Call Centre Blues

On Tuesday 17th June 2008 I started a new job.

On 5th June 2008 I had lost my job as an internet technical support advisor for a major internet provider because I was turning off the call centre’s proxy server to access music on my PC. Of course we’d been told not to do it in training but rules are there to be broken. I’d lasted there a year and frankly I was amazed I’d stood it that long – almost everyone else I had trained with had left due to the pressures of the job – huge amount of knowledge to learn, limited time on the call, huge volumes of calls, terrible management, horrible shift patterns, poor pay. Many times I’d be driving home at 10.30 at the end of a shift trying hard not to nod off at the wheel. There were some good parts of the job, but I can’t remember what they were for now. I was glad to be out of there.

Two weeks later I started a new job in another call centre. I’d been round a few agencies looking for work and one said “Oh there’s a new call centre opening, go along on Monday and you can start straight away”. The call centre was 20 minutes walk from my house, which was ideal as that was the perfect length of one side of an album. I walked down there for 8:55, was introduced to the two bosses, given five minutes training and I was working from about 9:20 onwards.

It wasn’t a hard job, really. I was working for a loan company so people expressed an interest in a loan on the company’s website, us workers followed up these leads by ringing up the prospective customers, going through a loan application with them, then passing them to an assessor who would say “Yes” or “No” and then try to extract a “finder’s fee” from the customer, at which point the customer would realise they’d been duped and would end the call. All I had to do was get as many “apps” – applications – as I could per hour. Of course the company is only as good as the data coming into it, so if the customers were there then we could get apps, but if they weren’t there we’d get nothing. The whole database of contacts we worked from was web based, so as soon as a potential customer filled in a form online, we would be sitting in the call centre pressing F5 to refresh the screen to be the first to get the new contact to ring them and get the app, the rest of us working off older leads.

My first manager there was quite possibly the most obnoxious person I have ever met. I’m glad I can’t remember his name. He had come from a background in car sales and had the interpersonal skills of a … car salesman. His management style involved lots of shouting, hectoring us to get more apps and – for want of a better word – bullying. There was a whiteboard in the room where each worker listed how many apps they’d completed in the previous hour which would be totalled up at the end of each shift, and the winner would get a bonus at the end of the week. One day a few weeks after I started, this manager was doing the hourly round-up and asked me how many apps I’d completed. “None” I replied. “None? What have you been doing this last hour? Twiddling your thumbs? You need to do better than that” came the reply. I replied to him “Yeah well I’ll do my best but at the end of the day I’m not going home and shooting myself for not getting apps”.

The whole room went silent and my co-workers all looked at me, not quite sure if they’d just heard me say those words. “What did you just say?” the manager asked. I gave the same reply. His face was getting redder and redder and veins seemed to be popping on his neck. “Right, outside! NOW!” he screamed and we stepped out into the corridor. He was hissing at me now – “While you work for me you do not disrespect me, you listen to me, and you never speak to me like that again”. “OK” I said and we went back into the room.

It was around about this point that something that my parents had been saying to me for a while suddenly made sense. Maybe there was a reason why I didn’t fit in, why I could be so flippant but regret opening my mouth seconds later, why I couldn’t find the right words to say until it was too late, why I seemed to have no regard for rules or authority, why people said I was “an enigma” or “unmanageable”. To cut the long story short. I was diagnosed with having Aspergers Syndrome in early August. The final piece of the jigsaw of my world dropped into place. Yes it was a shock to discover this, but a relief as well. For so many years I’d been treated for depression with counselling and tablets but at no point had anyone really had a long look at my history of behaviour and put the whole thing into perspective. The day after my diagnosis, one of my work colleagues noticed I was a little quieter than usual. We had a chat on my break and I told her what had happened the day before. “I thought something was up” she said, “but it does make sense to me.”. It turned out one of her children had Aspergers and she’d noticed the traits in me. She was the only person who knew about it for a while, and if I did something obviously ASD-like – taking something literally, not getting jokes etc – she would take me aside afterwards and explain strategies to fit in a little more. When I was diagnosed, I was told it might be useful to keep a “feelings diary”. Not a standard diary, ‘cos I’d done that before and that had proved a useless exercise. But instead if I was upset about something I should write how I feel and work through my confusion. I never wrote in it when I was at home which proves something – I was only unhappy in work.

