14 Things only people who work in call centres will understand

Updated July 11, 2018

Call centres are often called the factories or even the sweat shops of the 21st century. Crammed into a cubicle like a battery hen or sitting in dumb lines in front of a factory line of computer systems, modern British call centre workers find themselves trapped in a thankless situation punctuated by condescending drives to improve customer service scores or some other meaningless metric. It’s a world we’re all too willing to enter, but one which quickly saps the joy from the depths of your soul and teaches you many, many lessons about the nature of employment and society as a whole in the 21st century. Here are 14 things you’ll only truly understand if you work or have worked in a call centre.

\#1 – The best way to deal with abuse is to be painfully polite...

Despite the fact that you’re obviously a living, breathing human, in your role as a call centre worker you’ll undoubtedly be treated like a piece of incompetent machinery. Whereas calling somebody a worthless piece of “excrement” to their face carries an inherent sense of danger (since you could actually be attacked), over the phone people have no qualms about hurling torrents of abuse your way for even the most trivial of issues. When the screams and foul-mouthed tirades first head your way, you might crack a little at first, but it doesn’t take long until you respond unflinchingly, with a perfectly-delivered yet blatantly backhanded “I’m EVER so sorry to hear you’re having difficulties today. I just need a few details from you and I’ll be able to help you further...” They might get more annoyed at first, but the inhuman levels of politeness eventually beat them into co-operation.

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\#2 – ... But occasionally being rude helps you stay sane

If you’re unlucky enough to work for a company who receives a lot of angry customers – for example, if you’re understaffed and constantly have people waiting – even your over-politeness defence mechanism fails from time to time. Your first time might be because you snapped on a particularly bad day, but you’ll eventually come to realise that a little bit of rudeness is more cathartic than having a punching bag at your desk at all times. Over time, you hone your ideal responses to commonly-heard complaints, and eventually you fire away, “Believe it or not, as one of the lowest-level employees of a goliath international company, I hold absolutely no sway over the number of staff answering customer service calls. So I could suggest that to my manager for you, but we both know it’s a complete waste of time, don’t we?”

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\#3 – The “Mute” button is your best friend

One of the biggest problems with call centre work is that you can be on the phone almost constantly throughout your working hours – calls come through when they come through. This means that the power to “Mute” your microphone is invaluable. Customers will realise that the background has gone quiet, so they’ll know they’re on mute, but it’s much better than them hearing the punch-line to the joke you were in the middle of, you quietly muttering insults as they talk or you laughing at their surname.

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\#4 – Some people are just irreparably moronic

If you’re in customer service this is much more obvious that it will be in most other types of job. The questions you are asked, the “problems” you have to solve and the tedious tasks you’re asked to complete lead you to one undeniable conclusion: some people are really, really stupid. One example from Retail Hell Underground tells the story of a customer who received a quote on some repairs, decided she wanted them done and just waited. She didn’t actually accept the quote or hand over any money; she just expected the work to happen because she’d been given a price. After a while, she called customer service to complain that the work hadn’t been completed, only to have the process of buying something explained to her as if she’d never done it before. It turns out companies don’t send products and services to anybody who looks at a price. Who’d have known it? Oh yeah, anybody whose IQ is larger than their age.

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\#5 – Apologies lose all sense of meaning

Take a busy day. A large proportion of callers coming through to your centre will be annoyed about their long wait, and the conversations usually start with a grumbled complain about the queues. There is no solution, so aside from being a little rude (as in #2) your only solution is to say sorry. You become well-versed in the art of apologising, and as a consequence, although they always sound like you mean it, there is absolutely no feeling behind them whatsoever. They turn into nothing more than conversational currency, and not a good bit of currency, the sort you toss into a jar at home to avoid having to carry around.

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\#6 – Funny names have to be repeated as much as possible

Encountering funny names is a natural consequence of dealing with hundreds of different people each week, but they’re also one of the few things that can actually brighten up your day for a few minutes. So the only viable course of action is to repeat the amusing (and preferably slightly rude) name as many times as possible. “That’s absolutely no problem Mr. Glasscock... I’ve done that for you now Mr. Glasscock... Thank you for your call Mr. Glasscock.” It makes no difference if they realise what you’re doing, at least you and your friends can laugh about it.

