The Call Center

The Summer after I graduated high school but before I went to college, I needed to find a job.

I could, of course, have gone back to Subway and resumed my sandwich artistry. But I wanted to try my hand at something different. So I went to work for a company called MDS (they seem to have gone out of business sometime around 2012 or so; I’m a little surprised it took them that long). They ran an outbound call center, and I was going to be one of the callers.

My interview, such as it was, was over the phone. I suppose that makes sense, for a job that entails talking on the phone all day. Once I proved my ability to string multiple English words together into some semblance of a comprehensible phrase, I was told to come in for orientation.

They sat me in a room with probably 20 – 30 other people while a man explained what the job entailed. Many of those people, I would never see again. I suppose they decided it wasn’t for them. That’s fine; when you’re 18 and nearly broke and heading to college in three months you can put up with nearly anything so long as they pay well enough.

The only real metric they cared about was calls per hour. You had to get 60 or more. Those proficient at basic math and timekeeping will note that this averages out to one call every minute.

Note that this doesn’t mean you talk to someone every minute. No, a busy signal or answering machine or disconnected number all still count as a call. For the company, their clients no doubt wanted us to speak with as many people as possible. Meanwhile, we wanted to speak with as few people as possible. I could get 6 – 7 busy signals in a minute if I dialed quickly enough; most days I comfortably exceeded my quota.

You might think that most of my coworkers were teenagers like me making a quick buck over the Summer. That was actually not the case. I remember only one other person my age; a very attractive young lady named Patty. Our coworkers constantly joked that we were an item, probably because I could come up with no more mismatched a couple if I tried. I was a tall, awkward, painfully white guy, very book-smart but having gone to a private Christian school all my life and extremely street-stupid. She was a tiny, quick-witted Latina girl who would cheerfully talk your ear off. She also got paid more than I did, because she had a very important skill I did not: she spoke Spanish. I could barely bumble out “uno momento, por favor” and hand the phone over to her before she was off to the races at 500 words a minute.

No, most of my coworkers were older (I’m currently sitting here realizing that most of my coworkers were probably about my current age and that 18-year-old me would think of current me as “older”). Many of them had very interesting stories. For one of them, Bill, it was a family job: his mother and wife also worked there, though doing other jobs. Many of the newbies — the 20 to 30 people in that room — either didn’t stick around or ended up on other shifts. I heard that one of them left for lunch her first day and never came back. That wasn’t even the quickest quitting that occurred; reportedly, some years earlier, a new employee stepped out for a smoke break about an hour in and never returned. But those who were there were dedicated; I worked with the same basic crew for the nearly three months I was on that job.

I worked the second shift, 3pm to 11pm. This was an important shift, as we got Americans as they were coming home from work. The first few hours were mostly housewives and retirees, then we started getting working folk as they returned. We traveled West, and by 10pm we were calling California (where we were interrupting dinnertime at 7pm their time). I think there was a first shift as well, but the second shift was probably the biggest.

Even as I type this, stories from this job are popping into my head. I look forward to putting some of them to words!

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