Introduction Mandy's story Patrick's story Alex's story Lindaâ€™s story
Introduction The other end of the line… Ever worked in a call centre? Ever seen one? If you haven’t then you can’t imagine what its like. Huge open plan offices, warehouse size. Row upon row of desks and computers as far as you can see, and floors and floors with the same set up. Sunshine Products has three of these across the country, and one hidden somewhere in mothballs in case of war or disaster. Seriously there is one, location unknown. When I first set eyes on the one I went to work in I was staggered. So many people… and all of them hot-desking. Some on a four, five or six hour shift, some there from nine until five Monday to Friday, Some working weekends only, some evenings only. So many people…and so many reasons why they worked the hours that they did. The organisation of it must be a logistic nightmare. Thousands of orders processed daily from all over the country, and somehow most ending up with the customer at the right time. That in itself seemed a minor miracle to my newly opened eyes. Order takers, delivery bookers, trouble shooters, route planners, team leaders, middle managers, over managers, administrators…not to mention warehouse and despatch organisation. Battalions of huge articulated lorries waiting for the order to move out every morning. How on earth does it all come together?
My job was at that time booking deliveries for people. Unable to work out how anything this complicated could possible work, let alone make a profit, it’s unsurprising that instead of tackling that issue…I had some fun thinking about…what is happening at the other end of the line when we ring people up? I hope you like the result.
All the very best :)
ps For those who may have already read some of these stories online the last one, Linda’s story, is brand new.
Mandy’s Story ‘Good Evening, I’m calling from Sunshine Products. Is that Mrs Smith?’ Helen Smith’s expression froze. Her heart was breaking, slowly, agonisingly and it felt as if in a never ending fragmentation. Shattering. She was shattering from the inside out. Tears gathered, unbidden battalions waiting for release behind her eyes. She struggled to control her voice, but she couldn’t speak. Not yet. Customers were often surprised when she called them at this hour. The reaction was common. People were seldom aware that they worked up to ten o’clock at night here, and the world being what it was, with scam, hoax and marketing calls reaching epidemic proportions, it was understandable and had to be handled. Mandy usually just left the penny drop in its own time. It was half past nine now. In half an hour the call centre would empty faster than a school at the last bell of the day. She was looking forward to going home tonight. The work wasn’t physically taxing, and for the most part pleasant, but tonight she was tired all the same. ‘Hello’, she repeated. The pause had been much longer than usual on this call. ‘Mrs Smith? Are you there?’
‘Yes’ came the reply, there was something in the voice. Something wasn’t right. Mandy continued. She was experienced enough to know that whatever it was that was wrong, it wasn’t appropriate for her to stray outside of her very simple role here. ‘I need to confirm your address and post code to arrange for delivery of your order.’ Helen Smith reeled off the requested information, an automatic response to an often asked question, in flat and restrained tones. Mandy confirmed the details with bright efficiency. She could possibly fit in about five more bookings before closing time. It would put her amongst the top of the league in her team. ‘I don’t want it!’ The words burst out in a torrent, desperation cloaking every word. Mandy didn’t betray her irritation at the lost statistic on her record. Trying to sound reassuring she said, ‘That’s alright Mrs Smith, I can cancel your order if you’d like me to. It isn’t any problem and your card payment will be refunded within about five working days.’ ‘Yes, yes please, please cancel it’ Helen was managing to retain some control but her distress was obvious. Mandy made the necessary changes on the database. As she did so she noticed the item description for the first time. ‘Item CD:000:275463 Little Gem Cot with changing table.’
