Why Cell Phones Sometimes Drive Me Bananas

I’m no Luddite, but sometimes I don’t think of technology as progress. Particularly when it involves my employees during work hours.

I never thought smart phones would be the bane of my existence, but phones in call centres try my patience. Any employee can be distracted by their phone. In an admin environment it gets annoying when too much time is spent texting, but otherwise isn’t much bother. Unless of course the employee is too dumb to switch their phone to vibrate/silent.

Cell phones in my call centres caused major productivity headaches.  Phone reps would sit in wrap up for an extra minute to shoot someone a text. This is a problem when you have 25 callers sitting in your queue waiting five minutes each.

You might think high queues would prod employees to answer the phone they are being paid to answer, but you would be wrong.

We had an outright ban on cell phones on the call centre floor, but that stopped no one. If I turned my back on some employees, the phones would zip out.  It drove me nuts to be constantly on my employees for not doing their jobs.

Did they ever stop? Sure, when the call centre closed.

The dumbest cell phone incident I can remember came when a new rep was still in training. In any call centre, new reps usually spend the last day or two taking actual phone calls with the help of the trainer or an experienced employee. In this case, the trainer had the small group each take a few calls and helped them when they needed it.

While on a live call with a customer, a new rep I’ll call Marsha had her cell phone out on her desk and turned on. It rang during the phone call.

What did she do?

Why, she tossed off her headset mid-call and picked up her cell phone, of course. You could hear the confused client through the headset, “Hello, hello?”

The trainer was standing right behind Marsha, so this wasn’t an attempt to be stealthy. Clearly not a bright rep.

We conferred with HR and decided Marsha was already a lost cause. If she behaved that badly in training and in front of management, can you imagine what she’d do when we weren’t looking?

For some reason Marsha seemed surprised by her firing. Another sign we’d made the right decision.

Sometimes team manager equals juvenile babysitter.

Beware the Employee Who Volunteers for a Crappy Job

I do promise there are great employees out there. Those who do wonderful work, are easy to manage and willing to take on new tasks. But those employees aren’t any fun to talk about. So I have another story for this week instead.

I learned an important lesson in my last call centre: beware the employee who volunteers for a crappy task. Maybe they are trying to look good in the eyes of their manager and want earn brownie points. Maybe not.

When I first took over a new department, we were swamped. We didn’t have enough managers and every employee was new to this particular market/software. That meant lots of questions and errors. It also meant my partner and I spent almost all of our time putting out fires. There wasn’t anything proactive going on with our management team.

One of the things managers should do in a call centre is monitor phone calls and track call statistics for each employee. You want to ensure each phone rep is friendly, helpful and provides the right information. It’s also a great feedback tool. Looking at stats can let you know if reps are hitting their benchmarks, and wonky numbers can let you know when something is afoot.

Did we have time for any of this? Of course not. We were wading through a mountain of client complaint calls about our reps.

Our reps took both incoming customer service calls and made outgoing calls. The outgoing calls weren’t cold calls. We were calling our own clients to update credit card expiry dates, get subscription renewals etc. These weren’t nasty calls to make, but most reps much preferred the inbound calls. It meant we weren’t interrupting someone in the middle of their day. The best outcome of an outbound call for a phone rep? You get voicemail instead of a live person.

We always had more people on inbound than outbound.  And reps hated it when we asked them to move to the outbound calls. They would whine like small children. They would “forget” and stay on inbound calls. So it was curious when we had one phone rep who loved to do outbound calls. He acted like he’d won a prize. Of course, since he was the sole lover of outbound, we’d always ask him first.

We really should have questioned this mentality instead of accepting it as a gift. We didn’t have too many saints in this call centre. But we were overworked and enjoyed anything that didn’t add to our daily burdens.

I’m sure you can guess that something was afoot. Which brings me back to the call and stats monitoring that we never got around to. One day, a visiting manager from the newspaper we serviced had some time and decided to plug into a few calls to see how things were going. She happened to plug into our happy outbound rep.

Guess what? If the rep got voicemail, he’d leave a nice, professional message. If he got a live person? He’d just mute the phone and ignore the person on the other end. Eventually the customer would hang up.

This was key for his ruse, because one of the few things we did track was how many calls our reps were hanging up. Yes, you could tell which party disconnected a call, and too many disconnects by our reps always threw up red flags.

I’m not sure how long this had been going on, but it was probably a couple of months. Can you imagine how many clients received annoying “phantom” calls from us? Yeah we looked a little dumb, overworked or not.

