Working as a Call Centre Agent in Berlin
“Listen, if you don't believe in this spectacular offer, how will you convince our customers?” Asking the exact same question for the second time now, Mr. Rangan is getting visibly vexed.
“So, I'm asking you again. Being in their shoes, would you take this incredible package?” Jolted by the sudden spark of annoyance in his voice, we collectively engage in a shameless nodding match, each one of us adding a couple of extra docile head trajectories to get the message across. Walking his stern gaze beyond the room, Mr. Rangan, a sleek young German of Indian ancestry, continues with the PowerPoint presentation of the product we will be marketing. If we manage to get through this, that is.
The first step into the climatised office space of Systemcall*, a huge call centre located in Friedrichstadt, is akin to the moment of starting gates thrusting open on a race track – from here on out, ‘the performance’ is all that counts, and not everybody is going to make it to the end. This permeating state of possible redundancy is instilled into us right here at the beginning. Mr. Rangan asks us to introduce ourselves and then (‘as fluently as possible!’) read from the working script, a copy of which has been placed before us. In the upcoming week this text will become a membrane, completely ensnaring our communication with the outside world. We will have to recite it to our customers with unflinching determination at least fifty times per day. And since we will be calling Ireland, trying to convince the predominantly elder segment of the population to switch their state owned landline provider to a commercial one (landline telephones are still a massive thing in Ireland), the proficiency of our English is the first thing Mr. Rangan is bluntly curious about. We, the future call centre agents, are an outsourced workforce asked to veil our heterogeneous ethnic backgrounds as much as we can. “Where are you calling from anyway? Which country are you from?!”, will be booming from my headset time and time again this week.
As we are reading the script to Mr. Rangan, it turns out that the accents, the intonations and even the voices of some of the candidates are not to our supervisor's liking. My colleagues start to quietly disappear one after the other. Given the fact that we are in Germany after all, I am beginning to get a tad worried myself. Mr Rangan calmly presses a button on his phone, a discreet signal for a rescuer in the form of a young woman from HR who takes the ‘undesirable’ out of the room with as little fuss as possible. The two lisping Israelis go first. Then the Mexican with the shrilling soprano vanishes. The Albanian girl ‘has to be let go’ next, because there’s something wrong with her work permit. It suddenly occurs to me that there are just five of us left - the hipster-ly bearded American, the very short Englishman, the very young Irish girl and the smiling Nigerian in a Hawaiian shirt. In less than two hours our group has been halved, the signal oozing from the growing victim rate being crystal clear - if there’s one thing Systemcall doesn't have to worry about it's the never-ending pool (and desperation) of the foreign workforce, flocking abundantly into the city.
“Okay, time to make some calls,” Mr. Rangan announces. “Experience is the best teacher after all... Right now I’ll take you to our training room. Stick to the script and the protocol of answers if the customer interrupts you. Be calm, but firm. You're pitching a great product here- always keep that in mind. And show some emotion. You are here to inject a human touch to the script. Otherwise we would've hired robots. And most of all – have fun.”
I sit down behind the desk with a big lump of nervousness in my throat and press a button on my computer, which after a few minutes connects me to the presumed owner of a landline on the other side, with his name and location underlined on the screen. Mr. Rangan notices that I've gotten a hold of someone, and in a matter of second’s teleports himself directly behind my chair. My neck starts to involuntarily twitch and turn, struggling manically to check up on the rigid figure with the leathery map (a dreaded symbol of un-forgivingness) in his hands. The judging presence triggers a Pavlovian reflex of instant ineptitude. A sudden, melodic, “Hello?” from the other side wakes me up from cognitive blurriness.
“Erm… Hello. My name is Matjaz and I'm… I'm basically ringing on behalf of Systemcall…” I chuck out with a voice that is trying (and failing) to be calm but firm, fiercely emotive and above all injected with a genuine human touch. “Could I speak to Mr. O'Brien… please?”
“Look here friend, I don't have time for this right now.”
“Aha…” I begin turning the pages with trembling fingers, trying to find the correct response that will help me ‘regain control of the conversation’. It's not working. The silence that gangs up on me from both sides is crippling. Just when I believe myself irrevocably lost in the flurry of endless wrong turns, shaking the stack of papers like a man possessed, suddenly, by the grace of pure luck I manage to spot the correct response on the bottom of page seven. This small miracle helps me to momentarily pull myself together.
