It's 7:00 a.m. in the Internet Support* call center. A scent of dirty socks and day-old pizza hangs in the air. Agents log into their phones, boot up their computers. The large cube-divided room is dimly lit, cozy like a bar, or maybe a funeral parlor. This early there's time to surf the Web, e-mail a friend, tear open a package of Pop Tarts and relish the quiet. Across the aisle from me Rick arranges the plastic toy men on the top off his monitor. Behind me Justin plays FreeCell. Latrice paints her nails and blows on them. Tinny laughter from a portable radio at her desk makes her smile and shake her head.
In the middle of the room sits the Hotcube. The Hotcubist today is George. It's his job to monitor our calls, watch our times, listen in if necessary, and write us up. Stay on a call longer than thirty minutes and your name goes into a log. Sit in Wrap (the time between calls) for longer than three minutes, your name goes in a log. Take a Health break for longer than five minutes, your name goes in a log. Leave your desk without an appropriate code. Logged.
I started working at the call center in February 1999, one of an incoming class of about 25. Twenty months later I look around at the hundred or so faces, and I don't recognize anyone from my class. Most quit in the first three months. In April a brand-new class of forty was hired and thrown onto the phones. Another class in June.
It's like how I imagine war to be. People just disappear. You simply don't see them anymore. Hotcube got to them. They panic on a call. Take a Health break and walk out the front door and don't come back. When the crew thins out, a new crop of agents is recruited and given two weeks basic training (Monday Windows, Tuesday Mac, Thursday NT) and off they go.
Brian sits across the cube from me. He's 23 and works at a supermarket on the weekend. Brian takes calls with his head on the desktop and his eyes closed. »Click on Edit, select Preferences, click on Servers,« he mumbles. Last week we didn't know one another. We sat on opposite sides of the center. This week, for some reason, our seat assignments were changed. Brian thinks we've been moved closer to Hotcube. He thinks we're being monitored. He could be right. Or he could be paranoid.
When I started, I thought I could tell when I was being monitored. I'd hear a click as the call was transferred. Or I'd hear a slight echo on the line. Or a buzzing. Or sometimes, the question was so easy I suspected the call was a fake and I was being tested. Please, I'd pray, let the question be really easy. Don't ask a Mac question. I would lift my head during the call and look around the room. It's him, I'd think. He's monitoring me. Or him. Or her.
The phone rings the first of about thirty calls in the next eight hours. As a second-tier agent, I take calls from first-tier agents. They're the point men, the grunts. They take the bullets. They're mostly from small towns in the South. Polite as can be even if they don't know much.
This one's voice shakes. I bet she's wondering if she's being recorded. »I have this customer who demands to speak to a supervisor. Can I please transfer him to you? He won't speak to me anymore. He's all mad, calling me stupid,« she says hurriedly.
She's breathing heavily. I know I could grill her about the trouble-shooting steps she's taken, run through the standard check list (check the cables, check the settings, rip TCP/IP) and then shove her back to the customer. But I can hear the panic in her voice. I remember how it feels, calling for help and getting brushed off. »Go ahead,« I tell her. »Transfer him.«
»Thank you so much,« she says, her voice very fast like a prisoner suddenly freed. I think: she's not gonna last much longer.
While she transfers the call I take a breath and prepare myself. It's like the moment before telling your parents that you've smashed their car. Or the two minutes it takes for a cop to walk up to your car window and ask for your license. There's no getting around it: it's going to be ugly. Brian taps me on the shoulder and points to his phone. He's entered the number 55 into the display screen an unknown idle code.
»Hotcube will see you,« I warn him. Hotcube sees everyone, knows every code you're in. When you're not in a valid code, your inside line rings immediately. It's Hotcube calling to find out what you're up to.
»No,« he says. »I tested it. They can't see me.« I think he's wrong but if he's right I wouldn't mind using the code just to exhale every now and then without being monitored.
Finally, the customer is transferred to me. »Are you a supervisor?« he demands instantly. Since the beginning of the month, everyone in the call center has been transformed into a supervisor. Brian sleeping at his desk is now a supervisor. Ian with purple hair gelled into points is a supervisor. Ron who begged not to be made a supervisor is a supervisor. I am hoping next month, whoever decided to make us all supervisors will make us CEOs.
»Yes, I am a supervisor.«
»At last,« he sighs. I feel sorry for him: he thinks he's reached someone in authority. He's explains that he's had a red sync light on his DSL modem (indicating a line problem) for two months. He has had no service, yet he's been billed without interruption. It's really a phone line issue. I get calls like this at least twenty times a day. Basically there's nothing we can do. »I can escalate the case for you if you like, but it's usually more effective if you call our Plant Control Offices directly.« We've been told to tell customers to call directly. Better they wait on hold than one of us.
