What am I doing in a call center?
By Hannah Z. Mendejar
Philippine Daily Inquirer
August 28, 2013 at 10:06 pm

I take customer service calls for the biggest credit card company in the world. That’s talking to an average of 80 Americans per day, helping them with card replacements, disputes, payments, and rewards redemption, and answering general questions about their accounts as well as contact information changes, among others.

My customers are nice to me because I treat them really well. Many of them, though, are obnoxiously demanding and incredibly impatient; they feel entitled to instant “magic” solutions, like waiving a late fee when we just waived one for the last month because, well, they forgot to pay on the due date, again.

Barely have I recovered from one verbal onslaught than comes another tempest from another, well, supposedly dissatisfied customer who demands an explanation right away! right now! Yet, this customer refuses to listen to a word I say.  How is an explanation given to someone who refuses to listen?

I once suggested to my team leader to have an airsoft shooting range beside my station. Then, I could just take a breather after each exasperating call, and fire away. That’s how bad it can be.

So what’s a graduate of the University of the Philippines in Diliman doing in a call center?

It’s the pay, of course. Where else can you get a starting salary of P25,000 a month, plus performance bonuses that can easily double your salary if you meet the metrics? The metrics, of course, are constantly adjusted and upgraded to make these more difficult to attain, which makes it more challenging for some of us who are even encouraged to work harder. So it remains attainable—for some of us, anyway.

So I continue working the night shift at a call center in Eastwood, no matter the “negatives” one has to live with in the office environment.  Of all the team leaders I’ve had, only one could actually lead—meaning inspire and motivate people to love their work. Many of these team leaders are just power-tripping nags who were promoted because they’ve been there for the longest time, and they’ve met the metrics. I could cite several unprofessional, immoral and labor-code-violating behaviors, but then it wouldn’t do me any good. At the call center, to last this long, I have to learn to control my mindset. I am here for the money. I pay a lot in taxes. I help the economy grow. My children are well provided for.

Stress levels are always incredibly high.  Check the records of the clinic (in all call centers and other BPOs, I dare say), and you’d find a trail of blood pressures shooting up on a regular basis. The clinic personnel have grown so familiar with this unhealthy situation that I’m beginning to suspect they have lost their humanity. They seem to have so adopted a maximum-tolerance policy for agents who come in with health-related concerns that they give free pain relievers the moment you open the door. Yes, pain relievers for tonsillitis, cough, cold, fever, even allergies! And get your lazy self back on the floor, and take calls pronto!

Remember the monsoon rains last year that drenched and flooded the metropolis? I was six months pregnant. I called our office to tell them I couldn’t go to work. One of the bosses took my call. His response shocked me: “Is your place flooded?” It was a cold statement. I was like, hey, I’m pregnant! How do you expect me to get there, swim?

I have often looked for signs of drug addiction among call center workers, and the stereotype is just not true. Perhaps there are a few users, even addicts, among call center workers. But there are also users and addicts in other industries. (We undergo a regular medical exam, which includes a drug test. Drug addiction should be easy to monitor).

If there are drug users and dependents among us, they certainly would not last a few months at the call center. The work demands that agents be in their right state of mind, with enough sleep and in the best of health. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to perform the task at hand. Then the scores would be very low, the metrics wouldn’t be met, and with the way each call is recorded and each metric digitally monitored, the agent would ultimately be fired.

To stay awake and alert for my duties, I resort to drinking coffee and nibbling chocolates, chips, pizza. More, more food!  We are more at risk of diabetes, depression, and heart-kidney-lung-and-liver diseases than we are at risk of taking prohibited drugs.

And that other supposed call-center stereotype—that we are a bunch of sexually promiscuous urban professionals—is also not true.  Sexual promiscuity, infidelity, same-gender sex, etc. can happen anywhere. And that’s a different psychological/social issue altogether.

I still dream of doing what I love best, which is to teach. Two years ago, I took a professional teaching certificate course at the UP Open University. It seemed perfect: The online course was convenient. But I sorely lacked the discipline to stay awake during the day to work on assignments. My body clock has been altered. My days off are spent sleeping, and the two nights that I have away from my work station I badly need for more sleeping. The sad reality was that there wasn’t much time left for school.

I always feel a certain guilt whenever I see my grandmother, who is a respected school teacher. She complained last summer about the lack of teachers and the high unemployment rate. I know I am qualified to teach.  I’d really love teaching, but I have to fend for my family first. I have four kids to think of, and a teacher’s salary just won’t do.

I hope it won’t be too late. I hope I can teach when I’m done sending my kids to school. For now, this call-center stint will have to do.

Hannah Z. Mendejar graduated from UP’s National College of Public Administration and Governance in 2001. She is married to another call center agent.

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