Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Ronald A. Katz must die

This is Ronald A. Katz:

And I think he should be executed for crimes against humanity.

I can hear you think: Why would Lennard, who is so against violence, want this friendly looking old gentleman dead? Well.. I’ll explain this, and 2 sentences from now, you will agree with me.

You think you won’t? Okay, let me tell you this, then: Ronald A. Katz is the inventor of the automated call centre.

See, I told you. I bet you’re already grinding your teeth, now that your mind is racing across all those calls to your phone company, internet provider or electricity supplier when you were kept on hold for 10 minutes or longer, only to be cut off without explanation, transferred to the wrong department and, ofcourse, put on hold again, or was simply told to go fuck yourself because there is nothing they can do for you. And all that was ofcourse after you made your way through countless robot-voice controlled menus for several minutes before you were put on hold in the first place, all in order to get to speak to a living being to explain your problem.
We’ve all been there, more times than we would like, and everybody simply hates call centres.
                         He does too

But before you get out your shotgun or your stash of Semtex and start exploring Google for mr. Katz’s address, let me explain the bigger picture for you. You see, you’re not the only one who gets fucked over here. Call centres are bad for everyone involved, not just for you as you spend your lunchbreak trying to pay a gas bill while in the back of your head you are dreaming of the nacho platters your colleagues are shoving down their throats. Oh no, if only it was that easy.

Let’s start with the root of all evil: The corporations. Corporations HATE call centres too, you see. Now I’m not talking about out-bound call centres here, because they operate in an entirely different circle of Hell. Those are the people who make unsollicited calls during dinner, or while you’re watching a good movie or match after a hard day’s work, trying to sell you shit you don’t need such as a 3rd pension plan or additional insurance to insure your car insurance. These operations are so vile that they would need an entire book to themselves and just thinking about them makes me want to smash something.

A typical phone sales person at work

No, what we’re talking about here are inbound call centres, the places you call to do something simple but then spend an hour on the phone with. The corporations that create them, hate them too. Why?
Simple- they cost money.

Even worse- they cost money but don’t generate any sales. All those people that work there, talking to angry customers, are just sitting there, taking abuse, but they’re not selling anything. I once overheard a high-ranking executive saying that he’d rather close down his whole customer care operation because the cost of the call centre was higher than the revenue he estimated the company would lose for being assholes to their customers, so he would rather do away with it. Call Centres cost corporations millions and get them no extra income. As soon as you see the cost of your call centre on your balance sheet at the start of the year, you know you’re saying goodbye to an 8 figure sum of money with pretty much zero chance of getting any of it back. And because of that....

It SUCKS to work in a call centre.

I know quite a lot about this because for my dayjob I work in Human Resources, and a couple of years ago I worked as an HR administrator for a large American car company. They employed about a 1000 people in the building I was responsible for, and about half the set up was call centre so therefore I got to speak to a lot of call centre workers about their issues.

Many people will at some point in their lives have had some sort of experience, maybe just for a couple of days, where picking up a phone and listening to angry customers was your job. It sucks. Everybody you get on the phone is already pissed off, first because their product isn’t working as it is supposed to (that’s why they’re calling) and second because they’ve been wrestling through menu options for a good while before they got to talk to you. Taking constant abuse from people is no fun.

On top of that, because it is often simple work and companies want to spend as little money as possible on this part of the operation, your pay is generally shit too. But this is not where the misery stops for people who work in call centres. A low salary is only just one part of the depressing puzzle. As I said, corporations HATE spending money. So apart from paying their call centre people low wages...

Companies intentionally understaff their call centres.

Large corporations have planning departments that specialise in analysing reports that tell them how many calls are coming in and when and, consequently, how many people they would need at the very least so that these people are constantly at work and the customers have a waiting time that is just long enough to get them extra angry but not long enough to hang up and start crying or to move to a rival. So they put as little staff as possible there, which means that you are constantly talking to customers, without time to do anything else.
Think we’re there yet? Not quite! Because apart from being paid peanuts and being constantly stretched to breaking point..

Everything you do is timed to the second.
When you work in a call centre, you are basically the civilian version of an ex-convict who has one of those electronic tracker bracelets around their ankle so that the police can send over a squad car when they get too close to a school or playground or monastery or something. Working in a call centre is like that.

This starts when you come to work in the morning. Let’s say that your shift starts at 7AM (it is often shift work with strange hours, after all). So you come in at 7AM sharp, maybe even 6.59, and guess what.. you’re late.
I know it seems impossible to be qualified as ‘late’ while you’re actually early but that’s how it is.

The way they reason is that calls start coming in at 7AM and therefore you have to be entirely up and running at 7AM SHARP. It takes 2 or 3 minutes to switch on your computer and put on that annoying head set, so if you get there just before 7.. well, it will be 48 seconds after 7 before you are fully operational and that means you are late and you will get a mark on your rap sheet as a late comer. Does your bus or train connection mean that you will be in your cubicle at 7AM sharp, or maybe 7.01? Too bad, you will have to leave home half an hour or even an hour earlier to catch the earlier train.
“Yeah, but then I’ll be at work 43 minutes early!” you scream in anguish. Nobody cares, you have to be taking abuse from angry customers at 7AM sharp and how you get there is your business.