If we escalate the case, it'll take about two weeks before the telephone company sends a technician to the customer's premises. Ideally, the customer will be informed that the technician has been dispatched. Ideally, the customer will be home when the technician arrives. »I can arrange to have a technician dispatched to your house,« I offer. Dispatched: it has a nice, speedy ring to it. Ambulances and fire trucks are dispatched.
»I've already had one of your so-called technicians out here!« he blurts. »He didn't know his rear-end from his navel. He was here so long he fell asleep on my couch! Now I want to know what you YOU are going to do about this right now.«
What can I do? Put him on hold.
I glance up at the reader board to check the number of calls waiting and the longest wait time. When the wait time exceeds five minutes the number turns from amber to red. After that, the numbers start to flash. When a router goes down, the board lights up like a marquee.
Perhaps he's not mapped correctly on the telco side. I call our Network Data Operations Processing. »I need to escalate a case to see if a customer is mapped correctly,« I say.
»You need to call the tech center,« she tells me.
»I'm calling from the tech center,« I answer.
»Oh, then you need to go through PCO.«
»I've gone through the PCO,« I persist.
»I'm sorry. I don't have the authority to transfer you,« she insists.
»Let me speak to your supervisor,« I demand instantly.
»Hold on,« she says. I imagine her knocking on a supervisor's office door. I imagine a man with a tie following her to her phone. She's probably passing me over to someone just like me.
The theme song from Titanic plays. Sting sings. I check my e-mail. Celine sings. The hold light to my customer flashes.
I eye the Hotcubist. He eyes me. The call is going too long. My hand hovers over the call disconnect button. One touch to the release button, and my average call times will improve. I think of what Kevin used to tell me when I first started. An ex-con with tattoos up his arm and a talent for finding the foulest Web sites, he gave me the best advice. »Remember this,« he said. »There's a support boundary in every call, and it's your job to find it.« What this means is that often we provide the appearance of technical support rather than support itself.
Some boundaries are obvious: Internet Explorer, Outlook, UNIX, personal home pages. We don't touch them. But Kevin, like a pig searching for truffles, would dig down deep and bring up the most priceless delicacies. »I'm sorry, sir. We only support the 16650 UART chip.« Unfortunately I can't play a support boundary card in this case.
Hotcube calls me on the inside line. »Long call.«
I check my phone clock that times each call. It's showing twenty minutes. »I'm on hold with NDPSC,« I inform him.
»Sorry, no outside calls right now. We're getting hit bad.« A high-pitched beeping repeats overhead as a message slowly moves across the board. »ROUTER DOWN. WATCH YOUR CALL TIMES!!«
The director of the call center gets up out of his seat and marches over to the Hotcube. He's doing what all directors do when something goes down. He towers over the Hotcubist and stares up to the reader board. While the Hotcubist tries to shuffle agents putting them in one queue, taking them out of another the director barks commands. »What's Watkins doing? Get him out of Wrap.« »Tell Jones her break is over.« »Flanagan's in Idle for three minutes.«
Poor Hotcube. If the numbers don't improve quickly, he's done for. No more cushy job, back to trenches like the rest of us. He's perspiring as if it's his fault a router went down.
»Where's Doyle?« the director demands, looking over at Brian's empty desk.
Brian's manager walks over to investigate. I suspect Brian is done for also. Meanwhile my hold button blinks. I will have to get my caller's number and phone him back. I hit the hold button to return to the customer. The wonderfully joyous sound of dead air greets my ears. He's hung up. I stand up, stretch, try to let the tension flow out of my body.
Hotcube sends an instant message that flashes on my screen: »You're in Idle two minutes!!«
»Sorry,« I write back. I am sure my name is going into a log.
My next call is from a customer who canceled his order before his DSL equipment and line were ever installed. For the past three months he has been billed $39 for service he never had.
»Stop the insanity,« he pleads. »Just please cancel the whole thing.« I check his account and see that he's on a special bill plan. I'm not sure of the exact procedure I must follow to deactivate him. I have to ask the billing supervisor, but she sits across the room.
Hotcube looks over suspiciously as I log into Admin and remove my headphones, then go over to speak to her.
»It's a new plan,« Angela sighs. »We can't deactivate him. What we're doing is collecting names, adding them to a list. Once we figure out what to do, we'll take care of it. Give him a credit.«
»But he'll be billed again next month,« I point out. »He'll have to call back.«
»I'm sorry,« she says. »It's all we can do for the moment.«
»Okay, let me see if I've got this straight,« the customer responds when I explain the situation to him. »I don't have any service. I've never had any service. You can't cancel the account which I've never had and you will continue to bill me?«
»Yes,« I answer cautiously, dreading his response.
