays for it. Here is a section from an interview with a participant of an IHK certificate training for 'call centre agents':
* What kind of training was it?
There is a course that is paid for by the employment office and one that is paid for by the European Union which is attended by people who receive welfare or somehow don't get unemployment benefits. Two lots of thirty people in full-time plus two part-time courses in all. The full-time course takes three months. In the end there is the IHK certificate.
* How did the people in your course get there?
There is not much I can say about the employment office course. I'm sure some were sent there by the employment office. Mine was mostly women over thirty who wanted to get back into employment. Many of them had been shop assistants or had other commercial skills. The other group were younger people without formal skills. Three out of thirty had worked in a call centre before but that had been long ago. About a third left the course without the certificate.
* What was the course like, what did they teach you?
There were exams in computers, communication skills, business basics, 'What is a call centre?', providing a service and 'training on the job'. And then there were classes such as stress management and motivational training. During 'training on the job' a lot of people found out the job is not for them, at least not outbound. Other than that, most people said they didn't learn anything useful on the course. Maybe a little about computers for people who had never touched one. Business basics was just explaining the difference between different kinds of company (plc, inc). No idea what to do with that. In services you learn all the lines they want to hear in job interviews: 'I want the customer to bla bla bla'. But that turns out to be pretty useless when you are actually at work.
* What did the school promise you?
Getting a job in the first place. Seventy percent go on to get jobs in banks.
* Where did you do your work experience?
It is only in the six month course that, you do a proper work experience placement. Then you get to work in another company for a month. We only did one week of phone practice in the call centre academy. All kinds of companies offer to take work experience people and also present themselves in the academy when they look for people.
* What's the difference between a three and a six month course?
Three months is for a regular call centre agent. After six months you're a 'call centre specialist'. No idea what's so special about that.
* Do companies look for people with certificates?
Sure, that saves them some initial training and they can also do some filtering by school grades. A good reference from another call centre probably counts just as much. I haven't met many people with certificates in other call centres. Except in one job interview in Bochum where all five had one. [Duisburg, 2001]
5.4 Work steps - Log in and kiss your dreams goodbye
We believe that the analysis of the work process and cooperation is important for 'historical' reasons: The way people work in a call centre is neither an accident nor the product of a master plan. Rather it is a result of the class conflicts of the last decades and has to do with workers' behaviour. The example of the banks shows that this change was meant to break certain behaviours or positions of workers, in order to intensify exploitation. Training a bank employee takes a lot of time and with rising 'skills' the bank worker's expectations rise accordingly. Wages in the banking sector have been comparatively high and workers were able to assert more control over the work process due to their many different tasks and responsibilities. Earlier attempts to increase exploitation through an attack on wages, new kinds of division of work and intensified or more demanding work did not go far enough for capitalists or failed, not least due to a series of strikes in Italy, Germany and other countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The position of bank workers could only be broken through a new organisation of work that put an end to the workers' 'stronghold': the branch office. In the call centre a worker's tasks were divided among several call centre workers. These can be skilled within a week or two because each step in the work process is simple and short. This also makes it easier for capitalists to intensify work (for example by employing new technologies) up to the point where a single worker gives hundreds of customer account balances every day.
Call centres thus reflect a tendency of capital, when under pressure by workers' behaviour, to divide the work necessary for the production of a product into smaller segments and distribute these among more workers. These concrete steps of work then become a new terrain of struggle. Here are two reports from the everyday reality of work in banking call centres:
I tell people their account balances, place orders and standing orders, and if they want me to I tell them all the transactions on their accounts in the last ninety days and order check books for them. For some tasks I also have to put customers through to other departments or to the call centre in Aachen. In my department there are one hundred and fifty agents doing the same work, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. I get the calls directly into my ear, which means that I only hear a beep and I know the next customer is on the line. This happens around two hundred times a day but sometimes I can get more than four hundred callers. The computer counts the duration of my breaks, my starting and finishing times, my average call duration.
I never worked in the banking sector before. You don't have to in order to do this work. During job interviews, what they wanted most of all was for you to be communicative, open and service-oriented. Then we had four days of training, the first two of which revolved exclusively around the company and how great it is. The next two days consisted of product training on the giro account, data privacy in the bank etc. After that 'training' we spent another two days next to experienced agents who explained the computer mask to us, and then off we went... [Citibank, Duisburg, 2000]
I work together with about a hundred agents in the inbound area receiving calls from customers who want to place money orders or stock orders. There are other things like stock trading, credits, customer data or online problems that we put through to other departments. In the call centre there are another two hundred outbound workers who try to sell additional bank products to customers. During hiring tests they wanted to know how you can talk; there were intelligence and concentration tests. Expert knowledge wasn't required. During work it's like this: You get calls on your headset. Then you look on your display to see what kind of caller it is. Customers and first-time callers have different numbers. Then you recite your greeting line. Since customer calls have usually been routed through a voice computer where customers haven given their account number and pin number the computer automatically finds their customer data and brings it up on your screen. You listen to what customers want, place their money or stock order, send them information, collect data or a complaint. During the call you press the post-processing button so you won't immediately get the next call once the customer has hung up. Then you still have time to send stuff, write comments for other departments etc. When there is one call after the other it is really like an assembly line. You don't give a shit about people, you handle them like a machine... [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
People have very different ideas what work in a call centre might be like, ranging from 'self-determined work' to that left-wing idea of 'service hell' where there is one hundred percent control and workers have been reduced to slaves of false friendliness. Neither idea is totally wrong. But to understand what we are talking about theoretically, let's first describe the daily work. What do call centre workers do?
Log into the personnel program.
Start up computer, log into the program.
Start up intranet, check out news, possibly read mail.
Log into the telephone.
Plug in headset.
Switch phone to 'ready' and start.
Talk to customers, talk to superiors, talk to co-workers,
make data entries, send mail, fill in forms,
take breaks, drink coffee, chat online, flirt, lie, read magazines,
find information, have arguments, be bored.
Log out of the telephone.
Log out of the software program.
Shut down computer.
Log out of personnel computer.
That is a general short version of the daily steps of work. Here are four examples that make this more concrete:
Inbound, first level computer hotline
It's Monday, we're on early shift. Before I do anything I first have to log onto the personnel program. I do that on the team leader's computer. Okay, from now on I get paid for everything I do. At least that's something. I go to 'my' desk and turn on the computer, give my password and log onto the phone. The phone demands a password too. By now the computer has started up so I log into the program. This way they can see who did what and when in the customer records. I wonder why I haven't ever mixed up all those passwords. Hasn't happened to me yet. They have probably burned themselves into my brain and I will never be able to erase them again.
I have a few voice mails. I listen to them, maybe there is something private among them. We all have dreams. It's shortly after seven a.m. and somehow I'll make it until three p.m. I have done it before and I will do it again today although I know that in the meantime I will have doubts more than once. I have seventy-two minutes of break. Half an hour is fixed, the rest is at my own disposal. Luckily there are not many callers this early in the morning. If I had to talk to one of those good-tempered jokers I would die. Since there is not that much to do yet and the team leader hangs out in the coffee room, I go out to get coffee without logging off from the phone. When I come back either one of my friends will have taken the call or the phone will have been set to 'absent without reason'. This will show up in my statistics and be taken from my time off, but who cares?
The phone rings. If it rings three times and I don't answer the ACD computer routes the call to the 'next free agent'. But if I do answer, which is what is expected, I have one of four standard situations: registering customers, putting customers through to the technician, informing customers about the state of their complaints about broken appliances or taking an order. Or I have something exotic requiring the talents of a private investigator or a social worker: markets are looking for a notebook computer or a customer needs someone to assure him that he is not the only one having trouble with the capitalist world of commodities. In between I set my phone to 'post-processing' so no calls will arrive. Then I enter the data into the customer records or I use the time for a chat with my co-workers. Sooner or later it's that time: all lines are ringing hot. So I put an infinite number of customers through to the tech department, run back and forth between the team leader's desk and mine, put customers through to other departments, call back a customer and write notes and e-mail forms to other co-workers.
By some miracle it has turned three p.m. I log out of the program, say good-bye to the computer, log off from the phone and finally log out of the personnel program. Fortunately time always passes somehow.
