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Customer Inter@ction Solutions
June 2007 - Volume 26 / Number 1
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I Was An Outbound Call Center Agent

There. I’ve said it. And let’s face it…in the 1980s, the job of outbound call center agent ranked right up there with cleaner of public restrooms on the job appeal scale. But there is a bright side: little did I know then that it would end up becoming useful in my role as associate editor for this magazine.

During college, primarily to pay to pay for pizza binges, I took a job with a market research organization. The company was typical of the call centers of the early 1980s: rows of cubicles, each with a standard AT&T (News - Alert) phone and not much else (what’s a headset?). There were no computers or auto-dialers — to make a call, agents picked up the handset and dialed the numbers provided on dot-matrix print-outs. These numbers were generally purchased from list brokers. They were also unreliable, sometimes resulting in the following scenario:

Call recipient: “Joe’s Pizza.”
Agent: “You mean this isn’t the DeCola residence?”
Call recipient: “Look, do you want to order a pizza or not?”
Agent: “I was hoping you’d like to tell me how much you love your new deluxe floor mats for your car.”

Stalemate. You get the picture.

Political surveys were my favorite. It was fascinating to hear people express their views so freely — which was more common back in those days, since telemarketing was still relatively new. People were sometimes actually happy to take a call from a stranger and have the opportunity to express their views.

Computerized scripting? Not a chance. We used response sheets that included a series of multiple choice responses with check boxes. Sometimes we had to write the responses free-hand. If we couldn’t write fast enough, we had to summarize as best we could after the caller hung up. (“Responder said, ’Walter Mondale is awesome!’”). The scripts we did have were typically posted on the walls of each cubicle in brightly colored paper — each color representing a different “canned” response we delivered in a friendly manner on the first call and in deadly monotone by the fortieth call.

After college, I took a call center job doing direct selling. Although doing direct sales has never been one of my strengths, I was making $9 an hour, which was respectable at the time. The project lasted only a few months, then suddenly and without explanation, the company let everybody go. It was my first and only experience with the dreaded “sudden call center closing” that has become all too common these days in poorly managed organizations.

My next step on the call center rung involved doing consumer satisfaction surveys mixed with some sales for a busy call center engaged in what was a fairly common practice of over-hiring agents and then “weeding out” the under-performing ones. I missed a shift or two in the first two weeks — a major no-no for anyone who wishes to continue a promising career in a call center — so the company simply stopped offering me shifts. It started to dawn on me that maybe call center jobs weren’t so easy to land and retain after all.

Still, I took another part-time call center job for another market research organization. This company was the right fit: professional yet casual; the schedule was flexible; and the pay was good. They had put together a good team of representatives: smart, dedicated people who knew what they were doing. Quality blossomed as we overheard one another’s calls and strove to compete after each successful resolution. By this time, I had developed my own personal style of handling calls and I had increased my comfort level with reaching out to strangers. Few people ever recognize the complexity of the skills possessed by top-notch outbound agents.

By the late 1980s, call centers and telemarketing companies were starting to get a bum rap; probably for good reason. In those days —before caller I.D., you often caught people off-guard — sometimes extremely off-guard. I once spoke to a man who was in the process of a vicious breakup with his wife…during the call. Every so often, when the man would pause, I could hear the sound of cursing and breaking dishes in the background. To this day, I still wonder how he was able to express his opinions of the product I was calling him about while his wife was loudly detailing his origins, his mother’s reputation and where she wished him to put the couple’s marriage.

At other times, we found ourselves playing “counselor” to miserable souls who had no compunction about sharing their personal problems with call center agents. At other times, we played victim to pranksters whose only goal in life was to mess up your survey by providing fake and intentionally ridiculous responses. As outbound telemarketing’s negative reputation was growing, it was becoming more challenging to obtain meaningful results.

Post-college, I ended my “career path” as an outbound call center agent. Determined to put my degree to good use, I approached journalism as a profession. Looking back, I believe that I took my lumps with dignity and learned a great deal. It’s possible that there is no other profession in the world that teaches a person more about human nature than outbound telemarketing. In any case, I feel I’ve come full circle as I’ve now been able to link my second chosen profession with my first. Customer Interaction Solutions helped launch the early telemarketing industry in the 1980s, and while both the magazine and the industry have changed a great deal in the last few decades, one lesson remains: If you have high-performing outbound call center agents in your contact center, reward them. Cherish them. Unless you’re an overworked air-traffic controller, an emergency medical technician or a kindergarten teacher, your outbound agents’ jobs are more stressful than yours will ever be.

The author may be contacted at [email protected].
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