My Experience Working at a Call Centre

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A month after moving to Montreal I decided to get a regular part time job to supplement my writing income. Things had slowed down, and I needed a little cash boost to help pay for editors to look at my short stories.

In one day I had two interviews; one which took two hours and involved a round of tests which took 45 minutes and two one-on-one interviews with two managers, and another which required a single interview that lasted about five minutes. Both companies offered me a job, but I took the five minute one. It was walking distance from my place and offered better scheduling. (I will not name the company in the interest of protecting myself from libel)

My interview went like this:

Due to some confusion with getting there, I walked in 15 minutes late. This, however, didn’t matter. After introducing myself to the receptionist I was ushered into a conference room where a young black guy with a head like a tennis ball and an untucked collared shirt sat across from me. He glanced at my resume for all of 0.25 seconds and went on about the opportunities in the company and what the position would entail. The supervisor, who by coincidence had the same first name as me and stood as tall as me, said that I could have the chance at a promotion after a month and asked if I would be interested in being a travelling salesman. “Those guys make 2k a week,” he told me. This number sounded astronomical, and I indicated interest in the prospect. With money like that I could easily pay off my debts, buy a car, and move to whatever country I want to move to after traversing Canada.  He told me I could start on Monday and even said, “I think you’ll do well here.” We shook hands and I left, my mind swirling like a tornado over the idea of being a travelling salesman and clearing a cool 2 g’s a week. I imagined becoming a successful executive with a closet full of designer suits and a large oak desk in a corner office in downtown Montreal ordering a temp to get me a coffee with one milk and one sugar, and living in a posh condo high above street level. No such thing ever happened, however, and all these dreams dissipated into memory.

I started the following Monday and was given a script to recite. The job was at an outbound call centre where we were calling residents of Nova Scotia and Alberta to schedule them for an informational session with our field agents. The pitch was poorly written and contained lies, but they insisted we “stick to the script” so that’s what I did. If you didn’t, they would admonish you with a perfunctory coaching session in the supervisor’s office.

They also gave me another sheet of paper with a list of rebuttals on it, none of which ever worked in the hundreds of times I used them. The most commonly used one was for when our victims told us they already had a security system. I would ask them, “Is it because you already have a system?” and when they said “Yes” I would ask them, “Are you satisfied with the service you’re getting?” To which they would always answer “Yes, I am,” or some variation thereof and that would be the end of it. There was really no point in using the rebuttals due to their sheer ineffectuality but, like with reading the script, if you didn’t use them they would chastise you and reiterate their importance.

On my first day I made three appointments and this felt like a good omen for my future there. Every time you successfully made a sale you would spin a prize wheel that was mounted on the wall. The prizes were mostly junk food (pop, chips, chocolate bars) but positive reinforcement is a powerful way of influencing good behaviour and it worked on me. A dopamine rush came with the thrill of every sale and the spinning wheel was much like being on a game show, especially when the other call agents applauded your triumph. The first day I was euphoric. Three sales was a hell of a start, and I still remember the ridiculous smugness I felt even as I walked home after that first day.

Working as a freelance writer can be lonely. With no one to talk to all day, it was nice to have a place to interact with other human beings. It was a relatively chilled out place to work, and having that socialization was refreshing and there was some cool and funny people there. I was glad just to have a job again, but I knew that it wouldn’t last.

The problems were soon evident. I discovered that the company went through employees like a leaf chipper eats logs. People came and went. Most of my coworkers had only been there for a month or so before me. There were no long term call centre agents. The job depended on numbers, and if you didn’t produce they would shitcan you without remorse. The ad I responded to was bullshit. It said that you would have the potential to earn $45k+ and that it was a “dream job.” There is absolutely no way anyone could ever make 45k working as a call centre agent unless they somehow get 40 hours every week at a rate far above minimum.

After my first paycheque I gained a sense of what the commission structure was really like. The way it worked was your first sale of the week was worth $10, the second was $15, and then $25, $35, $50, and every one after that was $50. The catch was that you only got the commission if the travelling salesman you booked the appointment for actually closed the sale, and I discovered the success rate was around 1 in 10. I booked eight appointments in that first week and earned a pathetic $10 bonus.

Nonetheless, I trucked on. Then the side-by-side coaching sessions began.

A side-by-side is when the supervisor hovers over your shoulder while you make calls and offers feedback and criticism on your delivery. I had to endure many of these insufferable tests and there was always one pointer that kept coming back. “MORE ENERGY.” Time and time again, they kept telling me to have “more energy.” I wanted to tell them to go fuck themselves.

It was even more humiliating when they pulled me into the office to playback one of my calls and then ask me, “Do you know what you’re doing wrong?” Now, I’m a journalist so I’ve heard my own voice on tape many times from transcribing source interviews, but this was a bit much. I maintained my composure and said. “I’m not sure I do…”

“You sound like you’re reading a script. You need to have more energy.”

I’m thinking “Suck my hairy balls you cunts. I don’t know how to have any more energy than what I’m already doing!” But what I said was, “All right. I’ll do better,” and returned to my desk slightly emasculated to resume my tedious job of repeating a script like a robot and occasionally being cussed out by angry strangers.

During the thousands of phone calls I made, I encountered many angry people and it’s not hard to understand why. A lot of them said they had been called four times a day, and anyone would become a little miffed after that many phone calls for something they don’t want or need. One guy threatened to sue us if we kept calling him and called it “borderline harassment.” On Remembrance Day the first person I called said “Don’t you know its Remembrance Day ya fuckin’ idiot?” and slammed the phone.  But the All Time Best was a guy in Nova Scotia who I called on a Saturday afternoon in mid-October. After going through most of my pitch (part of the pitch involves saying you have to put a company sign on your lawn) he said something like this:

“Hey, I’ve got my own sign it says go fuck yourself! This is the fourth fuckin’ time you people have called me. Don’t you people take a fuckin’ hint? Jesus Christ! You can take your god damn security system and shove it up your ass!”

He was going to continue on, but I selected DNCL (do not call list) and clicked “end call” before he could finish. No way is $11 an hour worth taking that kind of abuse from people.

I should say at this point that I also did encounter a lot of kind and friendly people as well. But the amount of rudeness, hang ups, and cussing far outweighed the friendlies. People hate telemarketers.

The more I worked at this place, the more the script turned into a chore, and the more it seemed like the eighth circle of Hell rather than a semi-decent side job to earn some extra cash. Each day dragged on. The minutes on the clock ticked by at an infinitesimal rate. I made less and less sales. I stopped giving a shit. I started to wonder when I would quit. Then on my final day, I started to outright ignore calls. The headset would beep and I would simply not switch on the mic and start talking. A call would reach its conclusion and I wouldn’t bother to end the call for a couple minutes so I could play with my phone instead. I began to wonder if I could get them to fire me and how long I could shirk my duties until they called me out.

It didn’t take long. Less than an hour after starting this behaviour they called me into the office. I shut the door behind me and sat down. Two of the supervisors were in there.

One of them said, “Chris, this is your third day in a row without making a sale and it’s getting to be a problem. We’re going to have to let you go.”

“Wow. OK,” was all I had to offer in return.

We ironed out the details about my final cheques and he said. “We’re sorry. Good luck with everything.”

I got up and said, “Don’t worry about it. I was getting sick of this anyways.” I don’t think they expected me to have the balls to say this to them as nonchalantly as I did because they both were taken aback and had no retort. I walked out, announced I was leaving, and merrily went on my way. It felt good to know I had the last laugh. If they didn’t fire me, I probably would have quit within the next week anyway. Leaving that shithole I felt ten feet taller and ten pounds lighter.

Telemarketing is basically the worst job you can get and I would not inflict it upon my worst enemy. There is no pride in calling people endlessly only to endure abuse and be hung up on for a pittance. Every day I would sit in my chair and think that a man with my education and experience should not have to do this. At least I can say there is nowhere to go but up from here.

Read Next: 5 Writers Who Worked Regular Day Jobs



5 thoughts on “My Experience Working at a Call Centre

    writerdsnelson said:
    November 14, 2013 at 8:12 am

    I’ve had several sales jobs, I feel your pain. I was a travelling sales person once (again I won’t say who for). I had a particularly bad week where I travelled almost 500 miles in three days, the other two I had off sick with flu. The following week I was called to a meeting with my line manager who asked me if I was eating properly or if I was having problems with my relationship (cheek not just because it was none of her business but also because I believe she, a married woman, was having an affair). She finished off the conversation with ‘you looked like shit last week, put on a low cut top, short skirt and get out there ‘cos sex sells.’ I got out of there all right. There is no way I’d go back into telesales of any description. For me it’s soul destroying.

      Chris Riddell said:
      November 14, 2013 at 8:24 am

      Oh yeah, you have to put up with so much abuse at these jobs. Its crazy. I don’t know how anyone can do it long term.

        writerdsnelson said:
        November 14, 2013 at 8:37 am

        The answer is they don’t and it becomes a self-fullfilling proficy :o/

    Too Far To Turn Back « C.R. Riddell said:
    December 3, 2013 at 10:16 am

    […] Read Next: My Experience Working At A Call Centre […]

    I Might Have to Return to Toronto « C.R. Riddell said:
    December 12, 2013 at 12:39 pm

    […] aren’t perfectly bilingual. If you’re a uni-lingual anglophone you have to settle for working in a call center which is low paying, boring, and repetitive work. It is degrading for a man of talent of skills to […]

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