At three in three afternoon I go to my call centre job. I’ve been doing this most afternoons for the last few weeks. My call centre is run by a company that contracts out to charities; they professionally raise funds. As the perky trainer explained on my first day, “Of course charities could do this themselves, in-house, with volunteers. But what they’ve found is that they can generate more revenue by hiring us. We’re the professionals at this.”
I’m morally ambivalent about this job. It’s better than selling aluminium siding or Florida holidays, but there’s a lot here that make me uncomfortable: the idea of outsourcing charitable donations, the profit-taking and wages, the guilt-trippy high-pressure tactics I am forced to use, the inhumanly mechanised nature of the operation.
I keep having these moments where something happens, something quite normal for here, and it strikes me as surreal. I blank for a moment, I feel a wild anxiety, and this line comes into my head:
What the fuck am I doing here?
I go to my desk. Adam hands me a stack of call sheets. There are 153, and I have to count and sign for them. At the end of my shift they will be counted again by somebody senior to me: a supervisor, a trainer. Should there be 152, I will be fired. You can also be fired for looking at a mobile phone in the office, or making a personal call. Security is taken very seriously, here.
I start dialling numbers. I am working on “Amnesty International Upgrades”. This means I call people who donate on a monthly basis to Amnesty International, and I try to get them to raise their donations by guilt-tripping them. To do this I tell them the story of The Rape of Aisha. The Rape of Aisha was a horrific event that happened in Somalia last year – Aisha, a 13-year-old girl, was raped by three men. The local Wahaabist militia, a seriously unenlightened bunch, then stoned Aisha to death for adultery. Nice. I remember reading about this at the time and being horrified. But by now I have told the story of The Rape of Aisha too many times. At least once each shift I remind myself that it is still a horrific event that happened to a real person. But it has become performance. I pause dramatically at certain moments. And new details have crept into the story along the way. Now, everybody in my “team” refers to Aisha as a “13-year-old schoolgirl”, and she was attacked “while walking home from school one day”. This wasn’t in the original reports, which were not even that definitive about her age. But I’m the only person here who has read the original reports. I know it’s a distortion, but I say it anyway, the same as everybody else.
It could be worse. I could be on WSPA signups. There, they call people who foolishly signed a petition and try to convince them to become regular donors by going on about bear-baiting and the like. At least the people I call are active supporters of Amnesty, and are sometimes interested; the WSPA signups are practically cold-calls, and people really don’t appreciate being told that shit, then asked for money. I hear it’s brutal.
But only a small part of my time is given over to re-telling The Rape of Aisha. Mostly what I do is call numbers and get no response. The call sheets I have been given suck, because Adam doesn’t like me. I think he senses I don’t like him. For a while it seemed like he liked me, or at least thought I might work out. For a while I was getting some clean sheets in with my junk. The clean sheets haven’t been dialled before, and it is easy to get people on the line and talk to them. You need to get six people on the line and talk to them each hour. This is easy with clean sheets, but now I am getting dreck again.
These numbers have been dialled six, seven times. These people don’t want to talk to me. They have worked out by now that it is Amnesty International trying to get them to increase their donations. They are irritated by the daily calls. They see the number come up on their mobile phones, and choose not to answer. They have told past callers to call their home numbers in the daytime, and their business numbers at night. They are always in meetings, or on the freeway, or just stepping out. They will not talk to you.
Of course, they could just say, “No. I will not increase my donation.” But they prefer to give an excuse, or avoid the call, and the callers are happy to let them give an excuse. Because if they give a firm “No,” well – that’s a negative. That fucks up your stats. So everybody prefers the fiction of, “I’m busy, now – try me tomorrow. On my home number. During the day.” And you dutifully note that down on your sheet.
Of the six people I am theoretically supposed to speak to, 2.4, or forty percent, must agree to upgrade their monthly subscriptions. This is your conversion ratio. My conversion ratio is good! I hit a high of sixty-five percent on one shift, but it has declined since then, and now sits around fifty percent. My calls were taking too long, which meant my “connects” – the number of people I speak to in an hour – were too low. So I cut my spiel back, and consequently my conversion ratio took a hit.
