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34

Working in the Call Centre

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7
notes

Woodcock, J. (2016). Working in the Call Centre. In Woodcock, J. Working the Phones: Control and Resistance in Call Centers. Pluto Press, pp. 34-59

36

While these introductory talks were going on, I noticed that expressions of the obligatory company values were plastered on the walls: ‘focused, dynamic, pro-active, and committed’. Although these four terms appeared throughout the office in various fonts, they did not seem to mean anything in practice. The trainer pointed up at them and said, ‘We want a culture with these! This is not like other places where they are stuck up on the walls – I mean they are stuck on the walls here too – but we also have them run through everything we do!’ Bizarrely this extended to demanding that workers dressed in a smart/casual uniform in the call centre. Considering none of the customers would ever see a call-centre worker, the stipulation to wear black trousers and smart shoes appeared punitive and not clearly related to any of the four values.

hahaha

—p.36 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago

While these introductory talks were going on, I noticed that expressions of the obligatory company values were plastered on the walls: ‘focused, dynamic, pro-active, and committed’. Although these four terms appeared throughout the office in various fonts, they did not seem to mean anything in practice. The trainer pointed up at them and said, ‘We want a culture with these! This is not like other places where they are stuck up on the walls – I mean they are stuck on the walls here too – but we also have them run through everything we do!’ Bizarrely this extended to demanding that workers dressed in a smart/casual uniform in the call centre. Considering none of the customers would ever see a call-centre worker, the stipulation to wear black trousers and smart shoes appeared punitive and not clearly related to any of the four values.

hahaha

—p.36 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago
40

The start of each shift at the call centre begins in the break room. The supervisors lead a ‘buzz session’, which is essentially an opportunity for the company to remind workers of the different rules, stress the importance of quality, and then attempt to encourage some kind of enthusiasm for the upcoming shift. The content of these sessions varied, but most involved playing some sort of game. These range from competitions testing product knowledge (perhaps not the most exciting) to word games – for example, each person in turn shouting out the name of a country, following alphabetical order with no repetition, eliminating those who fail to do so until only the winner remains. Although being made to play children’s games was somewhat demeaning, it did offer the benefit of stretching out the time before we had to be on the call-centre floor. Some workers tried to extend these sessions by asking lots of questions and pretending they needed more help than they actually did.

holy shit

—p.40 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago

The start of each shift at the call centre begins in the break room. The supervisors lead a ‘buzz session’, which is essentially an opportunity for the company to remind workers of the different rules, stress the importance of quality, and then attempt to encourage some kind of enthusiasm for the upcoming shift. The content of these sessions varied, but most involved playing some sort of game. These range from competitions testing product knowledge (perhaps not the most exciting) to word games – for example, each person in turn shouting out the name of a country, following alphabetical order with no repetition, eliminating those who fail to do so until only the winner remains. Although being made to play children’s games was somewhat demeaning, it did offer the benefit of stretching out the time before we had to be on the call-centre floor. Some workers tried to extend these sessions by asking lots of questions and pretending they needed more help than they actually did.

holy shit

—p.40 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago
41

Jokes were also a fundamental part of elaboration on the script. At two points on the script, workers are encouraged to try joking with the customer. The first is during the confirmation of details. There are two eligibility questions where the customer is asked to confirm ‘that you spend seven out of 12 months a year in the UK?’ and ‘that this is where you pay your taxes?’ These questions respectively open the door to two jokes: ‘So no long holidays planned this year then?’ and ‘No escaping that, is there?’ (On a couple of occasions I tried adding to the second question ‘unless you are Vodafone’, but this was quickly discouraged by the supervisors.) The second point where joking is encouraged is later in the script, during the communication of the exclusion ‘that you won’t be covered for death as a result of . . . participation in any illegal acts’, to which almost every worker adds, with feigned laughter, ‘so if you were planning to rob a bank we wouldn’t be able to pay out!’ While this is presumably a new joke for the customer, the workers will get to enjoy it over and over again throughout the day.

—p.41 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago

Jokes were also a fundamental part of elaboration on the script. At two points on the script, workers are encouraged to try joking with the customer. The first is during the confirmation of details. There are two eligibility questions where the customer is asked to confirm ‘that you spend seven out of 12 months a year in the UK?’ and ‘that this is where you pay your taxes?’ These questions respectively open the door to two jokes: ‘So no long holidays planned this year then?’ and ‘No escaping that, is there?’ (On a couple of occasions I tried adding to the second question ‘unless you are Vodafone’, but this was quickly discouraged by the supervisors.) The second point where joking is encouraged is later in the script, during the communication of the exclusion ‘that you won’t be covered for death as a result of . . . participation in any illegal acts’, to which almost every worker adds, with feigned laughter, ‘so if you were planning to rob a bank we wouldn’t be able to pay out!’ While this is presumably a new joke for the customer, the workers will get to enjoy it over and over again throughout the day.

—p.41 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago
46

[...] Treatment of people, regardless of their situation, as potential sales that need to be closed is an uncomfortable experience. The retort of the supervisor was that successful sales are made by people who are ‘resilient’ or ‘don’t get put off by hearing no’, as if the responsibility for the sale lies entirely with the call-centre worker, regardless of whether or not the person on the end of the phone actually wants or needs the product.

think about the question of where agency lies more, and why it matters (how does it relate to my post on adtech?)

—p.46 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago

[...] Treatment of people, regardless of their situation, as potential sales that need to be closed is an uncomfortable experience. The retort of the supervisor was that successful sales are made by people who are ‘resilient’ or ‘don’t get put off by hearing no’, as if the responsibility for the sale lies entirely with the call-centre worker, regardless of whether or not the person on the end of the phone actually wants or needs the product.

think about the question of where agency lies more, and why it matters (how does it relate to my post on adtech?)