I guess the moral here is don’t trust something or someone that appears too good to be true. And if you manage call centre reps, find time to do a bit of oversight, even if you are swamped. Better yet, hope for department management that actually supplies the right number of supervisory bodies so you can do a good job. If you’re overwhelmed, I feel for you.

//

What They Don’t Tell You About Managing Disabled Employees

Did the title of this post make you uncomfortable? In a PC world, singling out different types of employees for discussion isn’t always acceptable.

Have no fear. This post isn’t meant to dump on anyone, but I do want to highlight some things I never knew until I managed a disabled employee.

Some people fear a disabled employee will be too much trouble. I’ve also heard the opposite, when some goof said to me, “Oh, they are always so grateful just to have jobs that they make the best employees!”

Neither is true. Like all employees, some are great, some are terrible and most will fall in between. How are they different? Some managers are too afraid to address any performance or behaviour concerns with a disabled employee. Guess what? They aren’t really equal if you don’t treat them like other employees.

I’ve mentioned Charles once before in a post about a silly building management decision. Charles had a physical disability that left him in a wheelchair and with somewhat limited use of his hands.

Charles was already a member of my team when I took over its management. Fortunately he was very open about his disability and always willing to answer questions. I knew he had an attendant that came in once a day around lunchtime, but I didn’t know what other accommodations he might need. My own manager was also great at filling in the blanks, since she’d worked with Charles for a number of years.

In most ways, he was just like any other employee. But I did notice a couple of ways in which managing Charles was different. The first was offsite meetings and team building activities. Management was generally good about trying to remember and accommodate for Charles. But in a department with over 100 people, every once in a while he was forgotten.

Anytime an offsite event was announced, my first question to the organizer was always, “Is X place wheelchair accessible?” Management did forget once and quickly had to arrange an alternate location (after some idiot suggested we just not bring him).  It fell to my boss and me to make sure Charles was always included.  If he needed a new accommodation we often had to push for it. We never expected to become advocates in the workplace, but we somehow ended up in that role anyway.

There were a couple of small work tasks that Charles couldn’t perform. He didn’t have the dexterity for paper clips and he needed a bit of help with the fax machine. This wasn’t a problem and no one minded helping, but it did mean having a conversation with every new employee to the team. I didn’t want anyone to be surprised if he asked them for help. So our team had an extra bit of orientation that no one else got.

One last quirk I noticed about Charles in the workplace was everyone else’s reaction to him. All employees were nice to him, but Charles was extremely chatty. He could lose track of time and talk someone’s ear off.

With anyone else, our employees would nicely say they needed to get back to work or go to a meeting if they were detained too long. But some staff just couldn’t say this to Charles, even if it was true and polite.

Our supervisory staff ended up having to rescue hapless employees from these prolonged conversations. If we didn’t go over to ask them or Charles an unnecessary question, they could spend an entire afternoon listening to Charles regale them with major league baseball stories. We could never cure some employees of this problem no matter what we tried.

To sum up I’d like to tell managers not to be afraid of hiring disabled employees, but you must have the fortitude to treat them like actual employees. You also need to watch for real differences that must be addressed in order to ensure a happy working environment for everyone.

Pants Are Not Optional

After last week’s lengthy diatribe, I decided shorter and funnier would be a nice change for this week. So here I present some of the weirdest call centre happenings I can come up with.

I’ve talked a few times about a nutty employee named Julia, who managed to keep her job through a pleasant attitude and the comic relief she provided for the management team. Watching Julia at her desk was always entertaining. She wore more make-up than Tammy Faye Baker and usually painted it on while seated at her desk. This included painting on eyebrows that she’d previously waxed off. She managed to do this with one hand while typing with the other and talking to clients. Talented girl.

I’ll get back to Julia in a second, but I told that story mostly so I could tell this one. The worst story of personal habits you should never do at your desk actually comes courtesy of my old partner, Jason. He worked in a different call centre before joining ours. It was a fabulous place to work. On the nightshift, you could actually walk down the aisles and interrupt drug deals.

The story in question involved a girl sitting at her desk trimming her hair. Only it wasn’t the hair on top of her head. Let’s just say it was a lot lower and required her to be sitting at her desk with her pants open. She was dropping her trimmings on her desk. I wish I was making this up.

If anyone out there has a disgusting employee story that can top that one, please let me know. I’d love to hear it.

Back to Julia and the title of the post. Julia has clothing issues that I’ve documented before. For some reason she was seated at her desk one day when a manager noticed she wasn’t wearing any pants. Instead, her pants were sitting on the desk next to her. Not something you see every day.

Julia got called to HR (I think to discuss her pantless state). She got up, put her pants on and walked to HR. When she came back from her meeting, she took her pants off, sat back down at her desk, and continued taking calls.

