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Emotional Labour
June 13, 2004 12:20 PM   Subscribe

Emotional Labour It's been ages since an article so perfectly distills how work makes me feel and what it's probably doing to me. Claire works in a call centre for Orange mobile phones and on her "computer screen, a series of little squares indicates calls waiting, and tells her how long she has been on her current call. If a call has been difficult, there are only eight seconds in which to take a deep breath and compose her voice into the expected tone of friendliness. ... What is striking is how on the one hand Claire is dealing with very rigid systems set down by company procedure and the vagaries of the computer system, while on the other she is expected to convey a sense of naturalness and her own personality. "
posted by feelinglistless (22 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
It sounds strange that sitting at a desk in front of a computer answering telephone calls can be exhausting -- but really its about the tollerances of the human brain. Of all the jobs listed in the piece, call centre advisor is one of the more overlooked high pressure jobs -- depending upon the job, we can be called upon to make decisions which can effect people's lives on a fundamental level -- and be expected not to make any mistakes even when we're making over a hundred such decisions each day.
posted by feelinglistless at 12:21 PM on June 13, 2004


wearing the big ole corporate face while telling the big ole corporate lie all day will kill you.
posted by quonsar at 12:25 PM on June 13, 2004


very good piece--thanks feeling.

and what quonsar said--it's weird that the jobs that take the biggest emotional toll on people often are the lowest-paying and least-respected (i.e. service, teaching, nursing).
posted by amberglow at 12:28 PM on June 13, 2004


Who said that work should not be challenging? Every kind of jobs has a toll on you in some form or another. What are you, a buncha whining lazy Europeans?
posted by VeGiTo at 12:42 PM on June 13, 2004


And VeGiTo proves to be the sort who would not be hired for the types of jobs profiled in this excerpt i.e. lacks empathy. Unless, of course, this was hyperbole for dramatic effect/attention - in which case, I retract my jab.
posted by sillygit at 12:52 PM on June 13, 2004


Work is supposed to be challenging, but not so hard that you burn out or otherwise feel like you couldn't do it as a career. The high turnover rate of call centre work belies a serious problem at its core. Imagine getting customer service from someone who likes their job and has been doing it for long enough to be good at it.. oh what a world it would be.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:07 PM on June 13, 2004


Soon, these jobs will be replaced by software.
posted by troutfishing at 1:17 PM on June 13, 2004


With the evolution of modern industry, Marx pointed out that workmen became factory fodder, appendages to machines.
posted by matteo at 1:18 PM on June 13, 2004


depending upon the job, we can be called upon to make decisions which can effect people's lives on a fundamental level -- and be expected not to make any mistakes even when we're making over a hundred such decisions each day

This role, in other vendor-customer realtionships, is also known as the fall guy.

The Vendor offers a complex service. The customer purchases it. Customer requests service, but the vendor has other things to do. So the fall guy takes the heat. If the customer gets mad, the vendor fires the fall guy and gets a new one. If the vendor needs to cut costs, the fall guy is the first to go.

It is a win-win situation for customers and vendors. But it sucks to be the fall guy.
posted by Kwantsar at 1:19 PM on June 13, 2004


I worked for Amazon in customer service one Christmas--I think the high point was completing a credit card transaction for a Russian woman in Finland whose English was--well, it was better than either my Finnish or Russian, but--most minimal. I spent ten minutes in high telepathy and got the sweetest email. More typical was the mom who couldn't face the fact her son was buying himself presents on her dime. Oh, yeah, like the database is a liar. David Sedaris was not the only person to hear I'm going to get you fired.
posted by y2karl at 1:48 PM on June 13, 2004


but... the database IS a liar! and so is the sheep!
posted by quonsar at 1:53 PM on June 13, 2004


The high turnover rate of call centre work belies a serious problem at its core.