One of the peculiarities of the office was that nobody was allowed internet access. We all used Internet Explorer to gain access to the company’s intranet and use the database there, but going beyond that was a big no-no. It didn’t help that one assessor had been caught on the internet, filling in an online job application for another job. She was sacked that day. Ah the joys of agency work – no rights, you see. And we were all employed through agencies still.

Around a week or so after my diagnosis I went on a trip to visit my parents up in Chester. I had a great time up there and managed to rip a whole load of my father’s CDs onto my MP3 player. We also spent some time in the town centre and I picked up a CD I had been interested in for a while – “Seventh tree” by Goldfrapp. I’m not sure why I was interested in it – I’d heard the singles from their previous album and had noted their techno glitter beat, but something drew me to “Seventh tree”. I had heard “A&E” a few times and seen William Swygart’s foaming review of it somewhere, and had seen the video to “Happiness” once and liked it, so why not take a chance on the album?

That night, in a strange bed, feeling lonely without my wife and son around me, I slipped the cd on and lay back for that first concentrated listen. Opener “Clowns” enticed me in – Alison’s voice slurred but rich in emotion, the music building up gently as the song progressed, and somewhere around the minute mark into the song those butterfly-in-the-stomach chord changes come in and the orchestration gets richer. “Little bird” again starts gently but by the chorus of “July-ly-ly” (or is it “Do you lie lie lie?”) the descending modulations and chord changes kick in. When the drums kick in around 2:30 it’s like sunshine breaking through clouds, and Alison’s voice trills in an upper register towards the end of the song in a similar manner to Liz Fraser on “Those eyes that mouth”.

“Happiness” though touched nerves in me which probably not even the band could have predicted. At a point so close to my diagnosis, to hear the words “Join our group and you will find harmony and peace of mind /
Make you better, We’re here to welcome you / We’re all on a journey to finding the real inner you / Make you better…”. I know what the song could possibly be about but at that point it was singing to me, saying “Yes you’ve got Aspergers, but there’s people who can help you, want to help, make you better”. And I just broke down in tears in bed hearing this, and again little chord changes touches were breaking my heart. I kind of got my head together during “Road to somewhere” only for “Eat yourself” to wreck me again. This song could almost be from “Third”, the degraded sound of it all, again descending chord sequences doing flip-flop in my stomach. The last minute of the song is too gorgeous for words, a simple minor to major chord change and Alison’s wordless singing, and elements of sound dropping away. I was in floods again. “Some people” carried on in the same vein – “Some people find it hard to get dressed”, yeah I know that feeling, too scared to face the day. Then the chorus explodes – “You know it, you owe it to yourself / You won’t let it make you mad, it’s already crazy” – and then moves to a piano and an whisper straight into my tender heart – “And what you thought you lost was just mislaid / And all the poems written in your skin”. From there the album continues in a more traditional way, and really the last three tracks are just there, for me. They’re good but the emotional resonance is there in the first six songs. The whole album was like a follow-up to Saint Etienne’s “Tiger Bay” – the mix of electronic elements with folk music. It was beautiful music and the lyrics – as I interpreted them – touch me deeply. I played the album frequently over that time period and it seemed to calm me at a time when things were changing all around me.

