Inside the Customer Service Call Center: Why and How Bad Customer Service Happens

It’s an experience everyone has had: you have to call customer service for your bank, insurance company, or credit card. After waiting to speak to a call center representative, you receive second-rate customer service and have to call back several times before your issue is resolved. Call centers are notorious for driving customers crazy, and they’re equally notorious for being awful places to work. This is an insider’s look at the average customer service call center, with an eye on why poor customer service occurs, how agents spitefully handle customers they dislike, and how the call center’s policies can lure representatives into taking advantage of you as a consumer, ultimately wasting your time or your money. By learning more about how inbound call centers work, you’ll be better equipped to make that next dreaded customer service phone call.

Limited Quality Assurance and High Turnover = Bad Customer Service

When you hear “this call may be monitored for quality assurance,” that does in fact mean that the call is being recorded and has a chance of being reviewed with the customer service representative later. These little meetings are often called “quality assessments” or “call coaches” and do work toward holding customer service agents accountable, but the call center industry standard is only to review about 5 or 6 of a rep’s calls per month. So, for the hundreds of phone calls an agent typically handles during that time frame, only a tiny fraction of them will ever be reviewed. This means that some representatives are willing to risk losing points on a quality assessment if you become too difficult or rude – or if the call starts getting very long. The level of customer service you receive may decline when meeting quality expectations becomes too much of a burden.

The average length of the call center representative’s phone calls almost always factors into performance assessments as well. Sometimes, it even outweighs quality (depending on the company). As a result, the agent’s desire to have a shorter call is frequently just as important as – or even more important than – their desire to provide 100% quality customer service.

Additionally, call center jobs are very high-turnover positions. Even though training is often several weeks long at some companies, a sizable chunk of agents only stay out on the cubicle floor for several months before quitting because the work is frustrating and tedious. What this means for callers is that there’s a very good chance the call center representative will not care what happens to your account because they’ll be leaving in a few weeks or otherwise don’t care. Remaining in the job or doing more than the minimum is not normally a long-term goal. The representative may even be working through a temp agency, in which case they could have even less investment in doing quality work.

Retaliations: Call center agents sometimes get revenge!

Just as you don’t want to annoy a server at a restaurant (the person who controls your food), you don’t want to annoy a call center representative (the person who controls your customer service and who has access to all your sensitive information). And, it’s even easier for both parties to treat each other poorly when there’s no humanizing face-to-face interaction.

The customers who receive the best service are the ones who are persistent and assertive but always very friendly and polite to call center representatives. While you don’t need to make yourself over into a cheery fool, you also don’t want to be arrogant or harsh, even if the company has wronged you. Use common sense and know that saying “You’re not doing what you’re supposed to” or “UghâÂ?¦I hate calling here” is not going to make the representative more inclined to help you. Retaliation and revenge against disliked customers is not unusual in call centers.

You may be Googled. You may be signed up for spam. You may get prank phone calls. You may receive free tampon samples or Herpes prevention kits at your home address. These are just a handful of the spiteful tactics that a surprising number of call center reps engage in when customers rouse their ire.

In addition to these personally invasive annoyances, the reps may actually go into your account and manipulate what they can without getting caught. Savvy call center agents know what changes they can perform without it being logged by the computer system they’re using. It’s extremely unlikely that anyone will ever steal your identity or use your credit card information, as that would be too risky. But customer service reps at most call centers do quickly learn what they can get away with to spite customers they dislike.

While the incidents I describe above are definitely the exception to the rule, they are far more common that you’d expect when it comes to customers who are rude, bossy, or arrogant – even just in their tone of voice. Working as a call center agent is often a thankless job, and taking incoming calls day after day can lead representatives to resent customers, punishing the bad ones and taking care of the good ones.

Communication Between Call Center Representatives

Call center representatives do frequently talk to each other! Though sometimes a company’s call centers are split between different locations, the reality is that most phone queues do lead to the same group of customer service people in the same location. If you call and have a bad interaction with Mary about your account, you may call back an hour later and get John, who sits across the aisle from Mary or is otherwise friendly with her. John and Mary may even use an instant messaging program to dish specifically about you.

It’s an inescapable part of call center culture. As soon as an idle rep overhears a call that sounds eerily familiar, he may gesture, instant message, pass notes, or even hold up scrawled papers saying things like “Is that the snotty Johnson guy again? Don’t give in to his demands.” Communication of this nature regarding specific customers also occur during breaks, lunches, and other down times.

How Call Center Incentives Can Hurt and Help Consumers

Incentives of all sorts are sometimes offered to call center agents for saving customers who want to cancel accounts, so be wary of representatives who are too aggressive in their attempts to retain you. They may be trying to win a prize, earn a bonus, or even score a vacation day. Call center managers resort to dangling carrots like this as a motivator, and the more opportunistic employees sniff out ways to cheat or cut corners – which means that they sometimes make promises they know they can’t keep.

Similar dynamics are at play in those call centers that also sell services. Managers may put out quotas for representatives or provide commissions. Accordingly, you may not always get the fine print when a rep signs you up for a “free” trial that begins charging the next month unless you cancel it. They may try to sneak your approval by saying, “I’m going to set you up with our special ABC service at no cost to you so that your credit is monitored. You can log into your account online and read more about it. Would that be okay, Mrs. Jenkins?” Although management generally wouldn’t approve of such a tactic to sell the extra product, the reality is that by the time the trial period ends and Mrs. Jenkins realizes that there’s a mystery monthly charge of $7.95 on her statement, the customer service representative is almost never held accountable for using a dodgy technique.

The good news is that you can sometimes strike a quiet deal with a rep in the hopes that more positive incentives are in place. For example, one call center I briefly worked in gave a Target gift card for every five customer compliments that an agent received. Knowing that rewards programs like this do exist, it might be worth saying, “Beth, if you can keep an eye on my account to make sure that my insurance policy actually gets fixed by next week, I’d gladly email a compliment to your manager about your excellent customer service.” Although it’s sneaky, you may be able to get what you want a little faster. The representative may even use his or her connections in another department to bend a rule for you. I’ve seen many, many favors performed for flattering customers but very few done for the rude ones.


So there’s your look inside the average customer service call center. So be extra nice, stay attentive, and understand that bad customer service is often the direct results of the company’s policy choices and the customer’s attitude.


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