Inbound, second level of a computer hotline
'Hello, Bla Bla Company... My name is... What can I do for you?' The calls come in over two lines: German and English. It's about computers. Apart from the calls sometimes I can also get e-mails or faxes from customers. Most calls are about minor and major technical defects or software problems (an estimated eighty percent). The rest are calls about lost passwords, information...
From time to time you also have to call people. Mostly to ask something, sometimes because they want to be called back. Between calls or faxes there is time for other things. I either surf the internet and read the papers there; or I do my own 'private' e-mails; or I do what we're supposed to do: I get an appliance and try something out like installing the new DVD drive, configuring a specific PCMCIA modem, the new docking station... Out of an eight hour shift I'm on the phone for an average of one and a half or two hours, do other stuff in connection with the calls for two hours, try something out for an hour; I spend about three hours doing stuff like surfing, reading, e-mails, talking to co-workers... spread out over the day.. From time to time one of the team leaders drops by to control what you're doing. That's why it's good to set up some technical stuff - and surf anyway. Sometimes they also come and want to 'motivate' or discipline you.
Generally, all calls go to 'first level' first. The agents there take them: customer number, serial number... and qualify them: which line is in charge (printers, PCs, notebooks), what is the customer's problem (very roughly). They write that into a data record, call our line, and the ACD machine puts them through to the first free agent in our department. We take the call and first we talk to the 'first level' agent. He or she tells us the number of the record they just created and we call that from our PC. Sometimes there's a brief chat, but in the 'first level' they have only ninety seconds to record the case and then put the call through to us.
We have an inbox in our call processing software that contains all cases we are currently working on and haven't closed yet. For example if we receive a call and don't find a solution at once the case will remain in the inbox. If we solve it we call the customer the next day - or the customer calls us to see if we have solved the problem and if so we close the case after the call. Or the customer has to do something first (reinstallation...) and will call back; in the meantime we leave the case open. Sometimes we also get a case back from the people at the Resource Desk, who look for solutions to more complicated questions, and then you call the customer... The team leaders have control over what's in one's inbox (and also have a regular look at it through their computers).
Back to the call: First we ask questions or start some explanation of to what to do like certain software settings, hardware changes, reinstallation... If we don't know what to do we put the customer on the music loop and there are four things we can do: a) we look into our own material; b) we look in the intranet or internet; c) we ask another agent; d) we go to the Resource Desk (experienced ex-agents who answer agents' questions and look into difficult cases). Everything happens on a regular basis, but the more experience you have the less often you have to consult the Resource Desk.
When you have a solution you get the customer back online (if you put him into the waiting loop; on which he might might have stayed for two or twenty minutes) and tell them the solution or what you think it is. Or you tell them it's not our problem and they have to call somewhere else. Then you say goodbye and hang up. Afterwards you have to write everything into the customer's record - what they wanted, what you did, what the next steps are (e.g. if they have to send something in or you have to send something out). Then you click several other buttons if something has to be sent out and the case is closed.
Outbound, making appointments for telephone contract sales
It's either seven fourty-five a.m. or ten fifteen a.m. No fucking difference, because in either case I have to start work in fifteen minutes. First go to the table where the paper slips with today's tasks are lying. Every morning the same search for my name. As always the slip is right at the bottom. On the slips, each agent is assigned to an outdoor salesperson for whom they have to make phone calls today. Then there are slips with the respective outdoor salesperson's resubmissions. Those have to be called first.
Before that I go get my little box with my scripts and my internal info. So I sit down at my desk. Chances for a system crash are best if I start at eight a.m. Afterwards the login usually works. I log in with my user ID and enter the data from the paper slip into a certain mask. Then the computer displays the outdoor salesperson's addresses that have to be called, one hundred and thirty-two, for example. Then you start at one and make phone calls. There is a button that automatically dials the number but most of the time it doesn't work. So you dial manually. Most addresses have already been called five times before, so the details of the person you are calling, who is in charge of telecommunications decisions in the company, are already in the system.
We're allowed to say what we want, as long as we're successful. Obviously there are some tried and tested expressions that everyone uses simply because they work. Most important is not to be warded off. The phone rings and Mr Smith is immediately on the phone: 'Hello, my name is... I represent..., am I speaking to... company on... street (address confirmation is very important but often skipped, as it's a stupid way to start a conversation). Mr Smith, I understand you are in charge of telecommunications in your company. We spoke to each other a few months ago and you asked me to call back at this time. Do you have time to answer a few questions?'
So far the customer hasn't understood what all this is about but you have to get your data first: How high is the phone bill, who is in charge... If they don't want to give you the data you sometimes just make it up. If you don't get any data it spoils the statistics. Then I terminate the call after about three minutes. I take a note if there was anything important. If the phone bill was around three hundred marks I don't file the customer under 'resubmission' because he doesn't have potential. And then the next one. We're not really allowed to skip addresses but sometimes I do, like when I have already called three times the previous week and the secretary has yelled at me every time. I don't have to listen to that for the fourth time.
The secretary answers the next call. Again, I simply claim that the contact person is expecting my call. That's the way to do it in this job: don't let the secretary ward you off! It's not good for your statistic either. Once she has bought it and put me through, the hunt is on for those vital company secrets. Supposing he has a potential then I start acting as if I first have to think for a moment before I say: 'Our outdoor salesman Mr... will be in your area next week. When would be ok for him to drop by for half an hour?' Most often, this commando assault does not work but it's still the best way to get appointments.
Twenty or thirty calls later the first half hour has passed. In between I exchange complaints about customers with my co-worker but those chats don't usually last longer than thirty seconds before we are back on the 'phone. After an hour I check my statistics which are displayed in the lower right hand corner of the screen. Of course I have been controlling it all the time but after an hour you can start measuring how it's going today. Twenty-five calls, seven net (which means I've talked to my contact person), no appointment made. That's ok. I make a sign to my co-worker, both of us press the pause button, we run over to the social room, smoke a fag, talk briefly about the last hour, and then we run back to our desks: four minutes and thirty-four seconds. Man, we were excellent again. And on we go: making calls and running to the social room every hour.
Outbound, making appointments for pension fund sales
The shift starts at nine a.m. That's the housewives' and single mothers' shift... and it's mine, too. First I get my phone book from the shelf, desperately looking for the page where I stopped yesterday. I call private homes from the phone book. It's their own fault if they have their names printed in there. So I have the phone book of Langensalza or whatever that place is called, lying in front of me, plus my script that has been written more or less collectively by the workers but that nobody has to stick to. The great thing about a phone book is that it's so fat you can easily skip some people.
We make phone calls for a company that no one has ever heard of and whose name has already changed in the course of the campaign. We make appointments for some kind of pension fund. The stupid thing is that nobody working here knows anything about that stuff. We have hardly received any information either, so we're not very convincing. The person on the other end of the line usually knows much more about it because they have already sorted out a pension scheme for themselves. We can only make appointments with working people between twenty and forty-five.
So I call the first one: Rainer. Men with that name are usually working, thirty-five and quite nice. You develop a really strange affection or disaffection for names. You generally skip foreign names. There is too much risk of not understanding each other, which is just a waste of time. You also skip all Adolfs, Alberts, Heinzes and Ottilies. Daniels and Sarahs are usually lazy students and shared houses and are not worth the effort either. Stick to Rainer and Volker, Sabine and Claudia, they take care of their pensions.
The first one is on the line, working and forty, great. Now I have to scare him, telling him about the new legislation and that he might be homeless when he is old. But he is a civil servant. The next one starts by asking where I got her number from (the phone book, you stupid cow): 'Well, you participated in a promotion campaign.' 'I haven't!' 'You must have, otherwise I wouldn't have your number, would I...'
After half an hour you lean back, drink, eat, and the housewives talk about the importance of old age provision. They have already made appointments for themselves. The boss doesn't pay any bonus or anything. There's just a fixed wage, paid in cash. And for five euros an hour (maybe six or seven after a certain length of service) you don't stay on the phone till your ears glow. So out of an hour, you chat for ten minutes. Plus there's four of us sitting in a small room, two pairs face to face without any separating walls or anything. So if two of us chat there's no way the others can make phone calls because the background noise is simply too loud. You're kind of forced to take a break. After two hours, we go down into the courtyard to have a smoke. Everyone is well behaved and signs their names in the break list. Usually it is just us, as there is no team leader around at this time of the day. It may sound easy but it's still about twenty calls an hour, the calls are terribly bland and so are the housewives really. That's why the six hours pass slowly as hell.
