Call Centre Confidential

I am not convinced by Richard Seymour’s arguments on war and imperialism. I think his politics are often disgraceful, his prose sometimes immature and overblown. He belongs to a very dodgy political party and continues to host a defender of Iran’s Islamic dictatorship on his blog.

Yet in one respect he is my soul brother. Like me, Seymour has worked in call centres and he writes eloquently about this twenty-first century workhouse. His latest post had me smiling in amused empathy.

My experience of call centres is less extensive but it made an impression. After getting my BA I moved to Leeds on a whim and spent the long summer of 2003 reading in Hyde Park and drinking on sunlit terraces. In September I ran out of money and signed on with some temp agencies. I very quickly realised that recruitment consultants are – almost uniformly – corrupt, self-serving scum, who exploit both clients and workers yet think of themselves as god’s gift to the business world. As a temp, you were a second-class employee; you could be dismissed on the spot, your pay was comical, your entitlements limited – I knew an agency worker, eight months pregnant at the time, who was refused paid leave because she had to go to the police after being mugged at gunpoint during the course of her working day. 

The positions they offered were in contact centres located in remote industrial outposts with few shops and erratic transport links. At the Elsix Social I would talk to ten or fifteen guys, and discover that we all worked for the same three or four companies. These were low-pay, high-pressure jobs, with incompetent, bullying management, badly designed system processes and more self-monitoring and red tape than any public sector organisation I’ve known. Long-term health effects include acoustic shock, tinnitus, stress and RSI; not to mention the weight you’ll put on in a sedentary occupation with a staff canteen dispensing junk food. At the other end of the phone line, a nationwide survey of UK contact centre managers found that 97% of call centres leave sensitive information on databases indefinitely, breaching data security guidelines and putting customers at risk of identity and card fraud.

In October I went to work at a company called JLB Solutions. Fifty temps were taken on for a time-sensitive project. By November, only five of us remained. The rest had been fired for transgressing some silly rule like the ones Lenin lists in his post: no eating, drinking or use of mobiles, no reading except business publications, agents must sit at allocated desks, no talking to other agents between calls, eternal return etcetera. ‘The people who actually came up with this shit,’ Lenny says, ‘were largely self-important supervisors who earned only slightly more than those making calls, but whose relative autonomy and authority gave them an exaggerated sense of their importance. They were selected for such qualities, because management systematically weeded out those they regarded as being too ‘soft’ from managerial roles.’

It takes a certain kind of person to become a call centre supervisor. The people who naturally thrive in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four tend to be ‘little dumpy men, growing stout very early in life, with short legs, swift scuttling movements, and fat inscrutable faces with very small eyes.’ Sartre’s term is more succinct: ‘smug little bastards’.

I fell foul of one of these men when I was sent on a telephone skills course. The trainer was explaining a smile-as-you-dial policy JLB was considering. Apparently customer satisfaction increases if the agent is smiling when he or she takes the call. The trainer said JLB were thinking of placing mirrors on workstations so that agents were aware whether or not they were smiling. I asked if failure to smile would result in disciplinary action. The answer was unclear.

The next day I was called into the boss’s office. He was a decent man in a bad business. He told me I’d been fired – effective immediately. He said it wasn’t his decision, and that he’d argued for me to be kept on. He said: ‘You are the kind of person who if they think something is bullshit they’ll say so. I’m like that but I’m older and have learned to hide it better. And before I got this job, I was out of work for two years.’ We shook hands and I left.

After this I signed on with another company that we will call JLB Management. The initial training week was run by a guy who embodied the supervisor type described by Orwell. He was like David Brent, but without the human qualities that made Brent a sympathetic character in the end. God, I can see the bastard now. Friendly on the surface, and enthusiastic to the point of hyperactive, his outwardly positive attitude concealed a nasty set of priorities. He refused one girl leave to go to the funeral of a friend. On the final day we were sent out on the floor to shadow experienced agents, who said many things on the variation of ‘get the fuck out while there’s still time’. Back in the training room, Ben (let’s call him Ben) asked how it had gone on the floor. We reported what the more experienced agents had told us. Ben asked for their names. Someone asked why he wanted names. Because they’re not promoting a positive brand image of the company, Ben said.

I could go on. Most people of my generation have stories like these. Most are worse. And yet it’s not much written about. Seymour makes the point that political writing hasn’t kept up with the changes in the machine world. Neither has fiction. Where is our Dickens, our Sinclair, our Bukowski? Where is our Call Centre?

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.


4 Responses to “Call Centre Confidential”

  1. saeed Says:

    Brilliant, brillant post max…

    I once worked in a call centre after finishing uni and i think this post sums up what life is like in these places…i’ve wrote about my my experiences in call centres, working in pizza shops and other such low income jobs- no one seems to be interested…

    BTW i mentioned on this blog a few months ago about a writer called iceberg slim…have you managed to read him yet…????

  2. maxdunbar Says:

    Finally Saeed, we agree on something!

  3. saeed Says:

    to be honest max i’ve been reading your blog for a few months now and i seem to agree with most of what you say…anyway keep up the good work you’re got a really good blog…

  4. howardroark2 Says:

    Max, I recently got sacked working for a shambles of a recruitment team called Response in Glasgow. I worked for their client esure in customer services. Needless to say virtually everything you’ve written about matched up exactly to my experience, and similarly I was fired for a completely arbitrary reason. Response completely shafted me with my tax so I requested time from my team leader during work hours to ring the tax office to sort out the mess I had been put in. He granted me this time but was later shouted at for this by his manager. Like me, he was new (although he had been brought in internally by Response from Sky TV.) So, wanting to get back at me about this, he waited until I was literally one minute late (I later saw this exactly on my log in sheet) and promptly sacked me after giving me some BS probationary hearing. All this from a man who had buddied up to me for 4 weeks of training.

    Anyway this experience combined with your article has convinced me never to take call center work again. I have done several of these jobs over the years and its not worth having to worry about being given orders from neo-fascist mediocrities like my former team leader.

    In short, good job and much appreciated writing about an aspect of British life which is sadly underexposed.

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