The Call Centre
Sound of telephone line, various ring tones and clicking of receivers. Mashed up prerecorded messages and static. Reversed sound of easy tinny easy listening waiting music "This training call is for purposes may call recorded training for maybe"
Voice 1: There are booths. Small booths, small desks, chairs, headsets, enough space on the desk for a photo or a trinket and to rest your elbow so you can cradle your head when the calls are going on if you wish but most of the space is taken by the keyboard and monitor. If you stand up or walk round, you can see over the top. Like, when you’re sat down, you feel like you’ve got privacy but really anyone can look in on you whenever they want. It’s like a metaphor in so many ways.
This is repeated but in sync with different voices saying the same thing at a different pace. The effect is dreamy.
Voice 1 (adds)
She laughed, took a drag on her cigarette and said. What the fuck am I on about with metaphors anyway? I get ten minutes off to think about having no life and I kill myself a bit more.
You know what a lot of people don't know or realise? They think the people who ring them up work for companies. Work for the companies that ring them up I mean. Like when they are shouting at, or crying to or ignoring the gasman or the catalogue company or whatever, it's actually the gasman or the catalogue company?
It isn't. It's me.
See, we do calls for loads of companies, we just get a script with some set mantras and phrases and a manner to adopt and away we go. I work for all manner of different companies.
It's chameleonic. It's the way it is. That's what it is.
So you talk to me about how or why I should care about this or that because it's my job and in my head, I'm just not even there.
VOICES - RECORDED CALLS, some overlap to previous lines
Image of sea but in wire frame form, swelling and falling, physical routine of calling, answering logging. Little details of movement, stretching, rubbing eyes.
- and I waited in because your company said before 12 and it was 2 whole days...
- children to feed, and a 13% increase? I didn't even get a letter from you...
- cancer appointment, so what could I do at that point? I used your service for 22 years, never paid late
- dangerous! Water everywhere, what are you going to do, I mean, I've got insurance but I don't see
- where's the lady who phoned last time? Debbie? I liked her voice
- I sent a letter, it explained everything! Y'know, why I can't pay and what's been happening. Have you got it? Have you got it there? I put to whom it may concern. Is that you? I felt bad, because I didn't want to concern you. I mean. I wouldn't want to concern anyone but I don't know what to do otherwise. Talking, explaining, it makes things better I always think. Y'know, even if they can't get better, it makes them seem better, you know, last time someone called...
- you know where I live? You could come round! I'm being serious. You could help me finish
- d'ya know what I think? It's your bosses who are ruining this country, all their money and their mates in the government selling them the businesses all ready made. At least they ain't got fucking rag heads ringing me up. Nothing against them, but why don’t they just call up their own and hastle them. Although, actually, no offence but you could be. Like it's hard to tell now innit. But you can, I reckon. Most of the time.
- sorry? What? I'm... No. Up a ladder! No. Ha! That's my mate! Yeah, this the company number. Yeah, it forwards to both phones. Well, I could either drop the phone or climb down.
Voice : I like the night shift. It's quieter. You get people who seem more civilised. Like. Maybe their kids are in bed so they don't want to wake them and just are more controlled with their emotion. Or maybe they're just exhausted, or even I dunno, just lonely and a voice in the night makes them a bit happier. Like, a bit more human. Like maybe they don't talk so much, not because they don't want to but because they don't go out or they don't really know anyone or they've got I don't know, a phobia or something which makes it hard to relate to people in the flesh.
We like to think our call centres offer a fast response to our customers needs. A person facing information portal accessible on demand.
As such our operatives are of vital importance to us and we have made every effort to reach out to everyone affected by the planned changes to the logistics and location of some of operations.
Voice 1. The systems are a joke. You log in and you've got this person on the line swearing blind they've done x or y, sent this, had this letter, paid that, y'know and you check the records and it's just an error message or an access request failure.
And you know, it's not because computers can't handle this, but because there's a 15 year contract been signed ten years ago somewhere and you’re trying to use 8 year old software that's useless to sort out this person's problem and you just don't have answers.
Voice 2: (someone is with them) I sometimes dream I'm going rogue. That I could just ring up and say whatever I like. Like a kid in a phonebox, y'know, you'd ring up a random number and pretend to be someone? I did! No, I'm not a freak, loads of people did it! (laughs) no, you’re the fucking freak, we always did that! How old? I dunno? 12 or something. You must have heard the thing about ringing China? For free? No? Jesus, did you grow up in a bloody priests training home or something? Yeah, you could ring up a number, it went round school and I tried it and someone answered in Chinese. Or whatever. I mean, it could have been any number of languages but it wasn't English and it was free. You'd giggle and say something in an awful Chinese voice and then slam the phone down.
What was it though? What was that strange free phone number that got answered in Cantonese or mandarin or whatever language it was?
I'd like to know.