Official additional tasks
In the above examples we describe the steps of the work process 'ideally' that is when enough people call and the workers are working at full capacity. This is not always the case but luckily management have all kinds of other work in store for the workers. For example:
Basically we're also doing secretary work, like typing up the questionnaire answers (...) and of course all the texts still have to be translated into English, we do that as well (...). In the beginning, those translations were done by translators who were hired specially for the purpose. That is not the case any more as it seems to be easier like this. [Sofres, Paris, 2000]
In the beginning it was only money orders, standing orders etc., and passing on information. Then suddenly there were stock orders. Later on, all the calls to the technical hotline were routed to us and we had to make credit offers. So there was more and more stuff. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
It is both good and bad [additional tasks other than phone calls]. Sure, you have to work more but then again it means a lot of variation for you. Sometimes you're glad if you can do a complaint slip or prepare parcels to be sent out. [Client Logic, Duisburg, 2000]
Unofficial additional tasks
Apart from the 'official' tasks the extensive division of work creates many 'unofficial additional tasks' that mean stress but are indispensable for the smooth running of the workplace. The capitalist process of production does not allow a real and collective co-ordination of workers. They have to work together across partition walls and divides between departments and companies. These 'artificial' separations are meant to disguise the connection between workers, their daily cooperation which also offers the possibility of getting rid of the capitalists and organising production themselves (differently).
The 'separated cooperation' creates a lot of chaos that has to be made up for through additional tasks. As an isolated worker, we experience this contradiction as 'inefficient organisation of work' and 'incompetent management'. Only by looking at the totality can we realise that these problems are a result of the capitalist mode of production.
Those unofficial tasks include the constant retrieval of information, improvising in order to cover up the non-existing services or supply problems, making excuses to cover up ignorance or lack of information, making up for or trying to solve software problems...
5.5 Working together: From productive to subversive cooperation
As we have already indicated, capital extends the division of work in order to organise it more productively: there are redundancies in large factories, work is out sourced to suppliers who are connected to each other via an extended transport and administrative system...
However, this only seems to be a way out of the problems for capital and in fact is its biggest threat. It makes more workers dependent on each other, and in times of conflict they can use this dependency against the capitalist direction. Cooperating and having to communicate in order to cooperate can become the foundation for the organisation of your own struggle. Therefore one of the main goals of the representatives of capital is to disguise this extended cooperation using a number of means (such as technology, hierarchy) whilst not putting the smooth functioning of the work process at risk.
This is a big problem for them! But there are always ideologies lending them a hand, not least a (unionist) left that keeps emphasising the isolation in the workplace and the totality of control instead of questioning that shit and showing the interconnectedness of 'modern' workplaces.
Concentration and face to face cooperation
First of all the mere existence of call centres suggests that in spite of all the implied (subversive) risks of having lots of workers work together in one building, it is still more productive for capital than any home worker, no matter how well-controlled and isolated. For all the fuss that was made about telework or computer home work in the eighties, it has not amounted to much.
Call centres point to the fact that in spite or even because of machines direct human (and hierarchical) cooperation remains central to capitalist valorisation. If you ask individual workers if they co-operate with others they will normally answer 'no'. Apparently communication with co-workers is not seen as 'work'. But talking to each other is a necessary precondition for the work process and a daily part of socialising in the call centre.
There is direct cooperation with those sitting around me doing the same work and with those from the Resource Desk because I talk about the cases with them and together we find solutions, pass cases on to each other or bitch about work. [Hewlett Packard, Amsterdam, 2000]
It's the easiest thing in the world to ask the co-worker next to you if she knows something that you have missed, if she has understood things when you didn't listen, or if she knows tricks you haven't come up with yet. And that's how many-sided this kind of communication is, either a way of retrieving information or a way of passing on work. [Medion, Muelheim, 2000]
There is a more informal cooperation where co-workers tell each other about new things, like where on the internet you can find information about products that we advise on. Often we have to give advice on new products, without being trained in them. The new client companies software programme just appears on the screen, then people start calling up. So it's important that there's this kind of informal cooperation. [Client Logic, Duisburg, 2000]
Part of the cooperation is over the phone. In the call centre this is chiefly about passing customers on or asking for information.
At DB 24 there was cooperation when you put customers through to the back office if they had special questions (e.g. more credit). So you called through, talked briefly to them and then passed the customer on. Or you couldn't answer a customer's question, then you also called and asked them. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
At HP we always had the 'first level' on the line first. They told us what kind of customer was calling and what kind of computer he had. HP had tried to handle that with IVR and CTI but the technical problems and customers complaints were so massive that they went back to doing it the 'conventional' way. [Hewlett Packard, Amsterdam, 2000]
Sometimes I have to phone around for stuff, for example to find out where that laptop has got to. Then I call the repair shop first, then the complaint department, later maybe also the parcel service in the post office. [Medion, Muelheim, 2000]
The other day we were given a new task: so-called 'consolidations'. It was taken away from the branch office. Now if the branch offices want to do a consolidation they have to call us and we check it. But the branch office workers still have to authorise the transaction. Of course they don't like this new system because it makes everything more complicated. Then they don't really read the instructions for the new procedures properly, so they call us and we have to explain it to them. [Citibank, Duisburg, 2001]
Other (electronic) forms of cooperation
There is another form of cooperation on a more abstract level. Often we are not dealing with a concrete person, for example when we process information that another worker has entered into the database or when we make an appointment with a caller for an 'outdoor worker' or someone in the branch office. Often you don't hear from the other person until something goes wrong, for example if twenty people show up at the branch office at the same time or when the plastic fairing for the Suzuki was not supposed to be delivered to the Hell's Angels' HQ. 'Minor' disruptions like those show us that we are not cooperating with 'the computer' but with other people who often dislike their jobs as much as we do.
In the case of a computer hotline the extended cooperation is obvious. The computer components are made in Malaysia, Indonesia or China, transported to East Germany, Poland or the Czech Republic where they are assembled into a computer system and then delivered to the shops, bought, and finally supported. On the phone, the call centre worker finds out that the CD drive is broken, the customer sends it to the so-called producer and gets a new CD drive. In the repair shop they cannot find a fault and some cheap supplier feeds the drive, which might have a defect, back into the market where it might end up in an infinite loop or in a flea market in Gelsenkirchen or Mombassa. However the customer might not get a new CD drive because the dockers in Singapore are on strike or because the call centre worker forgets to press the appropriate button. Then the customer will sooner or later end up in the complaints department, but only after they have already been lied to or fobbed off by several call centre workers.
5.6 Machinery - never mind the call master
The carving-up of workflows into single tasks and the distribution of those tasks among individual workers is the basis for the use of machines. In offices this took place before the emergence of call centres: first, there was the rummaging through employees' desks and the cataloguing of their piles of paper, then accounting was standardised until everything was digestible enough to be stored in ones and zeroes.
But the mere fact that something is stored on a computer and a worker can access it does not subject her to a specific rhythm of work or the dictate of a strict sequence of tasks. Not even if she has to make phone calls on the side. So what is it that causes the feeling that many call centre workers describe: 'I'm getting calls like on an assembly line, one computer mask after the other pops up, and it's sucking me dry.' What causes that feeling when there's nothing threatening about a telephone and a computer as such?
To find out, we have to disassemble the whole thing into its pieces to see how they fit together to become machinery.
In the beginning there was standardisation
The problem for management is that often they are not able to see what is really happening in complex workflows and thus are not able to measure, control, and ultimately increase the amount of work delivered. Therefore they have to divide those complex processes into simple single tasks. The transition from artisans to the factory went like that, and it's no different in the call centre, even if customer cases are being processed, rather than metal or wood. In call centres conversation flows and data entries rather than movements are analysed and then standardised because the 'work performances' could hardly be compared if everybody talked the way they wanted to.