“I see, Mr. O'Brien. Well in that case I'll get straight to it. This won't take long…” Click! The old man hangs up. I turn around, squinting at my supervisor with a defeated look. “Okay Mr. Juren,” he nods vacantly and steps to another candidate that has just gotten hold of someone. I've managed to survive for a little longer.
The next day marks the official beginning of the training period that will last for another week. We have to be at work fifteen minutes before our shift begins (‘sixteen is better!’) and then wait for our supervisors in the lobby. As soon as I walk through the door, I report to the receptionist and then quietly sink into the sofa staring at my shoelaces, mimicking everybody else. I'm bursting with gratitude when Steve from Nigeria pierces the bubble of collective silence.
“You okay?” he winks at me with a big conspiratory grin. “Man I really need this job,” he sighs.
He's 32 and has a young kid in preschool. Like probably every single one of us here, being a call centre agent was never his career dream. He's been waiting for more than a year for the Higher Education authorities to accredit his BA in graphic design from the University of Zimbabwe. In the meantime he's been working as a cook in a restaurant in Mitte. “I'm literally dying of stress and the unbearable heat. But as long as I get paid regularly I can take it. I really don't want to leave Berlin. Even though the city is becoming kinda tough, I want my family to stay here...”
Our supervisors take us into one of the conference cubicles to discuss the goals we are supposed to meet before lunch break (which lasts fifteen minutes). After the break they shepherd us back to the conference room to evaluate our performance during the first part of our day and set new goals for the second. Being late to the meetings more than once is sanctioned with an immediate layoff.
Because we have signed a ‘mini-job’ contract for the training period, the supervisors can show us the door anytime they wish to without paying us for the whole duration of the contract. We also sign an agreement that allows our overseers to listen to and record all our telephone calls, plus a separate clause that states that we can be fired and even prosecuted if we utter something over the phone that we are strictly forbidden to. We're being paid 8 euros per hour - minimum wage. In the ads they're putting up on job searching sites, Systemcall prides itself with the fact that they're paying their employees by the hour and not by commission, which has it's undeniable appeal, but can often be a source of additional pressure: as soon as the call centre agent isn't filling the high-placed quota, he has to be made aware that simply by picking up his pay check, he's become an expense… another added burden to the already hurting company.
In the introductory meeting, Mr. Rangan and Miss Bauer (German, early thirties, heavy makeup, calculated smile) expound on the subtleties of ‘activating’ a customer. An ‘activation’ is a synonym for a sell, the holy grail of our endeavours and the sole criteria by which our performances will be evaluated.
“When a customer lets you read the whole script without interrupting, you've already won,” Mr. Rangan passionately explains. “At this precise moment you have to sink the hook into the fish and drag it ashore. Stay present, professional and calm... Look, the whole thing is like explaining to your kid that he has to eat spinach. He may not like it, but you know that it's good for him… Now, go out there and shower us with activations!”
They lead us to the central call centre office, a humongous, minimalistic workspace divided into different campaigns where at least 150 agents are dialling day in, day out. Long tables stretch across the hall with wooden boards running in the middle, separating the agents so that they can't see each other unless they stand up. Chatting is forbidden, as is entry of personal items.
There are about 50 agents working on the ‘Irish’ campaign, with four heads supervising – two monitor the calls and the other two circle around, maps in hand, either shouting, “Where are my activations?!”, or providing ‘additional training’ to agents whose performances are deemed subpar. A big projection screen flaunts itself on the wall, updating us with the current team leaders with the most activations under their belts. Newbies are seated next to the veterans, so we can witness first-hand ‘how the pros do it’. For the most part the latter ignore us, which is understandable, since we represent the goods with the most questionable expiration date.
“Mister Juren,” Miss Bauer leans on my desk, “it's very important to get at an activation on your first day. Extremely important. I think you can do it!” She gives me a generic high five and leaves. This purportedly modest goal seems delusionally unreachable to me. First, I have to grab some poor soul's attention, detain it with magic tricks and then mercilessly bombard it with depressing data (“Until this moment you were paying eleven cents per minute for your landline, but from now on you will only be paying three cents per minute!”) until he allows me to record his statement, during which he confirms that as of today he is irrevocably replacing his telephone service provider.
