Thursday, July 03, 2003

On Tuesday, just before hopping on the 'tard cart (the short bus) to Karlovy Vary, I went to a Contactel presentation on behalf of Rob McLean’s Czech and Slovak Construction Journal, which I'm writing for. Contactel is a Czech ISP that at some point envisaged some sort of synergy between providing Internet services and providing call center (or “contact center”) to corporate customers. In other words, Toyato runs a big advertising campaign and ends every ad with a toll-free number to call for more information about their cars. Rather than go through the lengthy process of hiring a bunch of youngsters to staff the phones during this campaign, supervising the calls, setting up the communications hardware, etc., Toyota contracts all that out to a company like Contactel.

The presentation was not only boring, it was also in Czech, so that wasn’t much fun although they did give us free koblihy (Czech jelly-filled donuts). Afterwards, though, they took us to the call center itself, which is basically this big room filled with rows and rows of computers and people talking into headsets. These are quite common in the United States, but I’d never seen one in person. Somewhat surprisingly for the Czech Republic, the operation is remarkably efficient. At the end of every row of terminals, there’s a supervisor, who can see on her screen who’s available, who’s on hold, how long they’ve been on hold, who’s talking, how long they’ve been talking, which account the call is for, whether it was outgoing or incoming (they also do telemarketing), etc., and at the end of this room is a big sign like a scoreboard, announcing the basic stats: number of callers waiting, number of operators available, etc. When the number of operators available gets down to 1 or 0, the numbers turn red.

It all brought to mind a rather amazing story, related to me by my friend Kristen, who worked at a call center in Nebraska -- presumably a much larger one -- on that fateful day when life in American ground to a halt, when every concerned citizen across the land stopped in his or her tracks and sat glued to the television, a entire nation brought together by a single pivotal event. Yes, that's right, I’m talking about the day the O.J. Simpson verdict was announced.

To understand the mass psychology at work in a call center, you have to know a bit about how they work: At any one time, hundreds of advertising campaigns are running, each of them urging viewers and readers to call a 1-800 number to order a certain product, be it hair pomade or car wax or a Thighmaster. To operate most efficiently, a huge number of these calls for different products are channeled to a single call center, with each operator usually handling calls for at least six different products, with all the necessary information on their computer screen. Thing is, lots of people call but aren't really sure why they've called -- maybe they assume the operator simply knows what they want, or maybe they just saw the number on the screen and picked it up and dialed for no apparent reason. Or maybe they wrote the number down earlier and forgot what the product was. (In that case the caller has to try to figure out which product they’re interested in, but there are rules about what you can and can’t say, because you’re not supposed to lead the customer. You have to ask things like, “Are you buying this as a gift or is it for yourself? Is it for use in the home?”) And plenty of people don't want anything except somebody to chat with, and you have to politely tell them to take a hike. The supervisor is surfing the lines, monitoring calls at random, so you can't mess around. This is what you're dealing with if you work at a call center.

During the last few minutes before the hour of the O.J. verdict, incoming calls gradually petered off into nothing. (I hope you’ll forgive me if I don’t get durations exactly right, but this is how I remember the story as told to me, and it’s roughly correct.) On the hour, when the jury foreman read the verdict, the phones fell completely silent, which almost never happens. Somebody had wheeled a little TV set into the room and turned the volume up, so everybody turned and watched.

Then the verdict came. “Not guilty.” A murmur swept across the huge room for the next 10-15 seconds. Then, at roughly the 20 second mark, the phones suddenly started ringing off the hook. For about the next 40 minutes, the calls kept coming, and coming, and coming.... And not a single person was actually interested in a product. Not a single person. They all just wanted to rant about the O.J. verdict. Maybe after the verdict was announced, an advertisement came on with the 1-800 number and they thought it was somehow connected; or maybe they just called it in a fit of outrage; or maybe they were all just completely nuts.

So that's my call center story. I have to say, I'm pretty disappointed with myself because I slept right through the O.J. verdict. Would anybody care to share their own where-were-you stories?


Blogger Danielle said...

That could really be something that an agent should read. I hope that whoever read this would make it as an inspiration, most especially for those who work in a call center. Thanks for sharing your experience. Great write-up. We're hoping to read more. Keep it up and more power.


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