This way, one team that has delivered the demanded twenty calls per hour per worker, can be set against another team that hasn't managed it. Control measures are thus legitimised. At first glance, standardisation is not bound to any sophisticated technology: In some call centres we still find pen and paper rather than a computer, especially in 'outbound'. Here workers must use certain greeting formulas, sales phrases, conflict de-escalation techniques, and question lists. Here are some examples of scripts and standard wordings:
At eight a.m., I have to sit at my desk with all my papers and have the phone ready for my first call. I don't have a computer. So at least I don't have to turn that on, that's something positive. The team leader comes by with a pile of paper slips. Like copies from the Yellow Pages sorted by different sectors. Now it's your choice if you'd rather try to sell a subscription for a magazine to a carpenter or a real estate broker. Everyone has their favourites. Then you call all the addresses on the paper slips from top to bottom. After each call I make a sign by the address so I will know if I have to call again. Everyone has their own method because you keep your slips for resubmission until you have finally reached everyone on the slip. Later you won't be able to tell one thing from another anyway, what with all the addresses and your own notes squashed together. The most important thing apart from the address slips is the script. The great thing about the job is that not only you're not supposed to think for yourself, you're not even supposed to phrase for yourself. A conversation is supposed to be ninety percent pre-phrased from the script. Not only the words are pre-phrased but also what you emphasise, how you raise and lower your voice. After two hours there is a fifteen minute break for everybody, and you're not allowed to take one minute more. After the shift, you really feel like a machine that has repeated the same text a hundred times. [Subscription sales, Essen, 2001]
It all began in the summer this year. Up to then we were free to talk to the customers however we wanted. But then came standard phrasings and the horror began. First we got friendly instructions but when management realised we still spoke the way we wanted to they began to test us and put pressure on us. Now we get internal check-up calls every day and management threatened to give us written warnings for refusal or disrespect of instructions. [hotlines leaflet for Quelle, November 2000]
From paper to the computer
The standardisation of conversations and data collection is the basis for controlling and intensifying work performance. But it still leaves space for workers: questionnaires get lost in piles of paper slips, sometimes it takes a while before certain information is found in a folder...
The introduction of computers meant that most of the paper disappeared from the desk and certain software and computer masks made the worker really follow the work steps. For example she must make entries in a determined sequence because otherwise she can't go on in the software program. It's also easier to control how long it takes a call centre worker to make specific entries because times are automatically and electronically recorded.
The computer tells you exactly how to enter the figures. First the account number, then click if it's a money order, a standing order, or whatever. If it's a money order then the number of the other account etc. If you clicked a wrong button or if you've forgotten anything there is an error message. Or nothing happens at all. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
We have an ancient program that looks like DOS. You have to use combinations of keys like F7 for saving or whatever. You have to make all entries in a set order. If you skip something you can't go on... or the program crashes. But there are some tricks as well. You learn them after a few weeks of work. For example for missing information you simply enter zeroes in number fields and random letters in text fields. [Fiat, Milan, 2002]
When you're on the phone nobody tells you what to do. The computer gives you the information about the customers calling. If you press the wrong key, it says 'wrong key' etc. The computer gives you hints... [Client Logic, Duisburg, 2000]
Combining computer and telephone
Up to this point, the computer has mainly been used to deliver and store the information you need or generate on the phone. This is faster than using paper so it allows for intensification of work. However this is imposed more through personal control than through the technology itself.
A qualitative change happens only when computer and telephone are combined. This enables the agents of capital to take away the control over the tasks before and after the phone call from the workers: Dialling the number or accepting the call, finding matching customer data, hanging up, post-processing... They can also automatically record and compare the duration of the calls or the time between ringing and accepting the call. This combination of computer and telephone happens at three levels:
Connection of all desks to a central, computer-controlled telephone machine (ACD)
The ACD machine (Automatic Call Distribution) takes all inbound calls and distributes them among the workers who are logged in. Each worker has a profile saying which calls she can handle. The ACD machine also records which worker has received what and how many calls. So if there is a call from England concerning a computer product X the machine finds out who speaks English, who supports product X, whose turn it is, or who has not had a call for a while. Some machines are configured so that the call gets routed to the first 'free agent'. If all workers are either talking or taking a break the ACD machine puts the call in a waiting loop where it remains until the caller hangs up, or one worker is 'ready' again.
Many call centres also register every step the worker does on the phone - accepting the call, duration of the call... - and the worker has to push buttons on the 'Call Master', a kind of telephone with loads of buttons. There is a button for every kind of break: official break, loo, training, post-processing. When she is back on the phone she has to push the 'ready' button. Once a call has been routed to a worker there are two possibilities:
* In many call centres she has to accept the call manually in order to have it on the headset. If she doesn't accept it within a certain length of time the call gets routed to the next 'free agent'. The personal statistic which the ACD machine keeps for every worker will show that a call was not accepted. This 'accepting' of calls leaves workers with a certain amount of control. They can just 'let it ring' or watch several phones for co-workers who are taking a break.
* That is why in some other call centres the calls are put directly on the headset (direct-to-ear). There is a short ring in the line or a digital voice says that for example someone is calling on the info line. Thus, the workers have to have the headset on their heads all day or sign off every time they want to chat or go to the loo.
The ACD machine determines the rhythm of work based on incoming calls and serves as a supreme instrument of control. It stores all the data: breaks, post call processing, 'missed' calls, average duration of call, number of internal and external calls. The call centre managers need this for several reasons:
* They try to base shift plans on the data. What are the peak times, what are the times when nobody calls? If there are two hundred people calling per hour, a call takes three minutes and post-processing takes one, how many workers do I need? Of course this does not really work because it is not possible to make an exact prediction of the number and duration of calls.
* They present the data collected by the ACD machines as 'objective' quantities in order to speed up workers and set them against each other on an individual or team basis. To these ends, they make up arbitrary ratios like the service level which says things like how many calls were in the waiting loop for less than three minutes. Some departments at Hewlett Packard post individual workers' and teams' ACD statistics with names and daily rankings every day. TAS puts the data on the screens every day. At Citibank the list is displayed on a computer screen near the entrance. Here is another example:
At first we didn't give a shit about the ACD data. We can control our break times on the phone but we didn't take it that seriously. But then the call centre management came up with a bonus scheme. It's a bit funny. Officially they admitted that many people are late too often and go over their break times. Normally, this would lead to a talk with the team leader but maybe that's too much effort for them. Anyway they rate the 'skills' now. There are so-called hard skills and soft skills. The ACD is becoming important for the hard skills, anyway it's obvious that they analyse all that rubbish now. So once a month we get a letter saying if we got the bonus or if we didn't. Our data must be below a certain average. They also list the different items: how long you were logged on, how many calls you had, how many entries you made into the program, how long your average time was, how much time you took for post-processing, and of course the breaks. It might become important that in one month you spent fourteen hours, twelve minutes and eight seconds on the loo.
At first this really changed the mood, suddenly everyone paid attention not to be late, how long their breaks were, and always making entries into the program. Everyone started comparing their data. But by now all that has calmed down again. Now the ACD really bothers us when the team leader watches it and comes up to you twenty-three seconds later complaining that your call is taking too long, that he is watching you because you're the person who switches to break too often... [Medion, Muelheim, 2001]
Combination of PC, network and the individual worker's phone (CTI)
All call centres using computers use database software for registering customers and post-processing handling of cases. When ACD is used, a call is routed to a worker, she asks for the customer number or registration number, enters this into a software mask of the database and gets the data on her screen. Since there is a lot of potential for losing time in this - and since many call centre workers take their time - they have come up with something else: When CTI (Computer Telephony Integration) is used the customer's phone number is compared to the customer database. The found record is then automatically displayed on the screen of the worker who got the call from the ACD machine. So she receives the call and the data record simultaneously. If this process works - which it doesn't all the time - it allows a considerable speed-up of work.
Automatic dialling (power or predictive dialler)
In outbound, workers call people to sell stuff to them or frisk them for information. They may use existing customer data or simply the phone book. Partly they still use pen and paper, but some call centres try to use every second and keep the workers constantly on the line.
Power or predictive dialler software automatically retrieves customers' phone numbers from the database and calls them up. As soon as the machine dials, but sometimes even as late as when the customer answers, the call gets routed to a 'free agent' through the ACD machine.
