Call Center Work

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Peter DeHaan, Publisher and Editor of Connections MagazineIronically, most of the communication that I do in producing Connections Magazine, a publication about call centers, is done via email and not the telephone. My phone rings infrequently, and when it does the caller is often someone I don’t want to talk to – either a mismatched attempt to sell me something or a suspicious ploy to obtain information. Common sales calls are soliciting funds for “the boys in blue,” selling a listing in “the phone book,” or making an appointment with “the Visa/Master Card people” for a merchant account. Typical informational solicitations want to confirm or update my “directory listing,” ascertain contact people at my organization, or conduct some business demographic profiling.

In responding to these calls, I have an internal struggle between being nice to people in the industry I cover and feeling irritation over the interruption and use of disingenuous techniques that are harmful to the reputation of all good and ethical call centers. To my chagrin, rudeness is often my prevailing response.

Recently, I received a call that initially seemed to be in the “information gathering” category. My dander was rising as I readied myself to abruptly terminate that conversation. However, the woman calling was not the typical working-in-a-boiler-room, crank-through-the-numbers, read-the-script type. She was nice, articulate, and sincerely professional. I opted to stay with the call.

She worked at an executive search firm and had been tasked with locating a manager for a large call center. This was outside the niche industries that her firm normally serviced and she was calling to gain a better understanding of the industry – and ostensibly obtain contacts.  As the call progressed, I realized that she would be cold calling to get referrals and ultimately snag someone for the position she was filling.

I have never done outbound calling, and it would be a bad idea for me to try. I have done inbound work, most notably in a technical support call center. Inbound is a good match for me; outbound is not. I projected my personal reticence towards outbound calling to the task confronting her, expressing heartfelt condolences to the foreboding chore ahead.

My sympathy surprised her. “I like making those calls,” she said with genuine affection. “I enjoy the challenge of working towards my goal.” I didn’t know what to say. Shockingly, I have never talked to someone who truly enjoyed making outbound calls; in my experience, they merely do so in order to earn the rewards resulting from successful calls.

Inbound versus Outbound: Lest anyone be unaware, outbound and inbound calling are completely different tasks, requiring contrasting skills and relying on contrasting perspectives and personalities. Few people can master both, and fewer still can successfully switch back and forth. Hiring the right person, with the right personality, for the right type of calling is essential.

Inbound work is reactive. Inbound agents passively wait for calls to come in. When the phone rings, the callers – to varying degrees – want to talk to them. The agents’ job is to help callers, providing information they want or completing a sale they desire. Appreciation of the agents’ work is often communicated and thanks frequently given at the conclusion of the call. True, there are some rough calls, with the occasional caller who cannot be pleased making personal threats or verbal attacks, but these are the exception. Most inbound agents enjoy helping people and solving problems. They are less likely to be motivated by the rewards and monetary incentives of their outbound counterparts.

Outbound work is proactive. Outbound agents make calls – be it manually or at the pace of an automated dialer. While some cultures are open to receiving calls, in the U.S. most of those being called resent the interruption. The agents crank through calls in order to eventually connect with a party who is willing listen to their pitch, working towards the goal of making a sale or gathering the requisite information. Between these successes are a raft of rejections and rebuffs; it is hard work for the thin-skinned, and kudos are infrequently offered. While there are the occasional individual who truly appreciates and finds value in the interaction, thanking the agent for calling, but this is not typical. Most outbound agents are motivated by the financial rewards and recognition of reaching goals and meeting objectives, and this enables them to persist in their work.

A Matter of Perspective: Another consideration in call center work is perspective. Having the right perspective goes a long way to producing long-term call center employment, engendering job satisfaction, and generating success. Once, while on a consulting assignment, I talked with two inbound agents. They worked in the same call center and had the same manager, but they possessed diametrically different attitudes towards their work.

The first gushed, “This is the most interesting and exciting place to work. Every call is different and I just love the variety.”

Her coworker possessed a much different outlook. “This is so boring,” she complained. “I just do the same thing all day long.”

The first enjoyed her work, seeing infinite variety among the seeming routine. Her enthusiasm was apparent and her outlook positive. Her coworker was able to only see the routine, missing the subtle and endless variations of a theme. Her demeanor was distressing, casting a pall on all who worked with her.

The issue of perspective also applies to outbound calling. Agents who see each call dialed as getting them one step closer to their goal can gladly and purposefully work through those calls to obtain their reward. Conversely, agents who make each call attempt with resigned drudgery are not in the ideal frame of mind to properly respond when they do reach someone willing to take their call. As a result, they miss their opportunity – and the reward.

For these individuals, a career as an outbound agent will be painfully short. If only they could have the perspective of the perky professional who phoned me, enjoying the challenge and happily working towards her goal!

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of  Connections Magazine. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From Connection Magazine May 2010]

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