5 Life Lessons From a Call Center Agent

If you're living in the Philippines, you'd probably be overwhelmed by the sheer number of people being outsourced by the call center industry. Manila is most likely a favorite when it comes to hiring customer service representatives because Filipinos have been learning both English and Tagalog since the day we were born, plus we're basically culturally imperialized by the US *sshhh*.

To be honest, I loved my call center stint better than my corporate marketing job for a multinational shipping company. Office politics and rigid hierarchies just wasn't for me, and needless to say, my job didn't love me back. So when I was hired by this company as a call center agent for the super early morning shift, I was ecstatic -- mostly because the pay was good and I was making more money than people my age.

The call center I worked at was very lenient and had a different system in place so I got to work with different accounts in the span of five months. Here's what I learned:

1) People value empathy, even (and especially!) when you say "no"

I was on the phone with a very angry woman who got a fine because the ticket machine wasn't working. You know, usual day. I've basically memorized all the rules already, and since we were ranked based on productivity or the number of calls we were able to take in the shortest possible time, I immediately told her, in the nicest possible way, that there was nothing I could do for her. I can only send a message through, and she has to contest that $200 fine via mail. SHE BLEW UP. She was so angry that I had to call my supervisor to speak with her. In about 2 minutes, he magically got her to accept that we couldn't do anything for her.

I was saying everything right, but what made the difference? My supervisor was exercising empathy. First, he listened to her. He tried to relate to her by saying she must be having a bad day, and he knows how frustrating it is to get a fine, and that we're doing our best to escalate it for her, but she really has to go through the mailing process. As human beings, it's so important to know and feel that someone understands us. We don't have to have everything figured out for them -- we just had to be there, even just to listen. When I learned that lesson, calls became 200% easier for irate callers.

2) Words can make or break your day.

One of my favorite calls was from a guy who gave a lot of compliments. It was probably because he was just a good communicator. He managed to get me off my seat and ask my manager if I could give his dad a certain deal (which I didn't even know we could do). While he placed his order, we were also chatting about where I was from, since I didn't sound Filipino (not a compliment, btw, there's nothing wrong with the Filipino accent). I told him that I really enjoyed our conversation, and he wished I'd find a good bloke in Australia (hahaha, how informal was that?).

Another one was from an old lady who loved joking about how hot George Clooney was. Mind you, she's probably in her 80s, and definitely rocking the girl gab. I pretended to share the same sentiments about George Clooney, and told her that she was such a nice lady to talk to. And just like that, my day was awesome.

A conversation with an irate caller can put me in a bad mood, but fun, patient people can put me in a good mood. In real life, words can make or break a person. It could ruin their self-esteem and sense of self-worth, or it can speak life to them. I believe that genuine intentions go beyond phone lines and borders. Even if you're an expert at projecting your voice a certain way, people can discern authenticity, or the lack of it.

3) The good agents go above and beyond.

There will always be things you can't control, or special cases you don't know how to solve. When that happens, I have to put the customer on hold and consult my supervisor. Most of the time, there'll be many people lined up to ask questions, and the supervisor will just give you the easy way out and let you handle the call. I realized that the good agents, in a way, champion their customers' needs. They firmly believe that their customers' complaints need to be solved pronto, not because they don't want the customer to get mad at them, but because they think that person deserves good service, and because they are able to empathize and share the inconvenience of the customer.

So the agent will go back to the supervisor again and again to find the best solution, even to the point of taking care of it amidst other calls and calling back when they finally have an answer. This happened to me when a guy desperately wanted to have his stolen gift card reimbursed for his wife (he had receipts).

Unfortunately, we don't receive bonuses for callbacks, only for fast, sometimes crappy service. You can only be so good on a time limit, but cheers to those who try their best.

4) Let your heart break for other people. It's good once in a while.

The saddest call I received was from senior citizen whose carer hasn't arrived yet. I had a hard time getting her details and the name of her carer. Every time I asked, she'd burst out in anger. I tried to calm her down using my all-time favorite statement, "I understand, I'm so sorry about this, we'll try to contact her as soon as we can." She shouted, "No, you don't understand. Don't ever tell me you understand," and proceeded to talk about how hard it is to be old and alone as she cried.

She's right. I don't understand. My heart broke for whatever loneliness she was experiencing, and all I could do was pray she'd be alright. I let my heart break for her, because the things that break your heart changes you and begs you to make a difference. I knew I didn't want me or anyone else I cared about to be alone like that in the future.

5) Sometimes you just have to suck it up, and practice empathy all over again.

I have experienced so many emotions as a call center agent, but only once did I cry. There was this guy who was cursing me nonstop for a mistake on his order, which wasn't even my fault.  I asked him to stop cursing me 'cause I was trying to help, and the cursing got worse. I had to listen to it for half a minute until he ended the call, at which point, I couldn't stop my tears anymore. It was ridiculous. The only other time I felt that way was a couple of years back, when I swallowed my pride and apologized for something I didn't do, only to be insulted again.

There will be people whom you can't reason with. People whom you'll try to be patient, humble and forgiving with, but won't do the same for you. And the only way to get over it is to forgive and try to understand that other people are struggling with their own battles, too. After all, forgiveness doesn't free the people you forgive -- it frees you.

Aside from the really cheesy life lessons, being a call center has its ups and downs (shoutout to everyone on graveyard shift!). It's amazing in its own right, especially if you have a boss who really cares about you. It isn't for the faint of heart, and I can confidently say it's a job that makes a difference in people's daily lives, especially when an agent puts his heart and soul in it.

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