Looking for Care in All the Wrong Places

A few weeks ago, I bumped into an old coworker at Walmart. Yes, Walmart. I don’t like shopping there but it’s the closest store to our farm and they usually supply what we demand so funds are exchanged for goods. It’s capitalism 101. Hate it as much as you want, Walmart won’t cease to exist if my family stops shopping there. This is not a story about the deeds or misdeeds of America’s largest brick and mortar retailer. That’s a conversation for another time.

Rather, it’s a story about how we got here. A consumer and an employee, both former colleagues and cogs in a machine who have found peace and happiness in new and wildly different machines. Our former lives were spent within the confines of a call center. He a supervisor and I an administration analyst. We were both in leadership roles, the only difference being he had direct reports and I did not.

For those of you who are not familiar with the term, call centers are businesses with one sole purpose - to be the telephone point of contact of a multitude of industries. From your bank to your utilities, airlines to insurance, and everything in between. If you call the 800 number advertising “how’s my driving?” on the back of a semi truck or the “dial for assistance” sign when stuck in an elevator, those calls go to a call center. Inbound and outbound calls, customer service, collections, telemarketing, tech support, all of it is call center work. As long as people want to know why their bill is so high or complain when things aren’t working like they should, there will always be a demand for call centers.

During the course of my professional life, I’ve worked in three different call centers - a major television provider, a credit card company, and a telecommunications corporation. Not everything I endured was bad; my experiences varied from curious sheer luck to something torn from the pages of Dante’s Inferno. Most people I know who have suffered call center work probably identify with the latter - it’s pure hell.

As an industry, call centers have a 30-40% attrition rate. Out of every 100 employees that get hired at a call center, 30 to 40 of them quit or get fired within their first year. There are some call centers with 100% attrition rates, constantly striving to backfill vacant positions. I’m not sure what the attrition rate was at my office, but I do know the “now hiring” sign out front was never taken down during the seventeen and a half years I worked there.

There was a recurring joke I told throughout my tenure: “By the time I finally quit this place, I’ll be able write a book filled with true stories so outlandish people would think it’s fiction.” Now that I have quit, I feel like there are some big expectations to fulfill. I might write that book some day. Oh the stories I could tell. Tales of drugs, sex, lies, murder, nazis, theft, and the pain caused when general incompetence is given the reins of power. All in due time.

Back to Walmart.

I was making a late night venture to pick up some bird grain and pig feed. As I walked from the pet food isles toward the grocery department, I noticed a familiar face stocking the shelves with paper towels. Just a glance but I kept walking as my brain tried to reconcile a Walmart uniform covering the body of someone I’m used to seeing dressed in business casual. Once my synapses realized the unmistakable face I spotted three steps behind was indeed who I thought it was, I pumped the brakes in a cartoonish halt, then walked backwards to make sure I wasn’t imagining things.

“Howdy stranger,” I said.
“Oh hey.” He replied.
“How long you been here?”
“Oh, I quit (the bad place) shortly after you did.”

He went on to tell me Walmart paid him the same salary he made as a supervisor and he didn’t have to worry about making his incentives every month. Less stress, no longer responsible for the management of a large team of employees, a schedule that fits his personality better, and he makes the same amount of money.

Some people would look at what he did as a step backwards. It’s easy to make that assumption. From a supervisor with some degree of control and influence to throwing freight and stocking shelves at Walmart with no control or influence. But if I were honest, that night in Walmart is the first I’d seen him smiling in years. Abandoning misery in exchange for better mental health is never a step backwards, even if the peace and happiness is found inside Walmart’s evil empire.

This weekend, my wife had some abysmal interactions with call center employees. It was a (more than) 12 hour ordeal with our road side assistance company attempting to get our van towed to the tire shop after one of her tires blew out on I-90. One guy tried telling her our policy didn’t include towing (which it does), one dude sounded like he was so stoned he probably couldn’t read the script on his computer, and a few of them had accents so thick they couldn’t be understood. She was hung up on twice - once after asking for a supervisor. And she had to explain to at least six different people her vehicle was parked on the side of the freeway - all were confused because we couldn’t provide a specific street address.

At the end of the saga, my wife was in tears. “No one cares.” She said, “No one gives a damn that I have to get to work today or that I have kids, or that we had plans for things to do and that they could be ruining those plans. They don’t care. Nobody cares.”

She’s correct. They don’t care. It’s not their job. Even if it was their job to care, they don’t get paid enough to care. How do I know? Because I wasn’t paid enough to care either. Same for my former coworker who’s now found bliss stocking shelves at Walmart - he wasn’t paid enough to care.

This is what customer service looks like within the confines of unfettered capitalism. Capitalism doesn’t care about hurt feelings, it cares about money. Capitalism doesn’t care about consumers, it cares about shareholders. Capitalism doesn’t care about doing the right thing unless the right thing earns a profit.

At the end of the day, whether you’re a customer calling in for help or employee clocking off to go home… Call centers are a business and businesses exist to make money.

There are several ways that call centers can increase revenue.
• Leaner statistics. Shorter call handle times mean more calls are getting answered. More completed calls are generally better for the profit line. As a result, call center employees are incented to reduce the amount of time they spend on the phone with you; the more complex your issue the less interested they are in helping you. It is more fiscally responsible for call center employees to handle the next customer in line then it is to resolve their current customer’s reason for calling.
• Reduce overhead. Computers are expensive to fix and replace. Most call centers operate on equipment that would’ve been cutting edge a decade ago, using outdated software that can barely keep up with today’s technology, and equipment is constantly breaking. If you call anyone in customer service and they apologize because their computers are “updating” that means something is broken. None of this would be a challenge if IT departments were fully staffed. Unfortunately IT support is also an expense. Telecom, tier 1 and tier 2 support, desktop and software support, programming - call centers everywhere are intentionally short staffed in their information technology departments.
• Eliminate non-essential staff. Who is non-essential in call centers? Everyone who doesn’t take a phone call. Trainers, human resources, quality assurance, janitors, receptionists. These roles are pure expense to call centers and nothing they do makes the business money. These days, call centers operate with a skeleton crew everywhere except the call center floor.
• Remote hiring. One of the benefits of the Covid pandemic was the growth in work from home availability. Unfortunately, not everyone is good at working from home. Productivity is often lower for remote employees compared to those working on site. Supervision and accountability is also more difficult when employees are not working in the office.
• Skimp on education. It costs money to train people. Less time spent in new hire training means it’s less expense to hire new employees. Companies are interested in getting butts in seats faster even if that means employees are less prepared to handle calls, less knowledgeable, and more prone to making mistakes.

Take these considerations then add the stress of constant belittlement from both customers and managers, all for low wage compensation. Call centers don’t pay more than they have to. But they often pay enough to trap people. That’s the idea that you’re not qualified for a better paying job but if you did get a different job, you’d probably have to take a pay cut. Somehow, I got lucky and found a better job for better pay. My former colleague found similar luck at Walmart.

Sorry this tale didn’t include anything salacious. It was rude of me to tempt you with such possibilities. Maybe next time. Still there is a lesson to be learned, a moral of the story. If you’re looking for someone to care about your circumstances, call centers are the worst possible location to find that level of concern. I assure you - they most definitely do not care about you.