Some things you just can’t make up. I don’t have the imagination to top real life.

The One That Almost Made Me Crazy

When you are a manager, there is always one employee you think might break you. You’ll have lots of good people, mediocre people and even bad people. But there is another category reserved for the nightmare employee.

Unfortunately for me, this nightmare showed up on my very first team in my very first management job. I only had three people reporting to me and two of them were problem children.  The one I will call Victoria tested my mettle. There were moments when I didn’t think I would survive being her manager.

Not a great introduction to employee management.

What made Victoria so special? I classify her as one of the “persecuted”. The persecuted are employees who think everyone is out to get them, everyone else is always wrong and they’ve done nothing to bring on the treatment they get. These people are so troublesome because you cannot reason with them.

Victoria was a classic case. She considered herself to be overworked when she wasn’t. (Yes, I can be sure of that. I covered her desk when she was away, and the longest it ever took me to do her whole job was 5 hours.) She considered any additional requests for work to be unreasonable and unfair. She complained to anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) that she was overworked. Never mind that she spent most afternoons online checking out her stock portfolio. (Silly thing to do when a supervisor has the cubicle directly behind you.)

She had trouble getting along with everyone—every manager in the department, every co-worker and every vendor we dealt with.  None of it was ever her doing. To illustrate, someone in another department once asked her for something via email. This person used to work in our department and got a promotion Victoria wanted.  Victoria’s response was, “You are wrong and shouldn’t you know how to do your own job?” That’s an exact quote, I swear.

Our vendor managed to typo her name in one email by simply leaving a couple of letters in the middle out, clearly a typing brain fart. Victoria emailed him back with the correct spelling in bold, capital letters and said, “Shouldn’t you know how to spell my name by now?” When I asked why she responded that way to a typo, Victoria insisted it was not a typo and that the vendor had done it on purpose to insult her.  Good grief.

Review time was even more fun.

Victoria insisted she was a high performer (she wasn’t) and refused to acknowledge that any aspect of her behaviour could require improvement.  She did once get a high performer review when she was actually doing her job, but still took it all the way to HR with a complaint about the minor amount of improvement suggested for her. She thought her review should be nothing but glowing praise.

My own review with her rated her as satisfactory. (Trying to get approval from HR for a needs improvement ranking was near impossible.) This resulted in a two month soap opera of me, my boss and my boss’s boss having to justify to HR everything we had ever said or done concerning Victoria, because she showed up at their offices in tears on the day she received her review.

Note to HR folks: if the employee is bad mouthing every single manager they have ever come into contact with, the problem isn’t management. Figure out who the common denominator is.

Victoria did of course think she was too good for her job and pay grade and was always applying for higher positions, most of which she was grossly under qualified for.  She felt even more persecuted and complained it must be racial discrimination. Clearly untrue when you looked at the makeup of our department and every other one she applied to, but that was using logic again.

It got to a point where I didn’t think I could handle her anymore. Then a miracle happened. Some crazy person from another department actually wanted her for a job. The only problem? They were going to call me for a review before making the offer. Drat.

Telling the truth meant there was no way Victoria would get the job. We’d all reached our boiling point and really wanted her to be someone else’s problem.

Did I take the high road and tell the truth? Nope. I’m ashamed to say I took the (mostly) cowardly route. I didn’t give her a glowing review. I did point out that she had communication issues that needed to be worked on but I also sold the things she was great at, such as her attention to detail.  I lied enough that she got the job.

Did I feel badly? Not at the time. Courtesy in our company dictated that hiring managers inform the employee’s supervisor of a job offer before calling the employee. I knew Victoria would soon be out of my hair. My boss wasn’t in that day, but I ran gleefully to her boss’s office and shared the news. Neither of us are “huggy” people, but we both jumped up and down yelling and hugging, so happy that we were getting rid of Victoria. That’s how bad she was.

Guilt did start to creep in later. I’d done something I didn’t think was particularly ethical. I’m no longer with that company, but I keep tabs with people who are there. Somehow Victoria has been promoted to a manager position. I know she had a baby a couple of years ago, so I really hope it changed her attitude and maturity level. If not, I feel terrible for anyone that reports to her or even works near her.

It was frustrating to have such a bad employee that we couldn’t fire. HR was unwilling to let go of an employee who got her work done, no matter how much poison she spewed into our department. There was no one sad to see her go.

It’s employees like Victoria who drive people out of employee management. I’ve been at this a while now and I still haven’t figured out a good way to deal with “persecuted” employees. They crop up periodically and I always have the same troubles. I do know to document everything with these people, so I have a leg to stand on when things go bad.

