Since June 2016, I have been working at one of Eishtec’s call centres, doing outsourced customer service work for EE, a UK telecommunications provider formed from the merger of Orange and T-Mobile. As of today, I am free of that job, and as my understanding is that I am thus no longer bound by the NDA not to talk about my work there. Here are the things I learned about life and phones while working in a call centre.
England is populated entirely by disabled people with autistic children who depend on benefits.
OK, that’s obviously not actually true; rather, it’s a running joke among Eishtec workers, and I’m guessing it exists in other call centres as well. A few times a day, someone would call up due to their Internet being cut off due to non-payment, and on being told they would have to pay several months worth of service to get things reactivated, would protest that they were disabled or they had an autistic child, and absolutely needed the Internet to keep on living. This did become less frequent in the time I was there, but never went away entirely.
Also, I absolutely do not wish to impugn the skills and choices of parents of autistic children; Lord knows I’m not qualified to raise a neurotypical child, let alone one with special needs. Still, a huge number of people who claim they depend on the Internet to keep their autistic children calm, which strikes me as pretty poor parenting.
Edit: Arsetasticblog points out in the comments that YouTube really is necessary for autistic children due to an abundance of free speech, language, and sensory videos. I wish to apologise to the parents of autistic children for making such an offensive statement.
Young children need the Internet to do their homework
By most definitions, I’m one of the first millennials, but things have apparently changed drastically in even my 31 years on Earth. After “I’m disabled” and “My child is autistic”, the third most common reason people gave for me to use my magic wand to reconnect their Internet faster than the laws of physics allow was that their child needs it to do their homework. When I was little, using any source other than one’s school books was rare; a couple of people (myself included) had a copy of Grolier or Encarta (remember those?), maybe someone had a paper encyclopedia, and once in a while there was somebody rich whose dad worked with computer who had access to the Internet, but that was it. The Internet in those days was dialup; you had to manually connect each time, 56Kbps was fast, you couldn’t use the phone and the Internet at the same time, and you were charged for every minute you were connected.
In those days, the web was interesting but of little use. There were plenty of sites around, but they didn’t have anything like the amount of information available today, and there were no search engines, so you had to know where to look. Wikipedia didn’t even start until I was in secondary school and even it took a few years to dominate search engine results; moreover, we were still in the “Anybody can write anything on the Internet, so don’t trust it, and for God’s sake don’t post your real information on it!” phase.
Seems like nowadays, with the ubiquity of broadband, even children in primary school are expected to do independent research since information is so readily available. This is certainly a worthwhile skill to have, but it’s strange to think of 10-year-olds having to find their own sources. I wonder what they’re told to do with Wikipedia.
The word phone now refers to mobiles and not to landlines.
You may have noticed that up there I said that in the days of dialup Internet, you couldn’t use the phone and the Internet at the same time. Any iGeneration readers, and probably lots of others, were confused by that, since most people didn’t even have phones in those days, right?
Let’s back up a bit. For approximately the first half of my life, the only people who owned mobile phones were major stock traders and the CEOs of giant multinational corporations. As such, the phone referred to the thing plugged into the wall; something you could hold in your hand and carry around with you was a mobile phone, or just mobile (referred to as a cellphone in America). Even when mobiles became widespread in 2002 due to Nokia, they were widely seen as secondary; mobiles were referred to as phones without adjectives by teenagers who didn’t have landlines of their own, and the term landline itself was only used when disambiguation was necessary; in most everyday contexts, phone without qualifiers meant a landline.
But along the line something changed. More and more people came to use their mobiles exclusively, and foresook landlines altogether. More and more, phone on its own referred to mobiles, not landlines. This was brought home to me on one of my early days when I was talking to an increasingly frustrated man who was closer to 50 than he was to 40, and who had a problem with his phone. After some questions on my part failed to elicit a comprehensible response, something clicked in him and he exlaimed “I’m talking about my phone, not my landline!” and I had to transfer him to the mobile department. There were a few other people who did call up to ask about their landlines, and when I’d answered all their questions, asked to be put through to discuss their “phones”. That’s a change in language that passed me right by.
