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.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

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.

And so to work. NRE operators all get five weeks' training, but still I'm wondering how hard it can be. I'm about to find out. I'm sitting next to Sarah Shackleton, 19, who takes me through the system. Soon it's clear where the training goes - this is hard. There are dozens of fare and ticket types. Many journeys have multiple routes, then there are railcards that can be used only at certain times. There are journeys that return weeks into the future, journeys to towns without rail stations that may involve bus transfers. And, worst of all, there are split returns that, when combined with season tickets, take on a complexity that would baffle a particle physicist.

Thirty seconds in, I reach information overload. I put on the spare headset and listen to Sarah work while I look around. The 'advisers' are a diverse lot - from teenagers just out of school to septuagenarians. Call centres, it seems, are not staffed by the bored mums and disaffected students of popular myth. In fact, 70% of operators work full-time, and many are looking to make a career out of it, via promotion to team leader and beyond.

Sarah is unfailingly pleasant, dealing quickly with the most byzantine queries. Ask her how to get from the Kyle of Lochalsh to Elmers End via Carlisle travelling after 9.30am on a Tuesday with two children and a senior citizen's railcard and she won't even break into a sweat. She's the call centre equivalent of a Top Gun pilot. The best time of day, she explains, is before 10am and after 4pm, when callers tend to be commuters asking for the next train home. The worst time is in the middle of the day when you get families with innumerable railcards. One call went on for seven minutes, and required an encyclopaedic knowledge of special offers, discounts and ticket restrictions. After 11pm, calls from the dangerously over-refreshed increase.

Sarah takes between 200 and 250 calls a day. On a seven-hour shift she gets two 15-minute breaks plus an hour for lunch to recover. 'I like talking to people and it keeps me busy,' she says, before uttering the terrifying words: 'Do you want to take some live calls?' She's listening in and at first helps by operating the complicated information system. She tries to explain the function-key shortcuts. I say 'yes' but then instantly forget what they all do. It's scary and fast-paced, but do-able, as long Sarah is doing all the journey look-ups for me: 'Hello, you're through to Rhymer, how can I help you?' Then I have to fly solo ...

Despite the fact that Sarah is there to rescue me (which she does several times), it's one of the most stressful days of my life. In between calls I ask the Lord to deliver me from those with children and railcards. At 4pm Sarah's shift is over, and your exhausted correspondent gratefully removes his headset, with a new-found respect for those who answer phones for a living. I vow never to be a difficult caller again. A week of this and I'd be a broken man. As I leave, the manager points out the call-quality monitoring desk. If they've recorded any of my sessions, they'll have some great examples of what not to do.


Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

A simple cure for impostor syndrome

Opinion: It's time to stop hero-worshipping and start figuring out what greatness looks like to...

I was hired to fix Uber’s toxic culture - and I did. Here’s ...

Harvard’s Frances Frei reveals how you know when your values have gone rotten, and what...

Social responsibility may no longer be a choice

Editorial: Having securitised businesses’ loans and paid their wage bills, it’s not inconceivable the government...

What went wrong at Wirecard

And how to stop it happening to you.

Leadership lessons from Jürgen Klopp

The Liverpool manager exemplifies ‘the long win’, based not on results but on clarity of...

How to get a grip on stress

Once a zebra escapes the lion's jaws, it goes back to grazing peacefully. There's a...