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Saturday 27 July 2019

The Modern workplace

Confessions of a cold caller

‘Unknown caller’ can make your heart sink. But what about the heart at the other end of the line?

By Tanyaradzwa Nyenwa

Warning: this article contains strong language

“Hello. Are you a homeowner?” she asks. He responds: “Are you a homeowner?” It’s sarcastic and unexpected. There is no telling how this phone conversation will end. “Go on then, don’t get quiet now. Answer the question.” Louder and angrier now.

She says: “We would love to offer you discounts on some home appliances. Are you a homeowner, sir?” The tension crackles down the line. He sighs audibly and says: “Let me offer you some sense since you clearly don’t have any of your own. You obviously have no ambition in your life because you spend your day bothering people. Is that what it’s come to?” If words could kill, she realises, she would be fighting for her life. He continues: “I don’t EVER want to pick up the phone and hear your voice again. Delete all my information and get a life you stupid cunt.”

Reader, there’s a computer system out there with your name in it. Maybe you forgot to click on the opt-out box, or carelessly agreed to some terms and conditions. It was your way of avoiding the graveyard task of reading that never-ending, ant-size text at the bottom of the page. Now, somehow, a random company has got your personal details. And you probably consented to it.

A consultant rests her head whilst she talks to a client

Unknown caller, your phone says. You answer. After all, it might be important. Apparently you have been in an accident… In that moment, it’s hard to tell whether you are angry at the cold caller for calling or yourself for answering. You either hang up or try to scare them away. Most of us loathe cold calls and cold callers. Why would someone do a job knowing there’s torment on the end of the line?

Well, reader, I was a cold caller. And here’s the twist: I loved it.

It all began with a two-week stint at a call-centre-based discount club four years ago. The company claimed to be the “UK’s premier shopping club”. I was a student and needed money so was grateful for even the minimum wage.

The idea was that a customer would sign up to get discounts on various products, including clothes, shoes, appliances and even holidays. Each caller had to hit a target of five sign-ups per hour. To track everyone, our managers had a Wall of Shame: a leaderboard. If you were successful in getting those sign-ups, there would be commission.

For every call, we would read the same script.

“Hi, are you a homeowner?” I’d start. Sometimes I wouldn’t get any further than that before they hung up. Sometimes I didn’t even get to the end of the question. And I’d repeat this time after time, eight hours a day. The script was tattooed on my heart. My boss had told me repeatedly to read every word with a smile but towards the end of the day I knew I was beginning to sound robotic.

We barely had a break all day; the longest time I was away from my desk was 35 minutes. If you ever work in a call centre, here’s my advice: make sure you have a packet of ibuprofen on the go. And something for the stomach aches that were an everyday thing for me. There’s only so much your digestive system can take when you’re speed-eating BLT sandwiches four days a week.

And from ten to seven each day, I heard every curse word in the book. At first, I took the curses personally. It hurt. But soon enough, I got used to people saying things like: “Who the fuck are you and how did you get my number?” The company told its employees that all contacts had consented to them having all their data; some had previously been members. But it was clear that most people had never even heard of the company.

One woman accused me of being a fraudster: “You’re a bloody scammer. You’ve got nothing better to do than take people’s money. I’m 65 for goodness’ sake.” And the truth was I did feel I was scamming people.

Consultants at work at a call centre

In my second week, my boss gave up on me. He crept up behind me as I finished a call and asked me to go offline with him for a few minutes. We sat down in his little office area. “You’ve been way off your targets and quite unenthusiastic lately,” he said. “Sorry Tan, but Friday’s your last day here.” My first thought was: “Am I really that shit?” Being fired by a dodgy company will leave you re-evaluating every aspect of your life.

I promised myself I would never set foot in a call centre again. This resolution lasted a year. By now a university student, I needed money once again that summer. I was embarrassed asking my mum if I could “borrow” £100. She was over it. It was time to find a job – something quick and easy. My best friend, Anne-Marie, was in the same situation. We joined an agency and applied for a job that appeared more substantial. The pay was around the minimum wage at the time.

This new employer was “an internationally recognised company with a presence in 24 cities”. They had offices across the UK and Europe and clients including BT, Vauxhall, Coca-Cola and the Daily Mail. They were looking for driven individuals with a desire to succeed. That wasn’t really me but they didn’t really care. The assessment day was easy too. There was a group assessment and a one-to-one interview. I practically flirted my way into the job.

The first week was spent training. We were taught how to hit targets and conduct phone calls. At the end of the training we took a test that required a pass mark of around 90/100. If you failed, they would fire you on the spot. I passed with a score of 91; Anne-Marie got 93.

The office was in Canary Wharf in London’s Docklands. Anne-Marie and I saw this as a great opportunity to scout for boyfriends. We knew this was a hotspot for well-rounded, wealthy young bankers. When they asked us what we did we told them: “sales analyst”.

