Call Center Confessions

The angry customers who cursed at her were bad enough, and the fetish perverts who called late at night to ask what type of shoes she was wearing freaked her out.

But the death threats really sent Tina Parcell over the edge.

Parcell was working as a customer service representative for MCI when an irate customer "threatened to slit my throat if I didn't get his name off the do-not-call list."

After she hung up on him, Parcell realized that the caller had her first name, last name and location, and that he only lived an hour away from her. She immediately told her manager, took a break to compose herself and warned her family members.

Her story is typical for customer service reps, those anonymous call-center operators whom we all love to complain about.

Since several recent controversies over customer service, such as Sprint booting 1,000 problem customers who complained too much and the infamous recording of a hapless AOL customer trying to cancel his service, they've become a convenient scapegoat for unsatisfied consumers.

As more people complain about the quality of customer service, the lives of members of the "headset mafia" haven't been getting any easier either.

In recent years, customer service reps are under greater pressure to deliver results in the least amount of time. As a result, their jobs are among the most stressful in America, on a par with 911 operators, according to a recent survey by Health magazine.

Due to several factors, especially the use of automated phone systems that frustrate customers to the point of outrage by the time they reach a live rep, along with job cutbacks and strict company rules governing everything from bathroom breaks to the length of calls, many customer service reps are feeling stressed out.

Part of the problem is that reps are pressured to get through calls as quickly as possible. "Sometimes I talked to up to 60 people a day, or 80 on a 10-hour shift," said Parcell. "You're goaled for how long they're on the phone with you. Performance raises and incentive bonuses are tied to those numbers."

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Douglas Hanna, a customer service consultant in south Florida, worked as a call center rep for about five years. "For some corporations, you're just a cog in a call center," he said. "They put a lot of pressure for how long you can take on the phone, and how many customers you can get to not cancel their service. You have to have so many retentions a month. You can't stay on the phone for more than six minutes. At some companies you're not allowed to give honest feedback, and you're pressured to upsell a customer."

As a result, reps get a bad rap because they're squeezed on both sides, by their bosses and customers, said Ivy Meadors, a former customer service rep who now consults for call centers through her company, High Tech High Touch Solutions.

"Management is giving them strict rules to follow, which end up angering the customers they're talking to," she said. "If someone's calling you the F-word and you're getting a constant barrage of negativity, it gets to you. I've seen many reps break down into tears."

Due to the impersonality of a phone conversation, customers often feel free to unload their personal demons on the rep. "It's hard to believe that grown, responsible adults can speak to someone that way," said Parcell. "They say things over the phone that they would never consider saying face to face -- you'd run the risk of getting yourself hurt."

Meadors said that she's had some clients who killed themselves due to the stresses of the job. As a result, some call centers are taking measures to improve their lives by hiring on-call psychiatrists, rec rooms with Fussball and TVs. "Nordstrom created quiet rooms to meditate, Mentorgraphics and Adobe have a lot of toys and games to help them relax, Group Health has a massage therapist come in once a week," she explained.

Some customer service reps, such as Parcell, have started blogs to chronicle their experiences and share their frustrations. One anonymous blogger, Anonymous Cog, even posts poetry about life in a call center:

"I'm drowning in your need,

overcome by your obsessions.

The current of your complaining

has pulled me to the bottom of

a world that is always dark,

always raining with a liquid form

of all your bitching and whining."

In an e-mail interview, Anonymous Cog expressed some strong opinions about experiences with customers. "When you finally do speak to customers, they range from pleasant, sincere good people to raging, stupid, condescending maniacs. You aren't allowed to hang up on them unless they curse, you just have to take it, or hope they don't catch up pressing the mute button to mock them as a psychological release."

As a result, Anonymous Cog said, "It all adds up to a job that can suck your very soul out if you let it … more often than not myself and my work mates go home feeling like a limp dish rag dipped in toxic waste and then run over several thousand times on the New Jersey Turnpike."

So why do they do it?

Most of the customer service reps interviewed for this piece said they genuinely want to help their customers. "It's a great feeling when you help someone with a problem," said Meadors. "I've worked for a few organizations, and it's a great job, helping people who are dealing with a crisis. You can feel like a hero," said Hanna.

"The frustration on the part of so many customer service reps is that they're dealing with things that are not their fault," said Joe Calloway, the author of "Work Like You're Showing Off," who attributes customer dissatisfaction to higher expectations. "They are absolutely handcuffed by the system that their company uses. When someone finally gets hold of a live person, they're the ones who take all the flack for that."