Her heart understood everything in an instant. ‘That’s done’ she said gently. Without asking she entered the reason for the cancellation as ‘change of mind’. Not correct procedure, but absolutely the right thing to do, of this Mandy had no doubt. ‘Thank you, thank you so much’ and Helen Smith replaced the receiver, allowing grief to take her once again to its dark home, sobbing freely and clutching the ultrasound picture of her unborn, and now never to be born baby. Mandy didn’t make another call. She just sat staring at the now cancelled order on her screen. Then Stuart’s voice…’Mandy, are you OK?’ She realised that she was sitting with her hands placed protectively over her bulging stomach. ‘Sprog giving you a hard time?’ he asked with genuine concern. ‘No’ she smiled up at him. He was a good team leader, and he’d been supportive and understanding of the more unpleasant side effects of her pregnancy in the early months. ‘No, I’m just feeling….grateful.’ He returned her smile, satisfied that all was well. Though a little puzzled at her answer, he had long accepted that sometimes women were unfathomable and pregnant ones…well. She was also feeling something else. A sense of something unspoken, a connection between her and a woman many miles away, who she would probably never have contact with again. ‘Be well Mrs Smith, be well’ she whispered to the computer screen. Then she switched it off and
gathered her things together, waddling as quickly as she could to join the giggling band of escapees on their nightly stampede to the car park.
Patrick’s Story Melvin Sullivan sat cross legged on the floor watching his TV. His buttocks ached. Only a week to go and then Sunshine Products had said they would deliver his sofa. He had never thought that the promise of a comfy chair could mean so much. He could of course move the TV into his bedroom and sit on his bed, but he liked watching his “Dog the Bounty Hunter”. The cable connection wouldn’t stretch that far. Oh well… only a week to go. He grabbed a pillow and stuffed it under his aching rump and settled down to watch the idiotic being arrested by the ridiculous. Patrick groaned as the order landed on his screen. Oh no. He couldn’t ring up again and tell this man about yet another delay on his order. He glanced up at the dates. Overdue for delivery by eight weeks. Three times the stock had failed to materialise by the delivery date. Three times Patrick had rung this number to apologise for the delay. Why him? Sunshine Products had three call centres in the country all running something like a hundred customer services advisers as a minimum on duty at any time. How on earth did this man keep landing on his screen? It defied the laws of probability. Either Melvin Sullivan was the unluckiest man in the world….”or I am” Patrick said to himself. “Problem mate?” There was no point in pleading his case to the team leader. Stuart was fair, but strong on personal responsibility. Patrick could almost hear his answer “Its fallen in your court…your call.”
“Not really Stuart, I’m just gathering my data together.” “Great! There’s nothing better than a positive attitude!” Patrick managed a grin that masked a grimace and dialled. Melvin was a philosophical sort of person. So when Patrick rang him and told him that his sofa wasn’t going to arrive for another two weeks, he hadn’t made a fuss. All these customer service advisers sounded the same. He could almost believe it was the same one that had called him…how many times had it been now? Well…before anyway. No. He wouldn’t be down-trodden. He rubbed his aching rear and began to think of ways that he could be more comfortable. He was pacing up and down by the window and noticed a skip parked outside on next door’s drive. His neighbour waved at him as he dropped a broken bookcase into it. For some reason Melvin continued to watch and a few minutes later was delighted to see Mr and Mrs Roberts struggling to move a large armchair from the conservatory in the direction of the skip. Without thinking he dived out of the back door and shouted to them. “Bob! Annie! Hang on a minute.” The saga of the sofa related, all agreed that Melvin should have the armchair. “Little duck’s so thin he’s got nothing to cushion him. We can always drive it to the tip when he gets his delivery.” Mrs Roberts was adamant, and so the well worn but still perfectly serviceable armchair was re-located into Melvin’s living room. As he sat in comfort heaven later that evening in front of his TV the phone rang.
