The customer has made an error in payment, and has called me to resolve it. There’s screaming. It’s mostly incoherent. One word of every three can be understood. Lines of questioning explode into my ear, and then trail off again. Each response elicits a fresh wave of abuse.
The solution is simple. Take these details to pay correctly, and fill out this form to get the first payment back.
The customer accuses me of fraud, starts calling me a prick. My screen tells me we’ve been speaking for seven minutes when she stops, and apologizes. She recently lost a family member, and she’s on a short fuse. Okay.
I’m sorry to hear that. Let’s work together and figure out the best way to get it sorted.
Sorted? I’m not going to fucking sort it. I shouldn’t have to. You fucking sort it, you scammy cunt.
And so it goes. After twenty minutes, she hangs up in mid-sentence. She never took any of the information she needed. The next call comes through immediately. It’s a young man, he’s unhappy.
Where’s all my money? Why have you taken it?
Do you recall making these purchases?
I list his history.
Yes, I do. Why have you taken money for them?
I take a call like this every few days. In between those ones, old men threaten me with lawsuits, or explode at me for my uselessness and stupidity. To a certain type of old man, everything they don’t like is stupidity. Some ask me for my personal details.
What’s your name? No, your full name? Where are you? No, where *exactly*.
Sometimes the intention is clear: to get me fired or come and kick my ass in person. Sometimes it’s not. That’s worse. Many others aren’t angry, they’re desperate. They call and struggle to keep up.
I thought it was free. I didn’t realize I would have to pay back. I forgot. I can’t pay. I have three children and work part time.
I go home after nine hours, heavy with the thought of all those people. I get drunk and waste time, thinking about how I could get out. Most of us do.
This February, Casey Newton did a deep dive into Facebook content moderation (as Adrian Chen had before him), exposing the trauma inflicted on those who endure constant exposure to flagged content. Facebook’s army of content moderators read racist manifestos, scroll through photos of people having sex with animals, and watch people die, so you don’t have to. Mostly. They do so on a strict clock, with barely enough time to go the bathroom, enduring constant over-the-shoulder supervision. If they don’t click through to the next murder fast enough, they are penalized. Surprise, the department is staffed entirely by outsourced contractors who are paid way, way less than Facebook staff.
I’m writing this because Newton’s piece reminded me so much of my own job. The one that nearly everyone under 30 has done, or is doing, or knows someone doing: Customer service. The sector represents 651,000 jobs in the UK and nearly three million in the U.S.A, and like most service positions, it is widely considered ‘unskilled’ and thus pays around minimum wage. The main component of the work is emotional labour, and I mean this phrase in its strictest sense. In this job, your ability to regulate and suppress your emotions is what gets you paid, not your physical or intellectual power.
We too are constantly monitored. In fact, the only difference between my job and that of my supervisor seems to be his responsibility to look over my shoulder. Newton’s description of the moderators’ office rings familiar, too: no phones, no paper.
The vast array of digital services can only be navigated with the help of a vast army of low-paid, “unskilled” workers, all of whom have the vaguely-defined task of leaving each customer feeling, in the language of the industry, happy. Or satisfied.
Specifically: I work for a bank. The market I work with hands out loans to our customers, who have debts. Or need a loan. Those famously happy things. And yet this is a world where “success” is reckoned to be crucial. Delve into the depressing world of business analytics and LinkedIn thinkpieces, and you’ll find everyone is talking about “consumer experience”: How bad it is, and how good it needs to be.
For once, the guys on LinkedIn are right. Navigating life in this century revolves around our ability to interact with an interlocking series of bureaucracies run according to their own precise rules and delicate timescales. No matter how consumer-focussed these institutions are or deem themselves to be, you will, in the end, have to follow their procedures in order to perform tasks that are essential, unavoidable, or necessary stops in the pursuit of your own happiness. We all know that we often need to look out for our elderly friends, neighbours, and relatives, who learned to navigate a very different maze, and sometimes struggle to keep up with the rules of this one. That’s because it’s hard. It’s a complicated business. And we all know how rubbish a bad interaction with a corporation makes us feel. The recurring term, chosen spontaneously by thousands of callers, is nightmare.