Around August time there were a few changes in the call centre. The bullying manager was caught snorting a line of cocaine in the toilet and promptly sacked – after offering to share it with the director who found him doing it. More people joined the call centre and plans were made to expand into the building next door to accomodate the new staff. It was also around this point that someone decided our days would pass so much better with a radio playing in the background. Now I’ve worked in many call centres over the years and I’ve never known any other have a radio playing in the background. I’ve worked in computer programming suites with radios, I’ve worked in care home kitchens with radios, but you would think that a call centre would need a bit of hush. But no, we had local station Red Dragon playing all day, from 9am to 5:30pm, or 12:30 til 8pm depending on your shift. Now a little bit of commercial radio is ok in small doses but I got sick of Red Dragon pretty quickly. So much so that I made a tally chart of how many times they played the same song in their limited repertoire. Colleagues would ask me “Hey Rob, when did they last play ‘Closer’ by Ne-Yo?” And I’d reply “Two hours ago”. By the end of each day I’d add a sheet to my board cross referencing songs and the times they were played. Red Dragon really got on my nerves that summer. I started having walks away from the building during my breaks, with music blasting on my headphones to nullify the noise in the call centre. The centre was in quite an isolated location, at the end of a long road away from Newport, close to the entrance of the Brynglas tunnels and M4, and alongside the River Usk so I could walk down a path under the motorway, alongside the river and basically see how far I could walk and still be able to get back to my desk in 15 minutes. I had my first MP3 player so had a directory on there of songs to cheer me up if I’d had a crappy shift – “Magic rocking horse” by Pinkerton’s Colours, “Flaming desire” by Bill Nelson, happy fast and loud. Around this time I discovered “Subway (smokey pokey world)” by The Tickle, a single from 1967 which turned up on Mojo’s “Acid drops” box set. I first heard it one night at Butlins – on my MP3 player, not a disco – and I played it twenty five times in a row while frantically texting a friend saying “What can you find out about this band?”. It’s a classic freakbeat song, stinging lead guitar, great vocals and crazy lyrics that took me a while to work out. “Subway” got a lot of play during my walks, but the one song I turned to most often after a crap shift was “Everybody is a f”””ing liar” by The Posies, which would frequently be accompanied by a frantic sprint to get as far as possible. It worked well, fast and furious and loud as hell, and everybody was a liar in the call centre, so it made sense.

It’s not that I didn’t like the people – they were great, and I’m still in touch with a few of them even now – but the job itself made everyone a liar. We knew in the back of our minds that something wasn’t right, but it was a job and paid alright. The company was set up by two directors (who would park their Ferraris and Porsches next to the other staff’s Vauxhall Corsas) who’d resigned from another company in the area which did the same thing, and there were rumours of the original company trying to sabotage us – planting a mole, bad data, that sort of thing. Paranoia was high, and got higher as time went on.

In September the company was going from strength to strength. More staff were taken on and there were plans to take over the building next to us. I was still nervous and anxious on calls though, not hitting my targets and worried as this thought diary expresses.

“Monday 15th September. 15:20. Still unhappy, all moved around in work, new team leader, new desk, not happy to all. On edge, would happily walk out on job in an instant. Must stay calm, finding it hard to stay calm”

This tells an interesting story actually. The “new team leader” was an arsehole, another big bully who shouted a lot and really rubbed me up the wrong way. He insisted on moving everyone around to “get them out of their comfort zones” and away from their friends. I liked to sit in the same place every day, even if everyone was supposed to “hot desk” – a concept I hated – so moving me around upset me. This team leader got me so worked up that I had a meltdown and had a day sick in the week, during which his behaviour got worse and the directors ended up sacking him partly for the way he’d treated me and partly for harassing another staff member. When I returned to work on the Friday, things got slightly odd.

The morning shift carried on as normal, but nobody was allowed out into the ‘garden’ area behind the building where there were ‘biergarten” benches for smokers. The later shift people came in and we all carried on, curious as to what was happening. Then at 1pm the directors told us to stop working and go outside. There were trestle tables loaded with buffet food and plates and glasses and bottles of wine and champagne. The directors explained that everyone was now working for the company not the agencies we’d started with, we were celebrating the success of the company, and dive in to the food and drink. And everyone did. We all sat around chatting all afternoon eating and drinking – and the directors kept giving out wedges of notes to people to “get more bottles” – eventually we got through 51 bottles of champagne. Being teetotal I didn’t drink any but watched everyone getting more and more sloshed as the afternoon wore on. Around 4pm we were told to get back on the phones and I witnessed a bunch of drunks slurring through callbacks to customers – hence more from the diary.

“Friday 19th September: 16:30. Everyone’s drunk and it’s not much fun. Rude crude loud. But they still get apps. HOW??? Very strange”

By 5pm the directors told us they were closing for the day, everyone would get paid for their day regardless of what they’d done, and everyone drove very carefully home.

