In his new book Tom Juravich takes us behind the statistics of the economic collapse and into the work and lives of Americans who feel like they are being sacrificed At the Altar of the Bottom Line. More

At the Altar of the Bottom Line

Stressed

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Call center representative, Andover Call center representatives, Andover

Customer Service Representatives at Verizon

“Realizing All the Benefits from Communication”: From Service to Sales

In addition to the ACD that automatically assigns work, the scripting of calls, and the computer-based technology that reps must use to assist customers, the work itself has changed dramatically at Andover since 2000, with a shift from customer service to sales. As Don explains, “When I first came on board there was not the sales pressure you have now. [With the deregulation of the telephone industry, companies like Verizon offer a variety of products to their customers such as caller ID, voice mail, Internet access and various long distance calling plans.] I’d say it was 70 percent ser vice and 30 percent sales. In the past couple of years it has increased to the point that it’s probably about 90 percent sales and 10 percent service” (2003, 1). His colleague Shelly describes similar frustrations: “So you could call me and complain about humming on your line. As long as I ignore you and pretend that you didn’t say that and I sell you something, that’s fine, that’s a complete call. They basically don’t want us to do customer ser vice. They don’t care that you called about humming on the line” (2003, 9). This policy places the customer service rep right in the middle of contradictory demands. The customer calls because he or she wants service, whereas the manager is pushing for sales. Trying to balance these conflicting demands in a very short amount of time, with a very tight script, is the call center rep.

It is not that the call center reps I spoke with are opposed to making sales. They are concerned, however, that sales have been elevated to such a priority that customer ser vice reps no longer have the discretion to provide adequate ser vice to Verizon’s customers. Ellen resents this overwhelming pressure to sell and the position it puts her in.

How do you sell something to a customer who hasn’t had service in three days and is going to be told by repair that it will be seventy-two hours before he can get out there? All you want to do is to be sympathetic to this person. But while you’re being sympathetic, you better get an offer in there: “When we get your phone up and running again, would you like to add this to your line?” How awkward is this? (2003, 10)

The loss of service work affects the call center reps in two ways. First, even with routinization, there is a certain challenge in providing customer service; investigation and problem-solving offer a sense of satisfaction and professionalism about the work. Second, as Arlie Hochschild points out in The Managed Heart (1983), there is satisfaction that comes from “emotional work,” even though this emotional work is rarely recognized or compensated. The reps at Verizon value this work of “the invisible heart,” as Nancy Folbre (2001) calls it, such as helping a distraught customer get phone service restored. Sales work contains very little such emotional work or agency because of the highly scripted system. With little emotional satisfaction and little need for problem- solving skills, it is no surprise that sales work provides less satisfaction, particularly for those reps who started in a servic-eoriented system or for those who prefer and excel at service-oriented work. The new paradigm at Verizon, however, is all about sales, all the time. “When people hear that you work in an office” Molly explains, “they think you come in, get your coffee, sit down, and take a call here and there.” She continues:

It’s not like that at all. Everything you do is timed. How long you’re on a call is timed. How long you take between calls is timed. How much you sell is averaged— that’s called points per call. We get something constantly from the company called “Return on Investment” that tells us, for every dollar the company spent on you, here’s how many dollars you earned for the company. The goal is to earn $10 for every dollar that they spend on you. Every day you get a printout that says, “For every dollar we have spent on you, you earned us $5 today.” Which you know is half of what they expect you to earn for the day. If that doesn’t put stress on you, I don’t know what does! (2003, 7)

Even though this push for sales is not reflected in a formal sales quota, a de facto quota system is in place. Each of the products—caller ID, DSL, and so on— is given assigned points, and customer service representatives are awarded points based on their sales.3 For example, as Shelly explains: What they do is bring on a new program, like this new “Freedom Package [a bundle of telephone and Internet services].” They give it to you and everyone starts to make their sales and then they lower the points that it’s worth. And then they take it away, and they say, “Oh! That’s not even worth anything any more and now you have to do this!” They pick and choose and they decide what’s going to be valuable to them. . . . And it can change at any time. So basically something could be worth 200 points today and the next month it could change to 50 points because you’ve exhausted it. (2003, 7)

