When I was seventeen I came back from England and got a job working for a Sprint Canada call centre while I waited for the next semester of high school to let in. For the first three months I was a telemarketer in first the residential and then the business streams, but it would be too dull for me to say that the worst phone conversation of my life was spent telemarketing. I can do much better than that, I promise.
After three months of that soul-crushing job, I was planning to quit and go back to high school. My bosses didn’t want me to go, though: I was hard-working (or at least as hard-working as any telemarketer can be for $12 an hour), and I knew all of their stuff backwards and forwards. They begged me to stay on –at 20 hours a week at $15 an hour– and they offered me a true plum assignment to further sweeten the pot: Inbound Business Sales.
Let me explain why this was an awesome gig compared to what I had been doing: No longer would I be calling businesses across Canada –a good number of which were Saskatchewan farms or grocery chains, neither one of which ever bought anything ever from a telemarketer, despite making up the bulk of our call list. Instead, I would sit at my desk and wait for a business to call me because they wanted to switch their services over to Sprint. They only ever called if they were interested, and I still got a small commission if I made the sale. If telemarketing can be likened to fishing without bait from the shore into a polluted river, then I was now moving over to the equivalent of having the fish jump into my hands as I stood next to a salmon run in the Rockies.
It gets better, too. Sprint didn’t have any advertisements running for their business plans that winter, so I actually received very few calls. You were allowed to have radios playing over in inbound (another perk), and the top radio singles at the time were Drops of Jupiter by Train and I’m Like a Bird by Nelly Furtado. Sometimes I would hear those songs three or four times in a shift between calls.
Because the business came to us (albeit very slowly), there was no competition over in Inbound. All the sales staff was friendly, cheerful, and talkative. There was even a pretty girl I took to chatting up. It was truly a marked improvement over telemarketing. I was making $300 a week to listen to the radio, read a book with my feet up, and –when I did get maybe ten or fifteen calls across a five-day period– I was supposed to be knowledgable enough to land the sale, thus making a couple of further dollars for my trouble. It was bliss.
This continued on through the spring and into summer, when I increased my hours back up to full time and rubbed my hands together with glee at the prospect of the cushy job I had found. Alas, the good times never last forever. Sprint Canada was launching a new venture, and it would come to be the downfall of the entire company.
This was back in 1999 or 2000, and local telephone service (as opposed to long distance) had been under a Bell Canada monopoly in Ontario since the invention of the telephone. When this monopoly was broken up by the CRTC, Sprint rushed in to offer the service, even though they didn’t own any lines or have any equipment of their own.
How could they possibly offer the service for less, if they had to lease everything off Bell anyway? They couldn’t, of course. Their rates were substantially higher. Their entire business model was based around attracting the few customers who were so irate with Bell that they would pay more and switch to us, but no one ever ran numbers to see just how many people that might be.
They launched the service with twelve customer service representatives working the phones, and twenty or so technicians to do home installations to service a province of twelve million…. Yeah.
Sales boomed. Sales exploded. Sales poured in faster than you would believe possible. Every employee not selling was set to work on data entry, processing the orders, and we still couldn’t keep up. Mark that: We couldn’t keep up with inputting all the sales. What hope did twenty technicians have of carrying out the orders? Bell dutifully (in my imagination gleefully) shut off people’s home service, and no one from Sprint Canada ever showed up to hook up what we had sold them.
Within a day, the wait time for local customer service was up to four hours. This is in the time before cell phones were common place. To get a hold of someone who could tell you when the technician was coming by, you had to wait on hold –not hang up and try your call again, actually stay on the line– for four hours in a pay phone, at work, or calling from a friend’s house. The most sane and rational person in the world would find that tedious, and by sheer defintion that’s just one unique and remarkable individual among the multitude. Within a week, every telephone number attached to Sprint Canada was being called by people who had signed up for our local service and had no service at all, including my own little used business inbound sales number.
For eight hours a day, day after day solid I fielded complaint calls and transferred people to the local customer service queue with the explanation that it would be at least four hours on continuous hold. I heard every sob story in the world.
I remember a woman calling from a glassed in pay phone with her baby in a stroller who was crying from the heat of the sun beating down through the plexiglass. I had to tell her to hang up and find some place indoors to try again. I was subjected to a stream of profanity by countless men and women who knew they’d gotten a raw deal. Dozens of times a day I got calls saying they had been on hold for five, six, seven hours, and I would have to explain to them that it wasn’t enough to wait. They would have to wait without hanging up and trying a different number.
I never made a single sale for weeks: Businesses couldn’t get through to me for all the angry local sales customers who had paid more in good faith and received nothing.
Thus we come to the worst phone call of my life.
It started off like a hundred before. A woman called me, demanding her local service, telling me she’d been without a working phone for two weeks, and further emphasizing for me that she’d been trying to get through to local customer service for days. What was I going to do about it?
She did not want to hear that she’d have to wait on hold for four hours straight after hanging up on me and trying a different number. I speak, of course, of the local customer service number. The only number that rang through to the twelve local customer service agents.
“I want my local service, NOW!” she said, bringing her fist crashing down on a table that was clearly set for dinner: I could hear the plates and cutlery jump under the blow.
Something inside of me snapped. This wasn’t what I had signed on for. No job was worth this. If I hung up on her, she was just going to call back, and one of my colleagues was going to get a rare earful. No, this stopped now.
I was two hours or so into an eight-hour shift, and I didn’t care if I kept my job or not. I was going to help this woman, if only to spare my co-workers the sharp edge of her tongue. They could fire me, and I’d go get a job detasseling corn or working retail or cooking steel. I had options.
“Ma’am, as I explained to you–“
She didn’t want to hear it.
