The phones don't stop

Trapped in a dead-end job at a customer-service call center, a man in his mid-30s hears the ringing and just doesn't care.

Published January 8, 2004 8:30PM (EST)

It's 1:20 on a Monday. I've just finished my lunch, a piece of dry fried chicken from the randomly maintained food carousel in the cafeteria. I top that off with a packet of M&M's with peanuts. I slide onto an unoccupied spot on a bench in the well-kept, gaudily landscaped common area. I'm sitting next to Greg, who trained with me when I first got here two years ago. I like Greg's down-to-earth contentedness. He's in data entry, and doesn't see a reason to ascend to the dizzying white-collar heights of the order-taker or customer service departments. "Too much stress" he says, and I agree, though I've willingly ascended as much as I will in a quick series of quiet promotions. Greg is one of the few people here that I actually confide in on any level, partly because he is so unpretentious and genuine, despite his penchant for being a great gossip. He knows everything about everyone, it seems. But I trust him.

We share a smoke, and are joined by Mary and Patty. Mary trained with Greg and me, but has had a decidedly different career path chosen for her. She volunteered to fill a suddenly vacated, thankless secretarial position, and has been unable to leave it. Simply put, no one else would take it for the meager wages, and she's told she's too good to promote.

This doesn't make sense to me, but Mary insists it's because she's black. Black women fill the majority of low-wage secretarial and data-entry positions here. The next step, in pay and cachet, is the order department, which employs about 50 percent black women and 50 percent white. The office's upper echelon, customer service, employs two black women, three white men, and seven white women. Mary tells her story, with Patty nodding with knowing approval.

The promotion process here is inconsistent lately. It used to be that you needed to stay at your current level for six months before even getting the chance to apply for a promotion. But the need for qualified help, along with what seems like a mass exodus from each department, has obliterated whatever discipline management has tried to maintain. So people like Mary are entrenched, left to calcify on the lower rungs of a corporate ladder she is more than qualified to sit atop. Mary complains a lot, but she's bright and driven. She used to manage a phone bank, but the company went out of business. So she landed here.

I was eager to excel when I first got the job. I was actually hired through a temp agency, though the ad I answered appeared to come from the company itself. The starting pay was $7.50 an hour, $8 (the advertised wage) if you showed yourself capable of answering 100 calls a day for a week. This, of course, I did with ease. The next challenge was to stay with the temp agency for six months, and only then could you apply for a bona fide position with the company proper, which meant insurance and vacation. Until that time, you were to wear a laminated badge with the company logo, and VISITOR emblazoned in blue letters, so people in other departments could tell the real employees from the fake ones, I suppose. I never wore the badge, as I deemed it demeaning and needlessly class-based. As I was to learn in quick order, it was a Pyrrhic rebellion, as intermingling with other departments was rare anyhow. It was frowned upon in sort of a tacit interdepartmental understanding.

In fact, my first few forays into the "cheerful to strangers" strategy that comes so naturally to me were often met with steely glares of bewildered caution. I was naive enough at that time to believe I could form friendships like I had every other place I had ever worked. Even within my department, conversations were forced and awkward, as if I was from another planet. No one here had HBO, or listened to Brahms, or NPR. I didn't feel I was better than they were. In fact, it was like everyone but me was in on the joke. We simply had nothing to talk about. This curtailed the primordial satisfaction inherent with a group of people in a confined space united against that vaguest of white-collar foes: The customer.

This was the job I was doing: Taking orders. Over the phone. Books. This was the corner I painted myself into from the time I took my first job while attending college, soliciting funds for the local philharmonic. Going from this phone pool to that, slacking off in school, living for the now, and swimming in the tepid victories of the past, never giving a moment's consideration to the fact that I might outlive my lethargic happiness. It was a sobering thought: I may never escape this life. I knew nothing else. And this was all made even clearer when new hires would show up with little more than a high school diploma, and poor spelling and speaking skills. These were now my peers, and I had to endure the indignity of training them.

Here, there were always calls waiting, always telephones buzzing with urgent anger. Customers barely holding in their contempt, scarcely masking their disappointment in the poor quality of necessary human interaction they have just inherited, toll-free.

