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.

//

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.

Things That Left Me Shaking My Head

Today’s post is a hodge-podge of strange employee behaviours that make me worry about the intelligence of humanity.

Thinking back to a previous post about too much information, I was reminded of an employee I’ll call Elizabeth. She was a middle-aged phone rep. (Which is often the first clue there might be something wrong with the employee. Call centres are more of a young person’s game.)

Elizabeth was one of the chattiest employees I’ve ever had. She had a penchant for regaling people with boring stories about every topic under the sun. She reminded me of Norm from the ’80s sitcom Cheers. She also liked discussing her very busy sex life.

Unfortunately for me, Elizabeth loved sitting in the desk right beside mine.  I don’t really want to know about anyone else’s favourite sexual position, but I couldn’t seem to stop her from telling me. She drove me nuts. No one else could stand her grating voice or intimate stories either. When she left for a “better” job, we actually went out for drinks as a management team to celebrate.

Her new job turned out to be not so great, so she called us one day asking if we needed phone reps. We did, but I sure as heck didn’t tell her that.

The other nutty stories for today come from Julia, an employee I discussed earlier on this blog. She’s a treasure trove of great anecdotes.

I was sitting at my desk one day when a high-pitched barking sound started. I knew we hadn’t let a dog into the building, so I went to investigate. Yep, it was Julia.

I asked the obvious question, “Why are you barking?”

“Oh, I always bark when I get nervous. I just can’t stop myself. Arf, arf.”

I didn’t bother asking the follow-up about what made her nervous. I decided I didn’t need to know.

My other favourite Julia story happened on a busy day in the call centre. She disappeared on an unscheduled break, which usually meant someone was making a trip to the bathroom. But Julia didn’t come back for 30 minutes.  Another team leader got curious and went in search of our missing employee.

No Julia in the bathroom. No Julia in the lunchroom.

Then another phone rep came in for the start of his shift and mentioned that Julia was outside the front entrance snogging with some guy. Apparently it was getting pretty hot and heavy and they were pressed up against the side of the building by the doors. So the team leader went downstairs to retrieve Julia.

We probably should have fired her over this or her many other crazy stunts, but Julia was such good comic relief and she was a fine employee when she actually got on the phones to do her job. No one had the heart to fire the moron with a heart of gold. Sometimes she was the only laugh we got in a day.

I’ve learned something over the years about the kind of employees I can handle. And I would take 10 Julias over one Elizabeth any day of the week.

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.

The “Eewww” Factor

I recently wrote a post about keeping your poker face at all times with employees, lest they see what you really think when they do something stupid. That post brought to memory a story that I have tried to repress, to no avail.

In my last call centre, headsets were like gold. Valuable and hard to find. This shouldn’t really be the case in a call centre. You can’t answer phones without a headset. Our phones did have handheld receivers, but you can’t actually use one while typing and flipping between screens at a rapid pace.

In my first call centre, each employee had their own headset that was their own responsibility. People took good care of the equipment and we didn’t need to replace headsets all that often.

My second call centre was not so enlightened. They refused to assign anyone a specific headset. I know they were worried about high staff turnover, but they shot themselves in the foot. Our employees just had to grab any headset they could find when they arrived. This meant they had to always carry around their “foamies”, or ear covers, for hygienic reasons.

I can’t even count the number of foamies we went through. People didn’t bother to keep track of them and they were easy to lose because of their size. Since the headsets didn’t belong to anyone in particular, you can guess what happened. No one even tried to take care of them. We always had broken and semi-broken headsets. We had very few on the floor that worked properly. I and the other managers begged and pleaded for assigned headsets and always had to justify a request to order new ones.

I thought telling employees that we could not supply headsets that allowed them to hear customers and vice versa was one of the dumbest tasks I ever had to perform. It was hard to look professional with faulty equipment that should not have even been an issue. It didn’t teach the employees any respect for their work environment either.

Since we regularly only had half a dozen mint condition headsets, employees took to hiding the good ones so the headsets would be available when they started their next shift. This caused us a lot of headaches when we actually could not find enough headsets for everyone who happened to be working at any particular hour. Can you imagine, coming to work and not being able to do your job because we couldn’t find you a simple headset? Our customer queues were actually longer because we were scrambling to find headsets for employees.

To alleviate this, we always had to harp on the employees to not hide headsets. We became good at ferreting out their best hiding places. This pissed off the hiders to no end. Which finally leads me back to my poker face story of the week.

One employee I’ll call Giselle came up to me one day all disturbed. “I can’t find my headset!”

To which I replied, “It’s not your headset. You have to share. Please find another one.”

“But you don’t understand. You see this rash on my face?” She got right in my face to make sure I didn’t miss it. Trust me, it was hard to miss before she got that close.

“Yeesss,” I replied.

“It’s Impetigo! It’s highly contagious. No one can use my headset. They might catch it.”

Cue the poker face. Don’t think I did such a good job this time.

“Why are you at work?!”

“Uhhhh.”

That was the best she could come up with.

Fortunately, we didn’t have any impetigo outbreaks at work.  I swiftly took myself to the safety of the HR offices so I could bitch in private. Some days just go like that.