“Stop–” I said. “Wait!” I begged. “I’ll make you a deal!”
Silence, blessed silence.
“There’s nothing I can do about the wait time, but I will stay on hold with you until you get through to a customer service representative who can help you. Is that a deal?”
So I transferred her, and I stayed on the line with her, taking myself out of the incoming queue, and I settled in for a long, long ride.
For the first hour or two she lambasted me with a stream of verbal abuse, a tirade of insults that wouldn’t be out of place in the first twenty minutes of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. I was a son-of-a-bitch who worked for the devil. How could I live with myself, defrauding hardworking people who just wanted to receive what they paid for? I should go f— myself to death with a rusty iron rod. Never in her life had she been treated this way, and she was paying more for the privilege than if she’d stuck with those bastards at Bell. Where was the justice? I should burn in hell for what I did to her. My parents should not only be ashamed of themselves, they should be locked up for raising such a no-good, cretinous, thieving, swindling, horse-buggering, lying, snivelling, wretched excuse for a son. Et cetera, et cetera, et–nauseatingly profane-cetera.
My coworkers had seen me fall silent where they were a constant hum of phone conversations, and so, one by one, between fielding their own harrassing calls, they asked me what was going on. I handed over my ear piece, and their eyes went wide. “You’ve got a live one, there,” They all agreed. “Are you really going to stay on the line with her?”
I was. I had promised. I let her talk to me in a way I have never allowed anyone to even approach speaking to me before or since. The phone is an incredible tool for belittling people. You cannot see the person on the other end. They are not real to you. You can say what you will and what you feel to a complete stranger with impunity, especially if they’ve promised not to hang up. I had promised. I am a man of my word.
Eventually she got hoarse. Her breath became raspy. She wheezed and hissed and spat and moaned and cursed and wailed and cried. After a couple of hours she would fall silent for five minutes at a time, only to ask, “Are you still there, Geoff?”
“Then I’m still here!” She would roar, perhaps returning to her most choice invectives once more until the effort became too much for her, and she would sink down into the chair by her neighbour’s kitchen table to regain her strength and nurse her hatred for me, my company, my family, and all the other evils that plagued her, and existed in her mind on my end of the telephone.
Word got out to my supervisor what was happening, and she would come by my desk from time to time to frown down at me and look at the clock. Everyone else was fielding at least twelve calls an hour. I had done twenty or so at the start of my shift, and now I was on hold with just one. One long, agonizing call.
Hours passed. Hours and hours. The sun went down. I missed my lunch and both of my breaks. The radio playing softly behind me switched from the morning DJ to the day DJ to the evening DJ. I’m like a Bird never sounded so dreary as it did in that eternity of a call.
Finally, a customer service rep picked up, and I smashed the button that muted the woman’s input. She must not know we were through yet!
“Hello! This is Geoff calling from the Inbound Business Sales division of Sprint’s Chatham Call Centre. I have a woman on the line who’d like to ask you a few questions. If you start every sentence with, ‘I’m sorry about the wait,’ you might live.”
The woman at the local customer service centre actually laughed! What strength she must have had, to field nothing but those calls all day every day and still be able to find the humour in the situation. I couldn’t have done it. I was wrung out doing it just once.
“Go ahead and put her through. I’ve heard it all before, I promise you.”
So I did. I switched off the mute, introduced the demon lady to the customer service rep, hit connect, and I was done.
I took off my headset, and slowly stood up. My legs and back ached from hunching under her verbal tirade for what must have been the better part of five hours. I took off my glasses and rubbed the bridge of my nose.
I can’t be sure this actually happened, or if it’s just how I remember it, but it seems to me a hush fell over the call centre floor, then my co-workers, one by one, took off their headsets, and they all turned their faces to look at me. Someone started clapping. Someone else cheered. The pretty girl across from me leaned over and shook my hand vigorously.
That’s how I remember it, but after all these years it might just be how I want to remember it. I felt as if I had performed some herculean task of patience and endurance. I had kept my cool and given curteous customer service to the least deserving and most demanding caller I had ever received.
I walked from my desk, my legs unsteady, and I went into my superivsor’s office to admit to what I had done, and offer to let her fire me. I had just spent at least four hours –as I said, probably closer to five– dealing with a single customer. That was between $60 to $75 dollars of the company’s money (which to a teenager feels like a lot) without any hope of making a single dime of income in exchange.
My supervisor listened to my story, her fingers steepled, and then she smiled at me. “That’s alright, Geoff. You did good.”
The next day when I came into work, logged on, and checked my company email; there was a bulletin to all departments with my name in the subject line. My supervisor had written up two or three paragraphs explaining the incident, and commending me in the highest possible terms for going so far above and beyond the bounds of polite, respectful, courteous, dedicated phone manner. She let it be known that I would receive a $50 bonus for my hard work –something I never saw anyone else ever receive in my nine months at Sprint Canada for anything less than a sale that made the company thousands of dollars.
I guess the idea was to inspire others to do their best with the impossible situation the local service fiasco was producing, but no one else ever duplicated my feat in the month or so before I got fed up and finally quit. Who would want to? I get worn out just thinking about what I listened to. In truth, I remember no specifics. It just felt like boiling water pouring out of the headset, dousing me, scalding me, for hours without relief.
Sprint Canada shut its doors within a year. The local service boondoggle poisoned their name throughout their customer base, and their rates had never been all that competitive in long distance to begin with. They were finished, and to my understanding they never made good on the last round of pay cheques they sent out to their miserable employees.
As for me, I will always remember that fist crashing down onto that table, and that woman –in my mind she was a harridan in a frayed pink terrycloth bathrobe with curlers in her stringy salt and pepper hair– as the worst phone call of my life (or, how I earned $50 for not caring if I got fired).