There is a lot of crap about Somalia and the United Nations in the official spiel, but nobody does the official spiel. It would take ten, fifteen minutes to get through all that. You reduce it to its essentials, then wing it. You rush through the Somalia and United Nations shit, because nobody cares. You dwell on Aisha. You don’t rush The Rape of Aisha. Aisha brings the big bucks. People don’t care about the logical connection between that, Amnesty International, and the United Nations. They just want to feel they’re doing something to stop 13-year-old schoolgirls being raped and stoned to death on their way home from school.
What the fuck am I doing here?
I am OK at this job. People give me money, when I can talk to them.
I’m not great at this job. John is great. John is my hero. John is from Northern Ireland, he speaks slowly and his voice is full of warmth. John’s conversion ratio is seventy percent. People love to speak to him. He hits the same sentences every call, and there is not a wasted word in them. When he first speaks to somebody he is full of warmth, then he charmingly asks for two minutes of their time. And they are happy to give two minutes to John. He starts with a few sentences on the suppression of journalists in Somalia. Somehow when John tells of this it sounds tragic, yet when I do it, it’s boring. He then gives The Rape of Aisha. His voice is full of sorrow and sympathy. He goes for his “first ask” – he always knows the perfect amount of money to request. Should he somehow overreach, he saves it with his “second ask” – and of course they can find that extra five dollars a month for John.
John raises three thousand, four thousand dollars a shift. My high-point was $1800, and that was a freak day with forty clean sheets. John gets nothing but clean sheets.
John is an enigma. This place is full of extroverts; John keeps to himself. When he wins awards at weekly meetings, he seems embarrassed.
I want to be like John.
The “second ask”:
An email from my friend Kate: “Huh! I got one of those calls. I only give $25 a month, but I’ve been doing it forever and want to keep doing it, and if I up it, I might at some point cancel it. Longevity is better. I wonder if AI facor that in when they pressure people to up their monthly contribution? That they might later cancel it altogether?”
My reply: “Yes, Kate, I do understand. But firstly, what I’d say to you, Kate, is that understand that this doesn’t have to be permanent. If you do increase your contribution and then find you need to go back to $25, it’s absolutely no trouble, and we’re happy to do that. But what I’d say to you, Kate, is that even a small increase, even as little as $1.25 a week – $5 a month – from you and people like you, can make a huge difference, given the urgency of the situation. $1.25 a week – $5 a month – is that something which might be manageable for you, Kate???”
Kate: “Ahhh haha! you got me. If they called back I might consider it. Nick.”
The second ask is all about showing empathy, acknowledging the validity of the person’s reasons for not wanting to increase their monthly donations, then turning around and asking for more anyway. Excessive name repetition seems to help – I got that from John.
What the fuck am I doing here?
I am pitching to a supporter. I am in full flight. I am doing The Rape of Aisha.
I didn’t have this person’s interest at the start – as usual, my Somalia stuff just got a lot of disinterested “mmm-hmms,” but they perked up when I mentioned how the miltia, “instead of arresting the three men, turned around and arrested Aisha. They accused her of being an adulteress. This is a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl, rememeber, Susan, whose only crime was that she raped.” I then give the fate of Aisha. “She was stoned to death… by fifty men… in front of a stadium of 1000 people.” I pause. “I don’t know how you feel about that, Susan…” I pause again. People like to vent in their own way at this point. All is looking good, and I am pleased. This is a training call, and I know I’m being monitored by Liam.
I go into the build-up for my first ask. My voice is impassioned. I am gesticulating. I’m practically on my knees. I keep using the word “urgent” and repeating Susan’s name. I ask…
There is a pause. You can hear the conflict in people’s minds at this point. They don’t want to give more money, but they don’t want to say no, either. Finally Susan ventures an excuse – she supports lots of other charities.