“Hello mum… … tomorrow?....No its fine…it’ll be good to see you. OK…take care. Love you too.” He sprang from his new haven and began to tidy up. He was only twenty three years old. He hadn’t got a steady girlfriend and so…well the flat wasn’t in the best shape for a maternal inspection, and he had work tomorrow. Dishes got washed, floors scrubbed, surfaces scoured and then…lastly the hoover. He surveyed The Chair. Bob and Annie were clean enough…but they had kids. He’d better give it the once over. Who knows what might be stuffed down the seat cushions? He pulled off both seat cushions and began vacuuming down the sides of the chair. There was something stuck the end of the nozzle. What’s this? Just an old lottery ticket. He put it to one side and finished his job. OK. Now it was passable and his mum wouldn’t have to worry about him. He sat in his pristine little flat feeling satisfied with his efforts. The lottery ticket caught his eye. What if? No…that just couldn’t happen. Well, now he’d had the thought he’d have to settle it. He flipped the TV onto teletext and checked the date and the numbers. Oh…Oh bloody hell! He checked again. This ticket was worth at least £500000.00. He shook as he read the instructions over and over, unable in his excitement to find the telephone number to ring. Finally he found it and made the call. No mistake. This ticket was worth £52, 7421.62. Even shared three ways it was a huge fortune. Patrick sighed. He had accepted now that Mr Melvin Sullivan and his ill-fated sofa were going to haunt him
until it was either delivered or cancelled. The universe had issued it as a challenge. He was the champion chosen to complete this impossible task He was Hercules, he was Angel, he was Inspector Morse. Somehow this would be sorted and he would sort it. It was…his destiny, as sure as World of Warcraft was his virtual home. OK The delivery dates were another two weeks away…but they were firm delivery dates and the strings that he had pulled would ensure that the stock would be earmarked and not sent elsewhere. This case was cracked. He dialled the number, confident that he could deal with the disappointment that Mr Sullivan would feel from another long wait for delivery. He could handle this. He could. He really could...He just wished someone else could make this call. Before he could change his mind he dialled. After the call Patrick sat stunned for about five minutes. He’d never been thanked so sincerely in his life. All he had done was ring this man up with bad news for months now. Melvin Sullivan was some sort of nutcase or a truly decent, understanding guy. He’d sounded quite disappointed when Patrick had explained that advisors weren’t allowed to accept tips and had suggested that if he’d been pleased with the service he could write to head office. He thought about asking Stuart to listen into the call, but changed his mind. Well…it was all very bizarre. Then he shrugged and moved on to the next order. This job was sometimes full of surprises.
Alex’s Story “You’re too soft on them! I’m telling you. When I covered for you on your holiday last week your team were verging on insubordinate. If I could have found one worse than the rest I’d have disciplined them but they’re all as bad. Even I won’t put an entire team on a disciplinary.” Alex went on and on … and Stuart maintained eye contact and tried to remain interested. Alex was a known bully and a poor manager. He’d been with the company for about a year and peers and subordinates alike generally avoided him. The powers that be noted it, and decided that keeping him a “mobile team leader” might smooth off the rough edges. For this reason he mostly covered for holidays and hadn’t a permanent team of his own. He was however a superb administrator and a lot of people would be surprised to find that they had him to thank for the fact that their wages were paid on time, correctly and, in some cases, at all. “So the performance statistics dropped?” Stuart enquired. “Well no, actually they improved on the previous week.” “So the team are still leading the field?” “Yes, top of the league. That’s what made me hold my fire!” “Call quality?”
“Well…If it were MY team with MY criteria…I’d have scored them lower, but I used your criteria…” “and…” Stuart probed. “Within acceptable parameters.” Alex grudgingly corrected himself “ They were well within acceptable parameters. Very good in fact.” “So Alex, just what exactly upset you? They’re performing just fine.” Alex told him, and Stuart hoped that he could address the issues at the next team meeting without laughing. “So guys” Stuart addressed his team meeting using his serious voice. Anyone want to tell me what happened while I was on holiday?” “We’re at the top of the bookings league” piped up Mandy. “I got a letter of commendation from head office after a customer wrote in” added Patrick. The other twelve set up a chant of “go team go team” Stuart silenced them with a glance. “Anything else?” he asked. Kimi looked around the group and decided to speak. “Well…Some of us had a problem with Alex Mathison” she ventured bravely. “Carry on Kimi” Stuart smiled encouragingly. “Well…” she faltered as every eye she searched for support was busy examining the carpet for flaws in its design. Her courage failed and she fell silent. “Let me make this easy for you. Who put the boot polish on his headset?
