Good morning, you’re through to James in Customer Services. Can I confirm I’m speaking to the principal cardholder?
I always hated talking on the phone. Hated it. Hated suddenly shifting a gear to be thrust into a conversation, with no mental preparation at all. Hated the way I couldn’t sit back and let other people speak. Hated most of all the prospect of an unknown caller on the other end of the line, who I would not be able to see, who I wou ld not be able to adjust to, who would therefore meet a version of me unprepared to go out into public, a version of me I suspected was in some way unavoidably ridiculous, and in a way I could not comprehend. I hated my voice, its reediness, the way it suddenly shifted at times, the annoying barking laugh, and the more stressful the situation, the worse it got.
So naturally, I didn’t want a job where I had to be talking on the phone all day. But it seemed that was the only thing going. In 2004 Brighton had a dotted line of employment agencies stretching from the station down to the sea. I was qualified to do nothing except teach English as a second language and write for a city magazine, and after a dispiriting day visiting each of these agencies, I found that these were not the kind of jobs they had. The only offer I had was to work on the phones, for a bank. “I don’t want to work in telesales,” I said. “Don’t worry,” said the woman at Office Angels, “this is customer services.” Later I would spin this remark into a cast-iron guarantee, from an uncontactable person, that I would not be involved in sales. It was the kind of half-truth I would increasingly need to cling on to.
Days later I started “work” in the building I would curse for the next ten months, a tasteful four-floor yellow-brick thing close to all the tourist hotspots and independent boutiques I would no longer be visiting. Getting into the place was a challenge that morning as it would be every morning, with the need to show or scan my pass three times, and a metal detector to step through, but I was still a couple of weeks away from being trusted with any personal data.
At the end of the second floor was a small glass-fronted classroom, where I was to join a week’s lectures with the other fifteen people who had reached this particular moment in their lives. The man next to me was an Olympic archer and had formerly run a “gastropub”, he lasted a month or so. On the other side was a stoner girl, who seemed every day to have been reluctantly dragged out of bed, she was also gone in a couple of months. A couple of seats along was a British-Iraqi girl who liked Alanis Morissette and Kevin Smith films, I remember these details as she was the only one of the fifteen left when I quit ten months later. She’d been the only one for quite a while.
Our job that first week was to watch a series of training videos. My fellow trainee customer service agents moaned about this, but being paid £6.50 an hour to watch videos, however dull and repetitive, was easily the most pleasant period I had in my time there. One of the trainees still managed to get fired by the end of the week though – he said he would not work Christmas Eve, and ten minutes later was being escorted from the building. Fortunately I had already arranged with the agency to have two weeks off around Christmas, or that would likely have been me.
My boss for those first months was Andrew, a tall gay man in his early 30s with ginger hair. He was painstakingly patient and understanding, and every day I could see the joy draining from his soul. A few months after he suddenly quit, I bumped into him at a gig and he looked like a weight had been lifted from him. He also had some things to say about the management there but even two decades later I should probably leave those unrepeated.
After the first week we were released onto the main floor, an open-plan office with large tables divided into quarters with six-inch barriers. At the end of the floor was a small “kitchen” with a ladies toilet off the corridor outside. Men’s was either up or down a floor, which wouldn’t have been an issue if they weren’t always being closed, or if I had more than 25 minutes and 12 seconds of break per day. The job was dull, but the task of talking to the public soon moved down a notch in my head so that I had already forgotten which ID questions I asked them by the time the call had ended. Once a day or so I would tune out of the call and realise for a few seconds that there were a hundred people around me all talking, a cacophony of human chat, like in a nightclub when the music goes off.
It probably doesn’t need to be said that nobody likes calling a credit card customer services line, that’s a given. These were still the early days of automated menus, and the first thing everyone had to do was key in their sixteen-digit credit card number. If they could get that right, there were automated security questions. It didn’t matter if these were right or wrong, in any case the caller would be held in a queue for about ten minutes listening to a playlist containing Shania Twain’s “Party For Two,” Geri Halliwell’s version of “It’s Raining Men” and nothing else. I suppose the goal here may have been to annoy the customers enough that they decided to call back at a less busy time.