I am understanding. I ask her, chattily, about the other charities she supports. She tells me a little. I say that of course we wouldn’t want her to stop giving to another charity for us. She feels relieved. She thinks she has convinced me, and that I am nice and understanding. “But Susan, what I would say to you, is that many of our supporters are passionate and give to many charities. And often they find they can’t afford a large increase in their donations. But at this point in time, even small increases – as little as $1.25 – blah blah blah.” I hit her with the second ask. Another pause. Who can say no to an extra five dollars a month? She isn’t happy about it, would never have volunteered it, but agrees anyway. I thank her profusely – feeling, as I always do, a little guilty. I give her a few moments of warmth, but this call has already gone on too long, and I need to get her off the phone. I wish her a great day; she thanks me. They usually do. My wild, atonal, slightly hysterical enthusiasm – they never ask me, as they sometimes do other people, if I’m being paid for this. I am so obviously a passionate volunteer, giving up his time to help out a charity he believes in.
I go for my review with Liam. My reviews are always the same these days, so I’ll tell you instead about the first review I had with Liam. It was on my first day of calling: I was still nervous, still fumbling, but I did manage to get the extra sixty dollars a year on my second ask.
“Come on, let’s have a chat,” Liam says. We go to the staff room. Liam is like many people who work here – mildly extroverted, some university education, good-looking, white, middle-class. These people have the sort of natural bonhomie to do well at this. I always get on fine with this type of person. Such people have usually lived relatively trouble-free lives, they are relaxed and comfortable with others, have uncomplicated internal lives, are rarely mean or malevolent in their motivations. It’s easy for me to get on with people like that. And I like Liam. But I rarely become good friends with such people. There tends to be a gulf of understanding that is mutually recognised.
“So, how do you think you’re going?” Liam says, brightly.
“Alright. I could do better,” I say.
Liam nods. “What do you think you’re doing well?” he asks.
“I’m slowing down,” I say. “I’m listening to John’s calls, and trying to do it more like him. I think I’m becoming more familiar with the material, and I’m engaging better with people. Making it more of a conversation, less of a sales pitch.”
“Yes, exactly,” Liam says. He looks down at his notes. I seem to have thrown him a bit. “That’s exactly what I was going to say to you,” he says, and repeats back what I’ve just told him. “Now,” he says, “is there anything you think you need to improve on?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Liam – my tone of voice sucks. It lacks modulation. Every sentence sounds the same, it’s sort of excited and flat at the same time, and I need to improve it.”
Liam looks really startled now. “Yes, again,” he says. “That’s what I was going to say to you.” He thinks. “What might you do to improve it?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “It’s a bit of a general problem in my life, actually. It’s one of the reasons I took this job.”
“Oh – give it a bit of a polish-up, huh?” Liam says. He seems more than a little confused by me.
I half-nod, half-shrug. There is a gulf of understanding. Hi, Liam, I’m Nicholas. I’m extremely self-aware; so much so that it is a bit of a problem for me. It makes me sensitive and conscious of the moods of others, probably excessively. I spend a lot of time second-guessing myself. I’m constantly monitoring myself and how people are responding to me. Mostly my self-assesment is accurate, but when it becomes divorced from an external reality strange ideas can bloom in my mind, become excessive, inaccurate, obsessive, harmful. It makes me a writer, makes me who I am, but often it makes me insecure as well. I don’t know how to do what you do, Liam – I don’t know how to just relax and assume everyone likes me. I’m introverted, I spend too much time in my head, and you know what else? I have a more-than-slight phone phobia when it comes to talking to strangers. I didn’t mention this in the interview. Perhaps it’s because I can’t see who I’m talking to; perhaps it’s just that I’ve indulged it, and not confronted it.
What the fuck am I doing here? But we’re getting a little closer to an answer to that question.
