A Day In The Life Of A Call Center Agent
"This call is being recorded for quality and training purposes."
It's a refrain as familiar to the American people as "for purple mountain majesties." But rarely, when calling up to complain about screwy wireless or a glitchy Android phone, do we think about the people on the other end, who will be listening to that phone call, for quality and training purposes.
And they do, according to Matt Creamer, a reporter for Advertising Age, who took a stroll through the Tempe, Ariz., office of iQuor, a call center company with over 5,000 employees and close to $500 million in annual revenue, which keeps every one of its 20 million monthly calls on file for 90 days.
Creamer found walls plastered in motivational magic marker slogans and goofy cartoons. "I am a valuable person," said one. "I am worthwhile. I bring value to the company. And that's why I smile."
There are 14 callers per team, who sit facing each other in a long row, topped at one end by the supervisor, on a distinctly higher seat. Cut out one of those characters, and the setup evokes "The Last Supper."
The supervisor listens to the calls on his or her headphones, instant messaging advice as it progresses, and on rare occasions, intervening in the call itself. Halfway through a shift, the agents have made between 17 and 37 calls, reports Creamer, each one between 300 and 700 seconds. The longer you've been in the business, the quicker you learn to complete a call.
Much of iQuor's success has come from the hyper-specialization of its staff. Agents each have a limited set of responsibilities, and a fingerprint reader prevents employees from doing anything else. In the words of Linda Johnson, its vice president of business development, "the system ... doesn't allow you to stray."
For the 90 percent of humanity that can't stand listening to their recorded voice, the job of an iQuor caller would be excruciating. When it comes to evaluations, your supervisor will pick a past call at random, and replay it, while you both listen attentively. "Do you think you resolved the customer's questions?" the supervisor asks, before picking apart your mistakes -- "dead air" is a big one -- and giving you a final score.
On Glassdoor, a website where employees can review their companies, iQuor callers share mixed opinions. Some say there are plentiful opportunities for advancement, others complain about the wages (a median of $11.78 an hour), poor benefits, shoddy technology and burdensome workloads.
"Working 7 hour days a week 14 hours a day," writes one employee. "Not willing to invest in the right front-line employees -- starting at $9/hr with no benefits gets you the rejects even McDonald's won't hire (or fired)."
Whatever the criticisms, call centers are becoming one of the most hopeful new industries for American workers without a college degree. After a movement to outsource customer service to countries like India, companies are increasingly bringing them back home. Customers, they've learned, prefer to complain to someone on the same landmass.
Customer service has the seventh largest projected growth this decade, according to government data. By 2020, over 2.5 million Americans will be representatives in the field, up from 2.2 million in 2010. And iQuor hopes to get America excited about it. Imagining a kids' career day, Johnson said, "I want that kindergartener to want to work at a call center."
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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