The sharp end: Hanging on the phone

Are call centres as grim as their reputation suggests? MT's new series about life on the front line starts with a day of fielding queries for National Rail Enquiries.

What do we know of life at the coalface, the grimy business of operations? It's a question that flourishing execs might well ask themselves. This new column aims to supply the answers. Every month, we'll be sending Rhymer Rigby (top left) to The Sharp End of the modern economy, doing the kind of jobs our GDP depends on but that the suits at HQ seldom get to sample. His roles will be many and varied, and he'll be experiencing them so you don't have to.

The National Rail Enquiries (NRE) call centre is in a business park in the Dearne Valley, at the heart of what used to be the South Yorkshire coalfield. Now just a few landscaped slag heaps hint at its industrial heritage. As a metaphor for the changing face of British business over the past 20 years it's hard to beat.

Operated by call-centre company Ventura, the site has 4,500 employees, of whom 300 work on the NRE lines (other clients include O2 and Thames Water). Inside, it's all very open plan, yet this is no white-collar battery farm. The lines of desks may stretch off into the distance but the workstations are spacious and comfortable, there's Starbucks coffee in the canteen and a Next shop with a 25% staff discount - Ventura, it turns out, is owned by the fashion retailer.

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