I thought, at first, that getting my foot in the door at a world-renowned publishing house would be the ideal opportunity. Maybe I could become an editor, or a copywriter, or proofreader, or do publicity. Work my way up, learn the ropes. But I was chagrined to discover that the brains of the company were in New York, and that the office here in North Carolina was for the more menial publishing tasks. Taking orders. Servicing customers. Loading books onto trucks. Shuffling paper. Pruning landscaping. There was no chance of being "discovered," since communications between the two cities were confined to upper management. Who would find me here? How?

The phone does not stop. Problems, catalogs, orders, ringing, ringing, ringing. The phone does not stop. It's easy enough if you're young and this is your first job. It's a way to pay the rent and get some experience, a stepping stone. But if you've got a college degree and talent and the curse of self-awareness, the job scrapes at your soul, call by call, day by day.

Once I was hired by the company proper after three months of "probation" as a temp, I decided I would make it my duty to put forth a weekly "new idea" to improve our department, and perhaps be seen as a potential manager. We should have departmental meetings. We should have a liaison between our department and our office in New York. We should have meetings with other departments to instill a more mutually beneficial channel of communication. All the departments more or less affected every other department, and shouldn't we all at least meet each other?

I carefully noted all of my ideas, revised and edited them, and presented them to my manager, Terry. She was receptive. Almost thankful. She nodded, expressed understanding and, I thought, acquiescence. But none of my ideas were forwarded to any "higher-ups," much less initiated. I asked why this was. "Because every one of your suggestions has been tried before, and none of them worked." I asked how more communication could possibly not work. "Because departmental meetings always turn into bitch sessions, and nothing ever gets done." The first few, I'll admit, will be exercises in people having a voice for quite possibly the first time here, but we could evolve them into ...

"It just won't work."

This was the awakening, the realization that I had officially and for all time put my head in a noose and the hangman was taking his sweet time. And that's the day I officially stopped caring. Never stay late. Never work overtime. Never offer opinions. Do not go the extra mile. At one time, I offered to train new employees, without a raise in my salary, just so that I could take the time to train them more thoroughly (training was fast becoming an afterthought, as people were needed immediately to answer phones. It didn't matter what they knew how to do). The problem was that the people who were training me told me as much, and I refused to believe them. But the equation was simple: Management is entrenched. They're not going anywhere. The department is too unwieldy from turnover to create another position. So why would management struggle to improve the call-taker's lot?

The phones don't stop.

There, in those cheaply carpeted, hotel-wallpapered halls, I learned the "stealth hello." I'm walking down the long foyer to get to the cafeteria, when someone from another department sees that you're coming. Neither I nor they really care to converse, or even cross paths, but there's no turning around. So you get within an acceptable proximity, make terse eye contact, and more or less mumble a faint greeting, intended solely to wear off easily before you reach your destination. When someone newer than me started, my instinct was to take them aside and let them know that I can answer any questions they might have. This instinct went away surprisingly easily, once I realized that friendships do not form in this environment.

Take Ron, for instance. Ron and I shared a sense of humor, and an appreciation for the absurdity of our surroundings. We somehow ended up going to a downtown Raleigh bazaar on a Saturday afternoon together. It was a good time. Ron and I, along with two girls from other departments, would go out for Indian food every Thursday evening. I reveled in the easy conversation we exchanged, along with the diversity of our backgrounds, and all that.

Then it stopped. All of it. The dinners, the hanging out on weekends, the plans, all of it. No explanation. Nobody knew why, and by the way, why was I asking? Things like this happen. We know you want to form friendships, but this constant questioning has taken on a life of its own, and would you please stop.

After lunch I sit down at my cubicle, paperwork to my left and right. I work in customer service, and it's an anonymous struggle through phone complaints, paper complaints and management complaints. But I do not mind irate customers. The angrier they are, the more I like it. I can turn them around. I can affect their lives by giving them something they did not have before they reached me: peace of mind. It's possibly the only empowering aspect of the job.