Who placed a sticker on his back saying “resistance is futile” and who…” he paused for breath “left the note on his desk to ring Dicky Ticker at what turned out to be The British Heart Foundation?” Silence. Jonas looked up, oozing defiance. He was about nineteen and at University studying law during the day and working the evening and weekend shift to pay his way. “He deserved a lot worse. He talks down to people, but especially to women. It got on my nerves. I did it“ Stuart was inwardly praying that the team wouldn’t do a Spartacus scene here, because if they did he would not be able to retain his professional composure. The laughter that he’d promised a life to later and in private might just insist upon being birthed there and then. “We all share the responsibility” Mandy insisted. “Yes you do” Stuart agreed. “All of you. That is why you are going to apologise and think of something nice to do for him in the next week. OK. This meeting is concluded.” He turned and left the meeting room without giving anyone a chance to complain. Alex Mathison put the phone down in the small room that had become his office, mainly because he worked in it a lot. No one really had an office here, it was all open-plan, but he realised that if you sat in a place often enough, well people just assumed you were supposed to be there and he didn’t fit in anywhere else. “Forty four and still living with mother…” He sensed the criticism that would come from all of them if they found out.
Jobs weren’t easy to come by at his age, and he’d not got a brilliant career record. Mother always saw to that. She’d ring up incessantly or before she was bedridden she’d even turn up at his workplace demanding to see him. She’d made him a laughing stock everywhere he’d worked. She couldn’t do that here though, because incoming personal calls weren’t allowed and he’d lied to her about having a telephone extension of his own. He had to ring her every few hours, but at least that way he was in control and she couldn’t spoil things. It was like being a slave. His mother really needed twenty-four hour a day care, and had needed it for years but she refused it. It left him no choice other than to try and cope. His dedication had cost him his wife, his home and many jobs, but he couldn’t abandon her. She had been suffering from Schizophrenia for most of his adult life, but now she also had chronic arthritis and could barely stand unaided. The phone rang and he answered it “Mathison” he responded curtly. “Hello Mr Mathison, its Mandy here from Stuart’s team. Can we see you for a moment?” “Stuart’s back now, any problems... he’ll deal with them” “This really needs you. Can you pop down to our section?” “Oh …all right!” What now! This lot really were the limit! Still, Mandy was a decent sort and as it was her that had rung, and she was pregnant. “Probably some hormonal thing wrong with her, needs a father figure” he groaned to himself and picked up his pad and pen and trooped off to find them.
As he reached the section he’d been so keen to leave last week he was stunned to see the place festooned with balloons and a banner hung from the roof tiles, made from wallpaper, must have been because it went the entire width of the aisle. “THANK YOU ALEX” It said in brash neon coloured paint and ….oh my god! Where had they had that photo of him from? It must have taken it through his office window. He’d been on the phone to his mother. He knew that, his face was full of compassion. Not the way he liked to present here at all! An A3 copy of it was at either side of the “thank you” message. On Mandy’s desk were a huge selection sandwiches and cakes…all home made by the look of it. Jonas approached him, “I’m sorry I played those practical jokes last week. We are all grateful that you were here to support us. This is a buffet in your honour.” He said seriously. Alex couldn’t get a word out. He was fighting back tears. Not tears! Not in front of this lot! But he had never really been thanked for anything he’d done in the last twenty years, and what little he’d done for these people? It was just his job. It was nothing. Mandy handed him a roast beef sandwich, “Stuart says you like these, and he said if it wasn’t for you we’d have all been down on our wages last week because we all forgot to sign the monthly absence sheets.” The team set up a chant of “Go Alex go Alex!” He couldn’t help it. He was smiling. “Well…” he managed to say “This is really nice. Thank you all very much.”
The rest of the call centre were watching in disbelief as “Locutus the Borg”, Alex’s nickname amongst them, seemed to turn back into Jean Luc Picard in seconds. After the food had been distributed Alex was almost giggling to himself like a schoolboy as he returned to his office. He wondered just how long it would be before someone told Jonas that he was sporting a sticker on his back saying “Cheeky Sprog. Kick me.” He had a feeling that things were going to change, and smiling…well it didn’t hurt a bit now he’d practised it.
