A Failure to Communicate

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

You don’t need to spend much time in a call center before you realize that people who work there enjoy sharing anecdotes about the calls they’ve handled. This is a positive pastime, as it establishes community, provides a safe outlet, and builds a collective understanding. (The parallel activity of venting and grousing about callers is not so productive and should be discouraged.)

In conjunction with such discussions, I have often heard someone wistfully voice the sentiment, “We should write a book about these things.” Seemingly, that good idea never goes much further and doesn’t result in any more than wishful thinking. Even so, this does get me thinking. What are some of the calls that I could write about? The first is when I worked in a tech support call center…

I’m Not Keith: One of my coworkers fielded a call from the father of a call center owner. Apparently, Dad was covering for his son over the weekend. Although Dad knew how to manage call center staff, he wasn’t up to speed on technology. I suspect his son merely instructed him to call our number if there were technical issues. Dad called and was walked through the relatively simple restart procedure – log off and press the button labeled “reset.” Still, it took fifteen painstaking, patience-producing minutes to accomplish.

Over the weekend, I fielded a much more dire call from the father. The system was down and could not be brought up. Over the next couple of hours, I guided him through a troubleshooting process. Even the most basic steps, such as, “Open the cabinet door” or “Check the power light,” required an excruciating amount of detailed instruction. Throughout the ordeal, he kept calling me Keith. After correcting him for the third time, I simply gave up, realizing that my name was not of primary importance at that juncture. Eventually the problem was resolved, and a most grateful father thanked me profusely.

About a week later, our boisterous VP bounced into the call center, gleefully waving a poignant thank-you note for the stellar job Keith did in helping resolve a very difficult problem under trying circumstances. The VP enthusiastically read the note to our entire group, ceremoniously handing it to Keith. Keith gracious accepted the kudus but later admitted, “I don’t even remember talking to him.” Nonetheless, the note – for the work I did – was proudly posted at Keith’s workstation.

Like a Birgin: While on a consulting assignment, I spent some time doing side-by-side monitoring to obtain a flavor for the types of calls that were being handled. One call was from an elderly woman with an extremely heavy accent. The call proceeded at a painfully slow pace, with the agent often giving me quizzical glances in hopes that I was understanding what she could not. Eventually the reason for the call was ascertained, and the agent asked for the caller’s name. Unable to understand, she asked the caller to spell it. Even that was a chore. We had great difficulty understanding one particular letter. The caller kept saying, “B.” The agent would attempt to confirm, replying, “B?” The frustrated caller would empathically respond, “No, B!” This was repeated until the resourceful agent said, “B as in Baker?” To which the exasperated caller retorted, “No! B as in Birgin.”

The rest of the call proceeded at a snail’s pace, using phonetic spelling for every word. Finally, the requisite information was gathered, but before the women could be thanked for calling, she interjected, “Don’t you want my daughter’s address? The brochure is for her!”

Causal Sex: In 1988 there was a movie staring Lea Thompson, with the provocative title of Casual Sex. At the time, our call center handled after-hours calls for a cable company. They had just introduced on-demand movies on a limited, trial basis. The technology of the day with not without its glitches and was often problematic with its reliability and inconsistent in its delivery; we took the brunt of the customers’ frustration in the form of complaint calls. One evening, an exasperated man called us and blurted out, “I called for casual sex a half hour ago – and I’m still waiting!”

Timing Is Everything: At one time or another, we’ve all been guilty about muttering a disparaging remark after a call is completed. Sometimes this is a reflection of our state of mind, while other times it is a less-than-ideal commentary about the caller. This is not a practice to be encouraged; nevertheless, when doing so, it is of paramount importance to fully disconnect before voicing any editorial comments.

One agent with a proclivity towards making such utterances had been repeatedly counseled to avoid doing so. Nevertheless, she persisted; either out habit or defiance, I do not know. One day her practice caused a bit of a ruckus. The particular call in question was being recorded for the client. Although the caller had hung up, the audio was still being recorded when she enunciated her opinion about the caller, using a most unacceptable expletive.

The client, while not disagreeing with the agent’s assessment — and admirably understanding, did feel that this act warranted mentioning to the call center manager. The recorded message was passed on to the manager electronically. The agent was understandably embarrassed and distressed, but she did learn the importance of not saying what she was thinking. Once she learned that she would not be terminated, she began recovering from her faux pas. Later, she graciously agreed to let the manager share the recording with her fellow agents as a powerful lesson of what not to do. This time, the message was heard – and more effectively than from any trainer’s lips.

These stories have been fun to recall and more fun to share. I hope you’ve enjoyed them as well. Maybe I will write a book about them – but if I do, I’ll need your help!

If you have an amusing, entertaining, or educational story about a call, please email it to me at DeHaan@ConnectionsMagazine.com. Be sure to include your name and your call center name – or you can remain anonymous. I have the first four stories for our book; will you help with the rest?

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.  Read more of his articles at PeterDeHaanPublishing.com.

[From Connection Magazine June 2010]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: