The Second Worst Job I Ever Had

Before I worked in I.T.

Back when I was a teenager, the first job I ever worked full-time was in an inbound call centre for a directory enquiries service.

To set the scene, some time I think around 2003, the UK's directory enquiries - that quaint little telephone service you called to get other telephone numbers in the days before we all walked around with the entire sum of human knowledge in our pockets - was opened up to competition and a new range of services, all starting with the telephone number 118, were launched. For about a year, I worked for one of these services initially 9am - 5pm, Monday to Friday, before I later dropped to part-time (which included mandatory weekend shifts) then finally packed it in altogether when I realised it was - to put it delicately - not the career or experience of work I wanted.

It's important to clarify here that I'm not a snob when it comes to work; hand on my heart, I do not think I'm better than people who work in retail, coffee shops, call centres, etc., nor do I think those jobs are "beneath me". I actually have a great deal of respect for people who work in customer service, because I know that they are often sneered at, subject to abuse by the less pleasant members of the public, the pay tends to be poor and the work non-stop and demanding. I thus have far more respect for the person who will buckle down and do that job than the person who thinks they would be demeaning themselves to even consider it.

The reason I describe my job in a call-centre as "the second worst job I ever had" isn't because I was a temp working in a call centre, taking an average 350 calls per eight hour shift. It's for two main reasons; first, the way that company treated its customer-facing telephone staff (who were the ones actually delivering the service) and second, because of how they measured us and judged us.

Metrics and targets

I didn't mind the call centre. It's not the most exciting the job in the world, it's just steady repetition. We had a script and were not to deviate from the script. Now the phone service itself wasn't too profitable; the real money came from businesses paying as advertisers to come up at the top of the list when certain keywords were requested. So far, so antiquated Google. For a general search (where the caller is not requesting a specific business by name and location), the instruction we were given was that the first number you had to offer the caller was the first advertiser which came up on the computer screen (I think competing advertisers were essentially ordered at random each time you did a matching search).

Seems like a good idea from the business point of view, in principle, but it would lead to a couple of silly situations; a caller could ask me to find them a taxi in Cardiff, yet if that search matched a paid listing for a taxi firm in Swansea and the computer decided to show it at the top, that's the number I had to offer the customer. You can imagine how well this would typically go down.

The other money-spinner for this service was what they referred to as call completion and they loved to have metrics and targets around this. So after finding a number to the customer's satisfaction (usually not a taxi firm in a completely different town many miles from where they lived), our script dictated we had to ask "Shall I connect you?" and if the customer said yes, I then had to blurt out as quickly as possible something along the lines of "Okay, calls are connected at sixty-five pence plus twenty pence per minute from most landlines, calls from non-BT landlines and mobiles may vary."

It should come as no surprise that upon hearing the second part there, it would suddenly dawn on a lot of customers they could just as easily call the number I'd conveniently sent to their phone as a text message by themselves and at a lower rate, and they'd interject and cancel their prior affirmation that yes, they would very much like to save seven seconds of dialing. But there were also a portion who either didn't get the message about what would be happening to their phone bill, or just didn't care (I guess they earned more than I was at the time). Good for business and as long as I've stayed on script and asked the question, nothing more I can really do, right?

Right. I had a script and if I deviated from that script and the call was recorded, I'd get told off for deviating from the script.

Here's my problem: I was also told off if I didn't manage to send around 20% of my calls each shift through call completion. What?

I understand the value of data and metrics in a business. I can understand having a script, tinkering with it, seeing which questions or prompts have better customer engagement with which set of rates, learning from it, refining what you ask your telephone agents to say on the call. Everything about that makes sense. What I don't understand is giving your agents a script, telling them they ought not to deviate from it by so much as a word, then telling them it's their problem if it doesn't yield the results you wanted.

I stuck to the script, I asked the question, I read out the charges and if 85-90% of customers didn't want to pay them after, I had no more control or influence over that than I did over whether or not it was sunny outside, yet there it was in my KPIs ("key performance indicators"), call completion rate.

There were other metrics and targets, of course, but I won't bother going in to them. I stuck it out at that call centre for a number of months while building a small portfolio of freelance software development work on the side until I was eventually able to land my first full time job in I.T. Suffice to say the take-away for me in all this is that as a business, you need to be smart about your metrics, how you gather them, how you test improvements and gather feedback from your users.

These days I am much more fortunate, both in what I do and having an employer which thankfully doesn't make poorly thought out demands of me in the form of arbitrary targets on metrics outside of my control.

Not everyone is that fortunate. One more little tidbit for you from my time as a directory enquiries call handler; a lady once asked me if I was a student doing the job for pocket-money. When I replied no, I worked there full-time, she said "Oh...it's just you sounded quite intelligent."

I have no doubt she meant that as a compliment, but it isn't. No one's job says anything about them as a person and public-facing service workers deserve better than the assumptions made about who they are, the blame for decisions they didn't make, or to be a punching-bag for someone else's bad day.

Anyway, not really any deeper point to any of this, it's just me reminiscing about that time in my life. But I do always make sure I treat customer service staff with the respect I know they deserve.


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