—p.46 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago
55

It is therefore possible to identify a shift from the exploitation of the bodies of workers during the Fordist mode of production to exploiting the minds of workers in increasingly larger numbers. These shifts towards the exploitation of mental labour – whether communicative, emotional or affective – forms part of the attempt to increase profitability in contemporary capitalism. Unlike under Fordism, ‘it will no longer be possible to produce large quantities of standardized goods, not to accumulate inventories thinking that they will eventually sell at some future, non entirely predictable moment’. What takes its place is ‘the need to produce limited amounts of differentiated goods’, targeted ‘according to the changing “taste” of consumers that we will need to know as well as possible in order to better reach them, while at the same time trying to find the best ways to realize gains in productivity’. 29 The increased pressure to realise the surplus value embedded in commodities has created new and innovative ways to reach customers and convince them to buy. This has also combined with the introduction of the profit motive further into new areas and subsequently commodifying goods and services that were previously produced or consumed in different ways. The result is an increased emphasis on affective and emotional labour, the drive to convince consumers stemming from the impulse to realise profit in ever more moments.

—p.55 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago

It is therefore possible to identify a shift from the exploitation of the bodies of workers during the Fordist mode of production to exploiting the minds of workers in increasingly larger numbers. These shifts towards the exploitation of mental labour – whether communicative, emotional or affective – forms part of the attempt to increase profitability in contemporary capitalism. Unlike under Fordism, ‘it will no longer be possible to produce large quantities of standardized goods, not to accumulate inventories thinking that they will eventually sell at some future, non entirely predictable moment’. What takes its place is ‘the need to produce limited amounts of differentiated goods’, targeted ‘according to the changing “taste” of consumers that we will need to know as well as possible in order to better reach them, while at the same time trying to find the best ways to realize gains in productivity’. 29 The increased pressure to realise the surplus value embedded in commodities has created new and innovative ways to reach customers and convince them to buy. This has also combined with the introduction of the profit motive further into new areas and subsequently commodifying goods and services that were previously produced or consumed in different ways. The result is an increased emphasis on affective and emotional labour, the drive to convince consumers stemming from the impulse to realise profit in ever more moments.

—p.55 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago
56

Within mental labour it is possible to distinguish between ‘brain workers’ and ‘chain workers’. Whereas ‘brain workers’ are harnessed for their ‘communication, invention and creation’, the ‘chain workers’ are those ‘people who sit at their terminals in front of a screen, repeating every day the same operation a thousand times’, and ‘relate to their labor in a way similar to industrial workers’. The call-centre worker – or ‘chain worker’ – is therefore an appendage to a new kind of machine. Not the assembly line with its physical demands, but a complex network of telecommunications technology and, in this case, immaterial financial instruments – not particular movements repeated over and over, but a repetition of a performance aiming to convince people in new and innovative ways to part with their money

—p.56 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago

Within mental labour it is possible to distinguish between ‘brain workers’ and ‘chain workers’. Whereas ‘brain workers’ are harnessed for their ‘communication, invention and creation’, the ‘chain workers’ are those ‘people who sit at their terminals in front of a screen, repeating every day the same operation a thousand times’, and ‘relate to their labor in a way similar to industrial workers’. The call-centre worker – or ‘chain worker’ – is therefore an appendage to a new kind of machine. Not the assembly line with its physical demands, but a complex network of telecommunications technology and, in this case, immaterial financial instruments – not particular movements repeated over and over, but a repetition of a performance aiming to convince people in new and innovative ways to part with their money

—p.56 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago
58

The manipulation of the work schedule returns to the key problem of the capitalist enterprise, which bosses have grappled with since the inception of capitalism itself: how to extract the maximum amount of surplus value from workers during their time on the job. In this regard, the theories of Taylorism are ‘an answer to the specific problem of how best to control alienated labour – that is to say, labour power that is bought and sold’. The measurement of the length of the working day is a basic attempt to ensure that workers fulfil the sale of their labour power to the capitalist. By allowing workers to leave early once they had met their sales targets, management provided an incentive to intensify labour in the time workers spent on the job. This is an implicit recognition of the estrangement of workers from the labour process. After the application of Taylorism, which involves ‘an acceleration of the rhythm of work, achieved by the elimination of the workday’s “pores” (that is of “dead” production time)’. The reward that works best for workers is a sanctioned realisation of their desire to refuse to work, celebrated even if they are only allowed to leave ten minutes early. However, this reward became so widespread in the call centre that management calculated that only 79 per cent of paid time was spent on the phone, and introduced a rule that no worker could leave earlier than that final half hour.

—p.58 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago

The manipulation of the work schedule returns to the key problem of the capitalist enterprise, which bosses have grappled with since the inception of capitalism itself: how to extract the maximum amount of surplus value from workers during their time on the job. In this regard, the theories of Taylorism are ‘an answer to the specific problem of how best to control alienated labour – that is to say, labour power that is bought and sold’. The measurement of the length of the working day is a basic attempt to ensure that workers fulfil the sale of their labour power to the capitalist. By allowing workers to leave early once they had met their sales targets, management provided an incentive to intensify labour in the time workers spent on the job. This is an implicit recognition of the estrangement of workers from the labour process. After the application of Taylorism, which involves ‘an acceleration of the rhythm of work, achieved by the elimination of the workday’s “pores” (that is of “dead” production time)’. The reward that works best for workers is a sanctioned realisation of their desire to refuse to work, celebrated even if they are only allowed to leave ten minutes early. However, this reward became so widespread in the call centre that management calculated that only 79 per cent of paid time was spent on the phone, and introduced a rule that no worker could leave earlier than that final half hour.

—p.58 by Jamie Woodcock 5 years, 2 months ago