Eventually you would get through to me, I would say “Good morning, you’re through to James in Customer Services, can I just confirm that you’re the principal cardholder.” A good proportion of callers did not know what a principal cardholder was, but thankfully most of them would just say “yes” anyway. Then I would ask security questions. Yes, they had already been through security questions on the automated service, yes it didn’t seem fair to do it twice, no I didn’t know why they had to do it twice, no I couldn’t just skip it. Almost nobody failed security anyway, the questions were very simple. One of the few exceptions was a man who interrupted me and barked his full details down the line – “My name is Mr Yonez, my date of birth is, my mother’s maiden name is….” – all were correct, but besides any breach of protocol his surname was spelled “Jones” – I put him on hold and transferred the call to the fraud department.
The functions we were allowed to carry out were minimal – telling people their balance, increasing credit limits, arranging for blocked payments to go through (almost always because they were using the card abroad), setting up direct debits. If a customer was in arrears, they would be automatically redirected to collections, which was in a call centre in India. This meant that we were generally not taking the difficult calls. Every week or so there would be a problem which couldn’t be solved in a few minutes, and it would be relatively fun to try to solve it, a break at least from just another call coming in. On one of these occasions calling round different departments for half an hour led to a breakthrough, and the delighted customer said “you’ve done me a favour, so now I’m doing one for you. There’s a horse running in the Grand National tomorrow called Lord Atterbury, put a few pounds on him, should be about 40 to 1 right now, just because he hasn’t raced recently, but I’ve seen him and he’s going to surprise everyone. Go and put a few pounds on.” I went straight to the betting shop after work and put £10 on Lord Atterbury at 35 to 1. By the next day he was down to 25 to 1, and when the race started was right up in amongst the leaders right up until he fell at the first fence. Another succesful call resulted in a lonely old lady asking me out for a drink in a nearby hotel, I respectfully declined, but do wonder how she knew which city I was in.
A couple of months into my career in the call-centre I was moved into a different team and found myself with some people I hadn’t seen since training. Mere kids of 19 years old, working for a bit of extra money in their gap years. Very respectable and a little conservative. I didn’t know there were young people like that any more. I knew I was in trouble when one asked if I had slept at all in the last week. As it happened, I hadn’t had a great deal of sleep, I’d been earning as much as I could by taking every double or triple paid shift I could, and had failed to go to bed at the required 10pm every night, but I was still surprised that he felt like he needed to tell me so, he seemed like such a fundamentally inoffensive person. He treated me as a curio of interest rather than another human being doing the same job.
Him- “How old are you then?”
Me- “Twenty-five. Why?”
Him- “We had a bet.”
Me- “What did you say?”
Him- “Thirty-one. I won. Everyone else guessed you were older”
Oh god. I spent the next few weeks furiously relaxing, sleeping, eating vegetables and drinking the bitter bottles of wheatgrass juice I’d been told would improve my health. Whether any of this worked was doubtful, but the double and triple pay overtime was soon cancelled, so I managed to get into a decent sleep pattern again, for a change, and took up swimming at lunchtimes.
Me: “Good Morning. You’re through to James in customer services. Can I just confirm that you’re the principal cardholder?”
Old Man: “Er… no. Listen.”
Old Man: “I tried to call you yesterday but couldn’t get through. I listen to Radio 4 all the time and I heard someone talking about the word ‘posh’ yesterday and wondered if you knew how it came into being.”
Me: “You mean ‘Port Out Starboard Home’?”
Old Man: “Yes, because when they were sailing to India the richer passengers would be able to book out these sides and stay in the shade the whole way.”
Me: “Yes, I did hear about that. Interesting fact.”
Old Man: “Yes. Just thought you might like to know.”
Me: “Yes. Thanks for bringing it up. I’ll take a note of it.”
Old Man: “Ok. Well, thank you very much. Bye-bye.”
