I intend to do a few stories from my time in the trenches, but I must explain a few things up front:
I worked at a third tier level: someone would call; the first line couldn’t help and would forward to a second tier. They couldn’t figure it out either and would lodge a request for my team to call back within a couple of business days. This meant that I had a lot of time to prepare before making the call and almost always had the upper hand as I started the conversation.
I worked for a government agency that provided subsidies to households. As “The Government” we could never make “an exception because I asked nicely”, neither did I have to continue conversations with abusive callers. I had other problems: colleagues would not care about actually helping people and I would have to work my way through outdated software and illogical laws in order to help people to fix simple things. There were a lot more issues, but this’ll cover it for now.
When I started out, I barely knew any of that. I had a few lessons and was tasked with answering calls straight away. I wasn’t good enough to really help everyone in the beginning, but by the time I moved on I had taught more than 50 colleagues how to do my job, was widely regarded as one of fastest and most reliable employees and managed to force through some improvements to the way the agency worked.
These stories will start in the beginning, when I made mistakes and stumbled through weird calls. I had to learn a lot, and I hope to take you with me on a little journey.
One of my first calls was with a middle-aged lady who had made a mistake with her request, so we had denied it. She had called us, no one else could see that she filled out a wrong number somewhere and I had to talk with her to explain that she made a mistake and that she could fix it all by herself. The lady explained that someone had given her advice that turned out wrong. She should have been glad that we denied her request, instead of giving her a subsidy that she would have to pay back later when a different department would get to her.
(me=me, caller=middle-aged lady)
Me: For future reference, don’t just believe other people on this, you can read all our information on our website, and don’t hesitate to call if something is confusing to you.
Caller: I may have been treated like a Turk before, but I’m not that blonde!
I look to my left, where my blonde colleague is handling another call. I look to my right, where one of my Turkish colleagues is filling out a report.
Me internally: Huh, what a weird thing to say. Anyway,I am dark-haired and not Turkish.
Me: all right then, all seems to be in order [end of call script]
I wait for the lady to hang up and giggle a bit, I tell my colleagues what my caller said and that it sounded pretty shitty. Others were more pissed off than I was and I felt kind of bad about it. Our teacher figured this was a great time to explain that even when someone doesn’t personally offend you, we – as the government agency – should still inform callers that that kind of offensive language won’t be tolerated and ask them kindly to refrain from using it. She explained that even if you didn’t mind people being terrible on the phone, you certainly wouldn’t want your colleagues to have to accept verbal abuse as well.
It really changed the way I looked at my job, it is pretty much impossible to hurt me with words over the phone, but that doesn’t mean I want to work at a place where it would be normal for my colleagues to have to deal with all that shit. Years later and I still feel that tinge of guilt for not telling that lady to mind her language.