These days my training sessions with Liam tend to sound the same. He says, “Ah, your tone of voice is still no good, but it seems to be working anyway. Keep it up.” I think he’s dispirited. It’s true – what I do works, but not in the way it should. I speak too fast, I am full of babbling enthusiasm, I sound like a hopelessly sincere and committed university student volunteering his evenings – and people are impressed by this and give me money. And of course, I’ve learned short-cuts. I cheat. These days it’s all The Rape of Aisha and name repetition. That’s all I really know, all it’s about. It’s a long way from the artistry of John.
Liam’s right – it sucks, but it’s working, so what can you do? But I am not happy either.
I want to say to Liam, “Liam – where have you been all my life? Whatever they’re paying you, I’ll double it. Follow me around, watch me, listen to my conversations with people, then we’ll do reviews.” I imagine how these would go. Liam would say to me, “Yeah, you seemed engaged. You listen well, of course, and you said interesting things. They seemed to genuinely respond to you and enjoy your company. Now, what do you think needs improving?”
“My nervous half-smile?” I would venture.
Liam would nod. “Yes! And sometimes your laugh is a little nervous, too. It betrays you. And the body-language? It could be more open, less reluctant. But hey, they were laughing, they kept talking to you, obviously they liked you. Keep it up, good job.”
I’ve been having lots of epiphanies lately. Things came unstuck for me not so long ago. That was scary. It’s strange: I write here that I am a very self-aware person, and a year ago I would have said that I had a good understanding of myself. Yet over the last six months – gradually, then suddenly – I’ve come to see that in many ways my self-assesment has been shallow, unquestioning, awry. There were great confronting questions which I never thought about at all, because they made me anxious. And there were answers I thought I knew, understandings I thought clever, which turned out to be not-so-clever; that on closer examination turned out to be giant convoluted structures for coping with anxiety. They all toppled over at once, and my sense of self toppled with them.
I closed the bookshop about two years ago, now. At the same time I stopped writing this blog, and even my half-hearted attempts last year were not the same. I haven’t written anything particularly personal on this blog for a long time.
I thought at the time that it was a good idea to draw a curtain across my life. I felt overexposed. I thought that closing the bookshop would be good for me, that it would give me time to write and think, but it gave me far too much time. I made my life so perfectly safe, but looked at another way, I indulged in every fear I had, large and small. And I drew a curtain across it so nobody could see. And behind that curtain I distracted myself from my low-level unhappiness with rituals and elaborate imaginings and took comfort in my safety-from-fear, while in reality I became more introverted, more self-conscious, more self-doubting. I indulged bad habits – didn’t keep my place as clean as I should, didn’t eat as well as I should, smoked way too many cigarettes – and without realising it I was very careful with what I thought about, less I realise the trouble I was in. My excessive introversion affected my manner and confidence.
Epiphanies, a dalliance with the tenets of cognitive behavioural therapy, and then a rejection of some of it – I got gung-ho for a while, then decided that I didn’t want to adopt every thing. Didn’t want to dispense with some aspects of myself that were perhaps less-than-perfectly functional, but which made me creative, humorous, sensitive, ambitious. Still – epiphanies, and CBT, and between them I formed a conception of what I wanted to be. And that I will put down here – not my path to understanding, but the understanding itself. It’s not a bad thing to declare publically.
Put briefly: I want to confront every fear, until I am no longer afraid. And I want to change my thoughts from a raging mix of ill-controlled imagination, regret, self-doubt, and occasional insight into a concentrated and consciously directed stream of focused attention. I want a sort of controlled, creative derangement, when I need it; I want to be perceptive and sensitive and open to people and the world around me; I want the ability to be confidently and sociably in the moment with strangers and friends, with no more self-checking and inter-personal monitoring than is necessary to not act like an ass. I’ve said it before – understanding it, but not always knowing how to approach it, or why it sometimes seemed to move away from me – there is a me that feels like me. Hopefully it is still where I am headed, perhaps more consciously than before, and for sounder reasons. I feel a long way from it at the moment, but am determined to pursue it through practice and engagement with people and situations I might otherwise have avoided. I want to do small things well and with integrity, until those things accumulate and become habitual.