I sympathize with all their grievances. Our warehouse screwed up? Well, sir, our warehouse, like most in North Carolina's Research Triangle, is staffed primarily by cheap Mexican and/or South American labor. These people do not speak English, nor do they have much motivation to. There is virtually no discourse, casual or otherwise, between these immigrants and the rest of the workforce. Simply redundant, backbreaking work for pennies an hour, gladly accepted in order to further the rest of the family's eventual flight to here. I see this one fellow every day, and we exchange warm smiles and greetings. It's like he's just happy to be acknowledged, worried that he was now a ghost in this new land of concrete and shaped shrubs, and a gringo like me has given his presence some validity. Strangely, I feel the same way about him.

This day, I'm near tears. It's self-pity, regret, and just feeling void of any sort of hope. I've been trying to expand my horizons. I have two part-time radio station shifts, and I write music reviews for a local Web site, as well as maintaining my own. I'm hoping a door will open, somewhere in the legitimate business world, where I can get off this treadmill. I don't want to take calls anymore. I'm afraid I'm going to die this way. The phone's "heavy queue" light is blinking. There are 14 calls on hold, waiting for us. For me. There aren't enough of us. Some calls have been on hold for as long as 10 minutes.

I enable the phone to ring. A cranky female voice barks at the sudden deprivation of the only classical music she's likely willing to sit through. "Hello?"

I just sit there. I don't say anything. I wait. I'm listening. I hear her begin to curse to her fellow office workers. "Goddamn it, I hate these people!" ... but she remains, breathing labored. I can hear papers being shuffled, incidental conversations just out of earshot, but there. She's been on hold for 10 minutes, and now she's on hold again, without the soothing presence of Mozart. I'm playing a cruel joke, but this is saving me.

I do this occasionally throughout the day, every day, from then on.

I'm always bright and cheerful, when I'm not bent over my computer keyboard, my head in my hands, cursing the darkness. I'm quick with a joke, but few notice that the humor is designed to deflect. I occasionally flash back to how open and friendly I was during my first months here. This was an attempt to change my stripes, to not be so cynical or acerbic. But it did not work. I reverted to my old self as soon as the bubble burst on my new panacea. Now, if someone should hand me a card to sign, usually to wish a longtime employee "happy trails," I'll sign exactly the way I feel. For example, when Jeanne left, I signed her card: "We acknowledged each other in a pleasant, professional manner ..." For Mary Jane: "We borrowed cigarettes from each other ...", and for Carol, who I never really knew at all, I circled the salutation above mine, and wrote "Monica (for example) wishes you the best."

No guilt, either. As strange as it is, what I'm doing is small potatoes compared to what others in my department are doing. I was told early on that one should not try too hard, as it will go unnoticed, and tax you needlessly. I refused to believe this. But Paula, one of the few North Carolina natives working here, does something worse. She promises services to customers and ignores the promises she's made. The foolish part of this is that she gives her name. Inevitably three or four calls a day come in from irate customers wondering where their books are, where their credits have gone. Who did you speak to? "Paula" is the answer we will hear, over and over. And we must clean up her mess, because she's often absent. But she hasn't been fired. She answers the phone.

If I were to promise to do something I didn't feel like doing, I'd give a fake name like Joe or George or Jill or Gail.

We are all sent an e-mail asking if the smokers would please confine their smoking to the appointed break time. I laugh and delete. Memos like this are meaningless prattle, often with embarrassing misspellings and typos and initiatives that the management simply lacks the will to enforce. If I have to confine my breaks, so does everyone else, and that means people who have been at the company longer than any manager here. They just cannot, will not tell these veterans when to smoke. Or not to make personal calls, not ship personal items through the mailroom, not use too many sick days.

The phones don't stop.

Like most things here, there is no rhyme or reason to how discipline is meted out. Paula would have to drag a child's rotting corpse into the office, replete with her own teeth-marks, to receive even a reprimand. Once I pointed out one of Paula's foibles to Ron, in bewildered exasperation. Why does this happen? Ron says, "It's not my job to worry." He is correct. It's a laissez-faire philosophy of management. It's as if management is afraid of the primitive pack of biting, whining, phone-answering animals they watch over. And it seems the first to go are always the black, female high school graduates that the temp company sends us. These young ladies are ill-prepared to do a job with so many mindless details, when they're trained so poorly.

