Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Call Centers - Abuse

This is going to be a serious conversation, folks. If you're here for the fluffy kitties or music, then I'm sorry. I need to say this, and it's dark enough that I don't really care to put it to song at this time. We're going to talk about violence.

I work in a call center. I'm the dreaded person you have to call to when you need help with your issues. I do it because I genuinely enjoy helping people. Whenever people ask me about what I do for a living, I immediately feel the need to apologize because . . . let's be honest: who enjoys calling in to call centers? And it's a double-whammy for me because I work in insurance; most people hate insurance too. I think just about everyone has negative connotations with customer service because we can all think of a time when we've had bad customer service.

The problem is  . . . we feel like it's our right be angry. Okay, sure, it's natural to be upset when we are violated in some way, and emotions are hard to deal with. I definitely don't think people should try to ignore or suppress their feelings. We have to figure out how to resolve them, and that can only be done by being aware of them and facing them.

I think we can all agree that someone walking into an office building with a shotgun to threaten the receptionist to get to whom they want to see is a wrong way to resolve feeling upset. That actually happened at a former place of business I worked at a call center for; the result was that we were no longer allowed to give out addresses or even the city we were in, and we were told to lie about the weather outside because we didn't have the resources to protect us at our call center. Isn't that nuts? We've also had to have security guards on alert because of very serious death threats and other violence that people said they would come to the office to commit. And, some of said people have actually come to the office, so these are not empty threats.

Physical violence is something that we know to be extreme and not okay. Self-defense is one thing; attacking people is another. I think we can also agree that attacking people physically is not productive. If the person can fight you back, then your attack is futile. If they can't, you're a bully and that person isn't more likely to do what you want or to have "learned their lesson." They will just be violated by you. If your end goal is anything honorable, it should be to have an issue resolved so that you are no longer violated. Obviously, violence won't resolve your issue, though some people make believe that revenge is justice. It isn't. It's just revenge and makes you worse than the people you've hurt. And, those people that get physically hurt aren't always in power to help you stop being violated anyway.

Let me allow you in to a secret: in customer service, I would love to always tell you the answer that you want to hear. That would make you happy, which means that I can feel good about my job and knowing that I made you happy. But, I can't always do that. We have rules we have to go by, like in every other job. And, before you say, "That's why I ask for a supervisor," our supervisors have rules too. We have to obey government and state laws that govern our workplace, the work itself, and rules laid out by everyone above us. And no, you can't talk to the CEO. Does the CEO at your job take calls? No? I didn't think so.

Okay. So, why do people think it's okay to use emotional violence?

I hope that anyone who has read this far really stops to think about this. People know it's bad for children; how many people aren't aware of the uproar on MySpace or Facebook when a child or teen commits suicide? This type of violence is also called psychological, mental, or emotional abuse.

We, as a society, seem to think it's okay to use verbal/emotional abuse to get what we want or to let off steam. It is NOT. It is the same as physical violence (I have littered some links to studies throughout this blog; read or google your own, but be aware of the consequences of actions). Because it is less tangible, we struggle to regulate it. This is in combination with the cultural thing where feeling hurt and emotional because of being abused is somehow unacceptable. People are even cowed into believing that they can't allow their bad feelings of being hurt by emotional abuse be a "burden" to friends and family who could listen and help them heal. And, if you think that I'm overreacting because I just work in a call center, I was physically abused growing up for years . . . and trust me, I went to the police and I went to school counselors all to no avail. This is a real problem. One of them didn't even want to discuss it, it made her so uncomfortable. Even the man I married struggled with this at first, and he loves me. People are uncomfortable dealing with these kinds of feelings or hurt and are even less comfortable committing to assisting with them because it is difficult to prove. So, people can get away with a lot of emotional abuse; that doesn't make it okay. Also, it's very upsetting that the rules favor the customers when it comes to emotional abuse; customers can abuse all they like, and that's supposed to be part of one's job. Even the research on abuse in the workplace is focused on co-workers and supervisors, but not customer abuse. Because of this, there is higher awareness within organizations, but customers tend to feel like they are always right and are not responsible, no matter how badly they behave.