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\#7 – Big Brother is watching you

George Orwell’s political “1984” warning may only really apply to North Koreans these days, but the culture of surveillance is alive and well in call centres all across the country. Not only is your every call recorded, your login and logoff times noted (and scrutinized), your performance characteristics checked off against arbitrary benchmarks and your breaks only allowed at designated times, many call centre employees aren’t even allowed to go to the toilet! You’ll soon learn how easily Big Brother can watch you when you’re working in a call centre.

Related: Big boss is watching you: How to know if you're being spied on at work

\#8 – Some customers just deserve a dead-end transfer

Being pawned off to another department when you’re talking to a call centre is understandably frustrating, but if you’ve worked in one you’ll know that it seems appropriate for some customers. If somebody is complaining about something ridiculous like your hold music or the fact that you aren’t informed, they’re basically asking to be pawned off to a non-existent complaints department. Again, it isn’t the nicest solution, but it’s the sort of little victory you need to get through the day.

Related: Does an employee have a right to refuse a work assignment?

\#9 – You can never rely on people to have called the right number

If you’ve never worked in a call centre, you might be under the bizarre impression that phone numbers are quite easy to use. You just find the number of the company you want to talk to and ring them; so there’s no room for error, right? Sadly, that’s not true. The first time it happens, you’ll idly be wondering why the account number you’re being quoted is so strange and trying to find them on the system for a while before you realise. Then you finally realise that despite the fact you work for an energy provider, the customer you’re talking to thinks you’re his bank. It happens way too often.

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\#10 – Threats rarely materialise

Threats are commonplace in call centres. People ask for your name or your manager’s name, expecting to strike fear into the depths of your heart and get their way. They might be pretty angry, but you’ll quickly come to realise that none of their threats will ever come to pass. Soon, you tell them your name, the centre you’re in, your manager’s name and even your staff number happily. They aren’t going to go through all of that effort unless they’re an angry sociopath in need of a sadistic fix – you learn you can rest easy.

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\#11 – You can’t rely on co-workers

As a call centre worker, you’re probably the front-line for all customer contact, which means you hear about almost everything that goes wrong for the people you speak to. This leads you to an unpreventable conclusion: people you work with really are incompetent and will readily pretend to have solved problems when they’ve actually done nothing. In some call centres, you’ll start to assume that literally nobody knows how to do their job until proven otherwise.

Related: How to deal with co-workers acting like a boss

\#12 – Average call time is counter-productive

Many call centres use average call time as a performance indicator, something which they use to judge your performance. However, since some people are stupid, un-cooperative and woefully unprepared for the conversation, it isn’t always possible to finish a call in three minutes. When you hit that arbitrary time limit, you start to get antsy, trying to end things as quickly as possible. Inevitably, your customer service suffers because of the impossible aim of making things take less time than they actually take. You’ll soon realise that your key performance indicator is completely the wrong thing to focus on.

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\#13 – System faults are a goldmine

Working time is rigorously-monitored, and if you take time between calls you’re normally scolded for being unavailable for too long. For the hardened call centre worker, this makes even the smallest computer or system fault cause for an extended period of not working. All it takes is a call to the support team, who’ll undoubtedly tell you to restart your ancient machine. This means anything from five to ten minutes of sweet, sweet downtime. You learn to grab onto system faults with both hands.

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\#14 – Mutual hatred helps you make friends

The only silver lining in the dark and depressing cloud of call centre work is that other people are in there with you. Your colleagues are just as bored, stressed and miserable as you, and your mutual hatred of where you are becomes the basis of many friendships. Whether it’s challenging each other to insert ridiculous phrases into conversations or swapping horror stories, you’ll club together with your co-workers in no time. The fact that you’ll make some good friends is one of the things that keeps you in the job for longer than you should stay, but it’s an undeniable truth that call centres breed camaraderie.

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About the Author

Lee Johnson has written for various publications and websites since 2005, covering science, music and a wide range of topics. He studies physics at the Open University, with a particular interest in quantum physics and cosmology. He's based in the UK and drinks too much tea.