Punch The Clock

September 5, 1997

During the week Bob Jones figured out he wasn't suited to a life in telephone customer service he stayed in bed-avoiding friends, not answering the phone, keeping the curtains drawn, sick at the very idea of returning to work.

Why so down, Bob? You were working for the best and brightest: Microsoft. Well, sort of. Jones (not his real name) worked as a customer-service rep in a Carrollton, Texas, office of a third-party contractual firm called Stream International, which he says handled calls for Microsoft Network. (Stream would not talk to me about Microsoft.)

A dreary lot no doubt, but why was Jones so defeated? Most of us work hard, or are at least urged to do so by our supervisors. But while the boss always has tried to squeeze the most from the underlings, only recently has the boss gotten the tools for second-by-second management. As these tools become more exact, who'll define the line between maximum efficiency and employee exploitation?

Jones' experience started off well. After being sent to Stream through a temp agency, he enjoyed his two weeks of training. He learned about the usual problems and their solutions as well as how to handle irate customers. He knew he liked helping people. He thought he'd enjoy the job.

But once he was out on the call floor Jones got the feeling that management and training were at cross-purposes. "Whereas our trainers had encouraged us to take as long as necessary to solve each caller's problem, our manager pressured us to constantly finish each call as quickly as possible," he says.

And the managers had the technology to show who was working efficiently and who wasn't. Jones says Stream timed each call representatives got, and then computed average times. Management also kept tabs on "idle mode"-the time when workers weren't on the phone with customers but were not signed off of duty. Break and training time counted as idle time, as did listening to voice-mail messages. Jones says his chart for one work week showed he spent 14 percent of his day idle, more than the 12 percent company goal.

"The clock ruled us," he remembers. For six and a half hours a day the calls streamed into Jones' cubicle-calls from customers reeling from problems with their dialers, modem settings, or port speeds. Whenever he took some extra time to help a customer, he felt guilty. "It created anxiety as to whether there was something wrong in me."

After a few months of increasing tension about his lagging job performance, Jones just gave up. He stayed in bed and kept calling in sick. "I didn't talk to anyone. I let my phone machine pile up the messages." After a week he quit.

Jones would be the first to admit he wasn't an ideal employee. He just didn't have the tolerance for this line of work. Still, his experience raises interesting questions.

"As technology grows more sophisticated, there will be more ways to monitor people, and so it becomes more important to safeguard them against unreasonable use of these devices," says Candice Johnson, spokesperson for the Communications Workers of America (CWA), a labor union.

CWA has seen it before. Last October the union released results of a survey it sponsored of 200 customer-service representatives, and the results included a case of what it called a "high-tech sweatshop": customer-service centers run by Bell Atlantic. CWA says employees were not given enough time to help customers and were monitored minute-by-minute by multiple supervisors. Some even had to key in special codes to be excused. As one rep put it, "Getting reports which tell you how many times you used the rest room and for how long is dehumanizing."

What constitutes unreasonable use of such statistical benchmarks? Monitoring employees on an individual rather than a collective basis, Johnson answers-the kind of monitoring Jones says he experienced, and what CWA labels "adherence."

But Suzy Weaver, Stream's director of support operations in Texas, disputes CWA's assessment. She says the statistical analyses of employee time are more for the sake of "improving productivity" than serving as "watchdog." While stats are kept on individuals, the company is more interested in analyzing the number of calls to better allocate staffing, she says. Sure, managers work closely with employees whose call-times lag behind the standard, Weaver says, but they do so in a supportive fashion, to find out what might be slowing reps down rather than to just urge them to hurry up.

Still, despite the hype about how the info revolution will change the way we work, for some foot soldiers of customer service it's the same old story: If you're not the lead dog the view is always the same. Jones says his experience reminded him of factory assembly-line work, which he's also done.

The experience of Jeb Bianco, who worked for a temp firm providing interim staff to Symantec software in Eugene, Ore., was similar to Jones'. "Everything you do is timed-the time you're on a call, the time you place a call on hold, the time you're waiting for the next call," Bianco says. Every two weeks he was given a printout of his daily performance. He was expected to keep calls to four minutes apiece on average, no matter how many questions the customer had. The goal was for each rep to handle 100 calls in an eight-hour shift, something he says "was quite unrealistic."

These days Bianco works in carpentry. The hours are longer, he says, but the job is more satisfying.
--Joab Jackson

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