Monday, January 11, 2010

The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker by Steven Greenhouse

Rarely has a book left me so thoroughly depressed.

I had planned to start writing this review over the weekend, but it was an unpleasant prospect that I kept putting off, rather like changing the kitty litter.

But I knew I had to. Rah rah the working classes, and all like that. But that's just it, I hate to catalog exactly how bad we're getting it right now, and will likely continue to get it. Whilst reading this book, I remarked offhandedly to Mr Daisy that surely it can't continue like this, and he just laughed at me. Sure it can. It can get much worse; just take a look at those exhausted seamstresses in Taiwan hurriedly sewing sewing sewing for a measly 9 cents a garment. Reading this account of working conditions in the USA right now, one comes away with the (thoroughly depressing) idea that the Labor Movement was a mere blip, a momentary pause in the long march towards turning the masses of us into automatons and work horses, not necessarily in that order.

Interestingly enough, what initially grabbed me about this book was the inclusion of a chapter about the company I used to work for. Wow, there it is! I was somewhat dazzled to read it: see, I told you it was bad. Of course, I already knew that, but how validating to see it here on the printed page; the lousy working conditions duly listed with the other shitty employers like Walmart.

The company in question runs call-centers for corporate clients, and although the client in the book-example is different, the description of the work-atmosphere and job-requirements are the same. (I have mentioned this job a few times on DEAD AIR, notably here and here.) I made pretty good money, admittedly, but I paid for it in blood. During rush-seasons, we got bonuses simply for showing up and on time, so that should tell you just how vicious and nasty the calls could get. It was not unusual for people to dramatically walk out on the job with a "take this job and shove it" flourish... or they might simply scurry away in tears. They finally had to bribe employees to stay.

Now, however, in today's economy, they don't even bother with the bribes. Wages are down; bonuses and perks largely non-existent. The layoffs and pay-decreases enumerated in this book started in 2001, which is the year I left.[1]:

They call it the script. But it's actually an arcane list of things you are supposed to say, and things you'd better not say. At the [company] call center in [Anywhere, USA], the script sometimes seems only slightly less sacred than the Bible.

If any of the 550 [my center had over 800] customer service representatives (CSRs) stray too much from the script on one call, they risk a tongue-lashing. If they are caught straying on three or four calls, they risk their job.

You must always say "Thank you for calling ____." [...] You should never call a customer sir or madam, it's always Mr. or Ms. with the last name. And you had better not mispronounce the last name, even if it's Krzyzewski. If you don't slip in the customer's name at least three times during a call, that will mean some demerits. And you'd better mention [special bargain] at least once each call. You need to sound chipper and energetic, and you shouldn't spend more than four minutes on a call [our official call time was three minutes, ten seconds, give or take]. You also need to slip in at least two "pro-actives" [instructions to customer on how to avoid calling back, things they can do themselves, but say it nicely].

[...] And when a call is about to end, you'd better not forget to ask, "Have I resolved all of your concerns today?"

[...] There are more than 60,000 call centers in the United States and an estimated 4 million call center workers. It's an industry at the heart of the American economy. Call centers are the connective tissue of modern commerce, handling airline reservations and stock sales, selling HBO subscriptions and cell phones, taking orders for LL Bean and Dell computers, troubleshooting problems with your hard drive or your credit card.

Call centers are sometimes viewed as factories that supply an invaluable product: customer service. One academic study found that "call centers introduce principles of mechanization and industrial engineering into a much wider array of service transactions than was hitherto possible"--thanks to specialized software, networked computers, sophisticated equipment that distributes calls, and recording devices that keep tabs on a CSR's every word. While call centers rely on modern technologies to maximize productivity, their techniques often seem borrowed from the "drive" principles of old.
In short, deviate from the script, take too long, mess it up, and it's your ass in a sling.

And you know, some folks in management tried to be as humane as they could be about it, but rules are rules. I once listened to myself cut off an extremely-talkative jerk (on a tape-recorded call; all are recorded, but only a random few are listened to for monthly quality-review), because he was running up my call-time drastically... After every few word-torrents, I interrupted him with, "Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah" [2] which made my supervisors crack up so bad, they could barely write me up, they were laughing so hard. Nonetheless, I was written up. You have to keep the call short, but you can't interrupt the customer either (even if he sorely needs interrupting); obviously a no-win situation for the CSR. [3]

If you've ever wondered why it often takes two or three calls to straighten out a situation, keep in mind, the CSR answering your call might be working on a backlog of the last several calls. If you are put on hold immediately, it's because she has every window on her screen filled up, and has to clear one first to handle your call. Also, much of the new technology "auto-populates" screens with customer information that is often incorrect. So, she has to fix that, too. And a bunch of other shit besides:

[...] While on a call, perhaps answering a customer's questions about a monthly bill, the CSRs not only were supposed to slip in all the elements from the script, but were supposed to verify names and addresses and type them into the computer. And if the customer changed their cell phone plan [this was the Verizon call center in the book, mine was not] during a call, the CSRs had to type a great deal of additional information and do a credit check, all while navigating among various computer screens. [...] If while juggling all these tasks a call center rep concentrated so much on her typing or her computer screen that she didn't listen to the customer for a second or dropped a beat in the conversation, there would be consequences. "If you ever asked a customer to repeat something, the supervisors had a fit," [recalls one employee] "and you couldn't have dead air."

;) And now you know another reason for my blog name.

And now you also know why your information gets all screwed up.


