Rendezvous with call centre workers

A discussion with some call centre workers about aspects of working life in Germany in 2005.

Submitted by Steven. on January 5, 2010

A few years ago I worked in a call center. It is still existing and is providing a hotline for computers and other electronical items (tv, satellite receiver, etc.). In the meantime there are working roughly 300 call center agents at the welcome desk (first level) and the technical hotline (second level). At the moment the company enlarges its location in Germany and there are rumours about a relocation to the Czech Republic. A few weeks ago I met two of my former colleges, who are still working there. We chatted a little bit, and this interview came out.

Q: Let’s talk about the break times first.
A: We have two and a half hours idle a day. But this includes everything, lunch break, smoking breaks, restroom, and re-operation time. It is not allowed to take a break whenever you want. Now, you have to book it before you go.
A: There are certain times when you aren’t allowed to take breaks. At these times, a sign on the phone appears that it isn’t possible to take a break.
Q: What does that mean; it is „not possible“? Is it technically not possible or are you not allowed?
A: It is not possible to book a break technically. But of course you can take a break without booking.
A: I did that once, but when I got back the team leader gave me a call and asked, why I didn’t book. It was shortly after they came up with it. I just wanted to resist.
A: Some of the new agents got in trouble recently. Team leaders asked why they hadn’t booked before, and they answered, „Why? It wasn’t possible!“
Q: But then someone must be checking the ACD all the time?
A: Yeah, there is always one of the team leaders only checking our times.
A: He doesn’t do anything but ogling that thing all day. Depending how long customers are waiting to get an agent, he decides how many people can have a break.
Q: A few years ago, people took their break when ever they wanted. If there were too many „on idle“, the team leader tried to kick some back to the phones. We were playing shy and looked down and maybe one or two went back. But they could only check the total time, afterwards they couldn’t see when you took your breaks. Now they put that problem on your shoulders.
A: Yeah, we always take our stop watch with us for breaks. You need to be correct by seconds. If you are 20 seconds late, you’re in trouble. Recently we had to justify 30 seconds break overtime in a 45 minutes meeting with a team leader. They hold a record about it.
A: There’s always a stress factor. If you want to have a break, you watch that thing to book it. You don’t listen to the customer anymore. It creates a lot of stress.
A: Well, that’s a situation when I throw the customer off line.

A: There is another new thing with the calling time. Each phone call of a technician shouldn’t be longer than 20 minutes. They invented a back office team, their job is to call customers with difficult technical problems back in between 48 hours. Of course it doesn’t work, yesterday I heard that those technicians are working on cases which are two weeks old.
A: Of course back office technicians are now busy with simple cases which were caused by the 20 minutes calling times structure of the other technicians. But it is not their fault. We know how slow people are to find numbers or stuff like that. Again, we are the ones who have to deal with stress.
A: And we have more escalating customers, who wait and ask for that fucking call back. We are not allowed to connect them with a technician; this would double the cases for the back office technicians.
A: And we can’t give it to the team leader, they just don’t take them anymore insisting on the call back. They rather discuss 15 minutes with you then taking the call.
A: They don’t know anything about technical problems anyway. The boss said that they need to have leadership abilities.
A: But they don’t have that either. That’s the problem. I don’t know why we have team leaders...
A: Only to control us!

A: Now we sit at certain places, and we are not allowed to talk to each other anymore.
Q: Do you have time for talking with each other? Back then there were times when a lot of people called and the lamps at the phones turned red. But this was only at those certain times, when they sold their stuff in selling actions. On normal days, we had roughly two hours with hardly any calls, sometimes even more. We could check for phones of friends when they were taking breaks. And we had talking rounds for everybody who wanted to participate. We got together and had discussions about any topics, like homosexuality, racism or listened to stories from the GDR. And at least once, we solved a problem with a team leader that way.
A: No, that’s over! Now the lamp is red always, except on the weekend. Well, the technicians’ lamp is always red.
A: It is, of course, also because of the bad work organization. It is all about the first contact. They don’t care about how long it takes to call customers back or how long they are in the waiting line. If we have red lamp, the technicians have to do first level, but of course then the line to the technicians is even longer. We can see how long the waiting time will be, so we have to prepare the customer to wait over a certain time.
A: Some people wait an hour, but we have to say that we can’t see how long it is exactly.
A: That’s totally pissing people off!
Q: Do you tell the people how long it is or do you give them a hint?
A: Well, we do have test-calls. I had one recently. But he told me his name, so I was unsure. I asked him and he told me that he belongs to the call centre. Right after the call was done, the team leader got me for a meeting. I played a little bit funky and kissed her ass. I allowed her to calm me down; she goes for stuff like that. Well, nothing happened. But I thought, this asshole, why didn’t he tell me before.