The big expansion did take place as predicted, more staff were taken on and the building next to us was rented out so we had somewhere to go. Around this time a new automatic dialler was introduced to “make life easier”. Instead of everyone sitting around waiting for new leads to come up, we all plugged into this software dialler which took numbers from our backlog of customer requests from our website and automatically rang them, regardless of whether they were new-ish customers or old customers who’d moved on and forgotten they’d shoved their telephone number onto our website. But oh my God, soon everyone regretted the introduction of this dialler. The customers hated being harrassed by calls, we got grief on the phone when we did get through to people, the managers gave us grief because our stats all went down, and still we plugged away using it for about six weeks before it was switched off for good. If you google the name of the company (which I’m not mentioning) you can still find pages of complaints about us on “whocalledme.com” or that kind of website, all from around the time our automatic dialler kicked off.

There was also the case of a customer who felt he’d been misled during the process and created a website with a similar name to our own which listed our faults and misdemeanours, and he started hassling us too – one time he parked outside the building taking photos of us as we finished our shifts, then put the pictures on his website. The paranoia was increasing, but the company still seemed to be doing ok.

At the start of October I took a chance on another album – “All we could do was sing” by Port O’Brien. I’d seen a review on Teletext which raved about it, and thought it sounded interesting. I loved it so much I played little else for a month. The back story for Port O’Brien was how they were from California but with roots in Alaska and a fishing community, or something like that. The album starts with what sounds like a bunch of scouts tapping out a rhythm around a campfire, then an acoustic joins in and then the scouts start singing and wailing. It turns into a communal sing-song – “I woke up today” – with stops and starts throughout. It shouldn’t work but it does. “Stuck on a boat” starts with the clipped electric chords of “Cortez the killer” as the singer explains how he wants to leave the fishing community and live his own life, and as the song hits the chorus the band drift in alongside a simple violin line which tugs the heart strings. “Fisherman’s son” sees both sides of the story – one verse is wanting to escape and the second verse is about being away and missing home, and the music reflects that – the opening being purely acoustic then the band pile in for the “city” verse. “Don’t take my advice” is acoustic guitar and banjo, sounding like it was recorded in a shed, more loss and wondering about leaving. The songs are about escape, from your surroundings and circumstances, and if it’s really as good as it seems. “My eyes won’t shut” is more upbeat but still confused about where to be – “And I’ve got nothing else to do / But waste this lazy afternoon / So I will / So I will” – then the final truthful statement – “There’s a feeling in my gut telling me to shut the f*** up”. This was usually the point in my walk to work when I’d get to the door of the office. Side two starts with what sound like Neil Young song with “Pigeonholed”. Snarling electric guitars and lyrics about the sixties generation messing up, then a perfectly Young-like guitar rave up, atonal guitar solos and all. “Will you be there” starts like it’s recorded on an acoustic on a boat and is a folky plea for companionship and love. “The rooftop song” is upbeat with jangling electric guitars and banjos and God that sounds horribly Mumford and Sons but it’s not, honest. At this point a female voice is heard – all previous vocals have been by a gentleman called Van and now Cambria makes an appearance, harmonising in the distance at the start of the song. After a minute and a half she stops singing and lets the electric guitars battle it out for a few minutes over two chords. “In vino veritas” has Cambria singing again, around a minor chord campfire strum. I must say that her voice is one of the vaguest female voices I’ve heard since Anne-Mari Davies’ vocals on the Northern Picture Library, you really have to concentrate on her voice – it’s not well trained but gets the emotion through – more dreams of escape. “Close the lid” is the one though, the absolute killer. Starting with guitar and shaker for the whole first verse and chorus, even just a single guitar line sometimes, then the whole band kicks in and the propulsion is racing, more words of fishing and boats and failing and falling and wanting to go and not knowing what to do. More voices are adding as the song progresses and after the third chorus it just rampages over a two chord change and there’s more la-la-las and shouting and screaming and it doesn’t bloody stop moving onwards and sorry it doesn’t help but I f***ing love this song – “and I like it better here where I can be cold all year, at least I’ll be by myself”. If I was walking to this – as I often did – I would be rampaging down the pavement. The album closes with “Valdez”, which really is recorded on a boat and tells Exxon to clean up their mess. Alaskans don’t forget, I suppose. So that was the album and it soundtracked the next month or so of my life, or the parts where I walked to or from work.

What was slightly odd was that just after I bought the Port O’Brien album we had “changed” radio stations in work. After months of my howls of protest, the radio was finally moved on to Mojo radio. I have no idea who made this decision but I didn’t mind at all. They played “classic rock”, mainly 60s and 70s stuff and it was fair more tolerable to have “Penny Lane” repeated three times a day than whatever Rihanna single was doing the rounds that month. Admittedly it was just as regimented as Red Dragon, and you could set your watch to it – and amazingly the shift manager tolerated my “Hotel California” hatred by turning the radio off if that song came on. I had had a quiet chat with him and said “Look, if that song comes on I’ll have to leave the building” so that aspect of the “classic rock” experience was avoided. But the oddest thing about Mojo Radio was how they played three contemporary songs during each day in amongst all the Led Zep and Rolling Stones. I can’t remember what the other two were, but one of them was “Close the lid” by Port O’Brien! Whenever it came on – which was once a day – I would stand up with my headset on and dance at my computer station. “But weren’t you on calls to customers?” you say. Well…there were issues!

The few entries in my diary around this time reflect why I associated so much with Port O’Brien’s songs of escape. “8th October – ready to explode, can’t do job, can’t get apps, don’t want to talk to people, want to leave job, want to never ring someone again in my life, escape phones forever” – “16th October – this is completely the wrong job for me, am panicing about moving rooms, and targets. Don’t like feeling this ill, stomach churning, head pounding. ‘Pick it up next hour’ they say. HOW? No new leads, and I’m ringing callbacks and getting nothing. This isn’t worth the stress any more.”

Things were changing – the new leads were running low, the old leads were dying or dead. The culture had changed, the credit crunch was kicking in and people suddenly didn’t want to take out loans. The number of apps we were completing was getting lower and we’d all noticed it happening. We were assured we’d be OK and to keep trying and we did. But we were all quietly worried. One day we were all working away in the two original rooms and the managers would come in, call a few names and take people into the new building. We all looked at each other – what was going on? My name was called, I went into the new building and we all sat around chatting – we weren’t working or on the phones. After about thirty of us were in the room, the managers came in and said “Right OK, just to say that everyone who’s not in this room is losing their job today”. A hush went across the room – about half the staff were laid off that day. Now the remaining staff were worried as hell.

Autumn kicked into gear, the nights drew in and it seemed I was walking to work in the dark and leaving at dusk too. A new soundtrack was needed and “Fleet Foxes” provided it. Again it was something I took a chance on, I knew I’d heard a song on the radio by them and liked what I’d heard. Around this time I was quite cut off from the world – I wasn’t really listening to the radio (Red Dragon not really counting as radio) and wasn’t reading the music monthlies either. So I took a chance one Saturday and picked it up, to much scorn from my wife – “What kind of band calls itself Fleet Foxes? Not very rock’n’roll”. She would carry on in this vein for a few months until the point where “Mykanos” was being regularly played in TV ads for the album in Spring 2009 and she admitted that she liked them. But even when I played the album for the first time I wasn’t sure what to expect. What I found as an odd combination of Beach Boys singing in a school assembly hall (echo and all) with Steeleye Span folk stylings. Songs twisted and turned in on themselves. There was a lovely rich sound to the music and I loved it, and I played it incessantly for the next month – it took over as my walking soundtrack and again being a decent length for an album – 40 or so minutes – it worked well as side one into work and side two going home. Equally good was that side two was darker and more melancholy which worked well walking home in the dark.

Times were getting darker in the call centre. New staff were being taken on, lasting a week then disappearing. The leads were drying up and apps were few and far between. We still had the hourly app role call from our managers and each time one of us got a zero apps for an hour we all cheered. Strangely enough during this period I had a day with my highest app count ever – 42 apps in an eight hour shift. Even now I have no idea how I did it. Paranoia was almost at breaking point now – there were dark mutterings from the management on our intranet site about one of the IT staff being a traitor and working for the opposition and how he’s been giving us bad data so had been sacked. My final diary entry catches this vibe.

(Note – the reference to my fall here shows it was the day I slipped on some ice walking into work and cut my knee open, so I spent the day with it bandaged up and was unable to take my usual walks on my breaks.)

