Working in a Call Center

Most people who work in call centers do not intend to stay there forever, as evidenced by the high turnover rate. Agents come and go as more desirable work comes along. But call centers can serve their purpose as short-term employment opportunities for recent college graduates, people in between jobs, and people who have recently relocated with a spouse or partner.

After working in a few call center environments, I wanted to put together a short guide for those who anticipate being tethered to a phone cord in order to pay their bills. Knowing a bit about call center employment before starting will help you survive the experience. You need to choose the right kind of atmosphere in order to have a bearable experience on the phones.

Outbound Call Centers

There are two main kinds of call centers: outbound and inbound. Outbound call centers are almost always telemarketing companies, fundraising firms, or collections agencies. As an agent, you will call people, usually unsolicited, to sell a product or otherwise ask for money. Although the ever-present classified ads appear in the newspaper week after week, the amount of fun and money involved in an outbound call center job is usually inflated. If ads touting $15 an hour for “Tele-Fun” sound too good to be true, they probably are. Outbound telemarketers and fundraisers tend to make $6 to $8 an hour, with some potential for bonuses or commissions to raise the rate. To make the amount promised in ads, though, you’d have to be incredibly lucky and amazingly smooth. Collections representatives tend to start out at higher rates (typically $8 to $10 an hour) and have more realistic chances for commission.

Pay aside, calling people who didn’t ask to be called is what makes outbound call center work utterly unpleasant. Imagine being yelled at, hung up on, cursed at, and generally despised. Because you are interrupting their lives at home (and sometimes at work), most people you call will not be friendly or patient. Even if you can handle rejection well, hearing “No” along with some choice expletives everyday can take its toll on your demeanor and outlook. You may feel that calling people who are overdue on bills is more justified than selling time-shares, but remember that debtors can be even more evasive and difficult than the general public.

Outbound call center work tends to be boring and repetitive. When I worked for a collections agency, I tried to imagine I was playing slot machines at a casino with an endless supply of quarters. Because outbound call centers, including collections agencies, work on the law of averages, you know that you will eventually “hit” and score a sale or a payment. The people who run outbound call centers don’t care how bored or frustrated you are; they just want you to keep calling over and over again because you’ll eventually bring in some money.

I once went to an interview for a fundraising job where I was appalled at the unprofessionalism and chaos I observed around the office. Not all outbound call centers have negative environments, but it’s important to remember that the job involves few qualifications and tends to attract some undesirable people who could be your co-workers and supervisors. I once worked for a collection agency that was far more organized and professional than the “Tele-Fun” place I visited, but the building itself was in utter disrepair (cheap rent must have been important to the company).

My recommendation is to avoid outbound call center jobs if possible because the environment is less stable, less rewarding, and less professional.

Inbound Call Centers

As opposed to making calls, you’ll be taking calls in an inbound call center. Agents usually provide customer service, close sales, process orders, or share information with callers. Credit cards, utilities, airlines, shipping companies, insurance firms, banks, and a host of other businesses use call centers to support their customers. You may work directly for the company whose products and services involved, or you may work for a third party to whom the main company has outsourced their call center.

If you’re going to sit at a desk all day and talk on the phone, an inbound call center ensures that you will be in touch with people who actually want your assistance. Make no mistake: you’ll talk to your share of mean people, and you may even be hung up on. After all, people tend to call customer service lines when they have a problem or complaint and not when they have a compliment. That said, negative calls are not the norm for inbound call centers. You may deal with some tense situations and long call times with annoying customers, but they will usually remain polite enough for you to help them. In fact, you may also garner compliments from people who are grateful for your help.

Pay at inbound call centers can vary dramatically, from $9 or $10 an hour for relatively unskilled positions to $15 an hour or more for positions involving special skills or professional licensures. I worked for a financial institution call center that paid about $14 an hour because it required expertise with specific software programs and general tech support. If you have any special computer skills (other than the basics) or if you are bilingual (English-Spanish), you can expect better compensation. An acquaintance of mine earned $2 an hour more than co-workers because she spoke Spanish. Commission and bonus opportunities are often available, depending on the kind of business. Since inbound call center pay varies, it’s best to apply for as many positions as possible and then sort through the pros and cons.

Like any other corporate cubicle farm, inbound call centers can be restrictive environments where conformity is expected. Be prepared for lots of rules, tight lunches, and close supervision. Because these places operate with strict chains of command and divisions of labor, the benefit is that you’ll rarely be asked to do anything outside your immediate expertise. Sometimes the calls can become repetitive, but each day provides enough variety and colorful customers to keep an agent entertained. The calls tend to be longer, more diverse, and more involved than those in outbound call centers, making the work more engaging.

Training at inbound call centers, while never exhaustive, tends to be more comprehensive. Some companies offer training and orientation classes that run for several weeks and involve lots of practice and test calls. Because I supported products for a number of different companies when I was an agent (I was at a third party company), my paid training was six weeks long in a professional classroom setting.

Although I could never have stayed at a call center for a long time, I was able to survive the experience and even have some fun with my co-workers along the way. I have collected some tips below for those considering work in an inbound call center:

Ã?· Let the calls stay in the cube. One benefit of call center work is that you don’t have to bring the job home with you.
Ã?· Don’t believe chitchat and rumors until you hear or see something definite. Call centers generate chatty cultures with their own myths and characters.
Ã?· Seek out assistance from team leads or more seasoned agents who have been recognized for doing a good job. They’re usually happy to share their knowledge in between calls or during breaks.
�· Try to leave the building on your lunch. Sitting in the same place all day can make you stir-crazy.
Ã?· Don’t let a bad call wreck your mood. Answer the next call as though nothing happened.
Ã?· If someone ends up asking for your supervisor, don’t take it personally. As long as you did your best, gave accurate information, and remained professional, you have played your role. Most call center managers know and understand this from experience. Every agent will have some calls escalate to supervisor situations.
�· Personalize your cube so you have some sense of ownership over the otherwise drab space.
Ã?· Keep your eyes peeled for advancement opportunities or special projects. If you don’t mind working for the company, there may eventually be an opening you wish to pursue in management or in another department.
�· Be comfortable with change and welcoming of new faces. Since turnover is typically high, you may have supervisors and co-workers come and go in short periods of time.
Ã?· Have FUN. It’s remarkable how many amusing stories you can tell after working in a call center.

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