»I'm stunned, absolutely stunned,« he says. »That's the most ridiculous thing I've heard in a long, long time.«
There's a long pause. It's like waiting for the firing squad to yell FIRE!
And then he laughs, and I know I am in the clear. I've dodged another bullet. »Well,« he sighs, »I guess there's not much I can do.« Fight, scream, raise hell I would like to tell him. Just not to me, to someone who has the authority to fix this mess. If only he could find that person.
I credit his account and send him on his way. Another unsatisfied customer.
After two hours in my seat, I need a Health break. I punch the number 20 into my phone and leave my seat. I have five minutes. The trip to the bathroom should take only two. Providing there's an open stall, and I don't linger before the mirror. But I'm hungry for a bagel. I take a small detour and head to the elevators. I can feel the clock ticking. Maybe Brian's right. Maybe I am being monitored. I check my watch. Maybe I should get back to my seat. The elevator door opens and I press the ground floor button three times. The door takes forever to close and to open. There's a line at the coffee shop. A woman is counting out pennies. Seven minutes, thirty seconds. Finally I get my bagel and head back to the call center. It's been almost nine minutes. I run down the hallway and rush back to my seat. Hotcube looks at me, looks at the clock. Logged.
While I've been gone, I see a small slip of paper has been placed at every agent's desk. »Will you be willing to commute if the call center relocates?« There are two boxes to check: yes or no.
I consider the commute, forty minutes at most. Against traffic. Not too bad. I can handle it. For a little while. The exact same words I said to myself when I took this job twenty months ago.
By one o'clock, that router has been down for three hours. The reader board is hemorrhaging. There are no allowed Wrap times between calls. Once I hang up with one customer I must instantly pick up the phone and take another call. There's not much I can tell customers besides: »I'm sorry. We don't know when it will be back up.« »I signed on with you people,« a caller complains, »because of your good name. I thought a company like you would be a helluva lot more reliable than this. But this stinks and I intend to tell everyone I know just how much it stinks.«
»Yes, it does stink,« I tell her. The words just roll right out of my mouth.
And suddenly I feel a great sense of release, as if I've stepped out of the line of fire.
»Oh,« she says, sounding startled. »Well, I know it's not your fault. I don't mean to take it out on you.«
»Of course,« I tell her.
At 1:30, near the end of my day, my manager asks me to come by his cube. I think, this is it. I'm fired. I put my headset down and walk over to his desk. As I walk over, I wonder, who monitored me? Who's watching me get fired?
And as I sit before him, it occurs to me that I will never have to sit on those phones again.
He opens a folder in his lap with my name on the tab. He hands me a sheet of paper. I quickly scan them for a comment on my last call.
He looks over the notes. »Your AHTs look good,« he tells me. »Good call control. Good. Try to remember your closing statement. The Men in Black are particular about that.«
»Right,« I nod. So I'm not getting fired; I'm getting reviewed favorably. How can that be? Haven't the Men in Black been monitoring my calls?
»One criticism,« he says tapping the paper. »You have to enforce those support boundaries. We don't support Outlook. Give them the help URL and send them on their way. That's what those sites are for.«
I say nothing and he decides to wrap it up. »Okay, well then. Everything looks good. Any questions?«
Why am I here? What's in this for me?
When I return to my desk, I notice Brian's computer is turned off, and his picture of Scully from The X-Files is gone. A few minutes later, another tech sits down at Brian's desk. He adjusts the seat height, tilts the computer monitor to suit him, and then plugs his head phone into Brian's phone. I've seen this guy around the center for months, but I don't know his name. He takes out a bag of Tootsie Rolls and puts them on his desk within easy reach. »Help yourself,« he says.
»Thanks,« I say and then ask him if he knows what happened to Brian.
»Brian who?« he asks. His phone rings before I can answer. He presses the ready button. »Greetings, thank you for calling. How can I provide you with excellent service?« The Men in Black like him much better than Brian.
I wait for the second hand to sweep across the number twelve on the clock, and then I log out. The reader board is a sea of blinking red. I turn off my computer and stand up. I take my mug off the desk and drop it in my backpack. I mark no on my commuting survey and drop the slip of paper into the box at the receptionist's desk.
Outside on the street, the bright sunlight makes me squint as I walk to my car. My legs are stiff from sitting so long. My head rings with people's voices yelling at me. As I get into my car to drive home, I feel like a soldier whose tour of duty has come to an end.
* Names have been changed to confuse the Hotcube.
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