Wednesday, January 9, 2008

MIDNIGHT MASALA

Statuary Warning: All Characters and Incidents that are portrayed in this story are real. They all happened. Maybe not in the same day. Nevertheless, they are 100% true.

His name was Peter Hall. He had a problem getting connected to the Internet. He had already contacted his service providers and they had confirmed it was a problem with some setting in the operating system. So he wanted it fixed at any cost, no matter how long it took, he was not going to let me go until the issue was resolved.

3 hours for my shift to end. 23:00 Indian Standard Time. 11:30 AM Central Standard Time. 13 calls waiting in the queue. 2 calls remaining to complete my target for the week. I had to pick two more calls, and I go home, tired but happy. That is, If I ever get rid of the guy screaming into my ear from 20000 miles across the sea. I looked up from my seat.Angela's head was literally inside the monitor. Raj was somehow reading a book, solving a wireless networking problem, playing chess online and helping George search for something in Google at the same time. Madhuri was screaming at the telephone panel on her desk. That meant deaf customer on her line. And Deepak was happily snoring away in his seat, which meant he had made the customer format his hard drive and opted to stay online with him/her. Ah, the joy of having the hold button…the best friend of a call center agent. Looked like another normal day in our call center.

Except that it was not. Today was different from any other day for two reasons.

One, they were opening a pizza counter in the cafeteria. Best part, it was supposed to be 24x7!Two, I had my performance reviews today. How I had performed for the past three months will decide how much I am going to be paid going forward. So, you can understand if I was a little nervous.

But first things first. So I concentrated on solving our loud friend's problem with his computer. Turned out he did not have a problem after all. He just needed to know why he had to wait for 40 minutes every time he called us. I wanted to tell him, "As long as we have jokers like you calling because they don’t have a life and need to hear another voice to still know that they are on the planet Earth, you do not have a choice!". So I apologized for the inconvenience he was facing and assured him of our best support because he was a valued customer.

Because that’s what I do. I apologize to people for a living.

I was tired. I looked up at the screen displaying the queue status. 6 calls remaining. Raj was waving at me and asking me to cut a cake. Oh no..he was asking me if I was game for a break. I still had one pending, and I really needed a break. Plus, I was eager to try out the pizza. I heard they had an excellent Mushroom Masala Pizza. But completing my targets meant chances of a better incentive. So I decided to pick another call and then decide. Funny, why we termed it 'picking a call'. Because we really don’t. The calls pick us. Sometimes, the people calling pick on us. We really don’t get to pick anything.

"Can you wait?" I signaled Raj. Our instant messaging system was down. But it seemed Raj really could not, he needed a Pepsi desperately. When he was crossing my desk, I had one of those usually clever brainwaves that I had once in a blue moon. I passed him some coupons and asked him to get me a pizza. (I can sense you searching for the brainwave, but for me, that was).

Calls waiting had come down to 5. Meghana had picked another call, and from the glazed look on her face, I could tell it was a sweet talking guy with a deep voice. I smiled to myself as I picked the next call. I always smile when I start a new call, even sometimes if there is nothing to smile about. Because it reflects in the tome when you start speaking to the customer.So like always, I smiled and started my opening statements.

"Thank you for calling…."

For the next 40 minutes, I did not even think of smiling. This customer was ripping off all the efforts I had put in for the past 6 hours in completing my calls as fast as possible, and was spreading it on his front lawn as fertilizer for his shrubs. All my previous calls had taken around 20 minutes each to resolve. A mammoth effort that took the wind out of me. Now I had two calls to go and this call was proving to be Armageddon.

His name was Peter Hall. He had a problem getting connected to the Internet. He had already contacted his service providers and they had confirmed it was a problem with some setting in the operating system. So he wanted it fixed at any cost, no matter how long it took, he was not going to let me go until the issue was resolved. How lucky for me!

I took a deep breath and started doing what I was good at. Apologizing.

After all the formalities were completed, I tried to get his email address. Evidence number 1 for proving it was going to be the longest call in 8 months of call center life.

"So let me confirm the e-mail address.. " I had no idea what he had just given me, except that it ended with "@hotmail.com"

"That's P as in Peter, E as in Elephant, T as in…"
"No."
"Alright….is that B as in Bravo…"
"No."
"V as in Victor?"
"No."

By this time, any guy with half the IQ of an average human being would have had the common sense to use the navigation code to spell out his email address. But no, our man had to torment me with his email address till I got it right on my own. I tried to calculate 26 factorial in my mind, and gave up before starting. After all, if was able to do that, I would not be here trying to fix this guy's computer, but probably creating the next operating system for Microsoft.

Speaking of Microsoft, turned out it was the reason why Peter (After half an hour of speaking with him, 15 minutes of which went in finding out his email and telephone number, we had come to a first name basis.) was calling us in the first place. He had a problem sending e-mail from his computer. His Microsoft Outlook just wouldn't send. I was very tempted to ask him if he had an Internet connection, but I couldn't be that cruel.

At the end of 30 minutes, I was at my wit's end. I had tried every known and found method to make his email work. By this time, everyone else in the team had finished their shifts and were cheerfully waving at me. The pizza was now lying on my desk, cold and not at all tasty.

"Peter, looks like Ill have to do some research and give you a call back for this issue…can I call you back in 45 minutes to an hour?"
I hated doing that. Somehow, asking a customer if I could call him back, was to me an admission that I was not competent enough to fix his problem right there. I usually avoid doing that, but in this case, I had run out of options.