How this nightmare came about is largely self-explanatory. Customer service was once face-to-face, homespun, when businesses operated on small scales. When a single service has tens of thousands of customers and a compartmentalized workforce, it’s no longer possible to interact with them all reliably. ACD, the technology that allows phone call distribution, was probably first installed in 1965 by a British news service . By the ‘70s banking agents were doing a quaint version of what I do now: taking questions on the phone, and then going and checking accounts manually. By the 90s this model was standard in the banking sector, and had thus already silently infiltrated the most important, stressful aspects of our lives.
In hindsight, all this is embarrassingly obvious. These stories reminds us that the internet, bad enough as it is in its current form, is not maintained with the clean, painless, bloodless automated digital tools promised by Silicon Valley press releases. For all the talk of updating the algorithms every few months to make platforms less radicalizing, less awful, less far-right-leaning, the real work is still done by a large group of low-paid people in modern-day factories. The most advanced tool available to the Facebook moderators is the mouse in their hand, plus an utterly arbitrary set of guidelines for just how racist something is allowed to be. The impact on them is swift and terrible. Some get depressed, some turn to substance abuse, some start to believe the very ideas they’re being asked to filter out. “We were doing something that was darkening the soul,” one says.
This inner machinery reveals the billions of ordinary “consumers” who use Facebook to be Romans in their baths: enjoying the futuristic technology of adjustable plumbing and heating, blissfully unaware of the Thracian slave shovelling coal into a boiler just a few feet below. Except, in this case, the facility we are all using and responsible for keeping alive influences elections, convinces people to join the far right, pushes Britain to leave the European Union.
It’s hard to get to know the people I work with, and get their take on the work. I tried to strike up chats when I started but the constant, uneven flow of interruptions is impossible to overcome.
We have to take lunch breaks separately to maintain a constant level of service. There’s a noticeboard with four “break” cards on it. If there’s a card, you can take a break. If not, you wait, sometimes for up to six hours. If you sit far away from the board, or get stuck on the phone when one reappears, you’ll have to watch as someone else grabs it first. (Unlike Facebook moderators, we get to use the toilet as often as we please. However, I am disinclined to describe this as a perk.)
When people do take lunch, they squirrel themselves away in silence, with headphones in, buried in a book or device. I’m normally talkative, but I have nothing to say at lunchtime either. The result is months of working with people without having once had a sustained conversation with any of them. Nobody seems to know anything about one another beyond the barest details. I have no idea what part of Australia my neighbour comes from, whether he has any siblings, or whether he went to college.
But there’s a deeper cause for the general isolation, I believe. After spending so long every day engaged in exhausting melees with anonymous people, we have little to no appetite for conversation. All I want to do in between and after is be quiet, and that seems the same way for most of us.
As stable work has started to disappear, call centre work and other customer service has remained one of the best options for entry-level work. Nearly everyone in my office works there because they needed stable hours and a guaranteed income, and nothing else available to us offered those things. Nearly everyone is under 30. And as impenetrably designed digital services take the place of more and more straightforward face-to-face interactions, more and more things will be contested, and thus explained, assessed, queried, and escalated to a payment expert.
Maybe you’re cool with that. Personally, it sounds pretty dystopian to me, considering that those interactions are nearly all immiserating.
There’s a lot of drug use on the floor. A few people microdose on uppers, others do lines of speed and coke after four o’clock to keep the engines running. A couple show up drunk. I don’t, mostly because it would eat into my minimum wage paycheck, and I’m horrified by the idea of keeping myself in the job a day longer than I need. I’ve heard this from others, too. I don’t get paid enough to get high.