Greg, Mary and I were trained for two weeks. New hires are now trained for four days at best. There used to be a designated trainer, Val, but she left. Terry trains now, and she hardly has time to oversee the department as it is, much less train new people who cannot read or write very well. It's not Terry's fault, except that she has asked many times if I'd like to be the official trainer, and I was always eager, but it never got farther than that. We would often discuss new training tools and methods. But she forgets. And before you know it, the next class has begun.

They will be the ones who get fired. I do not know if Mary is right about rampant racism, but I do know that one young black girl, a new hire with a relative in the data-entry department, had to take 150 calls a day to get her raise, a new, unattainable standard. She was let go in quick order. In fact, her entire training class disappeared within a month. All the same demographic. Terry did not hire them, the agency did.

Today, two new promotions are announced. Kyla and Mo, two white women who started in orders four months ago, have ascended the ladder faster than anyone I have seen, and are joining me in customer service. Most of my peers did not know these women existed before today. Mary's disapproval has changed to resignation and sadness. She feels that she'll never escape. She's too good at her low-paying job. The women they promoted are intelligent and do a good job, but lack somewhat in many obvious areas, all because they had no training. They are learning the job around me, asking a question during every call.

Every day I check my messages to see if any potential employers have called. None have. I feel like I'm drowning. Trapped. There's now nowhere for me to go. There are no promotions above me, unless a manager should leave, and they're not leaving. Each is in her mid-30s, married with children (except Terry, who is in a constant state of ex-boyfriend flux), and fairly well-off. The senior manager, Dierdre, is a puzzle to us all. She sits in her office, laughs and giggles all day, puts on her one-size-too-small-for-her-face sun glasses, and goes to lunch. She comes back, laughs some more, and goes home.

If we pass each other in the hallway, she asks the one question I cannot bear to hear. "How are you?" I hate that. It's like reading off a delicious menu and then walking away. She is so plastic that it's hard to believe she runs our department. On the other hand, it isn't.

Paula has been absent for a week. No one knows where she is, or if she still works here. Her desk is piling up with paperwork that the rest of us will inevitably inherit. When I first started here, a man named Justin trained me. He was a nice man whose good-natured sense of humor made him a favorite in the department. The story goes that he just got tired of lying to customers about when to expect shipments, and our policies in general. He got up, walked out, and never came back. This made him a kind of folk hero with all of us. After all, he had a baby girl, and had just bought a new house. He decided to own his life, as hard as that life was now going to be. I hope he landed on his feet.

The company has decided to ship packages through the mail instead of using UPS. UPS allows tracking packages, but costs more. The company has decided that the cost of missing books and customer anger is less than the money that will be saved by shipping cheaper. They fail to take man-hours into account. Each time a shipment is lost, a seemingly endless procession of paperwork must be executed. This takes about 15 minutes every time it happens. No one seems to know why this shortsighted policy has been enacted. My new manager, Bonnie, just shrugs.

I have a cigarette with Annie. Annie was hired into customer service directly. She never had to take orders. She's younger than most of us, and she has a 2-year-old daughter. She tells me she has had no customer service experience before this, and that she worked for an airline reservation center. She says that this company is "screwed up." She has noticed the subtle differences between the way white and black employees are treated (she is white), and the impotence of management. We revel in the fact that the "smoke only on breaks" edict will not be enforced. In fact, this is our second illegal smoking break of the morning. A few minutes later, Janet, a new-order rep, comes to my desk, complaining of a headache while asking me a question. She thinks it's because of stress. She thinks our company is discriminating against black people, and is tired of the way people are promoted. All open positions are supposed to be posted openly, but not all are, by any means. Kyla and Mo were promoted without having to compete for their jobs. Neither was posted.

I answer the phone on a Friday morning, but do not speak.

"Hello ...?"

"... Come on, dammit ..."

"... Hello ...?"

The phones do not stop.

End of part one. Read part two.

By Gilbert Neal


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