“Tuesday 24th November. Bad feelings in the workplace. General opinion is that the company is going down. Maybe we all didn’t want to believe it. Me? After my fall this morning I’m not exactly bouncing with joy and haven’t had a music walk all day, so a little annoyed at myself. On 4 apps after 5 hours is crap, but others are doing worse. Sometimes wonder how this company can exist. There’s stuff going on here and it doesn’t feel good – where is the data? Why doesn’t anyone pick up? Nothing stops me worrying.”

It is worth reiterating that working in a call centre is a very boring job. You may watch Nev on “The Call Centre” (BBC documentary currently showing life in a Swansea call centre, for those non-UK readers out there) and think it looks a barrel of laughs but it isn’t. It is repetitive, mind-numbingly boring, you have the same conversation over and over and over again. Yes the camaraderie is great because everyone’s in the same boat together, but the job itself is dreadful. Some call centres have fun activities to relieve the tedium but some are just a slog. It’s OK if you’ve got work to do, if you are inbound and the calls are flooding in, but outbound calls are a different matter. You are reliant on people picking up and if they don’t pick up then you’re in for a really really boring day listening to the dialling tone and getting more and more frustrated as time passes.

On Friday 5th December there was another cull of staff, some relatively new staff and some who had been there for a while. One by one they were taken into a little room and told they were no longer required. They came back, took their belongings and disappeared. The remaining staff – myself included – looked at each other. Who was going to be next? How many of us were going to remain? In the end, about 15 of us were taken into the boardroom and given an envelope each. Inside was a letter thanking us for our hard work, congratulating us on passing our ‘probation’ with the company, and saying we were now permanent employees. Within a week it would be a worthless piece of paper.
The end came on the 12th December. I had the day off as my family were all ill so I’d rung through to reception that morning to say I wasn’t coming in. I also asked where my wages were. We had moved from monthly wages to weekly wages halfway through November and were paid every Friday. The receptionist told me there was a problem with the bank but my money should be there at lunchtime. At one pm I checked the bank again and it still hadn’t gone in so I rang reception again – and got a dead line. Now I was worried. I had a mobile number for one of the managers so I rang him. He said he was driving home on the motorway and would ring me back when he got to the next services. Our manager driving home at lunchtime? What was going on? He rang me back ten minutes later and explained the company had gone into administration and there was a meeting with the administrators on Tuesday at the office and I should be there. He didn’t know much more to tell me, to be honest.

At 9am the next Tuesday all the former employees were there outside the office shivering in the cold Winter breeze. There was a strange camaraderie amongst us – we were like war veterans getting together for one last time. I heard how it all had ended – everyone was working on Friday morning making calls and completing apps, but the two directors were nowhere to be seen then at 12 everyone was called into the boardroom, the administrators introduced themselves, told everyone the news, said “Get your stuff because we’re locking the building” and by 12:30 it was closed for good. I also heard that some of the staff were sat outside in the area we’d had a party to celebrate our success three months previously, cracking open cans of lager and passing around a crafty spliff. So on this frozen day we were all there and amazingly so were the local press. One of the staff was outraged at what had happened to the company and had called ITV Wales news and our local newspaper. The shift managers – who had been as in the dark as the normal staff – refused to be interviewed saying it might damage their careers but the rest of us didn’t care – we had nothing to lose. So most of us were interviewed by both organisations and that night I was all over the ITV Wales news – without my bloody name on screen whereas everyone else got named, the bastards. The next day we were in the local paper, and I still remember that picture being taken – the photographer telling us to look glum – “You look too happy, you’ve lost your jobs haven’t you?”. The administrator gave us our paperwork to get our remaining pay (it took three months) and we all said goodbyes to each other. Some of us are still in touch via Facebook and some of us ended up working in other call centres together. But I simply cannot listen to that first Fleet Foxes album now – it is so entangled for me in the end of this call centre that I can’t hear it. I usually listen back to this records if I’m writing about them but I found Fleet Foxes too painful, I couldn’t get past the first three tracks. Music and memories. Sigh.

Next time – well I’m not sure at the moment what comes next. We’ll see when we get there. Thanks for reading.

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