Does this explain why I’m working in an out-going call centre, pitching Amnesty International upgrades to strangers? Or am I just dressing up something mundane in glorious rags?
Everything here is measured statistically. At the start of each shift Adam comes across to me and we go through my stats.
Adam is the only person here I dislike; unfortunately, he is my supervisor. His flat affect and cold manner make me wary. There is something of the sociopath about him, and also quite a lot of the anal pinhead. He is English, and uses the word “mate” in that excessive way only English people living in Australia do. The statistics we are measured on are our connects – that is, the number of people we can get a yes or no from in an hour – the average value of our upgrades, our conversion rate – what percentage of people we can convince to upgrade – and our average income per hour. Adam has a little speech which he thinks is clever. He says, “I don’t care about income per hour. I think it’s a stupid statistic. Because – ” and here he pauses – “if you’re hitting your targets for each of the other categories, the income per hour will take care of itself.”
I don’t mind the statistics. They sit happily with the reasons I am here. Each time I speak to somebody on the phone I try to engage with them, focus, be pleasant and charming. I use the metrics – average upgrade and conversion rate – as a meaure of myself. My goals, and the call-centre’s, happily coincide. And I try to do the same with each real-world interaction, too – each small conversation I have with a co-worker. I don’t have metrics on my success with that, but my guess? About fifty, fifty-five percent. About the same.
For a while I seem to be progressing and doing well at this job. My income per hour is where it should be; my average upgrades are high, and so is my conversion rate. Each day I get better call sheets, which gives the statistical illusion of progress, although it is actually a fiction controlled by Adam.
But Adam is not entirely happy. I am not making enough connects. This is something I don’t give a shit about – it is about how fast you can dial, how quickly you can get people off the phone, how much of your ten-minute break you are willing to give up so that your statistics are acceptable. And more than anything, it is about the sheets you get – how called-out they are. Still, I’m mostly meeting my quota for income per hour, which I believe is the only measure that should matter when assessing job performance. Who cares by which path you get there?
But Adam gives me his little speech, and I make a mistake. I question him. I say to him, “Come on, Adam – surely there’s more than one road to Damascus. If I’m making less connects, but getting higher than average upgrades, then surely it doesn’t make any difference, so long as I’m making my money.”
Adam pauses; a look crosses his face as if a wire has come unsprung. “No,” he says definatively. “You need six connects an hour.” And he explains again about how if I hit each of these targets, my income per hour will take care of itself. I look at him. He looks at me. We don’t like each other.
This is a failed social interraction. A bad one. I stop getting clean sheets. Adam stops telling me, “You’re going to make it, mate.” I am fucked.
Here is how it theoretically should work: each team has its targets. Each member of that team has the same targets. The call sheets are handed out randomly. People who do well meet or exceed their targets. People who don’t, don’t.
Here is how it works in practice. The supervisors are under pressure from higher up to make sure their team hits its targets. So they do something sensible – they take the fresh, clean call sheets and give them to the best, most experienced callers. These callers then kick ass, smash their targets, and win weekly prizes. They give the bad, called-out sheets to the new people. The new people break their heart trying to meet targets that are impossible, because they can’t get anybody on the phone. Their supervisors advise them, “call faster,” as if this will solve the problem – because nobody will acknowledge the truth about the call sheets. If the new person seems to be making progress, they are gradually given better data; perhaps, dialling their asses off and hustling like crazy, they can last it out long enough to become relatively senior – about a month – and then they get given decent data. If they don’t seem to make progress, or their supervisor doesn’t like them, they are given dreck until they are eventually told that they are not meeting their targets and are let go, or until they break down and quit. Unfortunately, I figure all this out too late.
Turnover in this place is massive. Every day there are three or four new trainees – and presumably, three or four people gone from the day before. The five people with whom I started become three. Then one wigs out, mid-shift. This happens a bit. I don’t blame him. He’s doing the call-sheets I had the day before, and I felt like killing myself. He turns them in to Adam, declares “This isn’t for me,” and leaves.
