“I told them ‘none of that call center shit,’” my friend, Fran, told me when she was looking for a job. “I am not doing that shit no matter how much it pays.”
While I nodded and agreed that working at a call center would indeed suck, I didn’t remember Fran’s words of wisdom a few months later when I found myself looking for a job and one popped up at, yes, a call center and, yes, I applied.
Since my work background had absolutely no customer service or call center experience, that the call center would decide to hire me was right up there in the shock department with the sleepover where a pal told me how babies were made. I applied because I needed a job and I wanted to earn decent money but I never really thought I’d be hired. I also applied because really, how hard could a call center job be? Wasn’t that what Ernestine used to do on “Laugh In”? Surely I, a somewhat competent person, could answer a phone and say whatever version of “One ringy dingy, two ringy dingy” that was required.
That’s what I thought, anyway.
“Describe your ideal job,” the woman interviewing me requested.
Thinking quickly, I tried to figure out the perfect answer. Let’s see, upon entering the call center I saw what seemed like a hundred women in cubicles taking calls with one or two poking their heads over the grey fabric walls to ask a neighbor a question.
“My ideal job would be to work by myself but also be part of a team,” I said.
I wasn’t lying: that would be my ideal job but I neglected to add that the working by myself part would be working alone in an isolated beachfront mansion and the helping my teammates would be primarily via emails or texting. It isn’t that I’m not a team player but I’m the kind of team player who prefers to stay in the locker room while everyone else busts their asses on the field.
The three women interviewing me nodded approvingly telling me I’d hit the right balance. Within two weeks I was officially working at a call center.
At first it wasn’t too bad since I was being trained and wasn’t required to actually talk to living, breathing customers but the honeymoon ended way too soon and before I could get my headset to really fit comfortably I was suddenly answering telephone calls on my own.
I suspected I wasn’t ready but I also knew that any more training most likely wasn’t going to help. My new boss believed that the best way to learn how to do something was to figure it out on your own. That was how she learned and, dammit, that was how everyone else was going to learn. The call center I worked at was part of a medical system and our job was to answer questions from patients and make and schedule appointments as well as deal with nurses, doctors and other medical personnel.
I don’t know if it’s the pecking order that’s inherent in every work culture or if the nurses I dealt with were overworked or just plain nasty but every single day I had at least one phone call from a nurse who threw me into an instant panic that made my hands sweat and my scalp itch. My absolutely least favorite calls were from nurses who wanted to make “same day” appointments–appointments that went into special time slots and had to be grabbed quickly before some other call center slave snagged them.
“You’re very slow,” I was regularly told. “Can’t you go any faster? I want that slot!”
While I wanted to snap back, “If I could go any faster, bitch, I would!” but as all of our calls were monitored, I bit my tongue. Sometimes I was able to snag the spot but most of the time I failed miserably.
Throughout my brief tenure as a call center girl I learned several key things about myself including: 1) I’m good at empathizing with people who are upset, nervous and ready to fly off the handle since that was how I felt myself 99 percent of the time while taking phone calls. Rude calls from patients never bothered me because I understood they weren’t mad at me; they were mad at their doctor or test result or insurance company. 2) I crack woefully under pressure when trying to figure out the answers to questions I don’t know. Things that seemed like common sense to my fellow call center inmates seemed impossibly intricate and arcane to me. And, finally, 3) call center personnel, no matter how much they’re being paid, aren’t paid enough.
I eventually got a tiny bit better at unraveling the mysteries of the medical center and fairly adept at directing calls where they needed to go but I never ever felt truly relaxed about the whole process. Every time the phone rang—and it rang pretty constantly—it was like a small bomb was being detonated right there in my cubicle.
“I don’t think this is the job for me,” I told Fran the Wise one day over Diet Cokes. “I just don’t seem to have the right kind of brain to handle all this call center shit.”
To her everlasting credit, she didn’t say ‘I told you so.’