I worked on a campaign that involved calling existing customers and asking them to upgrade or renew a subscription. The goal was to tie them in for another 12 months. This was not a scam. In fact, some customers were not aware that they were paying fees for being outside of their contract. Our calls were listened to by line managers “for training purposes”. On the screen was a combination of black and red text: this was the script we had to read out on each call. You could personalise the black text but the red had to be read word for word. If you failed to do this, there might be legal repercussions. Ultimately, customers were signing up for a 12-month contract. We had to make sure they declared that they agreed to all of the terms and conditions.

“I’m calling on behalf of X [not the real name!],” I would say. Assertively. We had to emphasise that we were calling on behalf of a very respectable company.

“Well, if you’re not X who are you? I’m fed up of these calls from Mumbai,” one customer told me. I’ve never even been to Mumbai but evidently he’d received a lot of these calls. On my computer screen I could see the customer’s account details, their address, internet and phone packages. Before confirming their personal details, customers had to tell me their date of birth and home address.

A team leader writes results on a board at a call centre

I was killing it. We had a target of six sales per hour and I was hitting that easily. I laughed more than the average sales analyst and had some great conversations. Some started cold and, gradually, warmed up. I was surrounded by other young people, most just riding it out until it was time to go back to university or other jobs.

I found I enjoyed the phone calls with older customers most. They were much more polite. “You promise you’re not scamming me, are you?” one customer chuckled. To protect his identity, we’ll call him Wilfred. He was probably in his mid-70s if not older.

Me: Hi, can I speak to Wilfred please?

Wilfred: Yes, this is him.

Me: Hi Wilfred, my name’s Tanya and I’m calling on behalf of X.

It seemed I had caught him at a good time. He told me he’d just come back from his allotment.

Wilfred: [chuckling] When you’re my age, Tanya, you’ll do anything to keep yourself busy. Now are you calling to take more money off me?

I laughed along and assured him that we were a legitimate business and even suggested he look at our website.

Me: You’ve been paying X more than you need to and it’s because you’re out of contract.

Wilfred hated the internet and the only reason he had it was because of his grandchildren.

Wilfred: They’re glued to it. It’s hard to have a normal conversation with you young people; always on your phones.

[He paused]

Wilfred: Pardon me, but you do sound very young.

Me: You’re right, I spend too much time on my phone. It’s my only form of entertainment. I don’t watch TV that much.

We spoke for about 30 minutes; in call-centre terms, that’s equivalent to a lifetime. They gave us a seven-minute mark for calls.

Me: So Wilfred, let’s get you in contract so you don’t have to keep paying those fees. Are you happy to continue?

Wilfred was not interested in extending his contract but he wasn’t rude about it. He had just enjoyed talking to someone. When you spend eight hours of your day in a call centre, dealing with angry customers, you can either laugh or cry. But speaking to a kind person completely changes the whole experience.

There were insults and horrible people too, plenty of them, but the worst part of the job was witnessing fractures in a family or household. One customer’s husband went off at her for agreeing to extend the contract without asking him – all while I was listening on my headphones.

As I was reading the final line of my script, she said: “Just hold on.” I heard a muffled but obviously irritated voice in the background. The voice became louder.

A consultant reading off script

“When did you start making decisions for things you don’t pay for? Give me that phone,” he said to her. She hung up. Guilt consumed me. I began to assume the worst. Maybe my customer was in an abusive relationship, and it was my fault he’d gotten angry at her. Even now I occasionally wonder what happened at the other end of that line.

Then one day it all came abruptly to an end. Almost a hundred of us were asked to gather in a circle. All the data had been “burnt out”, they told us. There were no more calls to make. X had decided to end the campaign early.

For all that, I enjoyed my cold-calling days. I became confident and convincing enough for people to buy into whatever I was selling. And here’s what I learned. We put up the barricades the moment someone tells us “no”. We can’t bear what we see as rejection. I learned how to keep pushing even when the door is closing. For every “no” I got, there would be two people saying “yes”.

So, gentle reader, respect the cold caller. We are all trying to make a living. If you’re not interested in what they’re selling, politely decline. There’s a story at both ends of the line.


Photographs by Piotr Malecki/Panos Pictures

Further reading

How do staff stay sane? What is Big Red? Are cranberries the true meaning of Christmas? Confessions of a Call Centre Worker is Izabelle Winter’s take on the hardships of cold calling in the UK.

People get angry or abusive towards call-centre staff because they’re often afraid, an anonymous cold caller wrote in the Guardian in 2016 and spoke on the “kinds of trouble going on at their end of the phone”.

What happens when lines are crossed in a call centre? Chetan Bhagat’s romantic novel, One Night at the Call Centre follows six friends at a call centre in India. One friend has to work right beside a girl who’s just dumped him.

Boots Riley’s 2018 movie Sorry To Bother You  offers an alternate universe view of a call centre in Oakland, California and lands a tremendously satirical take on the politics of race in America.