Saturday, August 19, 2006

Jurassic Workblogging

Another in my occasional series of ancient quasi-blog pieces from the distant past. This time it's a rant about my time toiling in the telco world, dating from some time back in the mid-late 90's, so it's not as old as the last couple of pieces I've posted here. This would've been a blog piece back then, if blogs had existed back then. I've changed the name of the company to protect the guilty. In retrospect I can't bring myself to be quite so hard on them. They paid for a few key CS classes at the local college which helped me break into the programming business, so I guess I ought to thank them for that, if they still existed. Also, while I was there I had the privilege of voting to unionize the call center, although once the vote succeeded I couldn't actually afford the union dues and never joined up. But still, it's something to brag about. The company was pretty screwed up, and the customers I had to deal with were even more screwed up, hence the following rant.

A few notes from the front lines of the directory assistance racket...

I've never had a job quite like this, working here at GloboTelCom. I don't think I'll be wanting another like it. I can't think of another job where you come in contact with a more disturbed cross-section of humanity short of being a shrink. A few cases in point:

Yesterday, a lady called up wanting the number of NASA in Moscow, saying she had something she needed to tell them about the space station. Failing that, maybe the NASA office in Kamchatka would help. Sure, lady. Still, maybe I'm a geography snob, but just someone using Kamchatka in a sentence makes me not write them off totally. So I tell her I only serve the US. That's fine, she says, just give her NASA in Houston. I can do that, so I do. I figure they've got trained professionals who deal with these types all day. She wants the number of NASA in Florida, too, which I also have, and then wants to know if I've ever been to the Mir station. No, I get motion-sick in space, ma'am, sorry that I can't help you there. It's best to play along. They like that. It's going well. So that about does it for NASA, but she also needs the phone number for the north pole. Well, ma'am, I may have to transfer you over to international directory for that. She's amenable, so I push a couple of buttons and she's off. I'm not sure the international operators appreciate us, but I appreciate them sometimes.

Someday someone's going to call me and want to talk to space aliens. This country is soaked in extraterrestrial hype, and we bear the brunt of all the latest fads. If I was a silly, grits-for-brains tabloid feeder, it would seem perfectly natural to be able to call up GloboTelCom and ask for the phone numbers for some aliens. I'm relishing the chance. Oddly, I'm relishing the opportunity to not be mean to the caller. I'd tell them first, that calling other worlds isn't a market our company currently serves, though I expect we'll jump in as soon as a reliable method emerges, since interplanetary long distance rates would be VERY lucrative. On the other hand, if the caller's not trying to call another planet, but wants to reach space aliens living among us on Earth, I'll tell 'em it works just like anybody else. If they know the name of a certain alien and what city they're in, and preferably an address, I can help them, but we don't have physical descriptions on file. If someone has three heads and a hundred greasy tentacles, but goes by John Smith and lives in Chicago, and that's all you know, there's very little I can do.

Other people have wondered whether we have physical descriptions on file. Usually these are older southerners who demand to know whether somebody under a certain name is black or white. Strikes them as perfectly logical that we would keep track. One man asked if we could find someone by social security number if he also had a physical description, and began reading it off like it was off a police bulletin: Young black male, medium build, about 6'2"... I wasn't able to be very helpful there.

But give me a name, the more unusual the better, and a city, or even just a state, or a couple of possible states, or just a vague idea of where so-and-so might be, and I'll see what I can do. I like a challenge. Once I found a guy's long-lost father who he hadn't seen in 20 years. There's probably a good story in that. Maybe a happy story, maybe a sad one, and I'll never know. I was just a tiny cog in the machine. If I'm lucky, maybe someone will remember I went the extra mile for them, but I doubt they'll remember my name. Whether I work miracles, or barely avoid getting fired every single day, the company doesn't really care, and it pays me exactly the same either way. Eventually you find your own ways to make the job feel rewarding. Working miracles is mine. Working miracles, and being extra-nice to "difficult" people, crazies, drunks, and so forth.

Drunks are fun. Drunks love me. Drunk, fortyish southern men are easy. Show them a little kindness and they eat out of your hand and get all weepy and choked up. When they tell you all about their guns, they aren't threatening you. They're just being sentimental and looking for a bit of male bonding. Elderly women are the nasty ones, especially the mildly bewildered ones who figure that being 85 means you know everything. They'll argue that something is still there because it was there back in the forties. They think I'm nuts when I tell them the area code's changed on them and want to argue. They get irate if you tell them they called the wrong area code and you can't help them. Really we ought to be able to help them, but we really can't, and there's not a blessed thing we can do about it.

Our center's only been open a couple of years, but we've already got a rich vein of folklore going. Full moons, for example. Nobody wants to work on full moons, because that's when all the crazies call us. Which isn't actually true. The crazies call us every day. Full moon, new moon, after the normal people go to bed its nothing but crazies and drunks and screamers until the sun comes up.

Screamers are frustrating. Someone will call up, already steaming hot from something else, and half the time you can't even find out what they want you to do before they demand your supervisor. Usually that takes a while, so they hang up. I hate being threatened, even by people who are incoherent and completely powerless. Mostly this is because the company is screwed up and might be inclined to believe whatever lies these people make up.

Yes, I have a bit to say about the company. I've never seen such a disorganized, sloppy, and poorly run outfit. Back when I was in the museum business, the place I worked was disorganized, sloppy, and often poorly run by the top echelons, but just about everyone was committed body and soul to getting the job done. At GloboTelCom, nobody much cares whether we do the job right. We use a strictly third-rate database that mysteriously lacks many perfectly correct, current phone numbers. Well, not that mysteriously: The database is provided by an outside firm that used to have the contract to do what we do now. They still serve part of the country that we don't cover, and management can switch area codes from us to them or vice versa on a whim. They make more money providing the full service than they do just providing the database... Gee. Can anyone other than me see the conflict of interest here? The company's still stuck in the old Ma Bell frame of mind and figures that a clunky, ad-hoc approach is good enough, and that if we enrage our customers by not having their number when they know it's there, it doesn't really matter because there are always more customers. Why give employees the basic tools they need to do the job right, when not doing so is a little cheaper? If they aren't happy, you can always hire new employees, especially if you locate your call centers in cities with high unemployment and a low education level. Our center and its smaller cousin in Slagsburg, PA are swamped with calls when we cover only a few states; we couldn't possibly cover the entire country ourselves, and I'm thinking we were never intended to. I'm not sure what the true Machiavellian scheme here is, whether we're just an expensive negotiating ploy to cut a good deal with that outside company, or whatever, but our customers are the ones who suffer.

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