But it does not stop there, oh no. You will typically be connected to your phone by a  headset. Every time you take off your headset, you will have to explain why you do that. Need to go to the toilet? Please click on Log Off Reason 1-Toilet. Need a glass of water? Reason 2- drink.
For every possible reason there could be to take off your headset, there is a corresponding code and at the end of the week, your supervisor will receive a report stating exactly how often you went for a drink, how much time you spent on the toilet, etcetera. And yes, they will berate you for being on the toilet for more than average because when you’re taking a shit, you’re not taking calls. Which brings us to the next problem..

Your break is at a set time, and only that time.

Say your coffee break is at 9.45AM. You will have EXACTLY 15 minutes from EXACTLY 9.45. Should you happen to get a customer on the phone with a complicated problem at 9.44, you can say goodbye to most of your break and you will have to run to the coffee machine, get your coffee and be back at 10.00 exactly to get back to work. The same goes for lunch.
Had enough yet? Well, there is one more thing that makes working in a call centre horrible:

There is zero room for your own input.

As mentioned, corporations don’t want to spend any money on call centres so they make everything as simple as humanly and technically possible. This is especially true in tech-support businesses. Did you ever shout at the person you had on the phone when your Xbox wasn’t working properly, because he or she asked you to check if the machine was plugged in? And then next they asked you to check if the other end of the cable was actually in your Xbox? Yeah, I know you shouted. Ofcourse, everybody would because that is the dumbest question ever. Ofcourse you checked that, do you think I’m stupid, you little shit?
The problem is, that is the only thing they are ALLOWED to say as per company instructions. I once spoke someone who worked in tech support for Playstation and they basically have a big flow chart on their screen and all they do is walk through it, over and over and over again and they hate it. But if they do anything else, they will be punished by their supervisor for not following that flow chart. The flow chart is put in place by the company because that makes it simple. And if it’s simple, it’s cheaper in the end, even if they do have to ask those 2 ‘is it plugged in?’ questions every time. The guy I talked to got an official warning for skipping those plug questions because they are ridiculous but they’re policy so you have to do it.

Ofcourse, people are now thinking that if the work is not exactly difficult, it should be easy to get into management. Well, think twice, because if you are a supervisor or team leader in a call centre, almost everybody hates you just as much. Your disciples think you’re an ass for enforcing all those strict and unbendable bullshit rules, but the higher ups in the management hierarchy think you’re a dope because your staff doesn’t listen to you and constantly break the rules.

So here you have it.. your pay is low, you’re under constant stress, nearly everybody shouts at you, you’re being monitored in every step you take and your work is braindead without room for personal input.
Nice, isn’t it? It is because of this, that..

Sickness and personnel turnover in call centres are exceptionally high.

About 3 times as high as they are in other businesses like Accounting or IT or HR. It’s not surprising. If you work on an interesting project or have some important accounting reports to finish for a big client, you will go to work even if you’re not feeling 100%. If you wake up, feel a bit under the weather and you know you will have to take  8 hours of shouting in your ears, it is easy to call in sick, pull the pillow over your head and dream about tropical beaches and drinks served in coconuts. This happens often.

There are companies that try to battle the high sickness rates in call centres by using a controversial method called the Bradford Score. The way it works is this: You take the number of sick days, multiply this by the number of occurrences and then multiply it by the number of occurrences again. So say, you’re sick for 2 days, then your score will be 2x1x1=2 points. Then your sick again for 2 days, so your total score will be 4(2+2)x2x2=16 and so on. The company then sets trigger scores and if you cross certain tresholds, you get either a formal warning, an offical warning, a disciplinary hearing and so on. Supporters of this system always claim that it has been proven to help battle sickness.

My personal opinion is that you don’t really battle sickness this way, but merely set up measures that are so draconian that people will come to work even if they are sick and you spend valuable time on endless disciplinary meetings. It’s like telling your children not to eat candy just before dinner, and to enforce this you install a booby trap gun in the candy cabinet that shoots them in the shoulder if they open it. Yes, they probably will eventually do what they’re told but not because you have taught them why. And because of that...

Company loyalty is non-existent.

As we have established in the previous pages, working in a call centre sucks. This is why personnel turnover is so high. Sure, if you leave this job to take up your next call centre job, it will suck again. But at least they pay you 100 dollars more per month. Especially in places where many call centres are clustered together, like Barcelona or Prague or, yes, Dublin, people change jobs constantly, going to whoever pays that little bit more. They really don’t care if they’re talking to customers about cable tv or game consoles or electric kettles. After a while it’s all the same.

I know there’s probably people out there who work in a call centre and enjoy it. Maybe they work for one of those rare companies that do give a shit about their call centre workers. Or maybe they have a deep affinity with the product they’re talking about, like the girl I met who works in the call centre for Hilton Hotels and loved being part of something exclusive and glamorous. Maybe there are other reasons that I don’t see, but in general it is like I described above.

So, to round off, get in your car and drive over to Ronald Katz’s house and do what comes naturally.
I am going to do what I have been putting off while writing this story: call my phone company to pay a bill.



  1. Very entertaining and totally relatable story!! x zus

  2. Hilarisch artikel, wat heb ik gelachen! Dit is ZOOOOO ERG WAAR!!