I'd like to know who answers the phone when I call. Who it really is.
Everyone is just an address, a statistic, a series of payments or non-payments, a sale or a non sale.
I’d like to call and say.
Have you a moment?
Is this a good time for you?
I'd like to discuss...
I'm calling from...
I'm calling about...
Would you take a pencil and paper to bed and write down the first thought that comes into your head when you wake? Can you call back and tell me what it is please?
I'd just like to know, do you think it's normal for a grown adult to feel tired and depressed most of the time. Just to want to be alone.
What is the first smell you remember from your childhood?
What do you regret not doing? Why didn't you do it? Is it too late?
Why do people allow things to go on they know are wrong? Why do people allow things to just be? Even when they know that everyone else knows they are wrong, they just let it be? Is that human nature? Just to stand by and let life flow by like a river? Is that it? Not good, not bad, just ambivalent?
What worries you? What frightens you? What really scares you?
Would you like to sing? Right now? Down the phone line? With me! Just sing? Anything. We can just make noise if you like?...
Enthusiastic voice: This is a cubical. In here people spend the large part of their time here. There is a computer screen. A keyboard. A chair. The chair can be angled to the preferred position of the worker. There are headset, which can be placed over the corner of the screen. The computer is connected to the telephone network. People call in or we call out. We can see the details here. On this screen.
The chair can be adjusted to the preference of its occupant.
This chair might be occupied by different people with different sized bodies, but it can be adjusted. The neck support, the back, the height. All adjustable. It's down to people's priorities.
Sometimes people will mention discomfort, but often they've not considered the adjustability of the chair. The back-rest, the neck-rest, the height. All adjustable. So we tell them. We remind them of their responsibility to their own comfort, to remember to adjust the chair.
We say we are sorry they've experienced discomfort, but the chair is adjustable to the preference of the different occupants.
Some people still bring a cushion or sometimes fold up a piece of clothing and sit or lean on that. That's fine. We are happy with that. Totally happy to accommodate that. It doesn't impact on call quality. In fact, if someone called your phone and spoke to you today, you'd never know. You'd never know there was a non standard approach to comfort and that's why it's fine. We know everyone is different, everyone is a different shape but that shape has no impact on the ability to provide a consistent and efficient customer focus.
Voice 3: You can get caught out at first. Your voice gives it away. You call someone and they laugh and say 'heavy night?' or 'you don't like your job do you!' but you get used to the tone required, the crisp, clear voice. It's a voice which can't sound too automated but can't give too much of yourself away either. Of the you that exists outside of the walls. So you get used to switching yourself off. It's kind of like unplugging a hard drive from the main body of the computer. There's all this, I dunno, 'data' there, but until you plug it back in it's just dormant. I mean, it's there, but you can't access it, can't do anything with it.
So if you've been dumped, or if you're worried about an appointment at the Doctors or if your child is sick or your parent have died or like God, I remember, like the woman who was three rows up from me who lost her husband and child. Car. Hit them. Just a blind spot, just a moment and then the kid was alive just and the husband was dead, but just after that, a few days or something, the kid was dead too.
I saw her go.
She wore a little jacket, quite formal, like she wanted to dress well for work, y'know, like even though there wasn't a rule about that sort of thing as such, she wanted to be proud of herself. I didn't know her. I mean I don't know her. I didn't know what I made of the jacket, someday I'd think it was like an, um... Affected thing, a bit of an attempt to be better than where she was and other days I'd think, y'know, good for her. It's not a big deal, I mean, she probably got it second hand or something or had it from an old job. That was it I think, I mean, she was, is a bit older, maybe she used to work in an office or a bank or something. Or a travel agency or some other agency where she'd wear the jacket. And when she lost that job, or left that job or whatever, she thought she'd keep the jacket and now she just wore it because it was better than throwing it out.
Like I say, I didn't know her at all then, but I noticed one of the supervisors come over and speak to her, waiting, hovering for her to finish the call, then leaning in to stop her before she started a new one. She left, in a hurry and I knew it wasn't some sort of discipline thing, because there was no anger or shame in her movement. She peeled of the headset and grabbed her bag and started out for the door and the supervisor was at a loss for a second, he looked a bit dazed
I couldn't see their faces because she was in the cubical in front and to the side and it's a bit of a stretch to see right over the barrier without standing right up and it being obvious you are staring.
It was the way he stepped back from her, he stepped back to let her go but then it was like he felt he should do something or say something or invoke some sort of protocol but he'd been left in her slipstream. Like he'd fallen from a boat, into icy water and by the time he came to his senses and realised he could swim, the boat had gone.