At my first job in a call center, no matter what kind of emotional abuse we endured, we were not allowed to hang up. I'm sure some people reading this are already trying to justify that in their minds. "Oh, but most of your calls aren't that bad," and "We all  have rough times at work." The fact that we accept this culture is the problem. And, there is no justifying it. It is persistent over time, and it hurts. Do you know that I literally stayed on the line with people for 4 hours at a time, sometimes 2 hours after my shift was supposed to have ended, being emotionally abused? Granted, that wasn't every day, but it was regular. Unsurprisingly, I didn't feel bad when I left that job.

Today, my work is far more reasonable, but the emotional abuse is still there and it is regular. I'm there to help, and I will do everything that the rules allow for me to do. I will even challenge rules I think are bad and risk my professional reputation because I believe it is the right thing to do. I take my responsibility to be respectful seriously; I don't want to be an abuser either and I know it doesn't help. I know that most people in customer service don't take everything that seriously; trust me, that's frustrating to me too. They make it harder for me to help people who are relying on us. And, like all slackers, they make our supervisors and supervisor's supervisors create rules that are obstacles for the folks who are genuinely trying to do good work. But the thing that kills me inside daily, makes me sparkle a little bit less, that makes others resentful and give up on trying to be good employees, are the emotional abusers. The people who call in and think that it's okay to yell and scream, ask tasks that they know are impossible, or refuse to help the customer service representative to help them and then act indignant about it. And, it's not just our civilian customers. In fact, other professionals tend to be the worst. :( It's really upsetting.

No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. And, I'll even give kudos to the person who calls me up and vents and says, "I'm sorry. I know it's not you specifically, but I'm just so angry about the situation!" Hey! You have a right to be angry, and I appreciate that while I'm there to take on the onslaught, you took the moment to realize that I'm a human being with feelings. To the person who calls up to do nothing more than be a bully, though . . .STOP. I think so many people justify it as, "I'm calling in to fix my problem that you jerks messed up, so you deserve what you get," and then they go on to allow nothing the other person tries to do to help them to be good enough and are abusive the whole way.

And, this emotional abuse really does hurt! We don't talk about it in the office because, again as a sickness in our culture, we think it's "not professional" to have feelings. That is . . . so messed up on so many levels that I don't even know what to say about that aspect of it yet. But, I have seen people get off a call where you could hear the person on the other line across the ROOM yelling at them, and they go to the bathroom in tears to try and hide their pain and suffering while they do what they can to recover, scared to return to the phone and be abused again. Multiple people. They never say a word, but they suffer. I don't tell others, either, for that matter, because I'm scared of losing my job or having people think less of me, like they did with my other abuse. And guess what? They aren't any better at their job afterward, bullies. If anything, they're worse because they are shaken up. If you don't want us to screw up, then stop creating a hostile work environment! No one works well under those conditions. Even worse, some of those people feel the poison of that emotional abuse and take it home with them. They bottle it up to keep their families safe, but the hurt just festers and festers. Sometimes, despite best efforts, it spreads, and that's the worst. :( Or, good people just quit. I've thought about it recently. In fact, I almost called my supervisor this morning because I was in tears. Thankfully, it came at the time of my first break so I had time to talk to my husband and calm down.

Go out there and look up psychology studies. Nothing supports this kind of behavior for conflict resolution. If you are emotionally abusing anyone, you are just as bad as the person who threatens to come in with a shotgun. Acts of emotional terrorism are not okay. They don't make you cool. They don't make you tough and more empowered; it rarely changes anything except for riling other people up to behave just like you and create more acts of emotional terrorism or break people down so that they're not functional anymore. We do have to stand up against being violated, but that isn't the way to do it.

I know it isn't easy, especially with movies promoting the notion that this kind of "justice" is amusing and cool. All that I can ask is for everyone to stop and think. Before you yell at your kids, your co-workers, your employees, or your loved ones . . . before you say something negative of any kind, think about the repercussions. Think about how you could do it more productively. Work at it; it's not easy. I've struggled too. When people don't listen, it makes it hard and it's easy to feel like the only option left is violence, physical or emotional. There's no real resolution in that, though. And, if something isn't working, the only thing to do is find another way. For every person, that other way might be different, but I encourage you to find it.

There are things I could personally request of our customers that I think I would be perfectly justified in asking (and I'd love to blog some things to help folks understand more about what we do), but all that I am going to ask for is the most important thing: Please, recognize that emotional abuse isn't okay. Realize what a monster it turns people into. Stop accepting it. And, if you have any suggestions about promoting this change, then put them in the comments!! Let's share the thoughts, ideas, and support, and spread them! That's all I'm asking for.


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