Even so, soaking up the anger of so many people is not the worst possible job. I’ve always found myself relatively able to deflect it. That is, I don’t get angry back. Whatever personal sensitivity I have, such angry, red-faced interactions always leave me feeling sad, rather than aggravated. It makes me visualize the whole system through which I and that person came to interact, and how the bad interactions reflect a broken system. Force people through these tunnels, and they become so stressed and defensive. The exception is when a mean streak shows through, the kind of gleeful evil shown by a man who earns hundreds of thousands of pounds a year as he smugly describes his intention to have you punished for irritating him. Those guys make me madder than I can describe.
But worse than that is the sadness. Preyed on by low-quality online merchants, scammy sellers, and promises of convenience and ‘one click’ transactions, people with low financial literacy but full control of their finances fall hard into the traps put out specifically to suck money out of them.
One of the smartest aspects of this design is that nobody who staffs the machine has any stake or power in the structure as a whole. They, meaning I, can’t talk to someone more important ourselves, even if we wished to. To do so, I would have to go the same way as everyone else. If you must contact a bank or an insurer, do so knowing that it has been made impossible by design for you to talk to anyone with real authority. When you scream down the phone you’ve ruined my life, your system error means I can’t get a mortgage, you will rarely if ever be screaming at anyone who could help you.
This design places those with power and responsibility safely away from the impact of their actions, and pits two enormous groups of stressed-out working people against each other. Rather than resolve conflicts in a constructive or efficient way, we are forced to abuse and hate each other as proxies.
As long as profit rules, “the customer is king,” and predatory, wasteful, opaque services are major players in our economy, we cannot have healthy economic interactions with one another. But in the here and now? Here are three things that would make the system more fair.
First, pay more. Not just because I want to buy my groceries in the slightly nicer store, but because the demands of the work are greater than the pay. If you want service workers to meet exacting standards, pay them. You handle the misery the company creates. Get paid for it.
Next, design systems with a conscious effort towards reducing “the runaround.” Being kept on hold, and redirected reduces people’s quality of life. They don’t have a choice, they must use online services to govern their financial and medical lives. I’m sure I’ll be told that this is already done, but it isn’t.
And finally, those who interact with customers should have the right to terminate those interactions when they act abusively. There’s no added risk here: we’re already monitored closely. Replace ‘You kept your cool for the whole thing, good job! ’ with ‘You hung up when they called you a c***, good job !’ There is no sense or humanity in the current standard, it doesn’t resemble any healthy face-to-face human interaction. If somebody has to be traumatized in order for Facebook to function as a business, then Facebook doesn’t function as a business. If somebody has to be mistreated and dehumanized for a business to function, then it doesn’t.
You get occasional glimpses into the details of the lives you’re helping to worsen. I’ve been shouted at by a husband, who just a second ago was chuckling at the “stupidity” of his wife. She went and bought some “silly things,” he said. You tell him you will have to speak to her directly. She’s in the room, he said. She’s right here. It’s fine. You can talk to me, mate. I told him nevertheless, it’s a legal requirement, and he detonated. The phone clicked and I was left to guess the rest. That’s one example, but the case is a regular one. These glimpses form a picture, by the end of the day, a picture of the actual society you live in, the one as it exists in private, in the living rooms of the nation. There’s nothing happy or satisfied about it. Still, the vast majority are regular people, neither exceptionally vulnerable nor aggressive. They speak with a variety of tones from disgust to annoyance, throw in the occasional insult, and generally speak as if to something odd and distasteful. A favourite of polite British people with accents from the South-East is you’re a bit useless, aren’t you.
Sometimes it’s not fully clear that they know what’s happening, or understand basic banking and personal finance. I’m not sure if many know this, but a great many people every day, in this society we live in, destroy their finances on Amazon or ASOS, buying four pairs of $200 trainers on credit when they live on minimum wage and support a family. I can’t say how many, all I can say is that I speak to around five of them a day. Who failed them? How did a person grow up in a society governed by financial institutions and never get taught how they work?
One young man couldn’t understand why I couldn’t help him, and I was struggling to understand what the miscommunication was. It’s not me sending you the letters , I ended up saying. I’m a customer service agent, I work for a company, and they send those letters automatically. We have your name and address in a file. No, that’s not my name. That’s the name of the company.