Some call centres use the calling statistics to see how many people are home at seven p.m. on average. Then it makes a prediction as to how many of these people cannot be reached because they are already on the phone. Let's suppose that one hundred out of two hundred people are at home but that twenty percent of them are currently talking on the phone. And let's also suppose that there are one hundred workers on the line in the call centre. Then the power dialler will call about two hundred and forty people at the same time - half of them are not home, twenty percent are busy - and the ACD machine routes the remaining accepted phone calls to the workers.
While almost all centres use ACD machines, far less have CTI and power diallers. Their use is only profitable above a certain number of employees. Sometimes we have also observed that the technology gets stuck, crashes, creates chaos...
The ACD machine in combination with the phone and the PC presents itself to the workers as machinery because it determines the rhythm of work based on the calls. Calls come in and the machinery forces the workers to accept them. As a worker, you soon find yourself struggling against the rhythm of those ceaseless calls and having to think of ways to outsmart the machinery. This struggle is taken to yet another level when direct-to-ear, CTI or power diallers are used.
At Deutsche Bank 24 you immediately get calls on the headset and data on the screen. It's really annoying when you have the calls immediately in your ear. You constantly have to pay attention, you don't even have time to take a deep breath. The phone dictates when and how you accept calls. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
I do three different customer lines. Only the message on the phone tells me which call is coming in. A digital voice says something about 'spare parts' or 'warranty case'. Then I have to recite my greeting line right away because the customer is immediately on the line. At some point that happens automatically. You hear the voice and say the line, without thinking. You finish the call, hang up... and again it's voice, greeting, handling the call, hanging up... [Fiat, Milan, 2002]
When friendliness, the smile on the phone, is not a decisive part of the telephone service commodity, capitalists try to replace labour power altogether. Based on standardisation and computing, management experiments with the introduction of voice computers (Interactive Voice Response, IVR) in some areas. Particularly when standardisation is very advanced and companies have divided customer qualification and the actual telephone service into two levels, they then try to replace the simple prompting for customer data in the 'first level' with automatic machines. The same goes for banks where customer qualification is particularly high due to privacy and possible abuse of data. Here is an example:
At DB24 there is a ring in your headset then a window opens on your screen displaying the customer's name and other data. You recite your greeting line and if the person doesn't repeat their name you ask who is speaking. That works maybe in eighty percent of cases. In the other twenty per cent, IVR doesn't work because they have to enter their account number and pin number by voice or phone key entry before ACD / CTI puts them through to us. A lot of them are also annoyed by the IVR because they generally hate talking to a machine or because the machine doesn't accept their entries and keeps querying for the numbers. They go on and on about it to us... Others enter invalid data on purpose so they get routed directly to us. [Deutsche Bank 24, Duisburg, 2000]
It's not so much workers' overwhelming friendliness which cannot be simulated by voice computers but rather capitalists' lack of knowledge about the work process and unforeseeable complications that prevents a broad introduction of voice computers for simple tasks. At Citibank workers have to record certain information during calls which is seen as important for the introduction of voice computers: does the customer have a speech defect? Does he speak a local dialect? Does he ask unexpected questions? Does he display any other behaviour which is difficult for machines to process?
They want to introduce a voice computer for all repetitive tasks like taking stock orders, money orders and standing orders as well as stock prices ('How much is this bond?'). But it seems they don't even have the technology for that yet. Today's voice computers (announcing account balances) are not terribly sophisticated either, as they crash when there's a certain number of callers. This week they started routing all calls to us through a voice computer (before that there was a separate number for the voice computer). This was a failure. Because of the voice computer, they couldn't close the lines any more when there were too many calls. So now they often have around a hundred and forty people in the waiting loop where there never used to be more than sixty. Everybody complains but nobody pulls the plugs... [Citibank, Duisburg, 2000]
Thus, voice computers have not 'rationalised' call centres as successfully as the unions thought, who claimed years ago that voice computers would make tens of thousands of call centre jobs redundant. Like the image of the 'workerless car factory' in the eighties, this overestimates the knowledge and the power of capitalists and thus reinforces the feeling of powerlessness and redundancy among workers.
The human-machine relationship
'Control' and 'rationalisation' are only one aspect of the function of machines. As much as the bosses try to disempower workers and make them work harder through the introduction of new technologies, they cannot escape from the contradiction that machines remain what they are: instruments of work. Ultimately it's the workers who make machines 'come alive', who make them productive.
How do workers relate to the machines, to the contradiction that they are instruments of work and at the same time the means of their intensified exploitation?
One thing that makes working in a call centre attractive is that you work with modern machines. In our homes, computers are currently hipper than blood pressure measuring machines or sheet metal cutters. What changes when you have to surf the internet or talk on the phone 'at work'? Here are some examples:
A lot of people bitch around all the time because the software is slow, freezes, crashes etc. You have a customer on the phone but you cannot do anything for him because you've go no info. You blame it on the 'stupid computer' but also on Fiat because they aren't using better computers or better software. There isn't much you can do about it because the computer is usually the only source of information. The customers complain but you're used to that anyway. At the same time a lot of people use the computer for their own ends: checking and writing e-mail, surfing, chatting. Some do it all the time even though it's forbidden and the team leaders talk to people about it. 
Everyone is surfing and e-mailing but it's not forbidden either. After all, it's part of your 'training'. Other than that you're supposed to play with the test computers (not your own workstation), build in stuff, install it, try it. A lot of people do it because they're interested in it... or because they want to show the team leaders that they're interested... or to pass time. 
In the call centre where I work lots of workers loaded PC games onto their computers or surfed the internet during breaks or wrote private e-mails or stuff like that. That didn't necessarily make the breaks shorter so management restricted the use of the internet to certain sites and deleted all games from the computers. The only thing they left was some paint program. First we wondered why they left us a fucking paint program that we really don't need for work. Then you could see that during the breaks a lot of people played with the paint program thus remaining at their desks, while others loitered around the coffee machine talking to each other. That showed us why. 
Well I mean, it's a computer hotline. So some people 'made their hobby a profession', and some use their hobby to hack programs or to crack the coffee machine. One time, the entire hotline found a pop-up program that allowed everyone to communicate to each other. In the beginning, five people were chatting to each other, in the end everyone added to the chaos. Management took the program off our computers. But before long some people found new ways to 'chat' with each other. 
5.7 Hierarchy - Here is the team leader
The rhythm of work is determined by a combination of customer calls, software and the ACD machine. However, workers hardly ever direct their hate against the machinery, because the ACD machine appears to be objective. Instead, they direct it against the team leaders.
As long as data entry is just something you do in a computer it annoys you but it doesn't necessarily make you accept every call or keep you from going to 'post-processing' for a little break. If it weren't for the team leaders. It's their job to put pressure on workers with the help of data from the ACD machine. Thus, the pressure to work is imposed chiefly through personally mediated command.
Team leaders, supervisors etc. are there to make us work and to impose the intensification of work. They control whether we accept enough calls per hour, how long our breaks are, whether we comply with quality guidelines etc. Apart from controlling us, they're assigned other tasks like organising, retrieving information etc. so that we don't see them exclusively as watchdogs or spies. We are supposed to have to talk to them if something goes wrong or when we need something - and at the same time they impose the call statistics on us. That way, the team leaders collect information on the work process and pass it on to management. The latter use the information to further intensify work. Since the team leaders are our first 'contact partners' they also act as a buffer. Whenever there are problems, whenever we're angry about something we are supposed to let it out on the team leader instead of attacking management directly. This is supposed to minimise and limit conflict. The Team leaders are supposed to impose the will of management on us. Depending on the kind of conflict and what they want from it they behave differently: Those who used to work on the phones before are good at acting more 'buddy-like'; they get very friendly with us and pretend they try to solve all the problems. Team leaders who have been hired from the outside are often more 'distanced' and authoritarian; they keep their distance and openly take measures against workers. [hotlines no. 2, December 2000]
This creates a situation where on the one hand many workers argue with their team leaders about breaks, shift plans and lack of information all the time while management can remain in the background and keep counting their money. On the other hand the arguments are often based on the 'we all are one team' nonsense, and them acting as if we were close personal friends:
The bosses don't behave like bosses. That's why they're called 'mentors' and 'supervisors', but they always remain friendly. The owner of a pub where I used to work liked to tell the little waitresses to pick up pieces of paper from the floor. That doesn't fit into a call centre strategy where they have to tell us that we are doing something extremely useful as a group and are being nice to each other at the same time. 