People have no idea what wifi is
On more occasions than I can count, someone called up to ask what their wifi bill was. Yeah. People who think that wifi means the Internet quickly became one of my pet peeves. Still, at least I wasn’t working in tech support; then I would have had to figure out if “slow wifi” actually meant slow wifi or if the entire Internet was slow.
People also have no idea how direct debits work
To be completely fair, this is something I didn’t know until I started working in billing. It’s quite possible you don’t know either, so here it is.
A direct debit is produced on a particular day of each calendar month. It comes out of the bank 10 working days later (though in the case of EE broadband services, it would leave the bank an unspecified number of days after that). This is something I wasn’t aware of before I started, an that absolutely none of my callers knew about; more than once, when someone asked for their bill to be changed, I would narrate my ticket as I typed it, and they would object that “I want it to come out on the 1st, not the 18th!” and I would have to explain that to make the money come out on the 1st, the bill had to be produced on the 18th.
Seriously, this needs to be taught in business studies. It’s simple and basic, but nobody knows about it.
Check your bill every month
While I worked for Eishtec, EE would randomly add engineer charges of £51.95 or £114 to customers’ bills due to BT doing stuff on the line. These charges absolutely never stood and would inevitably result in a refund, but the customer was still out of pocket by a significant wedge for the couple of weeks the refund takes to process. EE finally got rid of this after realising that it was driving a good portion of calls.
That said, if people knew how direct debits work, they could have checked their bills online well before they came out and called to query those extra charges. That way we could have applied the credit before the money came out of the bank, so they would only pay the correct amount and not incur bank charges for being overdrawn. This would also save people the trouble of calling up when their first bill had one-off setup fees or subsequent bills had call charges.
People don’t listen
Related to the above, you know that 10 working days normally equates to 14 solar days, right? Not always – if there’s a bank holiday, it’s 15 solar days, and can be up to 17 during the transition from one year to the next. Even though we would always say “This will happen in n working days”, the callers would inevitably calculate the deadline by adding n to the current date. I quickly learned to say “n working days, which is n + k solar days”, but even then people still only heard “n days”.
Also, my opening spiel always included the phrase “EE’s home broadband department”. Several times per day we would get a call from someone wanting to discuss their mobile service. 10% of the time, they would catch that I said “home” and ask to be connected to mobile. The other 90% of the time, they would describe their issue in detail, and it would be up to me to pick up that it was a mobile issue and transfer them to the right department.
One other weird thing is that while my name is Chris, quite a few people heard it as Craig. That’s not too bad, but more than one person insisted on calling me Fred. How do you get Fred from Chris? It’s not like I have an Irish name or anything.
Lots of people are bad with money
This one pains me. There are a whole lot of people living payslip to payslip, and for whom any unexpected expense is going to cause problems. They form a subset of those who simply spend all their money until there’s nothing left in the bank, and those who don’t fall into that subset are just the worst.
One example immediately comes to mind. EE’s older customer management system was weird with credits. Upgrading from copper to fibre normally costs £50, but lots of people qualify for a free upgrade. This older system implemented that by applying a £50 pound credit to one bill, and then placing the full £50 charge on the next one. The net result is that customers still had to pay £50 for fibre upgrade, but they had an extra £50 in their bank to cover it. This was annoying to explain, but people generally understood it after a while.
Not so this one lady. She had her unexpectedly high bill, and I gave my normal explanation of that she had an extra £50 in her bank from the month before. Well she went on a rant about how she had spent everything in her bank and now had nothing left to cover the overdraft fees from when EE slapped her with an unexpectedly high bill which she couldn’t afford because she had spent the money to cover it on other things.
Yeah. I don’t want to talk down to people who genuinely have money problems, but some people just need to learn to live within their means.
