Reflections of a Call Center Owner

Monday, October 24, 2005

I have decided to move my blog from Blogger to MovableType so I can have more features and options. I have copied over my previous posts to my new home at:

Please visit me there to find my latest post!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Indian Sweat Shops

I came across this following article written by an Indian that worked at a call center.

To help US readers - 7,500 Rupees is equal to about $170 monthly income. That equates to about US$1.50 per hour.

The US call centers pay on average between $7 and $10 per hour for an average agent. The US call centers also offer a 20 minute paid break every four hours. Many offer break rooms with microwaves, free pop, and other such benefits. Add on top of that the cost of FICA and other employment taxes that the Call center must pay and you can come up with a fully loaded agent hourly cost of $10-$14.

You can see why a US Call Center tries to average at least $22 per billable hour and Indian Call Center can get away with charging $14-$18 per hour.

But when you outsource, consider that the agent in India might be enduring conditions like this.

This, in his own words, is his story:

I am 20 years old.

I was recently hired by a call centre in Kolkata to work for an overseas-based company. I was earning Rs 7,500 per month.

My workday began with calls I had to answer for five hours continuously, without a break.

As soon as I was through with one call, the next one would be waiting.

There was no time for me to even say a few words to the person sitting next to me.

After five hours of constantly answering calls, I would get a 20-minute break.

Then, I would take calls again for another three hours. Without a break.

I would take around 350 calls a day.

One day, I reached breaking point.

After taking 156 calls at a stretch, my throat started to hurt terribly.

I paused to take a breath and, in the process, I missed a call.

The calls that are directed to us were constantly monitored by a machine. Immediately, it alerted my supervisor to the fact that I had missed a call. My supervisor came and asked me why I was in the 'wrap mode'.

What this means is that my dialler shows a red bar when the person on the other end of the line hangs up without getting a response. The red bar is an indication that I did not take the call -- that the call was not 'live'.

At that moment, I just wanted to pick up my bag and leave. Permanently.

Instead, I stayed calm for the duration of my hours at work.

I fielded all my calls till 1 am.

But I had made up my mind -- I would quit this job with its inhuman pressures and its lack of empathy for employees.

Workplaces like this have only one goal -- to make money. This job expects you to work even if you are feeling ill; even if your throat hurts.

You cannot take even a 10-second break; the dialler throws calls at you continuously and you have to start pitching (taking them) immediately.

If you do not respond to the person at the other end of the line, s/he might hang up. That shows on your machine.

You have to ask for permission to go to the toilet. Often, your request is denied by your supervisor.

You repeat the same five sentences 350 times a day.

Isn't it pathetic?

When I started out, there was no pressure. Gradually, though, the stress grew beyond the levels of human tolerance.

Working at the call centre was a great learning experience for me. Now, it was time for a break.

When I worked, I had no time to watch a film, no time to read a book, no time to meet friends, no time to swim.

For the last few months that I worked at the call centre, I had time only for two meals a day. As a result, I lost my appetite.

I would return home at 2.30 am and go to sleep at 4 am. I would get up at noon and go back to work at 3.30 pm.

Now that I have quit, I can go out with my friends. I can spend time rediscovering myself.

With the approximately Rs 65 per hour that I made, I can buy a few books and have some fun.

Maybe that will take away the pain that came with this job.

But, believe me, the money could in no way make up for the pain!

I'll never work at a call centre again. Nothing is worth the ordeal I went through.

Monday, October 03, 2005

A Push Poll Characteristics

A legitimate survey, whether it be market research or a political survey, has some of the following characteristics:

A statistically random sample representative of the population
- A carefully crafted survey that attempts to avoid creating any bias in how the questions are presented
- Well trained interviewers that stay to the script, and know how to ask probing questions without creating bias or influence.

A push poll tries to create bias and influence opinion. It really shouldn't be called a "poll" at all, but it tries to disguise its bias behind "survey" questions. A push poll will have the following characteristics:

- A list that targets as many as possible, sometimes segmented by some criteria
- Slanted and biased questions designed to create a negative opinion of the candidate or issue
- Call center phone agents that try to influence opinion and change behavior.

Be careful to know the difference. You could face a big backlash if you utilize a push poll. I know someone at another call center that wound up as the lead story on CNN, with cameras in his phone room, because a disgrunted supervisor, who didn't get a raise, called CNN and disclosed the shady tactics being used on a particularly hot race. Needless to say, that call center lost the candidate and they had to work hard to repair the terrible PR that they got.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Push Polls - A Dirty Secret of Political Phone Banks

There has been several posts and articles about a GOP funded "Push Poll" against incumbent and candidate Bernie Sanders. I came across this by The Liberal Patriot Blog.

Here is what was reported by the Vermont Rutland Herald and first posted by David Sirota:

Specifically, Vermonter Tony Gordon reports receiving a call from a out-of-state call center in Nebraska. The caller asked "While it is fine to have a gadfly like [Senate candidate] Bernie Sanders in the House, since Vermont is such a small state, we must have real leadership in the Senate. Do you agree or disagree?" Clearly, as Gordon notes, the question was deliberately phrased to guarantee a desired result and spread misleading information about Congressman Sanders - not to guage actual public opinion.