You get personal, are of the same age, have the same hobbies... Some team leaders have a hard time asserting their authority, and claims and conflicts are discussed at a personal level: 'Hey, don't you want to let me go early today!'... 
But this can only superficially conceal the frontline. The machinery imposes a rhythm of work, which workers can only liberate themselves from by cutting their connection to the machine: going into 'post-processing', taking breaks, ignoring calls. Team leaders try to make sure that doesn't happen.
The ACD machine can only compare figures, i.e. the quantity of calls or the duration of breaks. The team leaders have to keep putting those figures on our desks to 'motivate' us or threaten us with consequences if we do not 'improve'. However they also control the 'quality' - friendliness, compliance with speaking rules... So far there isn't a machine that can control that. The team leaders listen into calls - sometimes without the workers knowing it - issue orders, give training sessions. In some call centres they have additional coaches for that.
5.8 Being on the telephone - What service?
We're talking about talking, in different ways, with different functions and intentions, flexible and standardised, the same flowery phrases two hundred and fifty times or only ten times a day. Being yelled at, being talked to, not understanding anything, reassuring, rebuking, appeasing, promising, lying, making excuses, stammering, and being bored to death. Not listening but having something to say, reacting to catchwords, not finishing, or just letting them talk.
For both sides, talking to someone else on the phone means above all, an abstraction. On the phone there are no things like gestures, facial expressions, postures and clothes, which make communication easy when it's live and direct with an actual person. If I was talking to a twenty-year-old with long dreads and face piercings I wouldn't dream of talking to him in a formal way, and he probably wouldn't expect me to either. On the phone I even treat seven-year-olds like grown-ups.
Call centre workers must rely exclusively on language, their choice of words and emphasis, on anything a voice can do. And they must hope that their cultural understanding of communication somehow overlaps with the caller's. Considering this thin ice, it's a wonder communication on the phone works at all. Many times it doesn't. And one thing's for sure: call centre workers are the ones who have to adapt flexibly to the customers' communicative capabilities or incapabilities. Examples:
Inbound, computer hotline
My phone rings. 'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name is Griechenland, good morning. Can I have your customer number, please. Okay, I'll put you through to the technical department.'
'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name is Griechenland, good morning. For that problem I have to put you through to a technician. Do you already have a customer number? Then I'll register you and then put you through. Just tell me your computer's serial number. Your last name is Parsley? The first name? The zip code? That's in Grevenbroich? And the street. With the number. And lastly your private phone number plus the area code. All right, I'll tell you your customer number, please note: 1234568. I'll put you through to one of our technicians now.'
'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name is Griechenland, good morning. For that problem I have to put you through to a technician. Do you already have a customer number? Then I'll register you and then put you through. Just tell me your computer's serial number. Exactly, the computer. No, you don't have to know it by heart, it's on the back of the box, er... the computer. It starts with XYZ S slash N and has about twelve characters. Well, just have a look. No, that's Microsoft's product id. I need the computer's serial number. XYZ S/N. No, not AJ, XYZ S/N. A little further down. Yes, yes, on the white label sticker. Your last name is Stock? The first name? The zip code? Then ask your wife or look on a letter you have received. And the street? The house number? I'll tell you your customer number: 1234590. No, that's not a phone number, it's your customer number. Hang on, I'll put you through.'
'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name is Griechenland, good morning. I'll put you through to the technical department.'
'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name is Griechenland, good morning. Then tell me your customer number. Just a moment, I'll look. No, it's not ready yet. There were problems with the suppliers. We expect the shipment any day now. Sorry, there is no way I can speed it up. Of course this is beyond the regular delivery time. Please address your complaints to the firm in written form. Of course I understand you. Yes, I can imagine how you feel, but if there aren't any in stock I cannot send out any. I'm sorry for any inconvenience. Bye.'
'Computer hotline, fast help for computer problems, my name... You would like to talk to a superior, just a moment please.'
Outbound, subscription sales 
And here we go: 'Schnewsweek is offering a subscription (emphasised) for executives (emphasised) at preferential (emphasised) conditions (don't lower your voice!). You'll receive (emphasised) ten (emphasised) issues of schnewsweek absolutely free (don't lower your voice!) and after you'll get each double issue for a special price of 9.10 DM (emphasised) for twelve months (still don't lower your voice!) and what's really special, after (emphasised) that year you can cancel the subscription anytime (emphasised), immediately (emphasised). So you won't be caught in a (now the most demanding moment regarding my acting skills! I act like I have to think really hard how to express that state): subscription trap!!! (and now in a totally relaxed and casual way) Agreed?'
The person on the other end usually finds this ridiculous. Firstly, this is due to the ridiculous reading from the sheet because we aren't allowed to act the slightest bit as if this was spoken freely. Instead, real slow and with much emphasis. Secondly, it is due to this stupid trick: 'Agreed?'
Of course not, what do you think, but nice try and a really beautiful act. Or the other person has only heard 'free' and says immediately: Yes, sure, I'll take it. Others want to think about it at least and want something written, which is understandable. But they won't get anything, because in telemarketing special conditions there is no such thing. If you don't read Schnewsweek I'll quickly offer you some other magazine. Our publishing house has everything. But of course, strictly according to the script. The right sentence for every objection. If you don't find it or read the wrong one, that's embarrassing. If you stray too far from the script or if you read to fast or with wrong emphases, you immediately have the team leader on your back, or a fellow worker warning you of the team leader.
The relationship to service
How do those who are forced to serve experience the 'service society'? What sense do they see in 'their' call centre-work and how do they handle the contradiction that on one hand they are meant to 'serve the customer' (quality) and on the other hand are told to process as many customers as possible per hour (quantity)? There are two sides to the 'friendliness on the phone' thing. Most workers want to help the customer, but they fail due to the work-organisation and required work speed. If there are no three-piece suites in the warehouse, you can't deliver them. If the information the customer demands is not available the worker has to start improvising, lying or trying in other creative ways to wriggle themselves out of the sticky situation. This determines how a lot of call centre-workers relate to their 'service': 'I can't change the organisation of work. Some things just don't work and I'm the fool who has to compensate for them by talking!' The problems, failures, insufficiencies - the absence of 'service'- have to be talked away, while in the meantime some customers get really furious. They put you on the spot, eight hours a day. Never let the customers take the control of the conversation, otherwise you are lost. When the person calling starts to define the roles you have to react fast: put them off, tell them off, soothe them with lies, fob them off, but never let them walk all over you. In the run of their job, call centre-workers develop enormous capabilities to perform social- or psycho-therapeutic work. They find themselves in a tense atmosphere: on one hand they have to maintain a certain sensitivity while talking to the customer, but on the other hand they have to be rough enough to make it through the working day.
Without the call centre Aldi couldn't sell computers and Aral [gas stations] or Tschibo [coffee shops] couldn't flog off CD-burners. Or they would have to deliver a whole library of manuals. Before they buy stuff, some people ask if there is technical support they can phone when problems appear. It's also a psychological support in order to give people the feeling that they are not being left alone with the product and the problems. [Medion, Muelheim 2001]
5.9 Workers behaviour - Survival techniques
Workers develop forms of refusal of work wherever capital brings them together. Capital's insatiable hunger to multiply implies the tendency to use workers up and bleed them dry. In many call centres burning out is an everyday fact. Workers quit after six months or a year - in spite of nice workmates or conditions that seem to be good compared to other jobs - because they notice how their eyesight blurs, how their ears hurt, how blaring customer complaints burn into their brains.
In order to still be sane at the end of the shift, workers think of ways to take breaks, oases of quiet that let them breathe. To that end, they pretend they have important things to do and then somehow end up in front of the coffee machine. They make wrong entries into the computer in order to shorten the processing of a call or they 'work to rule', nice and slowly, so nothing goes wrong. If all that is not enough they have no other choice but to call in sick. After a few days in bed or at parties the telephone terror is easier to take.
We have found such forms of refusal in all call centres. Many workers who are usually not very rebellious use them. Most of the time they happen on an individual basis. They make it easier to survive, but they don't shake the regime of exploitation. Rather, they are a part of the process of exploitation because they make sure we don't collapse under the workload.