The Data Protection Act causes annoyance
While we were given some latitude in resolving complaints, the one thing we absolutely could not bend on is the Data Protection Act 1998. This is a UK statute which requires workers to verify the identity of a caller before discussing private financial details. When somebody failed to give the right answers to the security questions, they would 40% of the time accept our suggestion to go into a retail store with proof of ID, and 60% of the time fly into a rage and insist we give out the information even though doing so is completely illegal. These were fun ones; because we had the law on our side instead of just company policy, and so would laugh at the caller’s increasingly desperate attempts to make us circumvent the law just this once.
Making phone numbers transferable screwed things up in all sorts of ways
There I go again, using phone to refer to landlines and not mobiles. Hey, this is my blog and I’ll write the way I was raised to speak.
In ye olden dayes, a phone number was assigned to an address; if you moved, you got a new number. At some point, this was changed (in the UK at least) and numbers were now transferable. This resulted in various fires we had to put out at both ends.
For one, this means that a block of numbers is assigned to each exchange and then divided up among telephone providers. These numbers are theoretically transferable (unless one of the parties is Virgin, since they have their own separate infrastructure), but once in a while when someone changes provider their old provider refuses to give up the number; TalkTalk is notorious for this. This means the call centre gets a complaint about how “You changed my number”, and then we have to request it back.
At the other end of the spectrum, people assume numbers are completely transferable, and complain vociferously when they get a new number upon moving home. The thing is, phone numbers aren’t arbitrarily assigned; the first six digits of a UK number specify which exchange (roughly, but not entirely, corresponding to postcode) is. If the new address is connected to a different exchange, the number can’t transfer, end of story.
Oh, and speaking of phone numbers…
The phone system will be the biggest challenge in reuniting Ireland
Northern Ireland uses the UK phone system, which is incompatible with the Irish phone system.
For one thing, Irish landline numbers are nine digits long, whereas UK numbers have 11 digits. We could probably harmonise them by adding a couple of 0s to Irish area codes, but even they they aren’t compatible. In Ireland, 01 numbers are in Dublin, while in the UK that is used for all private non-London. 02 is used for all London numbers in the UK, but in Ireland it’s county Cork (officially ‘the South’, but I checked Wikipedia and the 02 region is contained entirely in Cork). 07 is the area code for Ireland’s northwest, but in the UK it’s used for mobiles; by contrast Irish mobiles start with 08, which in the UK is used for service numbers. Finally, 09 is used for premium rate numbers in the UK 9 (fortune tellers, sex chat and such), while in Ireland it’s just the Western region.
This could potentially be resolved by assigning the unused 03 code to all numbers in Northern Ireland; this would give everybody a new number and would screw with all the companies in Northern Ireland who use 03 as an alternative to 08 which is charged at a local rate, but that still won’t fix the mobile conflict.
There is a consistent alternative phonetic alphabet out there
You’re probably aware of the phonetic alphabet. It’s a system that uses distinct words to represent letters, originally introduced in the military to compensate for less-than-perfect phone lines and radio signals, which was later adopted by civilians for the same purpose.
The standard military and civilian phonetic alphabets differ slightly – I and U are India and uncle in the military alphabet, but indigo and uniform in the civilian. Parallel to that, muggles commonly come up with different word to represent letters, but what is interesting is how consistent the substitutions are. Absolutely everybody uses sugar instead of sierra, which… is actually pretty sensible, and indeed many agents used that as well. Similarly, Z is zebra rather than Zulu, F is always Freddie instead of Foxtrot, R is Robert rather than Romeo, M is mother instead of Michael, D tends to be dog instead of delta, H is Harry instead of hotel, P is inevitably Peter instead of papa, and Q is queen instead of Quebec.
This can occasionally cause problems. I once spoke to a person who knew the actual phonetic alphabet, but he pronounced Quebec as /kju:bɛk/ instead of the canonical /kwɛbɛk/, which due to his accent sounded to me like he was saying Cuba; getting that postcode was tricky.