An employed call centre agent is supposed to stack up at least six activations per day (more if possible), and any number below that will get you transported into HR's offices, where they “will try to find out what's wrong and if we still fit together.” In about sixty calls I make in a single shift I'm often treated to a bitter cocktail of responses, ranging from xenophobic hostility (“You are not Irish, what are you?!”) and personalized threats (“Give me your address and you'll have another thing coming”) to most commonly, plain annoyance (“Listen, I have to go to work so please stop calling, just stop”). Sometimes people acquaint me with their existential anxiety or domestic troubles. Somewhere in the middle of my first day a very old lady picks up the phone, pleading with a feeble, instantly disappearing voice. “Will you please pray for me so I will be able to hear again as I used to? Mathias, promise you will pray for me.”
“I promise I'll pray for you,” I whisper into my microphone, slumped like a medieval jailor, hoping the supervisor isn't listening to my calls as I've sailed far away from the prescribed set of given responses.
Towards the end of my training period I will be bothering both a distressed mother whose daughter was just involved in a car crash and the widow of a recently deceased man in a single day. Witnessing my discomfort, Mr. Rangan will quickly approach and, listening to the avalanche of bad conscience tumbling out of my mouth, he'll disregard the dilemma with a laconic pat on the back. “It wasn't you who killed that man, Mister Juren… Now get it out of your system. Remember – every customer is entitled to the same quality of your service. So, keep your chin up and activate.”
Half an hour before the end of my first shift I somehow manage to squeeze in my first activation. It's definitely got more to do with luck than skill, as it’s quite clear that the older gentleman on the other side doesn't know what exactly he's signing up for. My supervisors congratulate me, adding quickly, “And now the second one!” At half past three I finally leave my station and stumble out onto the street. I share a couple of U-Bahn stations with Steve who wasn't able to secure a single activation. He hopes he'll be able to keep the job for a few more days and ‘prove himself’. He's fired the next day.
The days begin to melt into an indiscernible heap of calendar numbers idly rolling by. At night my dreams are structured around the phrases I'm spewing out during the day. I've worked as a call centre agent before, years back, as a student trying to make an extra buck. And even though the work was dispiritingly tedious, it's starting to glow at the back of my head like a happy childhood memory compared to this dehumanized cognitive assembly line. Systemcall is a cell centre in a new era, in which any kind of employment (especially if you’re under 30) is a privilege that has to be fought mercilessly for.
My shift is only six hours long (without the hour it takes me to get there and back again) but overall stress levels are so high that I spend most of the day dozing, with the script I'm supposed to study in my down time falling out of my hands. Each second spent at work is suffused with the awareness of the systematic oversight that is designed to be inescapable. Constant reminders of thorough control are the so-called individual ‘training sessions’: the supervisor who is listening to the calls escorts the ‘problematic’ agent to the side, advising him in a manner of a patronizing scold. Mr. Rangan calls it ‘taking you to the basement’, and the immediate reaction of an employee who's been forced to leave his workspace is always intense, acute shame, even more so if he's one of the ‘veterans’. Nevertheless, the prevalent modus operandi of managing the workforce seems to be some kind of a simulation of friendship - and our drivers emulate it fervently. The last thing they'd like to be perceived as is an old school boss figure, gushing orders and maintaining strict hierarchical relationships.
This is why Mister Rangan ‘casually’ sits on my desk so often, trying his best to let loose this artificially injected desire.
“Where are you coming from again, Mr. Juren?”
“From Slovenia Mr. Rangan... do you know it?”
“Of course I know it, I've seen Hostel,” (Eli Roth's horror film, set in Slovakia). He flicks my shoulder like a collaborator who's just about to overthrow the current leadership with me. The essence of this ‘more of a friend than a boss’ role-play is painfully obvious – only a friend can be truly disappointed and only a friend has the license to make personal moral statements. But the most unsettling fact, of which I become aware while staring at my screen, is that this use of emotional blackmail, as cheap and see-through as it is, nevertheless works, even if you keep juggling it before your eyes 24/7. At the end of the day, I'd still much rather have my supervisors liking me than not.