So was working at the call-centre bad for my heath? It certainly wasn’t good for my mental health. A day of apologising to angry customers for policies and systems I also had no great love for certainly stopped me being afraid of talking on the phone, but it also drained all motivation to speak to another human being. I didn’t talk to anyone at the Temp’s Lunch at the job agency on Fridays. I didn’t speak to anyone at home when I came home from work. My housemates soon learned that I just sat in front of the TV in the evening in a near-catatonic trance, then went to bed just as they were going out for the night. On a few occasions I dreamed about the two beeps that meant a call was coming through and would wake suddenly, sit bolt-upright and say “good morning, you’re through to James in customer services, can I just confirm that you’re the principal cardholder?” Friday’s shift finished at 7pm and Saturday’s started at 7am, so going out on a Friday was impossible. On one memorable Friday the housemates, despite my mumbled protestations, actually held an impromtu house party. I was very much used to sleeping through the sound of thumping bass and chatter, so was asleep by 10, but was woken around midnight when they sent a girl I didn’t know to my room. I just wasn’t any fun. Before Brighton I’d been in Prague for two years and had become a different person. Who was I here? Why could I never get on with English people? It was more of a mystery than ever, and this job was not helping at all.
I had never had a credit card before I started work at the bank, and I immediately swore I would never get one. Every day I would be drawn to articles about desperate people in debt, and wonder how many of the horror stories were our customers. “We” charged exorbitant fees for missed payments which stacked up, “we” charged fees for cash withdrawals which sat on customer accounts accruing high interest until everything else was paid off. I was allowed to give refunds for fees, but only if the customers explicitly asked, so had to constantly go into a pantomime of “is there anything I can do for you? As a gesture of good will?” and hope they got the message. On rare occasions I didn’t want to give a refund – one very angry man said that he was a millionaire and we should value his custom enough to never charge him fees, but after half an hour of being talked at in the way I imagine he usually berates waiters, I was in no mood to offer him anything, and didn’t bother with the pantomime. He said he wanted to close his account, and I obliged.
He wasn’t the worst customer I encountered, that would probably be the teenager who called just to tell me I had a “stupid gay voice” – to which I had to be scrupulously polite, then take a ten minute break to furiously drink a machine coffee and try to calm down. Later that day a Glaswegian woman called up and tried to talk to me from a phonebox while another woman stood outside in the rain trying to get in and screaming at her that she’d been on the phone for half an hour. It quickly developed into a fight, the receiver being tugged between the two of them, until eventually the call was just cut off.
I spoke to a couple of minor celebrities while I was there – a terrible right wing journalist who was disappointingly meticulously polite, and a record producer I admired, who was tetchy. Lots of customers were tetchy, so this was to be expected. Every time a call came through I would get a beep in my ear and a box on the screen saying ‘incoming call breakout’. I then had one second before the call was connected, and had to get my brain into gear to say either ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’. Now this takes about 4 seconds or so, just the way the human brain works I suppose, so the customer had about three seconds of dead air. Not too much to worry about, you would think? But about 10% decided they’d been cut off and started saying “Hello?!” before I could talk. It never got things off to a good start.
Some callers would try to get information about their spouse’s credit card, because they were listed as an “additional cardholder” and, once told that this wasn’t allowed, would refuse to hang up. Some would bark their security information at me, invalidating the entire ID process, and forcing me to redirect them to another agent to go through the process again. Some customers were angry that they were being sent something called “credit card cheques” – I could never work out why these people were angry about this, but it really seemed to matter to them. I generally tried to be as friendly and as helpful as possible, but at times when I worked too much and slept too little, these sort of customers would test me. One described me as “a little brusque” – another talked about her situation for so long that I forgot what I was doing and started asking her security questions again halfway through the call. She asked if she could speak to somebody else, I said yes.