Q: Do you have set time limits, too?
A: Well, no, not really. But we have to stick to certain times, those two and a half hours. But this is organized by the computer...
A: We have to do everything with the computer, not through the phone anymore. You can see everything at the phone display, but you don’t touch it anymore.
A: But we still work with the phone. But listen: there is that problem with idle-times. You have to take the call through the keyboard and then different screens are popping up...
A: You have a screen with all the numbers where you can put the call to. Then the customer is gone and you are on „absent without a reason“. You close that window and then it asks you what you want to do: a break or processing work, you close this window, too. And that takes a long time, in principle you have hour glasses. And then you have to put the phone on in order to get the next call.
A: That shit alone and that the program gets stuck all the time. I had 15 minutes idle time one day. If you have a lot processing work to do or you need to go to the toilette more often you are easily at your time limit. And then you have a meeting with the team leader and, of course, they don’t care if the15 minutes idle time were caused by the program. That’s why we work with the phone, it is just faster.
A: When I first started to work with the computer my performance data weren’t right and they sent me a coach to look over my shoulder. He was hanging around for two hours. Afterwards, I worked again with the phone and they praised me, even the leader did!
Q: Earlier it was possible to talk to one customer while you were working with the data of the former customer. So you could fudge your idle-times a little bit...
A: That’s over. With the phone call the data of the customer pops up at your computer, if he is registered. It works over the phone number.
A: The processing work should be only three minutes. So you have to do the entries while you are talking with the customer. I can’t do that.
A: I let the customer wait while I make the entries and I also tell him.
A: It is completely stupid, especially if someone has a customer number and wants to talk to a technician. I still have to do all that shit. I tell him I am connecting him but instead put him under mute and finish all this stuff and then connect him.
Q: Obviously, the computers weren’t as connected with the phones as they are today. We asked the customer for their number and then put them through to a technician right away, that took 18 seconds. Even faster if you didn’t put up the data.
A: That’s over. If you do it today the system puts you on idle without reason because you didn’t fill out the screens. And that changes your idle time.
Q: How did they get you to agree with the new technical stuff? Did they train you?
A: Yes, we had trainings. It is a part of SAP which fit to the company. It was the idea of a team leader, but you get the impression that he had never worked in a call center. What an idiot and he was a technician himself.
A: And on top it wasn’t done. They always said, we’re going to do this and that, and this is how it is going to be and so and so...
A: Our old system was much clearer, you could see the stuff right away. When someone asked about a price you typed in that thing and you got a price for it. With the new system you have to register the customer, you have to click around, set the order and then you can tell the price. If the customer doesn’t want it you have to cancel everything. And that takes a lot of time, and then the program gets stuck. The customers think we’re completely illiterate, they take us for completely loco. They ask about a price and get stuck at the phone for ten minutes.
A: Before my average calling time was maybe one minute, now it’s at least two.
Q: How did they switch the programs?
A: They changed it from one day to the other and then we had SAP people running around, who checked if you got around with it. In the beginning, we found it funny because it was something new, but then we realized, what kind of crap this is.
A: During the switch-over, there were always meetings. Actually, we are not naughty. I am working, I show up everyday, I’m even on time. I do my work, I try to help customers and still get in trouble. It is not the point that you work, but you... need to have discipline.
A: This asininity, it makes you completely nuts. You can’t do anything against it.
Q: Is it still possible to cheat with this system?
A: No, that’s over. You only can put the customer on mute, that’s the only thing. They control everything.
Q: So, they gave you the technical stuff and the meetings to set you under pressure?
A: Yeah, and of course, because we thought it is something new and interesting.
A: You don’t help the new people anymore, it is all about your time data. You don’t know anybody anymore and so you lose a the connection. You don’t talk anymore with the people at all. And this is all good for them, there are no people anymore who get together and start something against this shit. You just work, that’s all you do.
A: And the assessment center! One day, the management had the idea of an internal assessment center. Some didn’t pass and got kicked off the hotline and ended up at the goods receiving department.
A: They got lucky, at least they get their former wage.
A: That’s shit! Recently, I talked with someone who got moved out. He has had to do overtime for now three or four months, eleven hours per day and every Saturday another six hours. And even with overtime they have less money than we have without overtime.
A: They move packages over a belt and scan ‘em. Moving and scanning, moving and scanning, eleven hours.
A: They have a quota they have to achieve.
A: Now we understand when something is scanned wrong. They don’t want to check what’s inside of a package. They have to make their quota.
A: Man, that’s bad! They don’t even have a kitchen. In their break-room, they sit on post boxes.
A: He said, in the beginning they felt like being in the third world. As if everything would be illegal, as if they would produce drugs. If the cops would raid the place they would be in.
A: Here you can see nothing fits. That’s why we have so many calls.

Q: Well, lets think about other stories, like the one with the two who didn’t book their break. About people who could be fellows.
A: Nothing! There’s nothing. Our last team meeting was horrible, I tell you! The new people have part time contracts only for three month, they say stuff like: you can listen to my calls, I have nothing to hide, or the smile is in the voice anyway. Such bullshit!
A: And if there are new girls the team leader likes, they’re allowed to do everything. Such a young chicken has no clue, but is allowed to do everything.
Q: The big goal of a Call Center Agent is to get rid of the phone and if you do send a fax or e-mails, you got it. So they are not interested about changes?
A: No, they have it nice.
A: And also the old people, they got a better job and talk positively about the company. You can’t do anything with such kind of people. I don’t know who I should talk to.
A: I want to do something so things are changing, but I don’t know what and how.
A: And you don’t need to look for another job. It is always like this.
Q: But then it’s clear, that you need to do something there.
A: Well, no one can tell me that all of the new like it.
A: No, you’re right.
A: But they don’t have anybody to talk to, they don’t know anybody...
A: We should put something out, maybe hidden, so no one knows who it was. Maybe something would happen.

[prol-position news #3, 8/2005]