Call centres are obsessed with statistics
If you work in a call centre, your performance will be measured. AHT, average handle time, is a measure of the average time you spend on each call. FCR, first call resolution, measures what portion of callers call back to the same service within the week; TFCR, for True FCR, is the portion who call the company again within a week, regardless of what the issue might be. NPS, for net promoter score, the the portion of people who fill in the randomly-requested survey after the call and say they would be willing to reccomend the company to a friend; EE is especially obsessed with this one. CSAT apparently does not stand for customer satisfaction, even though that’s what it measures; it’s a measure of how well the agent was rated in the same survey. ACW, for after call work, is a state you can go into after a call to finish writing up a ticket or do any followup; you will be measured on this as well.
Such things are common in call centres, and agents universally tell you that they negatively affect performance by stressing people out and encouraging them to game the system; this leads to tales of practices from America such as people hanging up a few seconds into a call at the end of the month to bring down the AHT.
EE operates on calendar months, and it sucks
You might not be aware of this, but most people get paid at regular intervals. Weekly is standard, but at Eishtec we were paid fortnightly due to sometimes working six days one week and four the next.
EE and many other companies, for some reason, issue bills once per calendar month despite the calendar months being of variable length and corresponding in no way to the weekly basis on which people are paid salary. This results in people who live payslip to payslip refusing to set up direct debits because they might not have the money in the bank on payment day, which wouldn’t happen if EE charged weekly or every four weeks.
This problem isn’t limited to EE. Virgin also does it, as does VHI, and those are just the direct debits I myself pay. I wish they’d stop it and actually charge at regular intervals.
Also, at some point EE started paying us commission for every person who we persuaded to upgrade from copper to fibre Internet. As part of this sticking to calendar months, we would get a dump of extra money in our payslips once per calendar month, which if we were doing well and bringing them extra money would bump us into a higher tax bracket for that fortnight, meaning nearly half the extra money would be eaten up in tax. We all would have liked to commission to by synchronised to our pay schedule so we could have a consistently higher payslip and not lose so much to tax, but alas calendar months take precedence over all.
EE store agents have no idea what they’re doing.
This was a big bugbear for all of us. A common refrain in the call centre is that people who work in retail stores should have to spend two months in a call centre beforehand.
In my early days, people were commonly told that they would have one bill which would cover their Internet and mobiles. This is completely untrue and impractical, but we still had people who thought the bill was being paid when it wasn’t (because they saw money going out of their bank marked EE), who then complained loudly about how disgusting it was that nobody ever mentioned how they weren’t paying in a manner which EE doesn’t offer. Fortunately, after everyone in every call centre complained about this, EE did clamp down and actually told people in the shops how their product works.
The other thing they did was to order a new line when someone went to renew their broadband contract, which resulted in the customer getting a whole new bill instead of the discount they wanted. Since a new line has a new phone number and a new account, they extra payments won’t show on the account screen, so you have to be savvy as to what could be causing additional payments and know to check postcodes.
EE is a mobile phone company, barely aware they also provide home broadband
In our ongoing training and briefing sessions, we would regularly be told about new mobile offers which were of absolutely no concern to us. In contrast, on more than one occasion we heard about a new special offer on home Internet for the first time when a customer called in to ask why they hadn’t received it yet.
Promotional materials and announcements were always about new mobile deals, and never concerned home broadband.
That commission I mentioned earlier? The one given out for persuading someone to switch their ADSL connection to a fibre connection which in no way involves mobile phone? EE weren’t able to track which upgrade calls were transferred, so instead of implementing a working system, they grafted something on to their mobile customer management system where we could log upgrades. Yes, in order to get commission for changing a home broadband connection, we had to record it on the customer’s mobile account – assuming they had one. And assuming the mobile account let us select the home broadband upgrade option, which more often than not it didn’t.
And overall EE never supported the home broadband department, and there was a constant suggestion that we transfer to mobile. The broadband department constantly shrank after I had been there a few months, and by the time I left it was less than half the size it was at its peak. Meanwhile, the mobile department was always growing.
And that’s all that comes to mind at the moment. Next time, my most memorable calls.