How does that happen? For example, call centre workers answer the phone but then put the call in 'silent' mode - so they can hear the caller, but the caller doesn't hear them - and go on chatting to their fellow worker. In between, when they hear keywords, they slip back into the customer conversation. It takes a little practice, but it's possible. Or they take the call but then go on reading their article and again react only to keywords. It takes coolness if you have to ask something three times. But you can always claim the connection was bad... You try to reach other workers from other departments and you take a little time to breathe between the communications. Or you take five minutes for a private call. Unfortunately, that is not always possible. You keep nice customers in the line as long as possible so you can have a nice chat. You joke, flirt, exchange e-mail addresses. This can end badly, if it was a test call...
Sometimes, customers create real problems. Then either you make the problem disappear or you make the customer disappear from the phone. You can put them into the nearest waiting loop or you can accidentally hit the wrong key or you can tell the customers what they want to hear. And you can test out the flexibility of ACD data: How long can I stretch my breaks before I get told off? How often can I refuse accepting a call before I have to go and talk to the team leader?
Here are two more examples which show solidarity among workers. Usually this only happens when workers have developed a certain solidarity and have had experiences with similar conflicts.
The inbound workers were supposed to talk callers into taking credit. Most workers simply ignored the order. First of all, because it is embarrassing when somebody wants to place a money order and you start going on about fucking credit. Secondly, because many workers think it's not okay to talk people into a credit trap when they don't have money anyway. Thirdly, because of the stress a long credit call causes. 
We were supposed to put pressure on our fellow workers. For example, as soon as there was a call for the French language line on the display which was visible to all, we were supposed to tell the 'free' French speaking workers to accept the call. We ignored it. Most of us made fun of that order. 
Between calls there is a lot of talk with other workers. Some customer calls mean emotional stress. You had to tell a customer he can't have credit when he told you about his suffering and the blows that fate has dealt him. Or you were yelled at for the fifth time because the waiting loop takes so long. In order to handle it you need co-workers, or else it's your boyfriend, girlfriend or room-mates who have to hear about it every time. No matter how well you keep your 'professional distance', it leads to a nervous breakdown if you don't have somebody to talk to about it.
5.10 General perspective - A report from one of the shit holes
The steps of work, the organisation of work, the machinery, workers' behaviour... the misery of work is more than arguments with the team leader or trouble with crashing computer masks. What we experience as 'imposition of work' is the combination of all that. Here is an example of an overall description of everyday life at work in the Fiat call centre in Milan, Italy:
At the beginning everything looks really nice when you enter Fiat's call centre in Milan. Lots of space, multi-coloured cubicle walls and little flags, lots of young people sitting in front of large monitors, wandering around or relaxing and smoking in the corner by the vending machines. They speak all kinds of languages: Italian, French, German, Spanish, Dutch, Polish... Something between an internet cafe, a children's day care centre and one of those newsrooms in an American TV soap.
Work begins quite relaxed, too. You get a training course where you're told that the call centre won a prize last year. That everyone is nice to each other because that way work is fun. That we're supposed to smile all the time - even on the phone - because then customers get a good impression and keep buying those Fiats, Alfa Romeos and Lancias. Some weeks and many calls later you realise where you've ended up. The surroundings have ceased to cast a spell on you: Welcome to the world of call centres!
There are seven hundred people working there, mostly women, full-time and part-time. A lot of them work in administrative jobs but the majority are sitting on the phones, divided into different departments by language, service offered and different tasks. Many have fixed-term contracts that last ten or twelve months.
The inbound workers receive calls from private customers like complaints, questions etc. And from dealers and garage employees who are looking for a spare part, want to cancel an order or check a warranty case. Then there are the outbound departments selling insurance and other services, and a customer service where owners of navigation computers can send a text message and get called back. Some of the workers service only one 'line' (like the navigation customers), others do two, three or four different ones.
The call centre technology consists of a wild heap of PC's, telephone appliances, old and new software, fax machines... With the wired headset you're a prisoner on a ball-and-chain. Or a brain patient whose head is wired to the computer.
Like in other call centres, the calls get distributed by an ACD machine. This machine takes the call, uses the calling number to see what country it's from, which department is in charge, which worker there is 'free' - and puts the call through to that worker. On some lines, there is also CTI (computer telephony integration). This means that for calls, for instance concerning the navigation system, the data record will be on your screen, the instant that the call comes through. It's direct-to-ear, meaning that calls arrive automatically on your headset - without you manually accepting the call. You hear a spoken phrase and then you have the customer on the line. This means you have no control over the calls...
At the beginning of the shift you have to log into several programs - depending what calls get put through to you: software for documenting calls, for ordering spare parts, for navigator customers to help them find their way, and others. Some of the programs are designed like Windows, with windows and clickable buttons, some are still DOS-like with codes and the tab key. The computers are linked to a network and use central databases.
In the 'first level' you don't have to worry much about the general organisation of work. You make a call, look up the information. On some lines, you then process a fax, then another call. Usually, you can process your stuff alone. Sometimes you ask other workers or the team leaders for advice. If a request 'cannot be solved' you tell the customer there is nothing you can do for them. You might pass on 'cases' concerning replacement parts and warranties by writing requests and information into a text field and sending them to the 'second level' by clicking a button. Just get rid of it! You don't care what happens to those cases afterwards.
Some 'second level' workers sit in Milan as well, others sit in other Fiat branch offices elsewhere in Europe. They get that twenty percent of cases which the 'first level' cannot solve into their personal Inbox (list) and have to solve them. The cases remain with them until they have found a solution. They call people who are supposed to give them information, other Fiat employees, garages, suppliers... Here, you have more responsibility. While in the 'first level' you can act dumb and just wait for calls to come, in the 'second level' you have to think about solving things placed in front of you. This means more stress.
The work is more than making phone calls. You take calls, talk to people, ask questions, listen, give answers, calm them down, press them for info... But at the same time you're constantly busy with your PC: entering numbers and data, clicking commands, entering codes, searching for entries on the screen... Some 'agents' always look like they are about to crawl into the monitor... Often you don't even notice the intensity of work yourself.
The work is made harder by all those different software programs of different ages that have a tendency to crash while you have an impatient customer on the line. The programs aren't structured very well so it takes you weeks to work out where to find things. If you have information you can't be sure it's correct because data is often obsolete or wrong.
Many calls go by without much problem. They want something, you give it to them or you don't. Some callers hate you and blame you for Fiat's supply problems or for the faults of the software, the servers, the telephone appliances that are being used (all of which sometimes break down). For others you are a servant who is to hand over information quickly, nicely and obediently. You get calls from angry customers who don't stop talking and get on your nerves. You get calls you hardly understand because the caller is standing in the middle of the street or sitting in a car... or the connection just happens to be shit again. You get calls when your computer crashes and you have to enter all the information all over again. You get calls from people who have simple questions but you don't have the right information because nobody has given it to you.
Most of all, though, you get calls, calls, calls... You have the conveyor belt in your head. After having processed one call you get the next, then the next. The work is tiring. Because the same processes keep repeating themselves, because the callers keep having the same questions and you keep having the same answers, because you have to stick exactly to the software mask: name, number, another number, third number..., because you keep looking at the monitor, because you have a hard time understanding people, because the line is crackling... till your head is humming at the end of the shift and you can't even read your paper in the metro.
Many workers say quite openly that this work is shit and that they couldn't care less. And yet they are still friendly to the customers and somehow do what has to be done... The fact that your work is with customers makes you somehow do your work.
Even if most people won't work here for a long time - and know they won't - they somehow organize themselves to be able to put up with it. They try to have a friendly relationship with 'co-workers'. They develop techniques of cheating the software using 'wrong' entries. They get used to rebuffing angry callers... Some even try to do their job 'well'. But with all those stupid things happening all day; one call after the after, dealers waiting for months for a spare part, customers with new cars that stop running after one day... after a while they can't take it either. They really make an effort - and sometimes the others laugh at them - trying their best to give some kind of 'service' despite it all... Sooner or later most of them give up too.
Workers also try to have fun in order to somehow put up with the work, the boredom, the stress. If you have communicative skills, you may as well use them to your own advantage in private communication (a little flirt between calls...). You can check your own e-mail on the PC. While you are working, you can send texts, surf, chat, or read stuff on the internet. All this is prohibited... but at the same time it's tolerated because otherwise the atmosphere would be even worse.