A push poll is generally a "poll" that goes something like this:

Would you vote for X if you knew that he:
- gives money to child molestors?
- runs over old ladies?
- help free dangerous criminals?
- hits baby seals with a bat?

Usually the statements are false and repulsive, but they do create a bias within the voter and there exists an association with that candidate and something negative. Voters later may not even remember the specific allegation made in the push poll, but they often retain a negative bias against the candidate.

A push poll is generally viewed as pushing the ethical limits of acceptable campaign tactics. Why is it used then? Because it can really be damaging to a candidate, especially if it deployed in the day or two before the election and before the opposition candidate can respond. A large political phone bank or call center can call tens of thousands of candidates during the course of a day. It is tough to counteract that in a short time frame.

A push poll can also backfire. I was familiar with a campaign in California where the opposition candidate essentially charged in a push poll that the incumbent molested his daughter (something like this, "Would you still vote for John Doe, if you knew that Child Protective Services had come in to protect his daughter from further abuse?"

The challenger had taken an innocent event and portrayed it as a "what if" event. The tracking polls showed that the false charges were having a real damaging impact. So the incumbent responded and his grown daughter held a press release where she tearfully refuted all charges and asked how someone could be so mean to defame not only her father but her reputation. She then recorded a short and emotional wav file refuting these claims and an automated voice broadcast call was sent out to over 100,000 voters in the area. The push poll backfired on the challenger and there was a strong backlash and the incumbent won in a landslide several days later.

Many call centers or phone banks become involved in political work, doing things like Political Surveys, Tracking Studies, Get Out the Vote calls, Voter Identification Calls, Automated Voice Broadcast calls, or Advocacy Calls. Extreme versions of Advocacy calls fall into the camp of Push Polls. Stay away from them unless you are ready to get in to some hot water or get some bad press. You will find your agents really had doing the negative calls as well. Everyone gets their hands dirty on this kind of slimy work.

Friday, September 30, 2005

A Deadly Heresy for a Help Desk

I came across a post by an agent in a Help Desk call center, called Stupidity, The New Heresy. He had posted an image called "Happy Bunny" that I am showing here and made the following remarks:

[This picture] reminds me so much of my attitude towards the people that call me, day in and day out. If they would only grow a smidgen-size of intelligence in the wasted cavity where the normal human should show be, I would be a lot nicer to them.

I have got to tell you that this attitude is deadly and you have to change your agent's mindset. If you allow this attitude to be pervasive among your agents, you will continually encounter escalated customer complaints, loss of customers, and if you are an outsourced call center, you can jeopordize the entire account.

What is so deadly about this attitude? Consider his statement:

If they would only grow a smidgen-size of intelligence in the wasted cavity where the normal human should show be, I would be a lot nicer to them.

If they were smarter, I would be nicer to them. What a cop-out! This completely eliminates any accountablity on the part of the agent for proper customer service - "Hey, it is not my fault I was rude to them - they are stupid."

How will that customer ever grow in intelligence? It is something outside of the control of the agent or the company. The customer's intelligence is what it is and the company and the agent need to decide to provide a service that meets that intelligent level and deliver it so the customer feels valued and appreciated.

If you had to call this agent, and he responded in a manner that essentially said, "Hey, dumb ___ss, if you weren't so dumb, you wouldn't be bothering me. But since you are, let me help your sorry little self..."

Would you feel valued? Would you feel like you wanted to do business with this company again?

If you do find this attitude among some of your agents, ask them to define what they consider "dumb questions". You may find that there really are confused customers out there and maybe you as a company did something to make them confused. Did you send out poorly written instructions? Does your product really have some legitimate flaws that make a lot of people call a help desk? Is your marketing selling some feature that you really can't support?

Even if your company did do something that confused your customers, your help desk should never be allowed to foster and tolerate such a condesending attitude toward your customers. You need to either change the mindset (difficult but possible to do) or you need to filter out the promoters of this destructive attitude.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Impact of a Leader

In reference to my last post about the importance of grooming leaders within your call center, consider this post by an agent:

There is not really any clear leadership, and yelling at everyone and vague memos have to suffice for real training.

That said, I'm still here. I haven't been fired in the five plus years, I haven't been forced to sign any kind of oral or written warning, I have only had one review (I asked for more, they said they were coming). Then on the other hand, I haven't gotten any kind of raise, I haven't got one of those high performer plaques that they give out in the Friday morning sales meetings. I have had one really good ass chewing, and got yelled at across the floor a couple times, but nothing more than that.

I found that almost all agents really want to do a good job. But without appropriate leadership, they are unclear as to how to do a good job or how exactly you define what it means to do a good job. Consider the agent's comments above - only had one review in over 5 years, training comes through vague memos, correction comes by yelling across the floor. Can you find ways to enrich lives of promising agents by grooming them to be future leaders, giving them honest feedback on their strengths and weaknesses and creating appropriate motivation to improve. Five years at one place is quite remarkable in the Call Center Universe. I hope this company realizes that the value of this agent!

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Thoughts on Leadership

My friend Hal makes some good points about leadership. He writes:

I think it is interesting how most of us can identify a good leader and also usually know when the opposite is true. We don’t really even try, we just seem to know when leadership is present.

Call Centers are full of areas that require leadership. You really need to grow and nuture and develop leadership within the call center. How well are you ready to have your leadership tested in a crisis?