Working in a call centre is nobody's dream job, but for some of Generation ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ it is a grim fact of post-college life. For five years I answered phones for the kind of conglomerate your typical American multi-national outsources jobs to. These are some of the things I saw and learned.
Over-the-phone tech support was not a career move I planned for. The first such job simply came calling for me, since could speak sufficient German to reset someone's password and happened to leave my resume behind at a job fair.
A month later, I was waking up at 1 a.m. to bike downtown for a 2 a.m. shift, supporting the employees of a British pharmaceutical major. Granted, corporate IT support jobs like this are the Cadillacs of call centre work, but a lot of the following applies to most customer-service jobs.
Let People Vent
Answering phones means dealing with irate and frustrated people who have no one else to complain to. You need to let these people talk their anger out, listening patiently and occasionally letting out "right"s and "uh-huh"s. Their rage is like a sink overflowing with dirty pots and dishes—and you have to dig in and pluck out the "original sin," that one item that creates the pile-up. Identify and address that issue and their anger will simply drain away.
Often, that trigger can be novelty, or a resistance to change. I still remember the ranting Englishman who called up saying his newly issued laptop was total "pish," "shite," and "pure bollocks," only for it to emerge that his Wifi card was disabled. By this point, I could navigate blind Windows XP's menus, and the issue was quickly sorted. He ended the call by apologizing profusely for his rudeness.
Deliver Bad News Firmly & Manage Expectations
A corollary to frustration is the fact that every caller thinks their problem is the most important, requiring immediate satisfaction. Often, workers are trying to VPN in from a hotel room, or a café, or a third-party site. (European users on business travel in Asia were a common case.) If their VPN software crashes they are basically buggered, and you had to explain to them patiently that they cannot be helped outside of business hours, and that they need to wait.
Some would not take well to this. Take the story of Angry Vancouver Guy. It was the run-up to the winter Olympics and his trains were running behind, as it were. Him being on the west coast and our higher-level techs finishing at 3 p.m. EST made for some very narrow time windows during which he could be assisted. He earned his nickname by often calling just after our techs went home, getting agitated, and demanding to speak to the non-existent supervisor when finding out he would have to wait another day. At some point during the incident, someone had failed to take that into account, and to set his expectations accordingly.
(It's still important to try to empathize with raging people like this, as they may be under great levels of stress. When Angry Vancouver Guy called a few months after the Olympics, he sounded like a different person. He had also been assigned a new underling.)
Take Care of Your People — Wherever They May Be
After working for some time in an outsourced call centre, you'll find yourself suddenly receiving calls from more and more accounts, often with scant training. But since the work was very similar—only the names were changed—you quickly learned to keep the caller waiting while IM-ing a colleague who had the appropriate account access to reset a password.
Sometimes they'd ignore your chats and you would need to ping someone else. You would buy time from the caller by pretending you need to reboot your computer. Blaming "the new system" for being particularly slow that day was another sleazy stalling tactic—which you should never fall for.
We would also receive chats from the network and server techs working over-seas, who lacked the clerical chops to create incident tickets. While other agents dreaded this chore, they were still our colleagues, and so I became their go-to guy for help. Conversely, having a direct channel to them meant I could reach out to them to react to a developing problem in real-time, sometimes avoiding a stressful client escalation.
Learn (or Play) on Someone Else's Dime
Two types of people work in call centre jobs: strivers and slackers. The former were often community college grads and new immigrants, taking advantage of the fact that they were working off-hours to make ample use of the company's learning portal, through which you could grab PDFs of most conceivable certification training manuals.
Many of the slackers were young men whose lives seemed to revolve around video-gaming; die-hards among of them would plug their gaming rigs straight into the corporate network. After an official crack-down, one enterprising future ex-employee took to fashioning various DIY antennae—to better catch the free Wifi signal from the university next-door.
(Then there was the 19-year-old overnight weekend guy who made a habit of slipping off for pints at nearby bars while still logged in on his phone. A weekend supervisor found him sprawled across his desk one early Saturday morning, a patch of dried vomit on his shirt-sleeve. A stash of empties and weed were found in his drawer. We never saw him again.)
Sound Like an Englishman (or at least an Aussie)
If I had the choice between knowing what I'm doing or simply sounding like I know what I'm doing, I would take the latter eighty per cent of the time. One easy way to do so is by sounding British.
Since I interacted with a lot of Commonwealtheners, it was only a matter of time until expressions like "cheers, mate" crept into my IM vocabulary and I started using them with everyone (Aussies also say "cheers, cobber"). I would then run into local colleagues in the lunch room and they would be surprised, as they often assumed I was one of the local techs in Australia.
With Jobs You Don't Love, Be As Faithful As Your Options
The writing was on the wall long before we were informed that our work was being shipped over-seas. Hiring had been frozen for years, with accounts slowly moving out to upstart offices in Central Europe and South-East Asia, or disappearing altogether. They could hire 2.5 of us elsewhere for the cost of one employee in North America. (Subsidies from the province of Quebec to support our "high-tech jobs" were also being phased out.)
I had to pass on the company's o_O offer to move me — along with the jerb — to its new location, working North American hours (read: nights) while getting paid a locally-competitive wage.
And then I realized you need to break up with jobs like these long before they break up with you.