Of course I could not ever criticise the company, the closest line I could take was from Francis Urqhart in House of Cards: “you might think so, but I couldn’t possibly comment” – which at least a few customers managed to get. Thankfully most callers managed to direct their justified anger at the bank rather than me personally – one said “no offense to you, James, but may ***** *** card services rot in hell!” and hung up, I hope that made him feel a bit better. On one occasion the last call before the weekend was from a woman who had been left by her husband with two disabled kids and horrific debts. She was sobbing down the phone to me for a quarter of an hour.
Six months into the job, my login expired. It was fairly unusual for someone to still be working there after six months, apparently. In a review meeting where I’d been played a few of my calls – apparently they were fine but I should “work on my enthusiasm if I wanted a long-term career in the call-centre” – I’d been informed that I was doing notably well as far as one key performance indicator was concerned – wrap-up time. This was the time spent offline typing up notes after a call was finished. Partially my record here was to do with typing during the call, but I also often kept a customer on hold for 30 seconds or so while I typed up their notes. This hadn’t been explicitly banned, but only as far as I could tell because whoever designed the KPIs simply hadn’t thought of it. So as an experienced member of staff with a particular skill and no working login, I was suddenly promoted to staff trainer, on a temporary basis. The ten trainees on the phones were all girls and all a few years younger than me. One in particular kept calling me over to chat, which was fine with me, until she decided to introduce me to her hilarious new obsession, which was the Crazy Frog. I kept my distance from then on, and the ten girls disappeared across the centre, as did I. The password had been renewed, and my unofficial promotion was finished.
The news when I first arrived at the bank was that “we” had recently been selling something called Payment Protection Insurance, and “we” were supposed to be removing it from accounts on request now. Late in my time at the call-centre I received a call from a customer who had a lot of opinions about the management of the bank, and knew the names of the board. I’m not sure why he felt he needed to tell me about them, but the main thing he wanted me to know was that there would be a massive scandal about the mis-selling of Payment Protection Insurance and the bank would lose a great deal of money.
Thankfully I avoided that particular scandal, but there were a few things which were certainly wrong. One customer phoned up to ask why his card wasn’t working and had to inform him that the notes on the account said that he had died three months prior. Another customer actually told me he’d received a letter informing him that his card was being cancelled as he had died – from the tone of his voice I could tell that he wasn’t 100% sure that this wasn’t the case.
When signing up for the job I had received a promise that I would not be working in telesales, it was a vague promise from an employment agency worker but I wielded it as if it were as a cast-iron guarantee written into my contract by the CEO. But then one day there was something to sell. The bank was introducing a new credit card, an Amex to go with their Visa and Mastercard options. We were to introduce this to our customers at the end of each call, as long as they looked like they could afford it. I did not agree, but there seemed to be little point in spelling this out, I just never offered it to anyone. Over the following month, however, the pressure to ‘sell’ rose steadily and insidiously. First the ‘incentives’ were introduced – sell ten cards, get a bottle of Baccardi Breezer, and so on. My team leader, a middle-aged MBA type, had a basket full of the things. It was at this point that he noticed I wasn’t getting any “accepts” and started putting the form on my desk every day, saying encouraging things like “I hope you get ten accepts today” and “It would be great if you got ten accepts today!” I didn’t say anything, just hoped that he would get the message that I wasn’t happy and stop badgering me.
Then the tactics changed again. One Tuesday afternoon I was called into a one-on-one meeting with a higher-up who had come all the way from the Southend office, who had apparently been getting “loads of accepts” – his attempt to ingratiate me consisted of a list of why Southend was better than Brighton. I’d never been to Southend, and wasn’t particularly keen on Brighton, largely due to this job, but it still seemed like an odd opening gambit. In Brighton at least he would have been able to get a better-tailored suit. Then he showed me four pictures of a plane – on a runway, taxiing along, taking off and then soaring through the sky. He explained that currently the team in Brighton were on the ground, ready to take off, but we wanted to be in the air, soaring over the world of accepts below. We had to act as the customers’ wealth account manager and ‘go that final inch’ to ‘get that sale’. I nodded and gave my best attempt at a smile. To close he pulled out a ballpoint pen from his pocket and asked me to write down the reason I didn’t want to buy it from him on a post-it note. I wrote that I already have enough pens. Then I was allowed to go back to my seat.