My lunchtime consists of sprinting to the nearby McDonalds (two minutes), waiting in line (five minutes), ordering (two minutes), devouring my meal (four minutes) and racing back again (two minutes). That's the only way I'm able to gulp down something resembling a lunch in fifteen minutes. I slip into the conference room, sitting through the second meeting with sticky, greasy fingers and a stomach full of guilt.
“How do you guys cope with this daily dose of utter madness?” I ask a group of veterans who are smoking outside the offices after the end of my third shift.
“You get used to it,” an American girl with tattoo sleeves murmurs in response.
“But isn't that the most terrifying thing? That you get used to it?” I blunder out like a complete idiot, disregarding the obvious fact that most of the non-German speaking agents don't have any other breadwinning options. Aside from a sprinkle of older employees, most of the workers stream from a young (late twenties/early thirties), highly educated demographic, coming to Berlin to pursue their dreams- the price for the sustenance of those meaning entrapment at a call centre.
Due to the never-ending surge of human resources pouring into the city every day, the job searching websites are becoming increasingly dredged with call centre offers, an evident manifestation of Berlin's new economic model (quite independent from the much hyped ‘Silicon Allee’, with it's conglomeration of start-ups) of outsourced jobs cast from an Indian mould.
In the middle of my training period my daily quota stops at two activations, a number that may have looked promising in the beginning, but has become a cause of grave concern to my supervisors, who are becoming worried about the ‘overall lack of progress’. Mr. Rangan's ear develops a troublesome fixation on me, the omnipresent pressure thickens even more and ‘trips to the basement’ grow into a constant occurrence. Inspiring maxims (“Awaken the actor inside you!”) suddenly give way to bitter inspections: “I was listening to your calls again, Mr. Juren… and you still sound like a salesman. Remember our meetings. What we're saying only makes up for 20 per cent of a successful activation… the rest is how we're saying it. And you are saying it like you're trying to sell something. No wonder the results are nowhere to be seen...”
The penultimate day painfully drags by without a single hit. Systemcall demands a grand total of 14 activations on the last shift if they are to extend a regular contract. I've raked up 7. The prevalent theme of my final morning meeting is the dissolution of the ‘friendship’ between Mr. Rangan and myself.
“How was your day yesterday, Mr. Juren?”
“What do you mean, ‘good’? The report says you’ve made zero activations.”
“Oh… I thought it was ‘good’ in a general sense… like outside of work.”
“Yeah, it wasn't good for us,” he sneers at my answer. “Numbers are all that counts in here. You need to bring in seven activations today. That's practically impossible.”
His face gets flushed with sincere remorse for having kept me on the team for so long. I almost feel sorry for him. His neat, differentiating suit doesn't change the fact that he's got supervisors of his own, that he has to justify every red number to them, that he's probably being squeezed and stomped on just as hard as I am, if not more.
My initial group is hacked down to just three candidates (the very young Irish girl and the very short Englishman) and now another part of this unfortunate investment seems to be going sour. My last shift proves to be the worst. Miss Bauer cuts me out of her sphere of influence completely, trying hard not to accidentally honour me with a glance. Mr. Rangan pops by my desk from time to time, surrounded by a cloud of impending doom. “It looks very bad, Mr. Juren. Very very bad…” The tragic tones appear to be directed mostly towards himself.
The clock refuses to move. The sentences from the script get stuck in my throat. Moreover I somehow still can't manage to activate a single soul. My luck has finally run out. People on the other side of the line keep on being irritable just the same. The only thought that keeps me going is that it will soon be all over.
Two minutes after the final toll, Miss Bauer sits me down at a small coffee table by the projection screen, and prances off. I wait for what seems like a small eternity. One of the veteran agents, a short, bushy-bearded Irish guy leisurely roams by, heckling me with a hearty, “Fired!” He's not aware of the sublimely soothing flush his shriek produces in my brain.
The chief of the ‘Irish’ campaign, who I've so far only seen from a distance, finally comes over. “Your supervisors told me you have a good attitude, Mr. Juren, but unfortunately, the numbers don’t add up.” He gives me a release form to sign, and dryly shakes my hand. “Goodbye.”
Systemcall isn't a place of big goodbyes.
I make a final stroll between the corridors of buzzing telephone agents. In the outer office, ten fresh candidates stare blankly at the reception desk. I say hello with an inappropriate grin and open the door.
I try to remember the last time when I was this happy.
*some names have been altered.
By Matjaz Juren