Thanks heavens for the tact and delicacy of call centre staff

I used a Zipcar for the first time yesterday and it broke down. Since I was only in it because my own car broke down, I couldn’t write off the possibility that there was something about the way I drive, and I sat in it dolefully for some minutes having a long, hard look in the mirror. But the beauty of a car that won’t start is that it is unarguable. You cannot make it move with self-recrimination. You have to call someone.

“Can you put …” the man in the call centre said, very slowly, “the key in the ignition?” “I can do that, yes.” “Right. Is it all the way in?” “Yes. And you asked me this last time. And I’ve just driven down the A40, which would have been hard if I hadn’t got the key all the way into the ignition.” “Aha. We’ll try this three or four more times.” “OK, if you like. Do you want to know which warning lights are flashing?” “Not really, no.” “You’re sure?” “I am sure, because these cars don’t really break. They brake! But they don’t really break.”

In the moment, I was annoyed and words such as “mancarsplaining” and “patronising git” were chasing each other across my tongue, but they didn’t escape, thank God, because the delicacy, the sheer skill of call centre work has to be ruminated upon to be believed.

For a start, as a call centre worker you have no way of knowing how daft the person is you are talking to. You have to leave them with a positive impression of your organisation, which, given that they are already angry, requires the balm of a counsellor and the patience of a hostage negotiator. You have to figure out what is actually wrong – which, given item one, is by no means straightforward. Because the stakes are often low, the skills are undervalued. Or maybe more or less all work we consider low-skilled is actually just low-paid, and we are making a simple category error.

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