Working in call centers – the factories of our time

This is what I do. I don’t call it my career but the fact is I have been at it for quite a while. I haven’t done it all but I have done plenty. Sales, retention, technical and hardware support, I’ve been a coach and I’ve taken the tough supervisor calls. I’ve even told a customer, on behalf of the company, that we would not do business with him anymore

It is a job that anyone can qualify for but that few can actually do well. Only some of these will be tough enough to last beyond six months and fewer still who can find any pleasure in it.

I am one of these dysfunctional few.

Since it seems that lately working in these places has turned into a kind of right of passage for the young Romanian undergraduate looking for financial independence I thought it a good thing to try and shed some light on the subject.

Call centers are diverse beasts. There are sweatshops which’ll have you call two to three hundred people a day on the off chance that one or two will buy what you’re selling. These places are usually pretty obvious from the first time you go for an interview. The “office” is a glorified garage and the interview is conducted in plain view of the other agents. The noise is beyond description, the carpet is full of coffee stains and the furniture is in woeful disrepair. Avoid under any circumstance. It will be the most soul destroying thing you will ever have to do.

There are mid level companies that specialize in business process outsourcing for overseas customers. They will typically have a wide ranging portfolio of projects in diverse industries and some of their clients will be companies you may have heard about. This is their major bargaining chip when trying to sell you the job: “you will have the opportunity to work in a multinational company which will look great on your CV later”. If your education means anything to you, steer clear. These places are in fierce competition with each other and the more cheap talent they can get a hold of the better. Monthly employee attrition rates are a major consideration in their business model and once you’re in you’ll be faced with the reality that they can always find someone with the exact same skill level they require of you who has already submitted their resume.

You’ll be in a situation where your experience is largely dictated by your boss rather than the company. There are those managers who will put some effort into building a solid team of people who complement each other well and who will do their damnedest to treat you fairly. The truth of the matter is that these people are rare and it is purely a matter of chance. At the end of the day, if they can’t “fix” an agent in three months you will be right where you started. Four months experience is more of a liability on your resume than no experience.

The caveat here is that although these employers will work you hard and squeeze every last drop of productivity out of you, they will not usually break any laws. You’ll be paid on time and the fluid environment makes for advancement opportunities if you’ve got your eye on the ball. They enforce strict discipline and for those of us who were never conscripted in the army it can be a very maturing time. I repeat myself but avoid unless desperate – at 21 it’s not worth sacrificing your studies for this work experience.

Finally there is the large multinational. Companies like Oracle and HP have a large presence in Bucharest and most of it revolves around support services and programming. There are others but these two are some of the more well known employers. I am not going to talk about these two companies specifically as I have not experienced the environment first hand. Generally though, the pay is good and the working conditions are dignified. These are specialized positions which require certain skills beyond language and being “a team player who can build and maintain good professional relationships”.  Some experience in the previous category of employment may be required before they will consider you for a position but that does not mean exceptional candidates are not eligible.

Working in a call center can be a challenging proposal. There are many pluses which are often overlooked and which I will strive to accurately describe in future posts. There are also many pitfalls you can stumble into on a personal level. I would venture to say this is an important part of our current services oriented economy and it should not be overlooked as a possible career path. Like anything else however it should be looked at with steely rather than googly eyes.

There are several good employers in Bucharest and all one has to do is persevere in their pursuit. Always remember that starting work before you have your BA puts you at risk of never graduating leaving you with only a high school education, hardly sufficient in today’s highly competitive job market and a handicap that is very difficult to rectify once the deed has been done.

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