I didn't know what had happened and I didn't see her for the next day or two but then I saw the local TV news and I knew. I mean I didn't think I'd see her again anytime soon but it was only maybe a week or two when I was just standing up, to stretch. I was just ahead of the call schedule and I'd bought myself a chance to stretch out a little and I saw her coming in. Like, I can't really put it into words. She came in, like a ghost? Or like a boat cut free from moorings, a boat without sails. She just kind of drifted. Drifted in. She looked, concussed, numb, rudderless, I think that's it. Like she was just being carried there. And the same supervisor was behind her, in the doorway, just hovering, watching and with eyes that made it seem like he was playing out in his head what had happened to her family happening to his. Or maybe, the word I said before was right, like she was a ghost. He looked haunted, like he'd seen something he couldn't explain, something that chilled his insides and she, the ghost ship sailed across the light blue carpet flecked with cream and white dashes towards the island of her desk and he stood and watched as if on the opposite shore, as if stranded.
We caught each other's eye. The supervisor and i, caught each other's eye I mean and there was this look. I don't know what it is, whether there's even a word for it, like a tight little grimace, a funny little thing with your mouth almost a smile and your eyes kind of radiating the horror of it all and I remember sighing, and sitting down, thinking that it was the most human moment I'd ever had there.
The supervisor. He told me later when I was training to be one myself, he said...
Supervisors voice takes over.
...what else could I do, I mean I don't know her other than what I know about her call records and that she dresses quite smart, she's reliable and accurate and I think she has a box of those fruit teas, those infusions I think you call them in the staff room cupboards. I mean, what the fuck was I supposed to say to her? I muttered something about it being nice to see her when I saw her on the way in and then though, shit, what the fuck have I said? So I sort of followed her but I felt like she didn't want to talk and then I remember reading something about how we project our feelings onto other people so I was thinking perhaps it was me who wanted to read that in her so I kind of just watched her get to the desk, feeling like I should run across and just shout to her or hug her but at the same time thinking that was the stupidest idea I'd ever had and she collapses into the chair, takes a moment, dies the deepest breath I've ever seen someone take, eyes closed and then just breathes out, lifts the headset, pushes the little touch switch under the monitor and then, fingers skimming across the keys like a dancer at double speed begins to enter her password and username.
CALLS MAYBE MONITORED FOR TRAINING PURPOSES.
New voice: Distant. At the heart of the machine is data. A database. It's in the heart of the machine like a fire is at the heart of a steam engine. If it's not in the database it's not something that exists. If it's in the database, then it's our truth. It's your truth. Except when it's wrong
So then, when it's wrong we change the database to ensure that it's true apart from the next time it's wrong.
SUPERVISOR: I listened to her first call. I mean, I had too, I wanted to be able to cut her off, y'know, if she started crying or lost it or something. I mean, kind of for her own sake as well as mine.
New voice: Distant: The database is attached to other databases. We can cross reference data in different places. But sometimes that data is wrong too and that's not our data. So we can't change that data.
Supervisor: I thought she sounded a bit quiet, y'know, a bit hesitant in the first bit of the first call but it was bad line and that can throw you off a bit and she got through the call. She got through it and delivered the script. That's what we say, in training. Deliver the script. Don't think too much, deliver the script, don't take too long, but don't be so robotic that it feels like a script to the person on the other end of the phone. Make them feel like you are *talking* to them, not *reading* to them. That's how it goes, the training. That's what I was trained to deliver anyhow. So i did.
New voice: Distant Sometimes the other databases are wrong and we can't do anything. We have to advise that people contact somewhere else and ask them to change the database. That's all we can do. It's like we can go through the door but everything is behind glass. If it's outlr own database, that's OK. But if it's someone else's, no. That's not something we can help with.
Supervisor: So, I had to do a little bit of paperwork, I mean I didn't have to, really. I mean, it's something you are supposed to do every time you monitor a call. To check, to fill in the sheet and score it. It needs to be a score of 21 in order to pass and failing to pass will result in training or a discussion or both. I mean, I wasn't going to score it! But I kind of thought, well, I can't really decide if I think she's OK to be here. I mean I can't consult the HR book for this, so I thought I'd fill in a form and just satisfy myself that she was OK
Y'know, to be doing the calls.
New voice: Distant: When I say we can change the database. I mean, we can't do that. We can leave a request for the database to be changed. That request will be stored in the database as well and if all goes well, will be followed up and acted upon. Unless it isn't. So, I suppose our own database is a bit like a room where everything is behind glass as well
Supervisor: I scored her 9s for the accuracy of her use of the script and the pace of the call but I had to give her 6 for the warmth of the tone to the customer. I thought it could have been the line, it's hard to establish that warmth sometimes when the line is bad.
New voice: Distant: It's also not true to say everything goes in the database. It should. But it doesn't. And sometimes if you ask us to change the database, then the request doesn't go in the database, or it doesn't go in the right place, or the right person doesn't look for it in the right place so it be there, but then again, might not be. There's also bits we can't see. Like bits hidden from view and sometimes you have to ask other people to go and look in those bits and tell you what they can see.