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Call Centers Put Humanity on Hold


This article was first published in the Western Daily Press in Bristol in the U.K. on the 14th of February 2001.

“They’re playing this bloody recording and then this bloody music,” the gentleman on the telephone shouted to someone in the room.

To me, on the other end of the line, his words sounded like a muffled growl. Over and over again, he said the same thing while I tried, in vain, to draw back his attention with “Good morning, sir. How may I help you?” over and over again.

Five long elusive minutes later, he slammed down the phone in my ear, leaving me flustered but also freeing me to attend to the next customer on the queue, which he had been holding up.

In a study released today, call centers have been dubbed “sweat shops” after reports that workers were pressurised by targets and frequently complained about the monotony of the job.

In one case, employees said they are expected to take two calls a minute for seven and a half hours – and that they have to ask a manager to get them a glass of water.

Some workers complain of “acoustic shocks” – freak sound bursts on telephone headsets which can cause health problems.

So, why is the call center industry so bad, I’ve heard people ask.

The very phrasing of the question reveals the crux of the problem.

Any kind of service, call center or not, is not something which happens to us outside of ourselves. We help create it with our attitude and our expectations. Service is a two-way street, a relationship between two people. Many times, we get what we give or, certainly, what we expect.

The gentleman on the telephone, it seemed to me, wanted to moan about his frustration more than he wanted to dissipate it.

Calls like his to the Bristol-based company where I was a temporary worker made the “Much obliged” and “Thank you kindly” of other customers that much more appreciated.

I felt satisfied when I had helped someone and sorry when I had not, but I did the best I could, as do most people.

“I was just walking out the door.”

I heard this frequently from callers when I asked if I could take their number and get someone to call them back.

“I was just walking out the door.”

Then, why were you making a telephone call, I would ask myself.

The answer is because customers have come to expect instant service.

How have we cultivated such high expectations?

How is it that we expect instant answers from the 400,000 folks working in call centers, now accounting for around 1.8 per cent of all jobs in the U.K.?

It’s because we have come to know and depend on instant cooking in our microwaves, instant banking at the cash machines, and instant communication with our mobiles – all of these machines.

We sometimes talk to workers in the service industry in the staccato reminiscent of the typing on a computer keyboard, as though we are requesting information from a machine. But people are not machines.

Ultimately, we still are relating to people and a finite number of employees. When everyone expects instant, almost everyone is bound to be disappointed.

I was surprised to get calls from a minority of customers who demanded to be returned to the queue after some absence from it due to their hanging up.

When I explained to one man that I could not do that without inconveniencing the others behind him, he shouted a few times: “So, I have no choice then.”

When I tried to explain again, he interrupted by asking the average length of the queue. I told him that the queue varied drastically, while he repeatedly asked me the average length before he hung up. . . .

(I don’t know how it happens, but hang-ups always sound as though callers raised their receivers as high in the air as their arms will allow before hurtling them down with all their might, like the strong man with a sledgehammer at a country fete ringing the ball at the top of a column.)

“I suppose we’re stuck with it,” callers have said in defeat, referring to automated telephone systems.

We’re only saddled with that which we accept.

Businesses installed these “Press 1 . . . press 2 . . . press 3” systems to improve efficiency and reduce overheads.

If these systems are causing aggravation because the menu choices don’t address our concerns, or we get cut off, or we feel cheated because we haven’t spoken to a person, then we should make our thoughts heard by someone who can change things.

Complaining to the first person we get on the other end of the line may make us feel better for the moment and that person may pass on the complaint to his or her manager, but it’s not likely to make a difference. Always go to the top of any organisation. Your letter or telephone call will be interpreted as representing many others who have not taken the next step of writing or calling.

Some businesses are better suited to computerised services than others; some need the personal touch. I know of organisations which have changed back to human operators after realising that their automated telephone systems discouraged callers.

Sometimes customers wouldn’t say anything after I had asked them for their names and telephone numbers. They were waiting for more instructions. I startled many who said: “I thought you were a computer.”

“No,” I would say.

And we would share a laugh, which an automated system can’t ever do, before getting to business.

So, thank you for reading this article. I appreciate it. Alternatively, press 2 for complaints.

If you liked this piece, you will like my novel, Turn On, Tune Out, which takes place in a world of computer domination at the cost of humanity. It is available at

Thank you.


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