A couple of minutes later, I disconnected the call, having confirmed his telephone number and re-assuring him twice that I would call him back.

"TEAM MEETING GUYS!!!!"

This was odd..we never had an unscheduled team meeting unless it was an emergency. As I entered the meeting room, I bumped into Sandy, my manager. No one else had come in yet. Raj must have gone for a smoke or a Pepsi..he was one Pepsi addict.

"Whats up Sandy? An unscheduled team meeting?? " Our team was very casual in its approach. We addressed everyone by first names or nicknames. Very rarely was anyone formal in our team.

"Yeah..a couple of new guys are joining us today, and I have some awards to hand out. You look like you can use one yourself man…tough call?"

"Don't ask. I'm supposed to call him back in an hour. I have no idea what I am going to do…."

"I'm sure you will figure something out…you always do..oh, here come the others…"

The others entered the room. There was an awkward silence, as there always is when everyone wants to say something funny but is reluctant to be the first to say anything, lest they come up sounding stupid. And as always, the manager started the conversation…after all, even if he does sound stupid, who is going to laugh in his face?

"So guys and girls, we have 2 new members in our team from today……." My mind drifted off to Peter and the magic outbox.

"…one of the most dedicated and sincere agents I have seen. His customer focus is amazing…."
Suddenly, I felt all eyes in the room on me. After staring at Sandy, my manager for another half a minute, I realized that he was speaking about me.

About five minutes after that mind blowing revelation, I walked up to the cafeteria to have some food, and no, not pizza this time. I'd had enough masala for a day.

"So you must have had a lot of awards." It was one of the new joiners in our team, whose name I just couldn't recall.

"Uh..no actually..never got one till now…"

By that time, Sandy had joined us.

" Actually, I nominate people for awards not just for excellence in work, but also for motivation. People like Maddy here are already motivated, so, they don’t need awards to keep up the good work." He said and smiled at me.

And I could see then why he was considered one of the best managers in the organization. He had just said volumes with that one statement of his. Or at least to me.

As I walked back to my desk, I started thinking…probably the first time that night with a clear mind. Was I getting into the number game that is taking over others? Am I not trying to just fix Peter's mailbox so that I can finish my targets. Normally, I would have taken much more time to find out if there was anything else that could have caused the malfunctioning of Peter's mailbox. But not tonight. I was so concerned about my targets that I forgot some basic rules. Like finding out from when he was facing the problem, and had he installed anything that might be the cause of this. And most important, I was getting mad at my customer when I should actually be mad at myself for losing focus.

I had always felt that in the race for getting good scores and metrics, people like me are forgetting the actual work that we are paid to do…fix our customer's problems. Find solutions to their troubles. I still remember the elation and the jolt of happiness I used to feel during the early stages of my career as a technical support agent. Every time I solved a problem, every time I fixed a computer, made it work again, every time a customer thanked me, I used to feel like a wizard. Especially if it was a tough one. Now, that elation was slowly fading out. It was becoming just another call. Just another customer. Target calls minus one. Customer satisfaction was now a number, and not an experience. A few months ago, this email problem would have been a challenge. A test. Now I considered it a block in the way of my earning more money!

And the biggest blunder of all, I was so way over my head in the number race that I forgot to ask for help.

In the career of a call center agent, one thing we cannot afford to have is ego. Even a fresh candidate knows that. For a customer, the agent who answers his call is the company that sold him the malfunctioning product. He is bound to take out his frustration on us. We have to think from his point of view, only then can we understand what he is going through. Only then will we even strive to try and help the customer. We cannot afford to take his words of frustration personally. Once we put on that headset, we remove our prejudices and our personal ego from within us. That’s the only way to survive in a call center. It takes a lot to be a call center agent, not everyone can survive here. Not everyone does.

But what I realized at the moment, I should not let my ego prevent me from seeking help from others. Experience comes not just by learning from one's own mistakes, but learning from other's as well.

So I reached my desk and typed a mail. Thank Heavens my Outlook was working just fine! Within 10 minutes, I received responses and replies from other agents. Agents who had previously solved various email problems similar to the one I was facing. Yes, it was not Peter's problem anymore, it was mine! And I am not going to go home without fixing it for him.

Because that's what I do. I help people for a living.

- I wrote this story a long time ago. I chanced upon it as I was clearing my old documents. Somehow I feel that it makes more sense today, that it did at that point in time.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Your story had the power to bring tears to my eyes.

Gayathri said...

:)

-G

Shivakumar said...

Awesome piece of writing, mate! Why dont you have your folks see that?

-Shiva

Mad said...

@ Shivakumar: I think my dad is the first one to read my blog, whenever I update it! Didn't quite catch your meaning though... ;)

Mad said...

@ Anonymous: Thank you! I appreciate it. Not that I brought tears to your eyes, but that you were moved. Thanks!

Raj said...

Yeah..
Have read that one before..
And remember it too :)
Rgrds
Raj

Sara said...

wow! in my 3.5 years in dealing with call centers at Dell, this is the closest I have come to actually feeling what the agents feel...I wish I would have read this 3.5 years ago...great piece of writing! :)

Mad said...

@Sara: A comment from Sara Hammerschmidt. Thanks Shammers :) and all the best for the new step you have taken :)

Terence said...

absolutely awesome... great read...

one night at a call centre is on the same lines... see if you can pick it up if you've not read it already :)

Radz said...

This is excellent work Madoo..
3 years of dealing with all kinds of customers, this is exactly what I would have said too, only if I could write like this :)
Hats off!