Lucas McDaniel, 31, Bloomington, Indiana
Current Job: IT Technician at Indiana University
Worst Job Ever: Customer service representative for a large cell-phone plan provider
How I got in
I was just out of college, struggling to find a job, and expenses were piling up — student loans, rent, utilities, food, car insurance. I felt the walls closing in and knew I had to find a job, any job.
I decided to apply for a job at a call center, answering customer service calls for a large telecom provider. The place had a bad reputation — a couple friends had worked there and told me, “It sucks, but it’s a job.” Which was my exact mindset heading in.
All I had to do was walk in and fill out the application. The next week they invited all the new applicants in for a mass interview, and if you made it that far, you were basically hired.
We had about eight weeks of training, all of it paid at $8 per hour. The training consisted of the new crop of employees sitting in a room for eight hours a day, looking at PowerPoint slides and listening to recordings of people dealing with customers.
Fewer and fewer people showed up over the course of training. They got a couple paychecks, then bailed. It was demoralizing. I had just earned an engineering degree from a four-year university, and here I was among a bunch of high-school dropouts.
The last week of training was spent on the floor, where we watched customer service reps field actual calls from customers. I learned more that week than I did the previous seven. All the other training was a waste.
When I realized it was going to suck
That’s when I realized I was totally unprepared for the job. I watched the customer service reps log their call information in the internal software system, and quickly realized I had no idea how to use it. “What did you just do?” I asked them. “We didn’t go over that in training.”
“Ask your supervisor,” they’d say.
The supervisor said if we had any questions, we should just look it up in the internal learning database and follow the script. But the database didn’t account for most of the situations the customers described. Or the customer would give a response not included in the script, and we’d be left flying blind.
I often had to put the customer on hold just so I could call over a supervisor and ask them what to say.
There were about 500, 600 people on the call center floor at once. It was a wide-open warehouse, with rows of cubicles, 10 to each row. The partitions between them were small, so our calls often bled into each other’s. I worked nights, and it was miserable going from fluorescent lighting to utter darkness.
Our base pay was $9.50 an hour, but you could make up to $12 if you stuck it out long enough. Promotions were on a merit system. You were judged harshly by the customer satisfaction surveys conducted after each call. If you weren’t able to fix someone’s problem, even if you followed the script, the customer would rate you low and ruin your chance for a raise or bonus.
One of the points emphasized in training was that we were to always keep the customer happy, whatever the cost. This meant giving them lots of free stuff — phone accessories like Bluetooth headsets or chargers, or upgrading them to a better plan.
I worked for the enterprise division — businesses that bought phone plans for everyone in their organization—and they knew they’d get freebies if they complained. Most of the calls were people not understanding their bills, and me having to point them to certain line items.
One time I made a mistake that caused a customer to be charged more than they should have. I was apologizing profusely, and the person on the other end kept saying, “How are you gonna make it up to me?”
After each call, we had two minutes to enter the details into the system and get a quick breather. But there was never enough time for a break. It was four straight hours of listening to complaints, a lunch break, and then another four hours on the phone.
How I got out
I lasted only a month on the floor. I had had a line on an IT job at Indiana State University, and it finally came through. The day I got the offer, I told my supervisor I quit — no notice, effective immediately. He didn’t bat an eyelash because the turnover was ridiculous.
It was the only job I ever got sick of, and that’s including delivering newspapers as a kid. I would sit in my car before each shift started, trying to psych myself up before walking in from the parking lot.
The job forever cemented in my head that it’s an actual person on the other end of your customer service call, and to treat them with the according respect, no matter how frustrated you are.
Every other job I’ve had has been a cakewalk relative to working in that call center. Whenever I’m feeling down at work, I just think, I could be stuck answering customer service calls all day. Maybe this mandatory lunch meeting isn’t so bad after all.