‘It’s the loneliest job in the world’. That would be a lighthouse-keeper, maybe? Firewatcher? Or a night security guard in an office or warehouse building?
Well, no, actually. In one of the saddest things I’ve read in weeks, tucked away in the ‘What I’m really thinking’ slot in the back of The Guardian, a writer described the bleak, affectless life of a call-centre agent.
‘You're surrounded by people and talking on the phone all day, but you never make an emotional connection,’ wrote the anonymous agent, ‘either with your colleagues, who you barely get to know, or with the customers, who would rather have teeth pulled than talk to you... People are breathtakingly rude to me. I know I'm a convenient scapegoat to vent at, but I'm not a robot. It still hurts when the phone is slammed down. Every day is an internal wrangle. There are two voices. One is: "I don't care what people call me. I'm doing OK; just keep plugging away." And the other is: "How can they talk like that to me?"
The tragedy is that many people reading the piece will probably have shrugged, ‘That’s the way life is. If you don’t like it, find a different job’. But the right response is not resignation, but outrage and revolt. People haven’t been put on earth, or if you prefer, humanity hasn’t evolved over millions of years, to be used cynically as disposable rags to soak up the rage and disillusionment engendered by practices that are a travesty of human relations, of customer service, and of management generally.
It doesn’t have to, and shouldn’t, happen like this on any count. What the writer describes is a full house of failure. Treating humans in such a way is degrading and wrong; but even if it could be justified in human terms it’s unacceptably inefficient as management; and instead of being cheap, as managers imagine, it’s actually uncountably expensive, although the costs are mainly hidden.
Putting technology in charge of humans, instead of the other way round, is wrong in principle. But employing computers to do things humans are better at, such as using judgement and helping others, and vice versa, is also a major cause of inefficiency. Whether responses are formally scripted or not (and many are), the aim of call centre activity like this is to force callers into predefined categories for which there are standard responses. In other words, the system is designed to deliver what’s convenient to the organisation rather than the individual. Preventing agents from solving individual problems not only stops the system from absorbing the infinite variety of demand, it demoralises workers and enrages customers, as graphically described in the Guardian.
The reason that call-centre work is designed like this is of course cost. Managers think that if they standardise responses they can keep call-handling times to a minimum and thus beat costs down. But this is an illusion. What they are measuring is the unit cost of a single activity – answering calls. When you measure the cost of resolving the problem from beginning to end, it becomes clear that ‘cheap’ is is not what it seems. Here’s the Guardian writer: ‘There are ways to beat the system, though. Bonuses are related to average call-handling time: ideally they should last for 35 seconds or less. So I ring my mobile for one second to bring down my average’. Agents can call on many other ploys to achieve the same end, including bumping cases up to the next level or closing them in one category and re-opening them in another.
Ironically, managers blinded by their obsession with activity costs usually see this as reflecting increasing demand rather than increasing inefficiency, so what do they do? – yes, they open another call centre, thus not only raising costs but locking them in for ever, or at least till the end of the outsourcing contract. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that this dynamic – the recycling of ‘failure demand’ – is at least partly to blame for mounting pressures on ambulance services and A&E departments via NHS Direct and the equally misguided NHS 111.
More than 1m people now work in UK call centres, and although there are some exceptions, such cost-centred IT-driven systems are the norm. Although the industry dismisses the often-made comparison with the dark satanic mills of the Industrial Revolution, the comments below a BBC story on call centres chime exactly with the Guardian version. It may be that modern call centres are one of the most systematic destroyers of human wellbeing and happiness on the planet.
In this form they embody anti-management – another example of management betraying its fundamental principles and turning into its dark opposite. ‘Putting a smile in my voice despite endless rejections, not revealing what I'm going through when I feel sick with repressed anger’ – no one should be obliged to carry out such oppressive and counteproductive emotional labour, just as no one should be subject to zero-hours contracts, another facet of the creeping dehumanisation of work. Neither is compatible with management's duty of care, and both will in time come to seem as indefensible as child or forced labour.