There is just me and this one other guy left from my incoming group. I chat with him outside. “I think I’m getting fired tomorrow,” he says. “I’m not meeting my targets.”
“I think I might be as well,” I say. “Don’t quit. Make them fire you.” I am talking to myself.
John sits across from me. He is on the phone relating The Rape of Aisha. He looks over to me. I do a supercillious impression of serious concern. I nod, my eyebrows furrowed. He relates a shocking detail. My eyebrows shoot up and I do a little pantomime of aghast amazement. The corner of John’s mouth twitches. He looks away. He doesn’t want to burst out laughing during The Rape of Aisha.
I smile to myself, although I wanted him to laugh. But John is too good at this job for that. Meanwhile I can’t get anybody on the phone. I keep dialling. It is all very Glengarry/Glenross.
At the end of our shift, John asks me if I want to get some pub food, have some drinks. I say sure. I am surprised. John is my hero! The only person I’ve met in this place whom I genuinely admire.
We go to the corner pub, have some food, a few beers, talk. We get on well. I’d forgotten this about myself, though I used to expect it. I’d forgotten that when I liked somebody in a group situation like this, that I usually became friends with them. It seems a small miracle to me, until I remember. How have I got to this point, to no longer expect that people will enjoy my company?
John is a traveller, I guess he doesn’t know many people in the city. I don’t think we’re going to become best mates, but we get on well, the conversation flows easily, we talk about work, travel, writing, lots of things. John seems to think I’m amusing and intelligent. I feel better about myself than I have in a while.
The next shift I am given call-sheets that have been called so many times that there are no longer spaces in which to write the details of each call. The calls have spilled over beyond their allotted section on the form, they’re scrawled in gaps and margins.
Adam comes to review my statistics from the previous shift. He tells me I really need to hit one hundred percent on this shift. On every measure – not just money. Particularly, I need six connects an hour, which I have never achieved.
There is no way this can be done. I ask him how he thinks that will be possible. “Call faster,” he says. I ask him how the call sheets are assigned. He doesn’t answer; takes offense at the question. He tells me that he could call these sheets and get six connects an hour. He tells me he has to get on to other things.
I am fucked, and know it. For some reason – pride, maybe – I give it my best shot. I spend my shift dialling constantly. I fill in details while the phone is ringing; I skip breaks. I don’t make my connects, but somehow, scrounging desperately, giving my spiel in two minutes, guilt-tripping like a bastard whenever I can get a human voice on the line – I make my money, or close enough. It is a fucking miracle.
Towards the end of the shift, Adam tells me to gather my things. I follow him to the meeting room.
Adam tells me it’s not going to work out. He says I’m not a team player. “We need team-players here,” he says. “Questioning me about call-sheets, questioning me about connects…” He can’t fire me for not making my money, because tonight – somehow – I did. He is left with this. This is my tiny bit of pride.
“We don’t need to drag this out,” I say.
“Fine,” he says. He asks for my swipe-card back, which I give him.
I tell him, “I have to say, Adam – you’re not the most supportive boss I’ve ever had, either.”
“That’s your opinion, mate,” he says. I don’t rile him, though – his affect is still flat, he is coldly dispassionate.
I leave. I’m disappointed. This job was mostly horrible, but it was good for me for the moment, and in a strange way I was enjoying it. I never was planning to stick with it for long. Another month, no more. It was something to practice with, something to keep me occupied. I think I mostly succeeded by my personal measures, although I completely failed to charm Adam. I wonder if it is something self-destructive in me: that the one person with whom I never much tried to get on was the one who controlled my success or otherwise. Still – I think the phone phobia is permanently gone, even if I never did develop a polished telephone manner.
I have something much more ambitious planned for a month from now; the next stage of this journey, this excoriation of fear and self-doubt. I won’t say what it is just yet, because it’s still a bit up-in-the-air and I don’t want to jinx it – but hopefully it will happen, and if it does, there will be plenty to blog about.