Are Call Centre Workers Human?

by @edent | # | 7 comments | Read ~1,405 times.

You may not have read the book Are Women Human?" Don't worry - neither have I. But the book sits on my shelf staring maliciously at me.

Are Women Human

The précis is simple:

  1. "Human Rights" prevent slavery, promote equal treatment, etc.
  2. Women are sold into slavery, are discriminated against, etc.
  3. Therefore, women aren't human.

I'm a reformed 21st century kind of guy. I believe in treating women as if they were equal to men. I'm a non-violent, non-sexist, non-homophobic, vegetarian tree-hugger, who believes in peace and love.

Except when it comes to people who work in call centres. Fuck them. I would quite happily eat the world's filthiest curry and shit on every single "customer service" agent I've ever had the misfortune to deal with. I'd reserve a special place in Guantanamo Bay for those who said "I'll get someone to call you back" and never did.

Human rights? If you work in a call centre, you are sub-human scum.

Too Harsh?

Let me back track. A few months ago Owen Jones wrote a fabulous piece about the indignities of working in a call centre. Begging publicly for toilet breaks which are then precisely timed is fairly common in the call centre world - and pretty dehumanising.

Donata Huggins (whose bladder control is legendary) seems to think this is a laughing matter. She represents a certain type of person who sees nothing wrong in shaming people lower down the social pecking order than her. They're lucky to have a job. Yes, it's undignified to have to hold a card up to say whether you need to wee or poo - but these people aren't really human.

Donata has never worked in a call centre. I have. I did outbound "market research" cold-calls for a while - the sort that end with you saying "...and would you like a no obligation quote, sir?"
I also, for my sins, worked for a debt collection agency. Ringing people up, running through a script which ended with the words "we'd hate to have to take this further, madam..."

Dispiriting and depressing. I lasted at each job for a couple of weeks before the temp agency found me something better.

I suppose it should give me a modicum of sympathy for the call centre drones I have to deal with. It doesn't.

Battery (Powered) Hen

This SwiftCover advert demonstrates how most people feel about call centre workers - they're little better than battery chickens.

Here's what stops people from having sympathy with the humans who inhabit the other end of the phone...

  • They are disembodied. All we hear is a voice, so there's little chance to have a human connection.
  • We tend only to call them when something has gone wrong - so we're already angry.
  • They follow a script without deviation. They may as well be robots.
  • Lack of empowerment. When you complain to a call centre worker, you know they're not going to do anything about it. Their bosses don't give them any power to make changes.
  • Acting merely as an interface. Every call centre worker I've spoken to listens to me, types stuff into a computer, then reads back what the computer says. Why not just give me access to that computer? The worker is little more than a cheap "speech to text" interface. Like Siri without the personality.
  • Zero continuity of personality. Each time I ring my insurance company, I speak to someone different. There’s no relationship or rapport - just another lonely voice which doesn't really care about my problems.
  • It's easier to understand Stephen Hawking's rudimentary text-to-speech interface than it is to understand some people's accents. Language skills are a key element of the Turing Test - if I can't understand your language, can I properly regard you as human?
  • "Can you wait a moment, sir; my system is running slowly today." Every call centre worker I've spoken to has a slow computer. Without their computer they are unable to function. They may as well be that computer.
  • "I'll make sure someone calls you back." No you won't, you lying sack of shit. No one ever calls back.

And so it goes on. The people running call centres don't treat their staff as humans. They don't allow them any autonomy - either over their body or their words.

When we ring up a call centre, the first thing we're greeted with is a robot asking us to punch in numbers. When we finally get to a real person, it's hard to shake the feeling that we're engaged with a not-very-lifelike artificial intelligence.

Sympathy For The Devil

Most of the people who work in call centres are fairly decent human beings. But everything about the environment and interaction conspires to dehumanise them.

There's a fine tradition in computing of HCI - Human/Computer Interaction. Sometimes it's called UX - User Experience.

The aim is to make the interaction between man and machine a useful, pleasant, empowering, and delightful experience.

I think we need that for call centres. CCX - Call Centre Experience. We need to find a way that when we do reach a voice at the end of the line, we recognise then as a fellow human being. One who is empowered to help us, and is willing to do so.

Humans deserve respect - even if they work in a call centre. That should be obvious to everyone. Those who operate call centres have a duty to ensure that their systems do not distract their customers into forgetting their manners.

7 thoughts on “Are Call Centre Workers Human?

  1. Martin Seeger says:

    Most call centers are organized in a way to make sure you rather accept the problem than trying to remediate it by involving the call center.