There is a game of hide and seek going on with the team leaders. You somehow get your work done without making too much of an effort and without fucking up. You surf or do something else without the bosses taking notice. Some team leaders behave differently from others. Some wield their sticks and give people a hard time. Their function is mainly to control you. They have a program that allows them to control if the 'agents' have a call or are on 'ready' and thus may take a call. They also see how many calls have been accepted, how many have been in the waiting loop for how long and how many have hung up. They look at the 'cases' the workers have handled and tell them off if they have made a mistake.
Some team leaders used to be agents and know what's going on. Others are from the 'outside' and don't know anything. Some pursue their careers and do a one hundred percent job. Others just want to be left alone - i.e. not having arguments with workers.
Many of the workers' debates are centred on customers, problems with the organisation of work etc... Most of the time it's the stupid team leaders, the dress code... Why do the bosses treat us badly, why is the cafeteria food bad, why do the guys have to wear a tie? One worker said the bosses want us to get angry about things like those, rather than about the bad conditions in general. What good is bitching about the chef... it's not about the food, it's about the whole damn kitchen...
The 'bad' organisation of work is another constant cause of arguments. Not long ago, one worker asked why Fiat doesn't simply supply all necessary information to the workers. 'Just because the bosses want to stay in control!' she said. 'But we could handle things much better if only they let us.'
This is a living contradiction and call centre workers are supposed to make up for it every day: They act as buffers for the customers' meanness and anger by being friendly and they try to make up for the faults of the technology by improvising. In order to make things work at all, they come up with ways and means to make up for the mistakes of the programmers and the flaws of the telephone appliance. And while they do that the team leaders are spying on them.
But there is a bright side of things: You meet lots of young people from many countries. You build friendships, relationships... Even though we're divided into language teams there is a lot of contact between the different departments. That's what makes the work bearable. Apart from that, you're only there for the money.
Some people also let off steam by bitching at others. They get mad when they get a misplaced call and they can't put it through because the 'agents' in charge are not at their desks. Instead of blaming the bosses for routing those calls to workers who are 'not responsible' they try to place the problems at the feet of fellow workers. There are only a few workers like that, though. People know who they work for. Fiat has a bad reputation... 'Sure the work is shit, sure I'm looking for something else...' But there is not much debate as to what else we can do, whether we need this work at all, whether we can create a different society...
Hardly anyone is in the union. Most couldn't care less. They work there for a few months and then they look for something else. Although who knows if that would be any better... Some dream of well-paid positions, a few will make it. Most see only two possibilities anyway: either you quit because the work sucks or because you're moving on (different job, different country...); or you get promoted, that is, you get away from the phone... When striking workers from the neighbouring Alfa Romeo factory who were protesting against the impending shutdown of the last remaining productive units blockaded the call centre, some call centre workers came at five or six a.m. so they could still get into the building. Many 'agents' participated in the 'general strike' in April, but there were big differences between teams. In one team, the team leader told everyone that 'striking is not allowed'. Everyone showed up for work! In other teams up to thirty per cent participated in the strike; in one team eighty per cent went on strike.
One worker said the 'scabs' said they needed the money. But she thought that was a pretext. The wage is really bad (about nine hundred Euros for a full-time job), but she said people were doing so much overtime and it was really important to do something on that day. She said the real problem was something else: most are young, around twenty-five and have no experiences of strikes. And many have no relationship to Italy, they're just passing through as migrant workers.
But it's important that officially, the general strike had nothing to do with Fiat or with our immediate conditions but fundamentally with the political situation and unfair dismissal laws... One worker who participated in general strikes in France said that only an indefinite strike could secure unfair dismissal laws...[Fiat, Milan, 2002]
That is everyday working life!
62 We have marked most quotes with the name of the call centre and the place. Where we could not, or where the interviewee did not want us to, we have left out the exact whereabouts.
63 Here is a short summary of the part on workers from the last chapter. This time we focus on the subjectivity, the expectations...
64 Although most call centre workers seem to have relationships that are just as flexible as their jobs: It's never for long...
65 Assessment centres use different assessment methods. Usually, several applicants are tested simultaneously. The selection of the job-applicants is oriented on sexist stereotypes: women should be nice, give you a sense of warmth... men should give an impression of competence.
66 There is also the 'risk' that workers might see themselves and each other as equals among equals in their general 'un-skilledness' and get together in their anti-work behaviour.
67 As we have already mentioned, employers favour high turnover because by replacing workers they hope to ensure that workers collectivise their resistance to work. But it has its limits: when training and hiring costs get too high... or when there aren't any 'skilled' people left who are prepared to work in these places and consequentially the wages rise.
68 We can only say 'fuck off' to all those who call us 'unskilled' but constantly eavesdrop on us to sell that information as their 'entrepreneurial knowledge' and then try to chain us to some 'employment category' and to the phone until we retire.
69 Of course, apprentices have to work during their three-and-a-half-year apprenticeship - for lower wages.
70 Thus, the 'official organisation of work' is a fake and the official forms of cooperation are a dead end. See the next section on 'cooperation'.
71 We can recall that cooperation over the phone has already been 'turned around' in other sectors. Some of the truck drivers' strikes in France were chiefly organised over mobile phones and CB.
72 Under certain circumstances standardisation can be seen as a relief, because it means you don't have to 'think': 'I'm supposed to read those sentences they way they are written. So I'm not responsible for the way it works. I don't have to be creative at all. It works wonderfully. We read it the way it's written in the computer, and that's how we do it.' Market research, Amsterdam, 2000. See also chapter 6. Confrontations over standard wordings.
73 In some call centres the 'Call Master' has mutated from hardware to software. The 'Call Master' keypad is a window on the screen and you have to click the keys/buttons. When there is a call, the window pops into foreground automatically, so the worker can see what number is calling... It is a kind of CTI light. See also the following section...
74 There is variation here: Some call centres let customers talk to a voice computer first to let them enter their customer number. So here the CTI software looks up the record to be sent to the worker not by the phone number but by the customer number given by the customer.
75 Some ACD machines are connected to power diallers so that workers get inbound and outbound calls simultaneously (Citibank, Duisburg). See also chapter 6, Confrontations. Here are two quotes from adverts for power dialler software from [www.callcenterprofi.de] 'The advantage of ttCall: The creation of entry masks and conversation guidelines does not require any programming skills. The software also gives call centre managers control possibilities in the form of statistical analyses and employee and project related reports. ttCall (...) makes it possible to change from inbound to outbound on the same workplace.' 'Efficiency increases of between a hundred and fifty and four hundred per cent! At least that is what the predictive dialler function in eShare's Phone Frame Explorer promises. The system calls several customers simultaneously but only routes the agent to customers who can actually be reached. (...) The Call-Blending function allows doing inbound and outbound campaigns in the same workplace...'
76 In the 'first level' unskilled and worse-paid workers do customer qualification like on an assembly line. Often they are required to stay within a limit of an average sixty or ninety seconds. In the 'second level' better-paid and better-skilled workers provide actual service, e.g. PC support on the phone.
77 More about quality and quantity and the role of coaches in chapter 6. Confrontations, 'points of conflict'...
78 Here we expect you to read the script aloud to get the real outbound feeling. Afterward you can listen to forest music or Mike Oldfield to come down again...
79 More comments on this in chapter 6, Confrontations, 'points of conflict'
80 We certainly wouldn't ask anyone to stop individual refusal. But in themselves hiding, taking extra breaks or calling in sick don't make up a rebellious attitude leading up to a revolutionary dynamic. Rather, we find that dynamic in collective forms of refusal that make space for collective experiences of strength, such as collectively ignoring orders.
81 We have to see that in other places workers let themselves be set against each other and tell each other off if they answer calls too late.
82 It reaches the point where customers really get on your nerves. Especially after the point where you've realized you can't help him but he doesn't agree with you. Those debates can kill you...
83 'They pay you like shit, they treat you like shit, the work is boring. Nobody wants to work there for a long time.' 'It's shit work. I'll look for something else. Somebody should burn this place down!' 'You meet nice people from other countries there. But that's the only positive thing!' 'It's like in prison here!' Fiat call centre workers, 2002.