But I’d certainly love to hear from someone who has experienced more success with employees like Victoria. I still have nightmares about her.

How Hiring Decisions are Really Made

Employees find all sorts of silly reasons to claim hiring decisions are unfair when it comes to internal job postings. And when you work in a call centre, competition is fierce for any job that will get people off the phones.

If you think to yourself, ‘Who would want a boring admin job that doesn’t pay great?’ you’ve clearly never been forced to work a call centre before. Any job that gets you away from crazy clients and over-analyzed phone stats is a godsend. I would have taken a pay cut to get off the phones when I first started.

Internal job postings still involve the old resume and interview shtick, but hiring managers and HR also have access to more information to help with a decision. We could look at call stats and scores to determine how good a phone rep was at their job, plus we got to take into account team manager and floor supervisor feedback.

At every call centre I’ve worked, it’s the manager feedback that was actually an employee’s ticket off the phones.  I didn’t realize how important this feedback was until I was on the other side of the equation.

During my first interview for a team manager job, I got asked plenty of situational questions, those pesky “what would you do if…” questions. I find those harder to answer than “give me an example when you…” because you aren’t talking about a real situation. The question that threw me the most was, “What would you say if employees were complaining that promotions always come from X side of the call centre floor?”

The first that went through my head, which I also blurted out unfiltered, was “Do people really complain about such stupid things?”

Who would have thought geography had anything to do with hiring decisions? And who would even notice? (No, management had not decided to only hire people from the west side of the call centre as some sort of ploy to mess with everyone’s heads.)

The interviewer assured me it had been a real concern expressed. I kept thinking everyone was nuts until I was on the other side and saw just how much team manager input influenced hiring decisions.

It turns out the complaining employees were right, but it wasn’t geography itself that resulted in the hiring decisions. In this call centre everyone was assigned to a team with around 15 other employees and one team manager was in charge of that group. Every phone rep was assigned a workstation in the call centre near their manager’s cubicle.  And some managers pushed harder for promotions for their employees.

The pushers would lobby for their employees during every hiring decision, whereas others would only occasionally push and some never bothered.  The pushers almost always won. And by chance a couple of the pushers had teams clustered together, so promotions did mostly come from one section of the floor.

For once the crazy employees were sort of right. It happens sometimes.

I guess the moral here is be nice to your boss. You’ll never know how much they can help or hinder your progress at work. And pray you don’t have a lazy manager who will never bother to fight for you.

Trust Your Gut

I’ve never been wrong when I have a bad feeling about an interviewee. In any interview or resume scan where I felt even the slightest inkling of trouble, I was always right. The employees did not do well. Some became nightmares.

Why would I even hire candidates who worried me? If you ask that question, you have never worked in a call centre. When you have to hire new phone reps, you don’t hire one at a time. You hire a whole class, because they will be put through a three week training program before they ever hit the floor.  We often needed groups of up to 25 people.

This whole process is expensive, so you’d think we would want to hire the best candidates. The problem is we are culling applicants who have offered to work in a call centre. It’s a crap job, so we often attract lazy and desperate people. The only real exception is students. They need to work odd hours at easier jobs to pay their tuition. I’ve had great luck with students over the years.

If we already had dubious candidates and we needed to pick upwards of 25 of them, we were talking a different recruiting ballgame. Instead of trying to pick the best candidates, we were trying to eliminate the worst.

This proved easier in some recruiting rounds than others. There were times when we desperately needed bodies, and none seemed good. So we tried to find the least detestable options. This meant we sometimes hired people that gave us the willies.

After each interview, I would bounce my opinion off the HR person conducting the interview with me. We had two HR people we worked with. One was often on the same wave length as the team leaders and would let us say no when our alarm bells were screaming. The other one, not so much.

HR Person Two would push us to take people we really didn’t want. I suppose she was being more realistic. We couldn’t say no to everyone. Sometimes though, she would have been better off listening to us. We ended up with a few nightmares.  They caused a lot of destruction before we could push them out the door.

When the company was really starting to tank, we couldn’t even fire our own employees. We needed approval from some HR person in a different province who never worked a call centre. She just didn’t understand how call centres work. Of course they have high turnover. They are filled with lunatics.

This new policy meant we had to keep one employee who showed up in the police blotters of our own newspapers. Nice, right?

We also had to keep two brothers who fell asleep at their desks, had pants around their knees and spent shifts writing indecent rap lyrics instead of taking client calls.

I guess my main point here is to trust your instincts as a manager. I have felt positive about a few employees who did not turn out well. But I have never been wrong when my instincts tell me no. And if you happen to manage in a call centre that forces you to take bad apples, you have my sympathy.