  2. sykobee says:

    I shudder to think how an already angry person would cope with having to go through the training to use the call centre software (typically shoddy cryptic in-house stuff, or worse, shoddy ancient third-party stuff poorly integrated into the company's own systems) before getting anywhere close to resolving their issues...

    1. Indeed - but better to rage at a poorly designed webpage than a person on minimum wage 🙂

  3. Patrick says:

    When you ready about this company: http://www.ect-virtualpbx.com/Fixed_Mobile_Convergence.html you can ask yourself the same question. Are all employees in the call centre branch real humans or are the absorbed by clouds. But at the end its just about the idea of an human, you call it CCX. We just want to treated by someone how can possible understand us, because he could have the same feeling. I think its just a some kind of "angst", that we can be substituted

  4. Colin Apa says:

    The people behind the phones are actually making a lot of businesses go round. They don't deserve the grief they get. "Those who operate call centres have a duty to ensure that their systems do not distract their customers into forgetting their manners." - easier said than done!

  5. Working in a call centre is no different to any other autonomous job, of which there are many. It's just that call centre staff are more conspicuous to indignant cunts that confuse their (often justified) dissatisfaction of a service with being genuinely superior to the poor soul at the end of the phone.

    I'm not the brightest tool in the box myself, but in my time I've worked with loads of very 'human' people, such as out of pocket documentary makers, struggling writers, cash-strapped graphic designers, as well as misguided academics with impressive degrees and work experience. Many have had their soul broken-in by dickhead shareholders, CEOs, Team Leaders and, yes, twat customers; all of whom make the system as unpleasant as possible while blaming the one group of hapless arseholes that are powerless to stop it.

    But I suppose you could argue that call centres are the mechanisation of human interaction. And it's hard to argue with. I couldn't give a fuck about your problems. However, talk to me like a human and I'll work my damn hardest with the limited time, responsibility and processes available to me. I hate call centres, you hate call centres - it's mutually beneficial for us to be nice to each other and get you sorted out and on your way in spite of the cunts that are exorting you and I.

    Great blog btw!

  6. Guglhupf says:

    Has it ever occurred to you that call center agents view customers, especially the annoying and self entitled ones, the same way ?

    They are disembodied. All we hear is a voice, so there's little chance to have a human connection - Exactly, all we get to hear is a voice, sometimes angry, on the other side and not a human being.

    We tend only to call them when something has gone wrong - so we're already angry. - And then direct this at the poor soul who has to pick up your call and not at the company owners. Great choice.

    They follow a script without deviation. They may as well be robots. - Same as customers who only go "I want, I want, I want". Shoddy programming here.

    Lack of empowerment. When you complain to a call center worker, you know they're not going to do anything about it. Their bosses don't give them any power to make changes. - Then why bother if you believe that ? Which is certainly not true at my level for example. But if someone just yells at me I might not use my magic powers to assist someone beyond the basics. If you are nice I will be nice, if you are a shitty whiner then I will keep it to the bare minimum.

    Acting merely as an interface. Every call center worker I've spoken to listens to me, types stuff into a computer, then reads back what the computer says. Why not just give me access to that computer? The worker is little more than a cheap "speech to text" interface. Like Siri without the personality. - Wanna figure out the modem interface and high frequency tools I work with ? Guess not.

    Zero continuity of personality. Each time I ring my insurance company, I speak to someone different. There’s no relationship or rapport - just another lonely voice which doesn't really care about my problems. - So you want a personal concierge service for the 29.99 you pay a month ? Maybe also a massage ?

    It's easier to understand Stephen Hawking's rudimentary text-to-speech interface than it is to understand some people's accents. Language skills are a key element of the Turing Test - if I can't understand your language, can I properly regard you as human? - Funny aspect, considering the dialects and accents of some customers we might need a degree in linguistics to do out job. Might as well let your dog bark into the phone.

    "Can you wait a moment, sir; my system is running slowly today." Every call center worker I've spoken to has a slow computer. Without their computer they are unable to function. They may as well be that computer. - "Oh no my pc crashed". "You want to test something, let me turn my computer back on"....10 minutes later...."It's almost ready, it's an older piece..."..

    "I'll make sure someone calls you back." No you won't, you lying sack of shit. No one ever calls back - "I demand that someone calls me back". Because you are too lazy to check the Led on your Modem yourself ? Or to rant for another 10 minutes about unrelated stuff and waste my and your time.

    All in all - be nice to your call center agent instead of a douche. You might be surprised how well that works. If you want to complain find out the address of the owners and write them a nice letter.

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