Linda’s story Linda Wolsey's life could be summed up in one word. Humdrum. She hadn't got a job. Living in a rural area like Maypole End it was near enough impossible to find work and without a car...well no hope at all. She was frugal in her daily living. It cost £6.00 to go to the shops on the bus. It cost £3,00 to have groceries delivered. Whilst having her groceries delivered meant that she saved money... it also meant that she rarely saw anyone other than the delivery man and the postman. Linda’s husband had died five years ago and she felt that loss daily. It was a hole in her insides that she could never fill. At first she had tried alcohol to fill that void but it didn’t do much except to make her feel sick. Now she just cruised through the day on a routine that kept her going. Radio in the morning, TV in the afternoon and evening and an early night. One day she would feel better. She had to believe that. Sam had died at an early age, he was fifty three. It was a heart attack and Linda, just two years his junior had no plans of her own. They were childless and had only each other to think about. The two of them had planned so much…things that they would do together
when Sam retired…things that would now never happen. Thursday was like every other day, except that on a Thursday the free newspaper usually arrived, courtesy of that scruffy young lad from Bright’s farm… Jason or something she thought he was called. She knew he arrived on his bicycle because there was a section of grass at the front of the house worn from him racing up the drive and braking too quickly and swerving to a stop. At Christmas she usually waited for him and gave him a few pounds for his trouble. The rest of the year she just waited for the click of the letterbox and slap of the newspaper landing on the wooden floor. This Thursday the expected click and slap came as usual and she picked up the paper and took it into the kitchen where she laid it onto the table and prepared to update herself with the news of the local comings and goings, a fresh cup of tea at the ready. The front page immediately captured her attention and a flicker of interest turned into a fascination as she digested the unbelievable news in front of her. Someone had renovated the old chicken farm a few fields away from her. They were now offices, and the whole front page was dedicated to a description of the upgrades to the property. There was also a large advertisement for staff. Linda had office skills spanning thirty years. She had ceased working when Sam died, partly because she was in no condition to
work and partly because he had driven her to work, and she did not drive. She didn’t read past the front page and began to think about the possibility that she might work again. The place was a thirty minute walk away. She could live again. It was time to live again.
Two weeks passed. Linda had sent her application and hoped for a letter back but after a week had passed she had almost forgotten about it, thinking that she was too old to have succeeded. The telephone rang. A harsh ringing seldom heard in her house now. She answered the call. “Mrs Wolsey?” “Yes” she answered, fearing double glazing and hoping to hear the voice of a long lost friend. “Hello I’m Stuart Beech from Sunshine Products. I’m ringing about your application.” “oh….OH…yes of course thanks for ringing” she said, trying to quell the disbelief threatening to voice itself. It seemed that the modern way of recruitment now included a telephone interview. Linda responded to Stuart’s questions as best she could and was delighted to be invited to the new premises for a face to face interview at the end of it.
Her face glowed, and although no-one was there to see it and tell her, she knew… because she felt as if she was shining like a beacon. The squeal of Jason’s brakes, and an unusual thud following it , shook her to attention. She ran to the door to see what had happened. There he was sprawled on the grass, winded. He had managed to brake, but had continued to travel after the bike had stopped….travelling over the handlebars by the look of it. She raced out to see if he was alright. Hot sweet tea. They both sat at her kitchen table while Linda encouraged Jason to drink the cure for shock that she had brewed for him. “I’ve got an interview “ Jason told her, having got his breath back. “ …at Sunshine Products, that new call centre that opened at Murphy’s chicken farm. “Me too” said Linda proudly. How strange it would be to work side by side with teenagers. Jason was only around eighteen. “It’s walking distance” they both said at the same time and then giggled because of the synchronicity. Jason prattled on to Linda about how he was going to buy a Laptop computer with his wages if he got the job and Linda thought “yes…I think I will too”. A window to the big world outside of her home seemed suddenly so attractive. Jason said that he would help
her to set it up. She had a dream again. Something to aim for. The day of the interview came and went and both Jason and Linda were accepted as part of the new staff. A trainer had been despatched from the Sunshine Products head office at the main call centre and six weeks of training flew by. Soon Linda’s life was transformed. Work colleagues to chat to, and a lodger. Linda had room and one of the trainees in her group needed lodgings. One day she met Stuart Beech as she was queuing for the coffee machine. “How are things Stuart?” she asked brightly “OK “ he answered, a little wearily “I need to get another five telephone interviews done today” Linda smiled. “Remember Stuart, its five for you and one for them….you never know what is going on at the other end of the line.” Stuart laughed, “you are SO right Linda, you are so right.”