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Call center agents fight stress with humor


A day after the controversial Manny Pacquiao victory over Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez on Nov. 12, 2011, a call center agent in Manila handling a foreign satellite television account got a call from someone he suspected to be Mexican.

The irate caller was complaining he had been unable to view the match because he couldn’t get a satellite signal, and demanded a refund.
Jep, the call center agent, knew that it would be difficult to verify the claim. He remembered receiving similar complaints a day after Pacquiao’s earlier fight with another Mexican boxer.

Conscious that the Mexican caller may have been devastated by Marquez’s defeat, Jep tried in the most polite way to tell the caller that a refund was out of the question. The Mexican, however, was adamant.

After almost an hour of a wearying exchange, Jep offered a compromise. He promised the customer a 10 percent rebate applicable if he purchases Pacquiao’s next pay-per-view match. The Mexican agreed.

Happy with what seemed like a good deal, the Mexican customer then asked, “When is the next fight of Pacquiao that I can watch?”
Jep replied, “That is still being negotiated, sir. Thank you and have a good day.”

Quick thinking, loads of patience, and an ample sense of humor are important coping mechanisms call center agents rely on in dealing with all sorts of unseen clients from different parts of the world with different cultures and accents.

Business process outsourcing (BPO) voice services such as call or contact centers make up 70 percent of the industry in the Philippines and employ about 350,000, according to 2010 statistics of the Contact Center Association of the Philippines. The BPO industry is expected to grow to 1.3 million jobs with $25 billion in revenue in the next couple of years.

The Philippines is the acknowledged global leader in the BPO industry, a fact attributed to Filipinos possessing the qualities needed to deal with a job as demanding as being a call center agent.

One way Filipinos maintain rapport with callers is by adopting neutral or “Americanized” names, especially for U.S. accounts. American callers are more comfortable addressing people by their first names.

Chris, a 30-year old quality analyst for a big call center in Ortigas, explains that this promotes easy rapport and a connection with customers that help both call center agent and caller be more comfortable conversing with each other.

Thus, call center agents in the Philippines have no problems assuming “Americanized” names—Pedro can be “Peter,” or Pablo “Paul.”
Manuel, a 33-year old call center agent in Makati handling a telecom account in the U.S., was put on the spot when one customer who wanted to commend him for a job well done asked for his real name. Manuel assumed the call name “Ben.” The foreign customer on the other line said, “Ben, you did such a good job handling my concern. Your boss ought to know. Please allow me to commend you. What’s your full name, Ben?”

Manuel didn’t see that coming, yet he wanted to sound natural and spontaneous, and at that moment only one person came to mind. He quickly replied. “Benigno.”

The customer went on to ask, “And your last name?” He could only think of one surname that matched that. He replied, “Aquino.”
“Benigno Aquino it is,” the caller conceded.

Confidentiality agreements between call centers and their clients or principals come in different forms. One example is the provision on non-disclosure of the call center agents’ locations. This works well in cases where callers exhibit racism, bias or discrimination towards certain countries or nationalities.

A call center agent from Iloilo City, in one of those night shifts, recalled how he survived an irate American customer. The customer, obviously a techie, was not satisfied with the preset and scripted troubleshooting guides the call center agent was reading out from a computer.
The customer demanded to know from which country the help desk was outsourced. This was in January 2010 and at that time one country had been hogging the headlines because of a catastrophic earthquake. The stressed-out call center agent blurted, “Haiti.”
The angry customer immediately dropped his pitch and became sympathetic. “Oh man, sorry to hear about your tragedy there. It was so bad, I heard. How are you guys coping there?” he asked. The caller did not press further for answers that the call center agent could not give.
Aside from a good command of the English language, call center agents should learn how to cope with the rigors of the job, from sleeplessness to exasperation.
Call center agents normally have three scheduled off-phone breaks. Some would have two 15-minute breaks and a lunch hour, or sometimes, a 15 to 30 to 45-minute off-phone schedule.
While most call center agents spend their 15-minute breaks smoking, some prefer sipping coffee in the pantry while others use them as an opportunity to take a snooze, also called “power nap.” They do this in their workstations without being too obvious as this, too, is not allowed. The sleepyheads, however, have developed different strategies to avoid getting caught sleeping on their desks.

Most common would be the “pseudo-praying” tactic. The agent would slump on the desk resting the forehead on the arm and doze off. When approached by the supervisor, often called TL for team leader or TC for team captain, the call center agent then immediately raises his or her head and blurts out an "Amen" in a firm modulated voice as though concluding a prayer, leaving the TL poker-faced.

Another style would be the “laglag barya gang (coin-drop gang).” These agents take the power nap position but when approached by their supervisors to call their attention, they would raise their heads, pull out a coin or some other object from their hands as if they were picking up something underneath their desks. These tactics work half the time, says one team leader.

But there are times when sleeplessness gets the better of the call center agent, who dozes off while talking to a costumer.
It happened to one agent who was talking to a customer asking for a cancellation of his mobile phone’s voicemail subscription. The call center agent tried to be perky when she opened the call. As the conversation progressed, the call center agent fell into sleep mode. While talking to the customer, her eyelids began to close, her head swayed lightly forward, and her voice started to fade. Then she fell asleep. She drifted into dreamland and started talking gibberish.

It must have been puzzling to the customer because he asked, “Huh?!...I'm sorry, what? Hello?"

The “Hello” woke up the sleeping agent.
Slip-ups can be forgiven. But what call center agents cannot get away with is arrogance or disrespect toward customers. Call center agents are not allowed to be sarcastic even to the most unreasonable client.
Take the case of this call center agent from Ortigas who had been on the line for over an hour with a very dissatisfied customer. The customer demanded to speak to the agent’s supervisor or manager or whoever could take her complaint about how her call was being handled. The customer said, “I’d like to speak to the highest ranking person in your company.”
Matching anger with acid, the agent replied, “You want to speak to God?”

The agent was fired.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)

by Tessa Jamandre, VERA Files

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