Whereas the target for sales is a monthly figure, the reps I spoke with say that points are calculated constantly throughout the week and even the workday. If a rep’s sales points are low as the morning or afternoon proceeds, it is not unusual for a manager to call and inquire, “What’s wrong?” Customer service reps receive bonuses for exceptional sales, and those who fall below their targets are subject to discipline and discharge. As Ellen explains, “Verizon’s policy or goal is for ‘every customer to realize all the benefits of communication.’ That’s what they say.” She continues: That’s fine. But [even] if you don’t need caller ID and you honestly don’t need it and you’ve said that you don’t need it and you don’t want it or you’ve tried it once before and decided [against it], we are obligated to repeat over and over to you that you do need it. People get angry and the rep gets upset, but you’re being observed by management, so the offer had better be there. When I first came here it was offer, offer, offer, but it was like, “Okay, as long as you’ve said it, as long as you’ve offered the customer the service, it’s not a problem.” Now, this week, it’s “Close the sale. If you’re not closing the sale, you’re not successful and you need to learn to close the sale.” So offering is off the table now. You can offer until you’re blue in the face, but if you don’t close the sale it does not matter. You have not met the requirements. Because the only requirement there is, is to close the sale. (2003, 8– 9)

The constant push for sales, even among customers who likely don’t need additional ser vices, gets to some of the reps. “I’ve had reps tell me they feel that their job is driving the company’s get- away car,” CWA’s Pat Telesco reports. “They don’t mind selling, but feel like the pressure is over the top” (2004, 6). As Molly explains:

They send us notes that let us know how many potential sales we’ve lost when we put a “Make Busy” on. They total the whole number of “Make Busy” minutes by a particular unit. So they’ll say, “Well, this week you’ve had 1,000 minutes of ‘Make Busy’ time which translates into 10,000 easy points that you could have earned had you been online.” (2003, 5– 6)

Not everyone at the Verizon call center is upset about this move to sales. Chris, who comes from a background in telemarketing and never had any illusions about customer service, says:

I do my job and nobody bothers me. It can be stressful; I can see where people would think it’s stressful. But if you don’t let it get to you, and leave your work at work and your home, at home, at least for me, everything goes very smoothly. Nobody bothers me because I do so well at my job. I’m one of the top sellers of the district. I win big trips to like Puerto Rico and all kinds of cool stuff . (Chris 2001, 2)

Most reps understand that the top sellers get considerably more leeway with scheduling hours and are monitored less. “If you’re a top seller, you can take all the time you need. If you’re a top seller, you can pretty much write your own ticket,” says Ellen (2003, 5). But even the top sellers are not immune to sales pressure. As one reports,

There’s a huge push to get those points per call up around into the fifties or close to sixty points per call, hopefully by the end of the year. My manager is pushing towards that. His point is, it’s a matter of survival. The company will always be willing to keep business in a place where you get a return on your investment. I can understand that from a business standpoint. I’m just a little bit concerned about how they’re going to be going about it. If they start stepping [disciplining] top producers, and put them on development plans, it’s going to turn this place into a sweatshop, and if it happens, my stress level will increase tenfold. (Don, 2003, 4)

Many reps, however, express little sympathy for the top sellers. They agree with Pat Telesco when she says, “They raise the bar for themselves every month. When you jump through those hoops, after you’re good at it they’re going to set them on fire for you.” She argues that, as in most incentive programs, the high level of sales cannot sustain itself. “They make a lot of money for the time they are doing good, but the funny thing is, does the company cut you any slack when you have a bad period? They think, ‘You’ve operated at this level before, this is how much we can get out of you, so we’re going to get it out of you” (2004, 19).

Telesco wonders, “Are people’s moral compasses off sometimes?” in this high pressure sales environment. She worries that because of the company constantly telling them “Do it. Just do. Do it at all costs. Push the sale. Push the sale,” you get a lot of situations where you look at it and say, “I don’t know. Is it sales cheating? Did you slam the customer [push them into agreeing]? Did you cram that stuff on their account [put things on their account that they didn’t order]? Did you maybe take credit from another rep for the sale that should have been theirs?” People are enticed into doing things they wouldn’t normally do, in this environment.