As I said, I feel validated reading this account from the labor correspondent for the New York Times. Then again, note the "golly gee whiz" tone in what he has written, above. These are investigative "field studies" for him. It sounds remarkably like anthropology involving a pilgrimage to another culture that the author doesn't belong to, rather than workers in his own country. One gets the distinct impression that Steven Greenhouse doesn't actually associate with the people he is writing about. And see, although his heart is undoubtedly in the right place, I think this is part of the problem. Who is his intended audience, the workers in question? Who is he telling all of this to? NPR listeners? PBS viewers-like-you? People who attend Ivy-League schools? I can't quite figure out who is supposed to be reading this book; I didn't need to read it to know about the state of affairs described therein. I know what's in it. Who doesn't know about the current sorry state of affairs for the American worker? The educated people who will never have a job like CSR? (And are they utterly certain about that?)

Part of the problem is the class-schism of New York Times readers (wherein handbags are advertised starting at $4000 on sale) vs the rest of the country.

The problem is that he has to write this book in the first place, because people like him don't know about the call centers unless they read it in a book.


The best chapter in The Big Squeeze is (perfectly) titled "Leaner and Meaner," in which Greenhouse delineates the collapse of basic decency among management... something I first noticed during the Reagan era, when Big Business was manically fetishized as the savior of the American economy (and we see how well THAT worked, she coughed). Suddenly, bosses were given carte blanche to rip you a new one and scream stop fucking up whenever they took a notion. Before this time, such behavior was seriously uncool (have a look at MAD MEN again) and could lead to dismissal. After the 80s? The temper-tantrum-throwing supervisor was considered a real go-getter and was promoted to a fare-thee-well. Having no "sentimentality" and screaming at people the day their mother dies, well, that's a guy who CARES ABOUT THE COMPANY and will certainly go far, with hella commitment like that! The longer I have worked, the more I have seen this phenomenon in play. I have seen it increase to the point that I just assume most supervisors will be cruel--and I am pleasantly surprised when they aren't. Cruelty has become a managerial requirement; unkindness and brutality signal that you run a tight ship. A lot like the military.

Other chapters are also required reading, particularly "Outsourced and Out of Luck" and the well-documented "The Rise and Fall of the Social Contract"--chapter titles that speak for themselves. Although he offers 'solutions' at the end of the book, one can't help but think that companies and capitalists have already found their solution--and he even mentions it himself: Outsourcing. Maquiladoras. India. Mexico. If American workers complain or buckle under the pressure, do what the rich have always done: move on. Textile workers in the north start unionizing? Move the textile industry to the south. Too expensive THERE TOO? On to Mexico. Too expensive to pay call center workers a living wage in the USA? Hey, they speak English in India, and that's the new frontier for call centers.

They will just keep going until they find more people to use. And there seems to be a never-ending supply.

As I said, the book was depressing. The only thing I can think of to make me feel better is to repeat this old expression I learned years ago: Workers of the World unite, we have nothing to lose but our chains.



[1] I left the company virtually right before 9/11... one of my first thoughts on 9/11 was how much of a mess it would be if I was still taking calls (my shift was heavily East Coast/New York), which is a terrible, self-serving thought, but one I couldn't suppress. I was so grateful to be off the phones, so that I would not hear the anguish up close.

[2] I sounded rather like the yeah-yeah's at the end of the B-52s song, "Dance this mess around" if you have ever heard it.

On another call, I got a customer named Fernando and asked him if he liked the Abba song of the same name. I nearly got written up for that too, but it turned out he loved the song and started singing it to me. (That one also made the rounds of management, and some would sing "Fernando" to me when they saw me in the hallways.)

[3] What was jarring about the call was how I didn't remember a thing about it, as if my memory banks had been wiped clean ("Did I fall asleep?")... Even now, years later, only a few calls really stand out--most are a veritable blur of meaningless capitalist verbiage in my memory.


sheila said...

Well, that's GOT to be a hard job. My daughter took a job in her first yr at college doing soliciting for fundraising (donations). She hated it big time and ended up finding a difference job. Too stressful.

So I can see how it would suck. I can't imagine working for a call center, collection agenecy or complaint center in these times. nope. too depressing.

Thanks, I won't buy this book, lol.

La Lubu said...

Sounds like I need to read this book. God, call center work. I have a cousin that tried that; she didn't make it. I don't think she's working now. I'm always extra-polite to the folks I get on call center lines, 'cuz so damn many people aren't.

It's a mentality. Shit rolls downhill. I was just saying to a friend tonight at dinner, how there used to be some basic respect for working people and a work ethic, but now....if you work for a living, you're considered a schmuck. The real money is in stealing for a living, like investment bankers.

Gahh, don't get me started. I gotta help my girl with her homework. But I'll be thinking about this post for quite a while. Yeah, it can get much worse. Probably worse in the U.S. than in most other places, because of that toxic individuality I'm always on about.

Joan Kelly said...

thanks for this, Daisy. I linked at my place.

SnowdropExplodes said...

Wow, it was spooky how I could identify every part of "the script" outlined there, as being in the call I made to my building society yesterday!

I still like Robert Townsend's take on the issue (under the heading "Telephone Operators" in his book "Up The Organisation"):

" would you like to try doing the telephone operator's job for a day? Remember, you're the company's first contact with the outside world - you've got to be alert and bright and helpful and quick. ... I'd spend money to make the switchboard people [i.e. call centre reps] as comfortable as possible. The best operators in the area would be lined up for the job."

I think an enlightened company would take that approach - that you want people with a talent for telephone customer service, who are really GOOD at it, answering your phones - and you want them to enjoy working for you so that you get to keep that talent!


The only thing I can think of to make me feel better is to repeat this old expression I learned years ago: Workers of the World unite, we have nothing to lose but our chains.

And the spooky thing is that 150 years ago, the guy who wrote that saying was already predicting this and writing about these problems...

JoJo said...

I don't know how you survived one day at the call centre. OMG I would have been fired the first day!

Dennis the Vizsla said...

Sounds like a book I read years ago called "Nickel & Dimed". That one depressed me, too.