That may be an overstatement. As I was breaking into the the industry in which I currently work, I was amazed by the reps that could drink coffee, read the newspaper, and service the customer simultaneously. They were for the most part thirty- and forty-something men with little professional ambition and expansive interests outside the office. They liked their job because it required only forty hours a week, and it never needed to be brought home. Because they were good at their jobs, and the company realized their value (due in no small part to using some pretty snazzy analytical metrics) , they made $20-$25 per hour, plus overtime, plus benefits.

$50,000 per year, with benefits, for 40 hours per week.
$70,000 per year, with benefits, for 50 hours per week.

Not a bad living in a Midwestern city.

Of course, most the twenty-two year old new hires lacked the temperament to handle the work, and were less than half as productive as the geezers. They made less money, were less competent, and lacked the patience to succeed in the role. That's why they didn't stick around.

So the problem might not lie within the model of the call center itself, but rather how its masters choose to staff it.
posted by trharlan at 1:56 PM on June 13, 2004 [1 favorite]


I had a boss who used to say "Work is often unpleasant and difficult - that's why they call it work. If it was always really fun, they'd call it sex."
He was a great boss, though, and one of my favorites.
posted by bashos_frog at 2:01 PM on June 13, 2004


I recently got hired in Bellingham, WA working for the Campus Democrats (btw, I am going to be voting for Kerry, but not happy about it at all). We call people around the country asking for donations for this large scale voter registration drive on college campuses in swing states across the United States.

I've worked at other jobs that are much more physically demanding, and part of me feels like I shouldn't complain, but this job is bullshit on a new level for me personally. I am not a salesman and even though getting people registered to vote is a good thing of course, I can't really try to persuade people to give their money to something I don't really believe in.

The people who run this place don't know what the hell they are doing either... This job is more depressing than anything else I have done.
posted by Slimemonster at 2:02 PM on June 13, 2004


I'm a over-paid (or under-paid, depending on the day) menial/service worker who deals with the public on a daily basis. some days, it's the worst job in the world and my "smile" weighs more than a backpack full of cinder-blocks. Other days are busy, but smooth, and everything just falls into place. On the good days my smile doesn't require scare-quotes.

Service work that requires a certain personality is very, very hard work, but there are some people who are very, very capable. Just as not every human would make a good steel worker, not every human makes a great service worker. The problem is that the traditional office jobs that only required interaction within an office (or industry of similarly minded peers) are fading away. In order to make a living, many people who do not enjoy working with the public are in jobs that do not best serve their interests and abilities. As the information economy takes hold there are less jobs that do not include some aspect of service and it has been a difficult transition for many people. While I enjoy and do well at my job I understand why others have difficulties.
posted by elwoodwiles at 2:14 PM on June 13, 2004


They're not outsourcing these jobs just to India anymore.
The company I work for has contracts all over the world, but many of my customers (who are all American) are surprised when they find out I'm in Ottawa.

"Oh, is that the new India now? Where is Ottawa again?" etc.

The high turnover rate in my company allows management to perpetually screw over employees in ways I never existed before. I feel threatened talking about it on here to be honest, because one of my friends just got fired the other week. He was making posts on a message board about the ISP we support, and how their security department operates. Granted it wasn't stuff we would ever be telling customers, but I would've expected a written warning before getting the pink slip like that.

Anyways I'll shut up now before I pull a dooce here.
posted by mojo80 at 3:00 PM on June 13, 2004


Guess the real problem starts when you need to match number with reality and reality with numbers. For instace, say that I have 1 pie and I want to divide the pie with 3 kids.

This is simple math : take 1 pie, divide by 3, so each kid must get 0.33 (periodic) pie ( or 1/3 of pie). In reality you cannot exactly divide the pie in 3 pieces , neither can you exactly divide your time among 3 customers so that each customer receives the same amount of "niceness" or the same amount of time. Things get more complicated when you think each customer is just like a kid, innocently expecting to be treated always fairly and exactly according to his/her expectations.