In August the team leader went on holiday and a younger woman was given temporary control of the team. She seemed nice, friendly but a little shy, and when she introduced herself and asked if I had any questions I took the opportunity to explain that I was promised I wouldn’t work in sales, and was not comfortable with selling. She seemed to be fairly understanding but stayed well away from saying I could avoid offering the cards.
The next day I came into the office to be confronted with trays full of cream cakes. The temporary team leader offered me one, then when I had it in my hand and had taken a bite said “Ok, that’s your reward for getting five accepts today”
I said “What if I don’t get five accepts.”
She said “Well, you’d have to return the reward”
“What, bring it back up from my stomach?”
“No, you’d have to buy another one to replace it.”
So I put the cream cake by my desk and watched it congeal and go stale all day. I was determined to show myself to be the most stubborn person in the office. Then as the day dragged on I started to think how stupid I must look with a cream cake in front of me. Nobody really cared about whether I’d eaten it or not. Was I turning into some kind of ridiculous pompous twat? Why didn’t I just sell some cards and have done with it?
But then I realised they had got one step ahead of me with their personnel psychology. I was meant to feel ridiculous so I could go along with their scheme. Paranoid, perhaps, but with a good deal of justification. I did not want to sell credit cards. I hated credit cards. I wished all “our” customers would have them paid up and get rid of them instead of killing themselves with debt.
As I left that day I put the remains of the cake back on the team-leader’s desk. I’d planned to give her my notice at the same time, but she had already gone home, so it had to wait for the next day. She was not surprised, people gave in their notice every day.
My remaining month was fairly uneventful, right up until my last Thursday, when 48 of us were called into the meeting room on our floor to receive an unscheduled talk from the general manager of the callcentre, a man we were all apparently seeing for the first time. He had news to tell us and it wasn’t exactly good. First he showed everyone a series of powerpoint slides demonstrating that we had a problem with call volumes between 5pm and 8pm due to half the staff going home at 5. There was nothing to disagree with there, though the fact did stand that the person responsible for planning all the shift changes in June was in fact him. So, what was the solution? “We” could hire more staff, but that would be too expensive, “we” could get people on part time, but that would also be too expensive or “we” could change the shift patterns yet again for those on “flexicontracts.” What this amounted to was 48 people being told they could either work 12pm-10pm 4 days a week (including some weekends) or, if that wasn’t to their satisfaction, just leave.
This was not popular. It was entirely clear to everyone in that room that the bank rated the well-being of their staff below the normal priority issues of customers, money and regulations and way below the all-consuming religion of the company, “targets”. The target in question this time was the average call queuing time. It had to go down and if sacking half of the competent staff who’d been through 2 months of training was the easiest and cheapest way to do it then so be it. All praise the lord of targets, he must be obeyed. One woman started crying, other people were drafting resignation letters as they walked back to their desks. I just wished everyone had had the guts to stage a walkout. They should’ve done, no doubt about that, but that’s how crap jobs work, on some level you accept that you don’t have any rights, or only the right to resign if you don’t like how things work.
Still, none of this applied to me. Neither did the one-to-one training session I had on my next-to-last day, but I wasn’t complaining about that. The end was in sight, and tasting sweet. I had planned to just slip out of there, but my team leader got wind of it and got the team of ten off the phones for five minutes to present me with a card. I wasn’t expecting this, and was surprised to be quite touched by it. Because they weren’t bad, not the other agents, who were in the same boat as me, not the temporary team leader, not even the real team leader, whose heart was clearly not into forcing me to sell credit cards. We were all just stuck in this nightmare, and I had somehow managed to escape.
Written and recorded by James M Errington, 2023. Voice of confused old man who thought he was calling Home Truths on Radio 4 by Glenn, voice of well-meaning temporary team leader generated at play.ht, voice of annoying young call-centre agent is just me with a couple of filters. Picture of an office building sourced from Google streetview, corrected and upscaled.