I used the pie example with one of my ex-bosses (who's a Phd in Economy, and I'm a Phd in economy as well ) and he got mad saying that my Phd is in baloney because "You don't get it, do you ? You have to allocate the same kind of customers the same amount of time and resources ! I can't get you any more help because it doesn't fit in the budget, so YOU make it fit in the budget and obtain the results".

So my problem was I had to make reality fit into a budget made of numbers, and reality was I didn't have enough resources (coworkers) to allocate. The obvious solution was to take resources away from the least important customer in order to save at least two, as menacing my other coworkers wasn't going to make a day 26 hours long (we had a strict policy against working overtime because of the costs involved).

But I took a risk and won out of pure luck, as the third customer accepted to wait long enough.But the third customer could have asked for exactly what he had the right to ask and -surely- wasn't all too happy as we promised but we didn't deliver in time, which is grounds for dismissal in many occasions.

No wonder that some people in service sometime must either take risks (too often without compensation) or weasel out of the situation, as you have budget to respect and customers to satisfy, all of this while developing the grounds for bipolar disorder (happy with customer, serious with boss, happy with family ...)
posted by elpapacito at 3:20 PM on June 13, 2004


I think my problem is that because of the nature of call centre work, you never feel like you've done anything good. For every great achievement you might make or problem you might fix satisfactorally there are five things which turn into crap because someone else isn't doing their job properly.

The only good thing is that the only part of my job that I have to take home with me is my mental exhaustion. I'm on a fortnight's holiday now and feel like a different person -- the version of me I am when I'm not working.
posted by feelinglistless at 4:17 PM on June 13, 2004


karl -- nope, the database just "misspoke"
I'm sure Russert'll buy that
;)
posted by matteo at 4:24 PM on June 13, 2004


Eight seconds between calls reminds of the Monty Python skit about living in a shoe. What luxury! I've found Call Center management to be somewhat of a barometer of the economy - good times mean fewer write ups about peeing when I should be taking call after call ad nauseam.
I applaud those who can leave the stress of the job at the door instead of being told by your partner that 'you were answering calls in your sleep again' every few mornings.
Feelinglistless, right on. I feel like a diver who needs to get into a chamber after every dive.
posted by TomSophieIvy at 8:08 PM on June 13, 2004 [1 favorite]


on the one hand Claire is dealing with very rigid systems set down by company procedure and the vagaries of the computer system, while on the other she is expected to convey a sense of naturalness and her own personality

This is what kills you, I discovered. The tighter the tension is between the systems of company procedure and the emotional part of the job, the more lethal it is. If it's pretty loose, it's not a problem. But usually with call centers it is fantastically rigid. And when the turnover rate is high, this rigidity is self-perpetuating: the tight system compensates for lack of experience among the staff, so the less they care if they lose people.

I was amazed by the reps that could drink coffee, read the newspaper, and service the customer simultaneously.

That has screw-all to do with the emotional difficulty of the work, that is, once you know what you're doing. Unless focusing on a computer screen is expressly made part of the job - and it often is, when you have to log calls and look busy - most everybody's capable of servicing the customer and reading the paper at the same time. Call center work is assembly-line stuff: your scope of responsibility is usually so limited it doesn't require your full attention.
posted by furiousthought at 9:03 PM on June 13, 2004


Call center work is assembly-line stuff: your scope of responsibility is usually so limited it doesn't require your full attention.

In my job I only wish that was true. I have to work within all kinds of proceedures and processes most of which are there for the vital reason that if they aren't followed, nothing a gets done and everything goes. A minor proportion of my time at work is spent cleaning up after people who have the above mentality and fob people off at the earliest opportunity. All this and having to work out how many times you actually can go to the toilet during the day without effecting your non-call time and so your prospects of working your way up the pay scale. Its utterly appauling how in some call centres your pay is dictated by how well you can keep it in.
posted by feelinglistless at 3:47 PM on June 14, 2004


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